Republic of Korea
The constitution provides for religious freedom and prohibits discrimination based on religion. A legal revision will remove certain religious tax exemptions in January 2018. Watchtower International, a Jehovah’s Witnesses-affiliated nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported there were 277 Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison for conscientious objection to military service, with an additional 654 on trial and 56 under investigation as of November. The total number of cases (680) was more than the 633 cases in 2016, although the number of prisoners was down from 352 in the previous year. The NGO also reported that the number of conscientious objectors on trial was at a 10-year high. In June the National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK), an independent government human rights body, sent a recommendation to the minister of defense and the speaker of the national assembly to introduce legislation to provide an alternative service option and to revise the military service law related to conscientious objectors. The Ministry of National Defense (MND) stated that it would reassess the need for an alternate service that is consistent with international human rights standards, but expressed concerns that some would use this service to evade military service. The MND conducted a public opinion survey during the year and based on the results will consider a public hearing at the national assembly. The national assembly did not reply to the recommendation by year’s end.
The NHRCK reported 15 cases alleging religious discrimination as of September. Muslim groups reported a general view existed associating Muslims with terrorist activities and instances in which women wearing hijabs were denied job interviews.
U.S. embassy officials discussed issues related to religious freedom, including the jailing of conscientious objectors, with government officials, NGO representatives, and religious leaders. The embassy hosted a youth interfaith dialogue, cosponsored by the Korean Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP), including Muslim, Catholic, and Buddhist students.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 51.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a 2016 census released by the Korea Statistical Information Service, approximately 20 percent of the population is Protestant; 16 percent Buddhist; 8 percent Roman Catholic; and 56 percent professes no religious belief. The census counts members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Seventh-day Adventists, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) as Protestants. Followers of all other religious groups, including Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Jeongsando, Cheondogyo, Daejonggyo, Daesun Jinrihoe, and Islam, together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. According to the Israeli Embassy, there is a small Jewish population estimated at 300 individuals in Seoul consisting almost entirely of expatriates. According to the Korean Muslim Federation (KMF), the Muslim population is estimated at 135,000, of which approximately 100,000 are migrant workers and expatriates mainly from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that all citizens have freedom of religion and that there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life on account of religion. Freedoms in the constitution may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, and any restriction may not violate the “essential aspect” of the freedom. The constitution states that religion and state shall be separate. The Religious Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism is charged with promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding by supporting collaborative activities across various religions.
The law requires military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 30. Military service lasts between 21 and 24 months, depending on the branch of service. The law does not allow for alternative service or conscientious objectors, who may receive a maximum three-year prison sentence for refusing to serve. Conscientious objectors sentenced to more than 18 months in prison are exempt from further military service and reserve duty obligations, and are not subject to further fines or other punishment.
Those who complete their military service obligation and subsequently become conscientious objectors are subject to fines for not participating in mandatory reserve duty exercises. The reserve duty obligation lasts for eight years, and there are several reserve duty exercises per year. The fines vary depending on jurisdiction but typically average 200,000 Korean won (KRW) ($190) for the first conviction. Fines increase by KRW 100,000 to 300,000 ($94 to $280) for each subsequent conviction. The law puts a ceiling on the fine at KRW 2 million ($1,900) per conviction. Civilian courts have the option, in lieu of levying fines, to sentence individuals deemed to be habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms that range from one day to three years.
The law allows religious groups to register as juristic persons upon obtaining permission from their local government. Registration documents certifying the organization as a religious group may vary by local government. For example, the Seoul metropolitan government requires a group to submit an application for permission to establish the organization as a corporate body, a prospectus of the religious organization, the founder of the group’s personal information, guidelines and regulations defining the group’s purpose and activities, meeting minutes of the group’s first gathering, and a list of executives and employees.
To obtain tax benefits, including exemption of acquisition or registration taxes when purchasing or selling property to be used for religious purposes, organizations must submit to their local government their registration as a religious and nonprofit corporate body, an application for local tax exemption, and a contract showing the acquisition or sale of property. Individual religious leaders and practitioners are eligible to receive tax benefits on earned yearly income upon submitting receipts of donations made to religious organizations. In December 2016, however, a revision to the Income Tax Act discontinued some tax benefits, effective January 2018, for Christian pastors, Catholic priests, and Buddhist monks; previously they were exempt from taxation on their earned income.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism’s Office of Religious Affairs manages relations with large-scale religious groups that have a nationwide presence, such as the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism and the Christian Council of Korea.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools. Private schools are free to conduct religious activities.
The preservation law provides government subsidies for historic cultural properties, including Buddhist temples, for their preservation and upkeep.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to detain and imprison conscientious objectors to military service. Most conscientious objectors refused military service for religious reasons. The courts sentenced most conscientious objectors to 18 months in prison. While absolved of any additional military commitment after serving time in prison, conscientious objectors still had a criminal record that could affect future employment opportunities, including limitations on holding public office or working as a public servant.
Watchtower International, a Jehovah’s Witnesses-affiliated NGO, reported there were 277 Jehovah’s Witnesses in prison for conscientious objection to military service, with an additional 654 on trial and 56 under investigation, as of November. The total number of cases (680) was more than the 633 cases in 2016, although the number of prisoners was down from 352 in the previous year.
As of October, Watchtower International estimated that since 1950, more than 19,248 conscientious objectors had served prison time in the country. They also reported that the number of objectors on trial was at a 10-year high, saying the volume was due to the courts’ hesitation to rule on objector cases prior to a pending Constitutional Court ruling on the current law. The Constitutional Court had previously ruled in 2004 and again in 2011 that the Military Service Act was constitutional with regard to conscientious objection.
The media reported the number of cases of lower courts acquitting conscientious objectors was increasing; however, many were subsequently found guilty after their cases were appealed to the Supreme Court. As of September, the lower courts issued 35 not guilty decisions. In contrast there were seven in 2016 and six in 2015.
On June 27, the NHRCK sent a recommendation to the minister of defense and the speaker of the national assembly to introduce legislation to provide an alternative service option and to revise the military service law related to conscientious objectors. The MND stated that it will reassess the need for an alternate service that is consistent with international human rights standards, but expressed concerns that some would use this service to evade military service. The MND conducted a public opinion survey late in the year and based on the results will consider a public hearing at the national assembly. The national assembly did not respond to the recommendation by year’s end.
In an August survey by private polling organization Real Meter, 78.1 percent of respondents said implementation of the new tax law should begin in 2018 as planned. Religious organizations, however, expressed concern that the criteria for taxation specify benefits that are not actual income and may inflate the estimates of income for some religious leaders. The organizations were also concerned about distinguishing taxation on religious activities from taxation on clergy, pastors, priests, and Buddhist monks.
According to the KMF, a Muslim serviceman filed a complaint with the MND for not providing a place of worship for Muslims despite doing so for Buddhists, Catholics, and other Christians.
According to a report from The Washington Times, Buddhists monks held round-the-clock meditation in Seongju County to protest deployment of an antimissile system near places sacred to the Won Buddhist school. The report said roads to the antimissile sites were blocked and guarded by authorities. Monks reportedly said this blocked the road to a holy site. According to the same report, monk Won Ik-son said the prayer protests were “our resistance to the government’s violation of our freedom of religion.” The government and other sources, including other Won Buddhists, said it was the Won Buddhist themselves and other protesters who were blocking the road, not the government, to protest the government’s lack of consultation with the local community in its decision to move forward with the antimissile installation. The government said it was sensitive to the Won Buddhists’ concerns, and it had not forcibly removed the protesters who were still blocking access to the antimissile site at the end of year.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The NHRCK reported 15 cases alleging religious discrimination as of September. The NHRCK did not provide details on cases under investigation.
Muslim groups reported discrimination, such as a general view associating Muslims with terrorist activities, and instances in which women wearing hijabs were denied job interviews.
Prominent religious leaders regularly met under government auspices to promote religious freedom, mutual understanding, and tolerance. The KCRP hosted religious leaders from multiple faiths at religious events throughout the year, including seminars, exhibitions, arts and cultural performances, and interfaith exchanges to promote religious freedom, reconciliation, and coexistence among religions. While Islam is not one of the seven religious groups represented in the KCRP (which comprises the National Council of Churches of Korea, Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions), approximately 11 Muslim religious leaders and academics attended its annual seminar. The Religious Affairs Division of the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism supported such efforts with a total budget of KRW 6.2 billion ($5.8 million), with KRW 2.5 billion ($2.4 million) for Buddhist events, KRW 757 million ($710,000) for Christian events, KRW 500 million ($469,000) for Won Buddhist events, KRW 1.1 billion ($1 million) for Cheondogyo events, and KRW 1.3 billion ($1.2 million) for Confucian cultural activities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged the government – including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism; Ministry of Justice; and National Assembly members – on religious freedom and tolerance, including urging the government to make legal provision for conscientious objection on religious grounds.
Embassy officials met with members of various religious groups and NGOs, including associations representing Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists, Confucianists, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Cheondogyo, and indigenous religions, to discuss the state of religious tolerance and concerns about the imprisonment of conscientious objectors.
The embassy hosted a youth interfaith dialogue, cosponsored by the KCRP, where students representing the Muslim, Catholic, and Buddhist faiths discussed stereotypes, shared values, and ways to identify and overcome religious discrimination.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The government published a new counterterrorism law in November that replaced the 2014 counterterrorism law and criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts deemed contrary to sharia, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In July authorities executed four Shia individuals convicted on terrorism-related charges in connection with the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. Also in July the Supreme Court upheld death sentences on at least 15 individuals from the Eastern Province, presumed to be largely Shia, some of whom may have been minors at the time they committed offenses. At year’s end, at least 33 individuals, presumed to be largely Shia, were on death row for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012. Some human rights organizations stated the convictions and executions were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of the security-related crimes they committed and in accordance with the law. In April a court sentenced Ahmad al-Shammari to death after he was convicted on charges related to apostasy for allegedly renouncing Islam and the Prophet Muhammad on social media. Beginning in September authorities detained dozens of persons, including prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, according to multiple media reports. Human rights groups said the detentions resulted from an investigation into the individuals’ purported connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-inspired groups. Some human rights groups said authorities also arrested Shia clerics and activists who advocated for equal treatment of Shia Muslims. The government convicted and imprisoned individuals on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. The government sometimes harassed, detained, arrested, and occasionally deported some foreign residents who participated in private non-Islamic religious activities, citing prohibitions on gender mixing, noise disturbances, and immigration violations. Observers noted a pattern of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims with respect to access to public services and equitable representation in government, educational and public sector employment opportunities, and judicial matters. The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet. The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, understood by some outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior in order to enforce laws and regulations protecting “public morals.” Some observers noted a decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina. During the year the government undertook activities it stated were aimed at promoting “moderate” Islam as well as curbing radical ideology and intellectual extremism. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated during an investment conference in Riyadh in October that “we are returning to a centrist version of Islam, to a moderate version of Islam that is open to the world, to all faiths, and to all traditions and peoples,” according to press reports. In May authorities inaugurated the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (GCCEI)—known as “Etidal” (moderation) – which aims to promote moderation and “expose, combat and refute extremist ideology.” In April the government launched the Saudi Ideological Warfare Center (IWC) to confront the “roots of extremism and promote an accurate understanding of Islam.”
A pattern of societal prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued regarding access to private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of religious groups.
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 28.6 million (July 2017 estimate), including more than eight million foreign residents. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.
Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 15 percent of the citizen population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (followers of Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi, whom they recognize as the Twelfth Imam) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Jafari School of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Jafar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number an estimated 700,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they constitute the majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, number approximately 2,000, half of whom are Saudi citizens of Yemeni or South Asian origin and half expatriates, primarily from South Asia. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.
Foreign embassies indicate the foreign population in the country, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there are approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion. The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, a crime which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.
Blasphemy against Islam is a crime that may also legally be punished by death but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years. Punishments for blasphemy can include lengthy prison sentences and lashings. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.
The government published a new counterterrorism law in November that replaced the 2014 counterterrorism law “with immediate effect” and ordered the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to draft implementation regulations within 180 days. The new law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” By year’s end, authorities had not yet issued new implementation regulations. The implementation regulations for the 2014 counterterrorism law criminalized “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Attorney General may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to access government-held evidence.
The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.
The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering Mecca or Medina. Muslims visit the cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and on the Umrah pilgrimage. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. Since 1986 under King Fahad, the country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.
Since 2016 Saudi-based clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must first obtain the permission of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA). The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars with what the government regards as questionable credentials to travel, and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by Saudi-based clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.
Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali School of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or else “free time” in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; both courses amount to one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.
The CPVPV is a semiautonomous government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and enforce moral standards consistent with the government’s policy and in coordination with law enforcement authorities. CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms but are required to wear identification badges and legally may only act in their official capacity when accompanied by regular police. The CPVPV reports to the king through the Council of Ministers, and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees its operations on the king’s behalf. A 2016 decree limits its activities to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police.
The purview of the CPVPV includes combating public socializing and private contact between unrelated men and women (gender mixing); practicing or displaying emblems of non-Islamic faiths or failing to respect Islam; “immodest” dress, especially for women; displaying or selling media contrary to Islam, including pornography; producing, distributing, or consuming alcohol; venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices; practicing “sorcery” or “black magic”; and committing, facilitating, or promoting acts, publications, or thoughts considered lewd or morally degenerate, including adultery, homosexuality, and gambling.
The judicial system is based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna, fatwas (legal opinions or interpretations) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS, or ulema) that reports to the king, and other royal laws and ordinances. The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas. The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali School of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni Schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with most members serving for life.
Judges are not bound to adhere to the legal principle of precedent and, in the absence of a formal, written uniform criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali School.
The calculation of accidental death or injury compensation differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, the plaintiff is entitled to receive only 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; all other non-Muslims are entitled to receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.
Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s.
The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The Human Rights Commission (HRC), a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: On July 11, authorities executed four Shia individuals on terrorism-related charges and in the same month the Supreme Court upheld the convictions and death sentences of at least 15 other individuals, presumed to be Shia, for involvement in the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. Human rights organizations reported their convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture while the government stated they were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced fairly and in accordance with the law. Between May and the end of the year, security forces reportedly killed multiple individuals and displaced residents when they confronted armed groups and nonviolent resistance to the government’s decision to demolish the predominantly Shia al-Musawara neighborhood of Awamiya in Qatif Governorate; 12 security officers were killed in the course of the security operation. The government imprisoned individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. Authorities reportedly detained and imprisoned prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, including Shia clerics and activists, according to multiple media reports. Many foreign residents worshiped privately within their homes or in other gatherings, but authorities raided some private Shia and non-Muslim religious meetings and arrested, detained, or deported participants. The government continued to censor and block content in the media, including social media and on the internet. It continued to employ religious police to enforce “public morals.” Authorities continued to engage in instances of prejudicial treatment and discrimination against Shia Muslims with respect to access to public services, equitable representation in government, educational and public sector employment opportunities (including in the military and other security services), and judicial matters.
On July 11, authorities executed four Shia individuals – Amjad al-Moaibad, Yusuf al-Mushaikhas, Zaher al-Basri, and Mahdi al-Sayegh – on terrorism-related charges connected to the 2011-12 Eastern Province violence and protests. The government characterized that unrest as terrorism, while one nongovernmental organization (NGO) attributed the unrest to the Shia perception of economic neglect and political marginalization by the government. Human rights organizations stated their convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture, while some third-party observers questioned the impartiality of the judiciary, citing sectarianism.
Up to 33 individuals, presumed to be largely Shia, faced the possibility of execution as they awaited implementation orders for death sentences already confirmed by the Supreme Court for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012, according to human rights organizations. Up to nine of these persons – including Ali al-Nimr (the nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, and Mujtaba al-Sweikat – may have been minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted; however, the government disputed these claims, noting the courts and sharia system use the Islamic hijri calendar for age computations. Human rights organizations said many of the convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture. Many of these individuals alleged authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Some Shia and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary.
In January the government began demolition operations in the predominately Shia, 400-year old neighborhood of al-Musawara in Awamiya, Qatif Governorate, which were met by nonviolent protests, according to press reports. Beginning in May, security forces reportedly killed more than 15 persons and displaced thousands of residents in the course of security operations there. The government stated the security action was a counterterrorism effort and reported that eight members of the police and four members of the special forces had been killed, according to press reports. The demolition and future redevelopment of al-Musawara had been announced in 2016.
Human rights organizations alleged that security forces used heavy-handed tactics against some civilians, and razed hundreds of buildings, including a historic Shia mosque. Authorities reportedly promised compensation for many al-Musawara residents who evacuated, according to media reports. Human Rights Watch reported that some residents who remained were restricted to their homes due to fear of a security response. NGOs also received reports alleging security forces fired on areas outside of Musawara, occupied a public school, closed clinics and pharmacies, and prevented access to other essential services. In April UN special rapporteur experts warned that demolitions would “erase” the neighborhood’s “unique regional heritage.” As of the end of the year, some residents whose houses were not destroyed had returned, according to press reports, while others accepted compensation and left the area.
The government imprisoned individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery.
In April a court sentenced Ahmad al-Shammari to death after he was convicted on charges related to apostasy, according to media reports. Shammari allegedly posted videos to social media accounts in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. At year’s end, the status of Shammari’s judicial appeal was unknown.
Beginning in September, authorities detained dozens of individuals, including prominent clerics Salman al-Awda, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Amri, and other religious scholars and academics, according to multiple media reports. The government announced arrests related to a “foreign spy cell” with links to the MB. Human rights groups said the detentions resulted from an investigation into the individuals’ purported connections to the MB or MB-inspired groups.
On January 15, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced an unnamed Yemeni expatriate to 21 years in prison followed by deportation for insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab on his Facebook page, according to media reports. At year’s end, the disposition of the case was unknown.
On March 16, the SCC banned imam Awad al-Qarni from tweeting and ordered his Twitter account closed on charges related to spreading content that “could jeopardize public order and provoke public opinion,” according to the newspaper Arab News. Qarni has more than two million followers on Twitter, according to press reports. The SCC said the content “could affect the relationship of the people with the leadership, and the relationship of Saudi Arabia with other countries.” The court also fined him 100,000 Saudi riyals (SR) ($26,700). Qarni was said to be among the individuals detained beginning in September according to human rights organizations.
In May authorities arrested two women on allegations of practicing witchcraft, after a video that purported to show a woman trying to photocopy images of talismans circulated widely on social media, according to media reports.
On July 20, a criminal court convicted cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki on charges of extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology. Authorities reportedly arrested Maliki in 2015 after he made public statements suggesting a link between Wahhabism and ISIS. His supporters attributed the arrest to his condemnation of anti-Shia discrimination. The court’s initial sentence included a three-month prison sentence, a fine of 50,000 SR ($13,300), and closure of his Twitter account. Maliki was among the clerics reportedly detained in September.
On August 20, Riyadh police arrested a 15-year-old boy who appeared in a video clip that purported to show him abusing a copy of the Quran. According to media reports, he could face up to five years in prison under the anticybercrimes law for disrespect for religious values.
There was one report of government authorities calling for the prosecution of an individual for apostasy. Security officials detained several foreigners on charges of sorcery and witchcraft, according to local media reports. In August authorities referred cleric Ali Al-Rabieei for prosecution for allegedly tweeting sectarian and anti-Shia content, according to media reports.
By year’s end, the government had not carried out the remaining 950 lashes on Raif Badawi in accordance with a sentence based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. In 2015, authorities publicly lashed Badawi 50 times. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi remained imprisoned at year’s end.
Authorities arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia and violence, according to NGO reports. Shia groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia reported more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout the Eastern Province and others remained subject to travel bans. Most were held on charges involving nonviolent offenses, including participating in or publicizing protests on social media, inciting unrest in the country, and insulting the king.
Human rights organizations and legal experts criticized both the old and new antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.
The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Muslim religions. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and Saudi Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation.
Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed “extremist” by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence abroad, including in Syria and Iraq. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.
Practices diverging from the official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, were forbidden.
While authorities indicated they considered members of the Ahmadiyya community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and the mainly foreign resident Ahmadi Muslims reportedly hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.
Authorities again permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, where the population is majority Shia Muslim. As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was again a significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. Processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities. Outside of the Eastern Province, Saudi and expatriate Shia reported it was either difficult or not possible to engage in public commemorations or worship, fearing repercussions from authorities.
Certain Christian congregations were reportedly able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.
The government reported that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental organization), and, when appropriate, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Religious groups reported, however, that officials typically charged those arrested during private worship services with gender-mixing, playing music, or other infractions not explicitly related to religious observance. There were no known reports of individuals contacting these or other governmental agencies for redress when their ability to worship privately was infringed.
According to government policy, non-Muslims were prohibited from being buried in the country. There was, however, at least one public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. The only other known non-Muslim cemetery was private and only available to employees of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (also known as Saudi Aramco). Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.
Authorities generally required Shia mosques to use the Sunni call to prayer, including in mixed neighborhoods of both Sunni and Shia residents. In some predominantly Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Shia call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages where there was virtually no CPVPV presence, reports indicated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunnis practice), or not at all.
The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government threatened to expel foreigners who did not refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan, and it prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic, according to media reports.
The CPVPV continued to monitor social behavior and promote official standards of morality. Instances of CPVPV field officers who approached and harassed individuals reportedly continued to decrease in most urban areas, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.
The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction or provide them employment benefits, which the government provided to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions.
The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The project continued as part of the government’s Vision 2030 announced in April 2016. The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although intolerant material remained in circulation, particularly at the high school level, including content justifying the execution of “sorcerers” and social exclusion of non-Muslims, as well as statements that Jews, Christians, Shia, and Sufis did not properly adhere to monotheism. In September Human Rights Watch reported some school textbooks continued to employ biased, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shia language. Some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam.
Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal religious materials.
The government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the prevailing Sunni interpretation of Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.
The CPVPV, in coordination with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content which reportedly contained “objectionable” content and “ill-informed” views of religion. The CPVPV shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anticyber crimes law. The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In September authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, Facetime, and Facebook Messenger. Some users reported that WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.
The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, while the remaining 30 percent were at private residences or were built and endowed by private persons. The construction of new mosques required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerical workers.
Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. According to NGO reports, construction of Shia mosques was not approved outside Shia enclave areas. There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar. Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.
Following attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.
Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia lived. According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September “the Saudi judicial system…is controlled by the religious establishment and often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices.”
Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities. Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring. There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated that public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown. Many Shia reportedly stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.
Although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 15 percent of the total citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population, representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. There was only one Shia minister in the national government. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province. There were five Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. In the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on these municipal councils. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.
Shia were reportedly not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, while some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.
Some Sunni clerics continued to employ anti-Shia, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic rhetoric in Sunni mosques during the year, according to media reports. The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons and restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons it considered sectarian or political, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Despite these efforts by the government to tone down some of the more intolerant language in sermons, there were reports from local groups that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Cases of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. The law requires government-employed clerics to give all sermons delivered in mosques in the country. The sermons must first be vetted and cleared by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. During the year the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. According to the ministry, during the year no clerics publicly espoused intolerant views warranting dismissal. Unauthorized imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in their sermons.
The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”
The government did not formally permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious officials in neighboring countries. This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.
According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, The Protocols of Zion.” (“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is an anti-Semitic tract originally disseminated by the Czarist secret police alleging a Jewish plot aimed at world domination.) In addition, the reports characterized the course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.
Observers noted the presence of some anti-Semitic texts at government-sponsored book fairs during the year.
The government’s stated policy was for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.
In May the country hosted the Arab-Islamic-American summit in Riyadh, which focused on “promoting coexistence and constructive tolerance between different countries, religions, and cultures” and emphasized “the importance of renewing and rationalizing intellectual discourse to be consistent with moderate Islam, which calls for tolerance, love, mercy, and peace, stressing that the misconceptions about Islam must be addressed and clarified,” according to the Riyadh Declaration published after the event. In April the government launched the Saudi Ideological Warfare Center, headed by Dr. Mohammed al-Issa under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense, to confront the “roots of extremism and promote an accurate understanding of Islam.” According to social media postings by the center, the IWC aimed to promote a “message of moderation, tolerance, dialogue, and the appreciation of diversity, as well as moderation in Islam.” Also in April, the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue launched the Tabayan (clarification) program intended to confront the religio-ideological underpinnings of violent extremism by encouraging critical thinking at the country’s universities.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in October stated during an investment conference in Riyadh that “we are returning to a centrist version of Islam, to a moderate version of Islam that is open to the world, to all faiths, and to all traditions and peoples,” according to local press reports. There were several high-profile examples of outreach to other faiths. In November the Maronite Christian patriarch of Lebanon, Bechara Boutrous al-Rai, met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in what Reuters described as the second such visit since 1975. Muslim World League Secretary General, Royal Court Advisor, and member of the ulemaMohammed al-Issa visited the Vatican in September to meet with the pope. He visited Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris in November.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of so-called religious vigilantes and/or “volunteers” unaffiliated with the CPVPV harassing and assaulting citizens and foreigners.
Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment. Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms like “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.
NGOs reported that Nakhawala Shia faced more discriminatory practices than did Twelvers in the Eastern Province. Discrimination in employment and education was based on the Nakhawala surname “al-Nakhly,” which roughly translates as “farmers” and identifies their minority status and group.
While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, according to Freedom House, “self-censorship [on social media] remained prevalent when discussing topics such as politics, religion, or the royal family.”
During the year a study by Human Rights Watch documented the use of social media by prominent clerics and others to demean Shia Muslims using derogatory terms or by attacking their beliefs and practices.
Anti-Semitic comments by journalists, academics, and clerics appeared in the media. For example, according to press reports, Mohammed al-Arefe, a religious leader based in Saudi Arabia with a large following on social media, delivered repeated anti-Semitic speeches, according to Politico.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs. In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other relevant ministries and agencies during the year, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices as well as the role of and impediments imposed by guardianship laws considered as Islamic. Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.
At the May Arab-Islamic-American summit, President Trump joined with King Salman in inaugurating the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, known as Etidal (moderation), with the aim of promoting moderation and “exposing, combating, and refuting extremist ideology.”
Embassy and consulate officials sponsored nearly 30 individuals to participate in exchange programs in the United States focused on such topics as interfaith dialogue, countering radical ideologies, and the role of faith and religious organizations in providing social services.
Embassy and consulate officials continued to meet with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents, to discuss religious freedom concerns.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 22, the Secretary of State re-designated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanction that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, as well as the right to change one’s religion. It states everyone shall have the freedom to worship individually or with others, in private or in public. It also states the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs may be restricted by law only as necessary to protect the lives and health of the people, to preserve public safety and order and the country’s democracy. The constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for all religious groups, and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. The law grants special privileges and treatment to seven religious groups it defines as “traditional”; some other religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized these privileges as unconstitutional. Some minority religious groups also protested the registration process, which smaller religious groups said was difficult and costly to fulfill, rendering them without property rights, tax exemptions, and legal status. The government continued its restitution of religious properties confiscated since 1945, estimating it had returned 70 percent of the properties.
Reports and instances of discrimination primarily involved smaller and nontraditional groups. Media reported some public discrimination against Protestant groups around the October celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Articles critical of nontraditional religious groups continued to appear in the press and web portals, describing some religious groups as “sects.” Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores, and the Jewish community reported incidents of anti-Semitic comments in online media. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of physical assault and two instances of vandalism against their property.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government representatives urged government officials from the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities and the Office for Human and Minority Rights to eliminate bias in the registration of religious groups. The embassy also urged the government to continue implementing restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property and closely monitored the development of a memorial at the World War II (WWII)-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of a wide range of religious groups to discuss the interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, property restitution, and interfaith dialogue. The Ambassador hosted an interreligious luncheon on National Religious Freedom Day to discuss the status of interfaith cooperation and religious groups’ interactions with the government on religious freedom issues. In June he hosted an iftar, where he brought together members of two competing Islamic communities to encourage cooperation between the groups. A senior embassy officer hosted an interfaith dialogue in October to hear concerns of nontraditional religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 7.1 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 85 percent of the population is Orthodox Christian, 5 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Sunni Muslim, and 1 percent Protestant. The remaining 6 percent includes Jews, Buddhists, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, agnostics, atheists, other religious groups, and individuals without a declared religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population identifying as Orthodox Christian are members of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), a category not specifically listed in the census. Adherents of the Macedonian, Montenegrin, and Romanian Orthodox Churches may be included in the numbers of “Orthodox Christians” or in the “other Christian” category that is part of the remaining 6 percent, depending on how they self-identify.
Catholics are predominantly ethnic Hungarians and Croats residing in Vojvodina Province. Muslims include Bosniaks (Slavic Muslims) in the southwest Sandzak region, ethnic Albanians in the south, and Roma located throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the freedom of belief and religion as well as the right to change one’s religion. It states everyone shall have the freedom to worship and practice religion individually or with others, in private or in public, and no one shall be obliged to declare one’s religion. The constitution states the freedom to express one’s religion or beliefs may be restricted by law only as necessary to protect the lives and health of the people, the morals of democratic society, freedoms and rights guaranteed by the constitution, or public safety and order or prevent incitement of religious, national, or racial hatred. The constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for religious groups, and calls for separation of religion and state. It states churches and religious communities shall be free to organize their internal structure, perform religious rites in public, establish and manage religious schools and social and charity institutions in accordance with the law. The constitution prohibits religious discrimination or incitement of religious hatred, calls upon the government to promote religious diversity and tolerance, and states religious refugees have a right to asylum, the procedures for which shall be established in law.
The law bans incitement of discrimination, hatred, or violence against an individual or group on religious grounds and carries penalties ranging from one to 10 years in prison, depending on the type of offense.
The law grants special treatment to seven religious groups defined as “traditional” by the government. These are the SOC, Roman Catholic Church, Slovak Evangelical Church, Reformed Christian Church, Evangelical Christian Church, Islamic community, and Jewish community. “Church” is a term reserved for Christian religious groups, while the term “religious community” refers to non-Christian groups and to some Christian entities. The Islamic community is divided between the Islamic Community of Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Belgrade, and the Islamic Community in Serbia (emphasis added), with its seat in Novi Pazar. Although the law generally prohibits the registration of multiple groups with the same name, both Islamic communities are officially registered with the government.
The seven traditional religious groups recognized by law are automatically registered in the Register of Churches and Religious Communities. In addition to these groups, the government grants traditional status, solely in Vojvodina Province, to the Diocese of Dacia Felix of the Romanian Orthodox Church, with its seat in Romania and administrative seat in Vrsac in Vojvodina.
The law also grants the seven traditional religious groups the right to receive value-added tax (VAT) refunds, to have their faith taught in public schools, and to provide chaplain services to military personnel.
There are 20 “nontraditional” religious groups registered with the government: the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Evangelical Methodist Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Church in Serbia, Church of Christ’s Love, Spiritual Church of Christ, Union of Christian Baptist Churches in Serbia, Nazarene Christian Religious Community (associated with the Apostolic Christian Church [Nazarene]), Church of God in Serbia, Protestant Christian Community in Serbia, Church of Christ Brethren in Serbia, Free Belgrade Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Zion Sacrament Church, Union of Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, Protestant Evangelical Church Spiritual Center, Evangelical Church of Christ, and, added during the year, the Slovak Union of Baptist Churches, Union of Baptist Churches in Serbia, and Charismatic Community of Faith in Serbia. Several of these organizations are umbrella groups that oversee many individual churches, sometimes of slightly differing affiliations.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but it treats unregistered religious organizations as informal groups that do not receive any of the legal benefits registered religious groups receive. For example, only registered religious groups may build new places of worship, own property, apply for property restitution, or receive state funding for their activities. Registration is also required for opening bank accounts and hiring staff. The law authorizes the government to provide social and health insurance and fund retirement plans only for religious clerics of registered groups. The law also grants property tax exemptions to all registered groups. Registered religious groups are exempt from paying administrative taxes and filing annual financial reports.
To obtain registration a group is required to submit the following: the names, identity numbers, copies of notarized identity documents, and signatures of at least 100 citizen members of the group; the group’s statutes and a summary of its religious teachings, ceremonies, religious goals, and basic activities; and information on sources of funding. The law prohibits registration if an applicant group’s name includes part of the name of an existing registered group. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains the Register of Churches and Religious Communities and responds to registration applications.
According to the constitution, the Constitutional Court may ban a religious community for activities infringing on the right to life or health, the rights of the child, the right to personal and family integrity, public safety, and order, or if it incites religious, national, or racial intolerance. It also states the Constitutional Court may ban an association that incites religious hatred.
The MOJ’s Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities manages all expert and administrative matters pertaining to the cooperation of the state with churches and religious communities. These includes assistance to national minorities in protecting the religious traditions integral to their cultural and ethnic identity; cooperation between the state and Serbian Orthodox dioceses abroad; support for religious education; and support for and protection of the legal standing of churches and religious communities. The government’s Office for Human and Minority Rights, which addresses policy and monitors the status of minorities, also oversees some religious issues.
The law recognizes restitution claims for religious property confiscated in 1945 or later for registered religious groups only. The law permits individual claims for properties lost by Holocaust victims during WWII, but religious groups may not claim property confiscated prior to 1945. Legally registered endowments may apply for restitution. Religious communities that had property and endowments seized after WWII may apply for the restitution of their benefits.
In accordance with the Teresina Declaration on Holocaust era assets, the law provides for the restitution of heirless and unclaimed Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, allowing the Jewish community to file restitution claims based on these seizures, while still permitting future claimants to come forward. The law defines “heirless property” as any property that was not the subject of a legitimate claim for restitution. The Jewish community must prove the former owner of the property was a member of the community and the property was confiscated during the Holocaust. The law also stipulates financial support from the state budget for the Jewish community of 950,000 euros ($1.14 million) per year for a 25-year period, which began with an initial payment in March.
The constitution states parents and legal guardians shall have the right to ensure the religious education of their children in conformity with their own convictions. The law provides for religious education in public schools, but only for the seven traditional groups. Students in primary and secondary schools must attend classes in one of the seven traditional religions or an alternative civic education class. Parents choose which option is appropriate for their child. The curriculum taught in the religion classes varies regionally, reflecting the number of adherents of a given religion in a specific community. Typically, five interested students is the minimum needed to offer instruction in a particular religion. In areas where individual schools do not meet the minimum number, the Ministry of Education attempts to combine students into regional classes for religious instruction. The Commission for Religious Education appoints religious education instructors from lists of qualified candidates supplied by each religious group. The commission is comprised of representatives of each traditional religious group, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, and the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities. Representatives of the Islamic Community of Serbia and the Islamic Community in Serbia participate in the work of the commission.
The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection based on religious beliefs. It states no person shall be obliged to perform military or any other service involving the use of weapons if this is inconsistent with his or her religion or beliefs, but that a conscientious objector may be called upon to fulfill military duty not involving carrying weapons.
The constitution allows any court with legal jurisdiction to prevent the dissemination of information advocating religious hatred, discrimination, hostility, or violence.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, public prosecutors rarely prosecuted physical assaults against their members or vandalism against their property as religiously motivated crimes, but rather as simple assault or property violations, which carried lesser penalties under the law than religiously motivated crimes, or else treated incidents as private disputes. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, prosecutors did not treat any crimes against their members as religiously motivated in either 2017 or 2016. The NGO Center9 also stated it was unaware of any prosecutions made under the statutes criminalizing religiously motivated crimes. Some observers stated they believed prosecutors intentionally filed lesser charges in these cases to minimize the appearance of religious intolerance.
The MOJ reported it approved three of six registration applications groups submitted during the year. The ministry rejected one application by the Nichiren Buddhist Community on the grounds that the paperwork filed was incomplete and explained to the group the additional information required. The community reapplied under the new name of Buddhist Religious Community; its revised application was under review at year’s end. The ministry said it rejected an application for registration by the First Mennonite Roma Church because the applicant explicitly stated it would not follow guidelines from the ministry to correct the application and provide additional documents. At year’s end, the ministry was still reviewing the original application of the sixth group, the Old Orthodox Catholic Church.
Minority religious groups, Center9, and other observers continued to state the law was inherently biased in differentiating between so-called traditional and nontraditional religious groups. They also stated the laws governing churches and religious communities were in conflict with constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equal status among religious groups. For example, in addition to the benefits traditional religious groups received according to law, the government provided those groups with financial support for religious events and publication or printing of religious materials. Minority groups also cited an inequitable distribution of government scholarships, at all educational levels, among religious groups. They stated the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, which provided support to religious groups, had the additional mandate of protecting the Serbian national identity and cooperating with SOC eparchies (dioceses) abroad. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church, a traditional church, complained about what it said was preferential treatment of the SOC.
Critics, including Baptist and evangelical leaders, continued to urge the government to repeal the law categorizing religious groups as traditional or nontraditional.
Some NGOs and religious leaders also continued to advocate the removal of the prohibition on registering new religious groups with names similar to those of groups previously registered. One church voiced concern that this prohibition forced groups to add an additional nationalistic qualifier to their church names in order to differentiate new groups in the register – creating divisions along nationalist lines within religious groups. Examples of such naming conventions included the Slovak Baptist Union, the Slovak Lutheran Church, and the Hungarian Reformed Church. Other groups said removing the prohibition would allow for other Orthodox Churches to register. The government position was to defer recognition of other Orthodox Churches (Macedonian or Montenegrin) absent the existence of mutual agreements between those Churches and the domestic SOC, such as the agreement the SOC had with the Romanian Orthodox Church in Vojvodina Province.
Representatives from the Christian Baptist and Protestant Evangelical Churches continued to protest the legal requirement that groups register in order to obtain legal status. Representatives from Center9 said the requirement to submit legal documents and the signatures of 100 citizens was costly, time-consuming, and often impossible to fulfill for many smaller churches and those whose members were primarily noncitizens.
One evangelical leader reported that government institutions sometimes made it difficult for nontraditional groups to register, but that it seemed to depend on the competency of individual government staff. Multiple groups, including the Christian Baptist Church, Protestant Evangelical Church, Anglican Church, and Center9, reported that lack of registration did not directly impede any organization from worshiping, but it did impose other restrictions, including difficulties in applying for property restitution, opening bank accounts, purchasing or selling property, and publishing literature. Groups with a long history in the country were sometimes able to circumvent some of these restrictions by, for example, using historical documents to open bank accounts. They said, however, that the possibility of workarounds was situational and depended on local officials.
The Christian Baptist Church and the Protestant Evangelical Church, among others, refused to register under the existing law, citing their centuries-long history in the country and legal status under previous laws. At year’s end, their joint 2013 complaint to the European Court of Human Rights alleging the law violated the rights and freedoms safeguarded by the European Convention on Human Rights was still pending. Representatives from the two Churches reported they were not optimistic about a satisfactory ruling.
The Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches, whose autocephaly the SOC continued not to recognize, remained unregistered. Government officials continued to state the canons of the Orthodox churches should govern issues among individual Orthodox churches and secular authorities should not try to resolve them. Communication between the SOC and the Macedonian Orthodox Church continued regarding the latter’s potential recognition, but no such communication existed between the SOC and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.
The only chaplains providing religious services in the armed forces were clergy from the seven traditional religious groups.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported police were increasingly aware of their rights to distribute religious literature publicly. They also reported that courts overturned any citations police officers issued for such activity by their members.
Romanian Orthodox priests continued to hold services in the Romanian language in the eastern part of the country, where there was no formal recognition of the Romanian Orthodox Church, in accordance with the priests’ agreement with the local SOC bishop. The Romanian Orthodox Church reported the government continued to deny construction permits for new church buildings in the eastern part of the country, forcing the Romanian Orthodox Church to repurpose existing buildings for religious use. The government stated the issue should be resolved between the SOC and Romanian Orthodox Church, and it would not take action until the two groups reached agreement.
The government continued restitution of religious properties confiscated in 1945 or later, returning 5575 hectares of agricultural land, 776 hectares of forest, 32 hectares of construction land, 861 square feet of residential building property, and 14,047 square feet of business facilities to the SOC and Roman Catholic, Romanian Orthodox, Evangelical Christian, Greek Catholic, Reformed Christian, and Slovak Evangelical Churches, as well as the Jewish community. Government officials estimated it had returned 70 percent of previously confiscated religious properties.
Despite their status as registered groups, both Islamic communities continued to report difficulties in their claims for communist-era property restitution. Both groups said each had filed claims for the same list of properties throughout Serbia, and the Restitution Agency confirmed it had not finalized any of the claims. Representatives of both Islamic communities, international observers, and local political leaders said the Restitution Agency was unwilling to resolve the cases because it would mean deciding on the “rightful” Islamic group, which the government was unwilling to do. Each group called on the government to resolve the standoff by acknowledging it as the official representative of the Islamic community.
There was a continuing debate on the role of Milan Nedic’s collaborationist National Salvation government during the Nazi occupation. The Belgrade Higher Court held additional hearings in a court case Nedic’s family brought before it seeking Nedic’s rehabilitation. In November 2016 the Association of Jewish Communities filed a request to participate in the rehabilitation case as an intervener (an outside party having a legal interest in the proceedings). The Belgrade Higher Court rejected the request in February, arguing that non-contested cases did not recognize the institution of an intervener. In early September the Appellate Court in Belgrade confirmed that decision.
In August the government transferred oversight of the commission charged with developing a memorial at Staro Sajmiste – the WWII-era concentration camp where thousands of Jews, Serbian political opponents, and Roma were killed – from the city of Belgrade to President Aleksandar Vucic. Commission leaders said they hoped the move would increase funding for the memorial and accelerate the pace of work. By year’s end, the new commission had not yet been formed, leaving the old commission to continue working in lame-duck status. In February the first draft law authorizing the Staro Sajmiste memorial drew criticism from international Jewish organizations and the country’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights for perpetuating “a decades-long revisionism of WWII in Serbia” and minimizing the “massive destruction of the Jewish community.” The draft’s language had emphasized Serb casualties at Staro Sajmiste and responsibility of the Nazi puppet government, the Independent State of Croatia, for the genocide that took place there. The commission rescinded the draft following the criticism and continued to revise it at year’s end.
In August Member of Parliament (MP) Vladimir Djukanovic of the Serbian Progressive Party wrote on Twitter that he had heckled Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out literature in front of a market, calling it his “good deed for the day.”
The national television service, Radio Television of Serbia, continued to broadcast a daily 10-minute Religious Calendar program about major holidays celebrated by monotheistic religions.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The government did not keep records of religiously motivated violence, and reporting from individual religious organization was sparse. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of physical assault against members engaged in field ministry on April 14 and May 8. Both incidents involved an unknown assailant approaching a small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and grabbing and/or pushing an individual to the ground. One incident involved damage to a mobile literature cart.
Translations of anti-Semitic literature were available from nationalist groups and publishers. Anti-Semitic literature, such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, continued to be available in many bookshops, and anti-Semitism was present in online portals. Some youth groups and internet forums continued to promote anti-Semitic speech. Several anti-Semitic statements were posted in the online comment section of a January 27 Vecernje Novosti article describing a Holocaust seminar in Belgrade.
Articles critical of nontraditional religious groups continued to appear in online media. Several nontraditional religious leaders reported the media often labeled nontraditional religions as “sects,” which the leaders stated contributed to negative stereotyping.
In October during several events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, media reported some MPs and other public officials had called Protestant groups “sects,” and openly disparaged Protestant organizations. An October 25 article in the right-leaning daily tabloid “Alo” reported on the negative reactions of several MPs to a national assembly-hosted interfaith celebration marking the Reformation anniversary. MPs Vladimir Djukanovic of the Serbian Progressive Party and Marijan Risticevic of the People’s Peasant Party criticized the event and declined to attend. On his Facebook profile, Djukanovic posted that he “received an invitation from a sect to the parliament address. To make things worse, the sect is organizing an event to mark the 500 anniversary of Reformation…Scandalous.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported two incidents of vandalism at the kingdom halls in Belgrade and Bor. On May 26, unidentified individuals jumped over the fences of the Belgrade kingdom hall and inflicted minor damage to landscaping and building exteriors. On April 4 in Bor, unidentified suspects threw eggs and balloons filled with paint at the facade of the kingdom hall and later that same day threw rocks on the roof, damaging tiles.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In an October meeting with the Directorate for Cooperation with Churches and Religious Communities, U.S. embassy staff again urged the directorate to engage in interfaith initiatives and to eliminate both intentional and unintentional bias in the application of the law with regard to the registration of religious groups, especially nontraditional groups.
The embassy continued to work with the Restitution Agency and other members of government in the application of the heirless and unclaimed Jewish property law, encouraging the government to move forward with appointing an oversight committee as required by the law.
Embassy officials met individually with members of the SOC, two Islamic communities, Jewish community, Baptist community, evangelical community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormon Church to discuss interaction and cooperation among religious groups, property restitution, the ability to practice their faith freely, support from the government, and societal perceptions of the groups.
Embassy representatives continued to monitor progress on the establishment of a WWII memorial at the site of the Staro Sajmiste concentration camp and to encourage communication between opposing sides concerning the memorial. Embassy staff also urged representatives in President Vucic’s government to form the new commission, although the government had not done so by year’s end.
During a January lunch in honor of National Religious Freedom Day, the Ambassador and members of six religious communities – the SOC, two Islamic communities, Jewish community, Roman Catholic Church, and Reformed Christian Church – discussed the status of interfaith cooperation. They also discussed the groups’ struggles in working with the government, implementing religious education, and developing membership in the face of increasing secularism. The Ambassador hosted a June iftar, which brought together members of the two Islamic communities in an effort to develop additional cooperation between the groups. In October the embassy hosted a roundtable to commemorate International Religious Freedom Day and hear concerns from representatives of nontraditional religious groups, including the Association of Evangelical Students, Protestant Evangelical Church, Baptist Church in Belgrade, and Anglican Church.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, which includes freedom of thought and religion, subject to the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, and health, and to the protection of other persons’ rights and freedoms. National laws prohibit religious discrimination and allow all persons to observe their own religious practices and to change religions without interference from the government or members of other religious groups. Government registration is not mandatory for religious groups, but it is necessary to obtain tax and other benefits. The Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender, and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA) temporarily suspended operations of Christ Revival Evangelistic Ministries, pending completion of an investigation into alleged hate speech by its pastor. Police detained the church’s founder and said the action was for his own safety.
Religious leaders continued to express concern that what they termed “aggressive proselytization” and polemical statements during the past few years, often by foreign-inspired Christian and Muslim fundamentalist groups, were possible threats to the country’s religious harmony.” The Inter-Religious Council (IRC), composed of Christian and Muslim leaders, coordinated with their respective religious groups nationwide, visiting administrative districts to discuss and promote religious harmony.
The U.S. embassy promoted religious freedom through dialogue with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the IRC and the Council of Imams.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.2 million (July 2017 estimate). Members of the IRC state the country is approximately 60 percent Muslim (primarily Sunni), 30 percent Christian, and 10 percent animist. Many individuals regularly blend Christian and Muslim practices with animism in their private and public worship. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2010 estimates, there are small communities of Bahais, Hindus, Jews, atheists, animists, and practitioners of voodoo and sorcery. Ahmadi Muslims state their community has 560,000 members, representing 9 percent of the population. Christians include Anglicans, other Protestants, Roman Catholics, Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox Christians, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Evangelical Christians are a growing minority, drawing members primarily from other Christian groups. Rastafarian leaders report their community has approximately 20,000 members. Many individuals practice both Islam and Christianity.
Tribes living in the Northern Province, such as the Fullah, Themne, Loko, Madingo, and Susu, are predominantly Sunni Muslim. The majority of the Mende, Kono, Kissi, and Sherbro of the South and East Provinces are Christian. Krios live in the western part of Freetown, and are mainly Christian. The city’s eastern neighborhoods are mostly Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides that no person shall be hindered in exercising freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom either alone or in a community, in public or in private, to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. These rights may be subject to limitations in the interests of defense or public safety, order, morality, or health, or to protect the rights and freedoms of other persons. Although the country does not have an explicit law regarding hate speech, the Public Order Act describes as seditious libel spoken or written words that “encourage or promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different tribes or nationalities or between persons of different religious faith in Sierra Leone.”
The MSWGCA is responsible for religious matters. Religious groups seeking recognition by the ministry must complete registration forms and provide police clearance attesting that they do not have a criminal record, proof of funding, and annual work plans to receive tax concessions. There is no penalty for organizations that choose not to file for recognition, but registration is required in order to obtain tax exemptions and waiver benefits.
The constitution provides that “except with his own consent” (or if a minor the consent of the parent or guardian), no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony, or observance relates to a religion other than the person’s own. The course, Religious and Moral Education, provides an introduction to Christianity, Islam, African traditional beliefs, and other religious traditions around the world, as well as teachings about morals and ethics; it is required in all public schools through high school, without the choice to opt out. Instruction in a specific religion is permissible only in schools organized by religious groups.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to enforce the law prohibiting the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana (cannabis). Rastafarians reported this prohibition restricted their ability to use cannabis as a core component of their religious practices. According to an elder of the Rastafarian community, there were 15 incidents of police harassment during the year, often tied to the latter’s use of cannabis. The alleged harassment included beatings and confiscation of property found on their persons. They also stated the government continued to refuse to recognize Rastafarian titles to land the community used to construct and operate its temples.
As of December the Rastafarian community reported the authorities had not held nine police officers accountable for reportedly damaging a temple near Freetown in May 2016. The Sierra Leone Police (SLP) reported that, in response to complaints from residents, the officers went to the temple to apprehend several adolescents who had been smoking marijuana and entered the temple to escape the police.
The Office of National Security (ONS) held several meetings with the IRC and the Council of Imams as part of its counterterrorism strategy but did not organize a formal event, reportedly due to lack of funding. The ONS continued to express concerns regarding the possible emergence of what it referred to as Muslim extremism, including radio stations operated by Shia and Sunni groups engaging in polemical exchanges against each other’s religious beliefs. The ONS also reported concerns by Christian and Muslim leaders and civil society groups relating to susceptible unemployed and uneducated youth from the Muslim community joining the Tabligh movement, a revivalist Sunni Muslim movement originating in India that preached a fundamentalist form of Islam. The ONS identified radical Islam as a national security issue and inserted a section on religious radicalization in its counterterrorism strategy.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religious leaders and others expressed concerns that what they termed as aggressive proselytization and polemical statements during the past few years, often by foreign-inspired Christian and Muslim fundamentalist groups, constituted a possible threat to the country’s religious harmony. Their activities included Muslim groups broadcasting messages denying the divinity of Christ and calling on Muslims not to wish people a “Merry Christmas,” transmitting prayer calls at high volume from mosques located near churches, as well as churches playing Christian revivalist music near mosques at high volumes during Ramadan. Muslim groups also threatened to burn churches built on the sites of former mosques, and mutually derogatory statements were made on Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadiyya radio stations. The IRC, SLP, and ONS identified certain fundamentalist Christian groups, some from Nigeria, and the Tabligh movement as major players in fomenting religious discord by seeking to alienate adherents of Christianity and Islam from each other. On September 26, police detained a Nigerian evangelical pastor accused of hate speech “for his own safety” after a video of his sermon went viral on social media. In it he claimed Islam’s symbol was the sword and therefore the religion was innately violent; he also said there were no Muslims in Sierra Leone, only Christians and animists. Against the backdrop of public outrage, police extended protection to his churches due to rumors that some Muslims were threatening to burn down his six churches across the country. In a letter addressed to the pastor, the MSWGCA suspended all church activities pending completion of an investigation into alleged hate speech by the pastor. Subsequently the pastor made a public apology, charges were not filed, and his churches were allowed to reopen.
Most churches and mosques were registered with the Council of Churches, Evangelical Fellowship, or United Council of Imams. The IRC coordinated with Christian and Muslim religious groups throughout the year, including through visits to each administrative district in the country, to discuss and promote religious harmony. The IRC’s membership included only groups deemed to be Christian or Muslim. Rastafarians and animists were excluded. The Sunni-dominated Muslim leadership on the IRC reportedly sought to exclude Ahmadi Muslims, given Sunni views that the Ahmadiyya are heretical. According to the IRC, Pentecostal churches continued to refuse to join the IRC because they rejected collaboration with Muslims.
With government backing, the IRC drafted a code of conduct for guiding interreligious relations and proposed it as an addendum to the IRC’s constitution. It includes provisions that all new mosques and churches are to be located at specific distances from each other to avoid Muslim community complaints that certain churches played loud music during Ramadan services in mosques. The code of conduct also seeks to expand IRC membership to include denominations such as Pentecostal groups. Parliament did not review this addendum prior to closing its session on December 7.
Intermarriage between Christians and Muslims remained common, and many families had both Christian and Muslim members living in the same household. Many individuals celebrated religious holidays of other religious groups, regardless of denomination, both at home and in houses of worship.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year, U.S. embassy officials met with religious leaders, including Catholic, Anglican, and Muslim clerics, and with faith-based NGOs, including the IRC, Council of Churches, and Council of Imams, to discuss religious tolerance and harmony. Topics discussed included the use of high volume amplification of Christian music and Muslim prayers and the concern that the high number of unemployed and uneducated youth could be particularly vulnerable to Tabligh ideology. In July the Ambassador and embassy staff attended a prayer ceremony where the Ambassador spoke of U.S. support and respect for religious tolerance.
The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” There is no legal provision for conscientious objection, including on religious grounds, and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 12 conscientious objectors remained detained at year’s end. In April an Indian imam who uttered an Arabic prayer during which he asked for “help against Jews and Christians” was fined and deported for acts “prejudicial to the maintenance of religious harmony and likely to disturb public tranquility.” Three foreign Islamic preachers were banned from entering the country in October and November, and two foreign Christian speakers were banned from preaching in September because the government reportedly viewed their teaching as damaging to social harmony. The government changed a voluntary program into a mandatory requirement that all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning register with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). Parliament discussed the existing prohibition on wearing the hijab for certain civil servants, but the prohibition remained. In September former Parliamentary Speaker Halimah Yacob, who wears the hijab, became president. The post was reserved in this presidential cycle for eligible Malays, who are mostly Muslim. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony, launched an initiative to foster understanding of different religious practices, and created a fund and documentary to explore religious differences and prejudices.
Journalists wrote articles throughout the year encouraging their readers not to view Muslims with suspicion and telling Muslims they should not feel responsible for the actions of radicalized Muslims.
The U.S. embassy engaged with senior government officials, including President Halimah Yacob, at a June iftar during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech about religious tolerance in a pluralistic society. The embassy hosted a variety of events and programs with religious groups, including an interfaith youth forum to facilitate discussion on ways to combat religious discrimination in the religious leaders’ home communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (July 2017 estimate). The local government estimates a total population of 5.6 million, with 3.9 million of this total citizens or permanent residents, of which 81.5 percent state a religious affiliation. Approximately 33.2 percent of the population of citizens and permanent residents are Buddhist, 18.8 percent Christian, 14 percent Muslim (predominantly Sunni), 10 percent Taoist, and 5 percent Hindu. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jains, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).
According to a 2017 report by the Department of Statistics, 74.3 percent of the resident population is ethnic Chinese, 13.4 percent ethnic Malay, 9.0 percent ethnic Indian, and 3.2 percent other, including Eurasians. Nearly all ethnic Malays are Muslim. According to a 2016 national survey, among ethnic Indians, 59.9 percent are Hindu, 21.3 percent are Muslim, and 12.1 percent are Christian. The ethnic Chinese population includes Buddhists (42.3 percent), Christians (20.9 percent), and Taoists (12.9 percent).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states that every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs and it does not prohibit restrictions in employment by a religious institution.
The government maintains a decades-long ban of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the Church was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish their literature, which is banned. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.
The Presidential Council for Religious Harmony reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of Council for Religious Harmony members be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
The law authorizes the minister of home affairs to issue a restraining order against any person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister ascertains the person causes feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or excites disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. Restraining orders are discretionary, depending on the situation, and prevent a person in a position of authority within a religious group from making or participating in additional statements; failure to comply can result in criminal action. Any restraining order issued must be referred to the Council for Religious Harmony, which recommends to the president that the order be confirmed, cancelled, or amended. Restraining orders lapse after 90 days, unless confirmed by the president. The minister must review a confirmed restraining order at least once every 12 months and may revoke such an order at any time. The law prohibits judicial review of such restraining orders. In addition, under the penal code, “wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” can result in detention and or imprisonment.
The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The MUIS, established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth, administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and the Hajj. The MUIS includes representatives from Sunni as well as Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated if there are complaints.
The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemption. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered society may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($3,700), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.
Prisoners are allowed access to chaplains of various faiths.
The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. A person in possession of a prohibited publication can be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and jailed for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The Ministry of Social and Family Development and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone and meeting the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups, and apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or leased to religious organizations and must be available to rent out for other nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.
Registration of religious teachers and centers of learning with the MUIS, which includes minimum standards and a code of ethics, has been mandatory since January, although reports say the majority of teachers had previously registered on a voluntary basis. As of October, there are 193 registered Islamic centers of learning and more than 3,000 registered Islamic religious teachers.
The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools. Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. The constitution states that no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, the law allows seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate primary-age students, provided these schools continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools.
The law empowers the Ministry of Education to regulate schools, including prohibiting students from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform. The law prohibits the wearing of hijabs or headscarves in public schools. International, other private, and government-aided religious schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning. All madrassahs are under the purview of the MUIS.
The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law will be used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over the affairs of marriages where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including maintenance payments such as alimony and child support, disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, and inheritance. According to legal experts in inheritance, a man will receive twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. The law permits a person involved in a sharia court divorce case to apply for permission to begin civil proceedings concerning division of property or custody of children. Orders of the sharia court are enforced by the ordinary civil courts. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeal board, which is composed of three members of the MUIS, selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of seven individuals nominated every two years by the president of the country. The ruling of the appeal board is final and may not be appealed to any other court. The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives and reviewing the husband’s financial capability. Additionally, under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam, including cohabitation outside of marriage and publicly expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law. Muslim men and women who cohabit with a member of the opposite sex (including non-Muslims) to whom they are not married are liable to a maximum fine of 500 SGD ($370) or maximum imprisonment of six months, or both. Instead of imprisonment, a women may be sentenced to a “place of safety established under any written law” for a period not to exceed 12 months. The punishment for teaching or publicly expounding any doctrine contrary to Muslim law is a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both.
The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection. Male citizens or second generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.
The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group that the parliament or the government refers.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website reported as of December, 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained in the armed forces detention facility for refusing to complete national service on religious grounds. Conscientious objectors were generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remained technically liable for national service, servicemen who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They did not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.
Government ministers and officials regularly cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. In April the government deported Imam Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel to India after he was convicted and fined 4,000 SGD ($3,000) for “committing acts known to be prejudicial to the maintenance of religious harmony and likely to disturb public tranquility.” The imam, who had worked in the country since 2010, was removed from speaking at the mosque after a video of him reciting an Arabic prayer from his home village in India asking for “help against Jews and Christians” surfaced on Facebook. The police initiated an investigation when a member of the public filed a complaint. In public meetings with various faith groups, including Christian and Jewish leaders and Minister of Home Affairs K. Shanmugam, Nalla apologized repeatedly, adding that he understood the charges against him were necessary to “preserve the sanctity of interfaith harmony.” In a separate case, two individuals investigated for uploading and commenting on the video were officially warned but not prosecuted for violating religious harmony laws.
The government said that all religions would be held equally responsible for maintaining religious harmony. In June the MUIS barred Singaporean “extremist” Islamic preacher Rasul Dahri from teaching in the country, and the Ministry of Information and Communications banned nine of his publications. In October the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) banned two foreign Islamic preachers, Ismail Menk (known as Mufti Menk) and Haslin bin Baharim, from entering the country on the grounds that their “exclusivist” and “divisive” preaching would damage social harmony. In November the ministry banned a third foreign Islamic preacher on the same grounds. In September the MHA declined applications to speak in Singapore for two foreign Christian preachers whom it said had previously made “denigrating and inflammatory comments” about Muslims and Buddhists. In September the National Council of Churches advised its member churches to exercise “careful discernment” before inviting preachers in order “to preserve the harmonious religious environment that currently exists.”
Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told parliament in October, “Religion can be and has been a source of strength to our society, but we must also watch for exclusivist, intolerant practices because these can deepen fault lines and weaken our entire society.” Shanmugam said the law on religious harmony is expected to be tightened in 2018 to ensure that religious groups do not sponsor foreign speakers who promote ill will. Several Christian and Muslim groups spoke against amending the legislation, on the grounds that religious groups already practiced a culture of religious sensitivity and already self-selected speakers to avoid those promoting disharmony.
Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers and at some schools, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” Some in the Muslim community continued to petition for a change in government policy, as did opposition Member of Parliament Muhammad Faisal Abdul Manap in parliament in April. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong endorsed Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli’s response that such a “deeply emotive” matter should be resolved by government and community leaders working together quietly. The prime minister said on Facebook the best way to make progress on such sensitive issues “is quietly, outside the glare of publicity.”
The September presidential election was won by former parliamentary speaker Halimah Yacob, who is Muslim and wears the hijab. President Halimah’s portrait was displayed in all schools and government buildings. In 2016 the government passed legislation that resulted in the 2017 presidential election being reserved for eligible Malay, and effectively Muslim, candidates. The legislation, which generated some controversy in social media, states that the presidency should be reserved for a certain race if a person of that community has not occupied the office for five consecutive terms, effectively 30 years.
The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.
As part of the Ministry of Education’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony.”
Missionaries, with the exception of members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and representatives of the Unification Church, were permitted to work and to publish and distribute religious texts. While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice in speeches and through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly as it deemed proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations.
Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said in parliament in October that as fears over terrorism increased, local Muslims found it “unpleasant” being “under constant scrutiny” and that “for the Malay-Muslim community, this sense of being misunderstood is deeply felt.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir published an op-ed in March in which he said Islam was the most regulated religion in the country and described a “culture of fear” among Muslim clerics, whom he said sensed the Muslim community’s anger at the “disciplining of Islam” but who felt limited in their response because they feared overstepping the boundaries of state-endorsed Islam.
The government launched the “BRIDGE” initiative in March, which aimed to foster understanding of different religious practices and beliefs and to encourage discussions, as well as to support interfaith initiatives through the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY)’s Harmony Fund. For example, one such discussion was on how “religion is hijacked by extremists” and how teenagers self-radicalize.
Minister of State and chair of NGO OnePeople.sg, Janil Puthucheary, hosted a television documentary called Regardless of Religionwhich explored religious differences and prejudices. Puthucheary attended interfaith dialogues and religious events, including those held by minority religious groups such as the Jaafari Muslim Association, a Shia Muslim organization that opened a new religious center in August in Geylang.
The government appointed all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board, and nominated four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards managed various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.
The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was set up to promote greater religious understanding. The Harmony Center housed artifacts and information about Islam, as well as nine other major religions in Singapore. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from other religions. Additionally, the Ministry of Home Affairs, encouraged by the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), encompassing the leaders of the 10 largest religious groups in the country, opened organized daily tours of the interactive Harmony in Diversity Gallery.
The government continued to support the operation of an “interracial and religious confidence circle” (IRCC) in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs gave religious group leaders a forum for promoting religious harmony at the municipal level. Under the auspices of the MCCY, the IRCCs conducted local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities. Throughout the year, interfaith dialogues were held in different communities around the island.
The government continued to engage religious groups through the community engagement program (CEP), created to foster social cohesion and minimize ethnic or religious discord in the event of a terrorist attack or other civil emergency. The government trained community leaders involved in the CEP in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. Throughout the year, the CEP continued to conduct outreach activities to strengthen intercommunal and interreligious bonds.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Journalist Elgin Toh and other journalists wrote articles throughout the year encouraging their readers not to view Muslims with suspicion and telling Muslims they should not feel responsible for the actions of radicalized Muslims.
According to an August op-ed in the Singapore Straits Times, a public Facebook group, Melayu Singapura Tolak Syiah (Singapore Malays Reject Shia) with 1,814 members, often demonizes Shia. Comments on YouTube and other social media referred to Shia as “deviant”, “apostates,” and by other negative terms.
In June vandals wrote the word “terrorist” on a cartoon image of a Muslim woman who wore a hijab on a temporary board fence surrounding a construction site. Numerous individuals subsequently posted comments online to support the Muslim community, and the Free Community Church hosted an iftar in addition to a talk on Islam by Muslim scholar Mohamed Imran Taib.
Shia and Sunni Muslims continued to cooperate and to share Sunni mosques, and held intrafaith iftars during Ramadan. The Sunni Ba’alwie Mosque hosted an iftar with Shia guests, and a Shia youth group hosted an interfaith iftar for 100 guests. Some Shia and Sunni Muslims stated that trust in the minority Shia community of approximately 5,000 persons (1 percent of the Muslim community) by the majority Sunnis declined as the influence of anti-Shia discourse in neighboring Malaysia increased. Shia continue to work with Muslim authorities to secure permission to open a second Shia mosque.
In April the Muslim community, with encouragement from the government, opened use of some facilities of its new Yusof Ishak Mosque to persons of all faiths. Minister-in-Charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob and mosque chairman Ayub Johari said that the mosque would help spread an ethos of religious plurality.
In October a Hindu sanctum was consecrated at the multireligious Loyong Tua Pek Kong Temple, which also houses Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist deities, as well as a Muslim shrine. The deputy prime minister said the event was a good example of multireligious harmony.
The Buddhist Singapore Soka Association invited dignitaries from other religions to its Lotus Sutra Exhibition in October, during which it hosted a number of interfaith lectures, one of which was given by MUIS president Mohammad Alami Musa.
The IRO, which includes leaders of the 10 major religions in the country, has the stated objective of inculcating a spirit of friendship among the leaders and followers of various religious groups and promote mutual respect, assistance, and protection by conducting interreligious prayer services, seminars, and public talks throughout the year. The major religious groups have taken turns organizing the annual Harmony Games, an MCCY-supported sports event for youth of all faiths; the Muslim community organized the games during the year.
A number of people-to-people initiatives promoted religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. These included a meeting organized by community group Explorations into Faith in April to discuss building inclusive interfaith public spaces; an ongoing dialogue entitled, “Religion and Atheism: A Conversation” in which atheists, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims discussed race and religion; and dinners during which groups of strangers discussed sensitive religious issues.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The embassy’s June iftar was attended by then-Speaker of Parliament (and now President) Halimah Yacob, senior representatives from Malay Muslim organizations, representatives from many ethnic and religious groups, media representatives and government officials. The speech by the Charge d’Affaires advocated for religious tolerance and respect.
U.S. embassy representatives interacted with a variety of religious groups, including the IRO, the MUIS, and representatives from Sunni, Shia, and Christian groups, to reinforce the importance of religious freedom. The embassy utilized social media to highlight the Charge d’Affaires’ religious outreach and demonstrate appreciation of and respect for the country’s religious diversity.
The embassy supported a four-day Southeast Asian interfaith youth forum in April in collaboration with Critical Xchange, a local Muslim NGO. The forum brought together 10 young leaders for workshops, with a focus on collaborating to develop ideas for new interfaith initiatives that would tackle religious discrimination in their home communities. The interfaith forum was highlighted on the embassy’s Facebook page, and featured in Berita Harian, a local Malay language newspaper.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and states the country is not bound to any particular faith. In March the requirement for registering a new religious group rose to 50,000 adherents from 20,000 following a parliamentary vote overturning a previous presidential veto of the new membership requirement. The 50,000-member requirement prevented some groups from attaining official status as religious groups. Some of these groups were able to utilize the registration procedures for civic associations to obtain the legal status to perform economic and public functions. Unregistered groups, especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties in ministering to their adherents and in obtaining permits to build places of worship. Members of parliament, especially from opposition parties, continued to make anti-Muslim statements. At several times during the year, police filed charges against members of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) for producing materials defaming minority religious beliefs and for Holocaust denial.
Muslim community members continued to report anti-Muslim hate speech on social media. Christian groups and other organizations described in the press as far-right continued to organize gatherings and commemorations of the World War II fascist state and to praise its leaders, although without statements formally denying the Holocaust. The Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in Slovakia (UZZNO) and the minister of culture criticized a video produced by the Matica Slovenska cultural heritage organization about the founding of the fascist World War II Slovak state for downplaying its crimes against Jews. According to human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the legal requirements for registration of religious groups continued to make it difficult for unregistered groups to alter negative public attitudes toward minority religious groups.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials to continue discussions of the treatment of minority religious groups, including the new law requiring 50,000 members for a religious group to qualify for registration, as well as the increase in public expressions of anti-Muslim sentiment. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with registered and unregistered religious organizations and NGOs to discuss hate speech directed against Muslims and the impact of the new membership requirement for registration of religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 5.4 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the most recent available, Roman Catholics constitute 62 percent of the population, Augsburg Lutherans 5.9 percent, and Greek Catholics 3.8 percent; 13.4 percent did not state a religious affiliation. Other religious groups present in small numbers include the Reformed Christian Church, other Protestant groups, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Bahais, and Muslims. During the 2011 census, approximately 1,200 individuals self-identified as followers of Islam, while representatives of the Muslim community estimate the number to be approximately 5,000. According to the census, there are approximately 2,000 Jews.
Greek Catholics are generally ethnic Slovaks and Ruthenians, although some Ruthenians belong to the Orthodox Church. Most Orthodox Christians live in the eastern part of the country. Members of the Reformed Christian Church live primarily in the south, near the border with Hungary, where many ethnic Hungarians live. Other religious groups tend to be spread evenly throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and affiliation, as well as the right to change religious faith or to refrain from religious affiliation. The constitution states the country is not bound to any particular faith and religious groups shall manage their affairs independently from the state, including in providing religious education and establishing clerical institutions. The constitution guarantees the right to practice one’s faith privately or publicly, either alone or in association with others. It states the exercise of religious rights may be restricted only by measures “necessary in a democratic society for the protection of public order, health, and morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law prohibits establishing, supporting, and promoting groups dedicated to the suppression of fundamental rights and freedoms as well as “demonstrating sympathy” with such groups. These crimes are punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law requires religious groups to register with the Department of Church Affairs in the Ministry of Culture in order to employ spiritual leaders to perform officially recognized functions. Clergy from unregistered religious groups do not officially have the right to perform weddings or to minister to their members in prisons or government hospitals. Unregistered groups may not establish religious schools or receive government funding.
In January the parliament voted to override a presidential veto of legislation originally passed in 2016 to raise the registration requirement for new organizations seeking to register as religious groups to 50,000 adherents from the 20,000 previously required. The new 50,000 requirement entered into force in March. The 50,000 must be adults, either citizens or permanent residents, and must submit an “honest declaration” attesting to their membership, knowledge of the articles of faith and basic tenets of the religion, personal identity numbers and home addresses, and support for the group’s registration to the Ministry of Culture. All groups registered before these requirements came into effect were grandfathered in as officially recognized religions; no new religious groups attained recognition since then. The law makes no distinction between churches and registered religious groups but recognizes as “churches” those registered groups calling themselves churches.
Registration confers the legal status necessary to perform economic functions such as opening a bank account or renting property, and civil functions such as presiding at burial ceremonies. The 18 registered churches and religious groups are: the Apostolic Church, the Bahai Community, The Brotherhood Unity of Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Brotherhood Church, Czechoslovak Hussite Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Evangelical Methodist Church, Greek Catholic Church, Christian Congregations (Krestanske zbory), Jehovah’s Witnesses, New Apostolic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, Roman Catholic Church, Old Catholic Church, and Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities. Registered groups and churches receive annual state subsidies. All but the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, Greek Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Reformed Christian Church, and Roman Catholic Church have fewer than 50,000 members, as they registered before this requirement came into effect.
The Department of Church Affairs of the Ministry of Culture oversees relations between religious groups and the state and manages the distribution of state subsidies to religious groups and associations. The ministry may not legally intervene in the internal affairs of religious groups or direct their activities.
A group without the 50,000 adult adherents required to obtain status as an official religious group may seek registration as a civic association, which provides the legal status necessary to carry out activities such as operating a bank account or entering into a contract. In doing so, however, the group may not call itself a church or identify itself officially as a religious group, since the law governing registration of citizen associations specifically excludes religious groups from obtaining this status. In order to register a civic association, three citizens are required to provide their names and addresses and the name, goal organizational structure, executive bodies, and budgetary rules of the group.
A concordat with the Holy See provides the legal framework for relations between the government and the domestic Catholic Church and the Holy See. Two corollaries cover the operation of Catholic religious schools, the teaching of Catholic religious education as a subject, and Catholic priests serving as military chaplains. An agreement between the government and 11 of the 17 other registered religious groups provides similar status to those groups. The unanimous approval of the existing parties to the agreement is required for other religious groups to obtain similar benefits.
The law does not allow burial earlier than 48 hours following death, even for religious groups whose traditions mandate an earlier burial.
All public elementary school students must take a religion or an ethics class, depending on personal or parental preferences. Individual schools and teachers decide what material to teach in each religion class. Although the content of the courses in most schools is Catholicism, parents may ask a school to include teachings of different faiths. Private and religious schools define their own content for religion courses. In both public and private schools, religion class curricula do not mention unregistered groups or some of the smaller registered groups, and unregistered groups may not teach their faiths at schools. Teachers from a registered religious group normally teach about the tenants of their own faith, although they may teach about other faiths as well. The government pays the salaries of religion teachers in public schools.
The law criminalizes issuance, possession, and dissemination of extremist materials, including those defending, supporting, or instigating hatred, violence, or unlawful discrimination against a group of persons on the basis of their religion. Such criminal activity is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment.
The law requires public broadcasters to allocate airtime for registered religious groups but not for unregistered groups.
The law prohibits the defamation of a person or group’s belief as a criminal offense punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law prohibits Holocaust denial, including questioning, endorsing, or excusing the Holocaust. Violators face sentences of up to three years in prison. The law also prohibits denial of crimes committed by the prior fascist and communist regimes.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Political parties, including the largest party represented in parliament, Direction – Social Democracy (Smer), stated they supported the new law increasing the number of members of religious groups required for registration. They also stated they had overridden the presidential veto due to explicit concern over Islam. In January Prime Minister Fico stated a “unified Muslim community” within the country’s territory would be a “constant source of security risk,” which justified a refusal to accept migrants under the European Commission’s refugee resettlement program.
Opposition parties continued to express anti-Muslim views. In a February print interview, Richard Sulik, the leader of Freedom and Solidarity, the second largest political party in parliament and the largest opposition party, stated Christianity was “better” than Islam; Islam was an “aggressive religion,” it was not compatible with Slovak culture, and “we are not all equal.”
In February LSNS Member of Parliament (MP) Milan Mazurek stated in parliament that Islam was “nothing other than the work of the devil” and claimed Islam allowed pedophilia, zoophilia, and necrophilia.
In April during a parliamentary debate on a proposed ban on mosques, Sme Rodina MP Milan Krajniak stated most European Muslims wanted to change the political system in Europe into “something totalitarian,” or an Islamic theocracy. He said practicing Muslims who visited mosques condoned terrorist attacks significantly more than nonpracticing Muslims. During the same parliamentary debate, LSNS Chairman and MP Marian Kotleba said the real problem was “Zionist” politicians, “many of them raised in synagogues,” who he said had brought the Muslims into the country.
During November regional elections, the LSNS won two of 416 seats in regional assemblies, and Kotleba lost his reelection campaign for the Banska Bystrica governorship. Kotleba and other LSNS candidates received more than 100,000 votes in total and retained 14 of 150 seats in the national parliament. In May prosecutors took steps to ban the party as a threat to the country’s democratic system. At year’s end, the Supreme Court was addressing the prosecutor general’s move to dissolve the LSNS for violation of the constitution and other laws.
There continued to be no resolution to the registration application of the Christian Fellowship as of the end of the year. The Ministry of Culture reportedly continued its consideration of additional expert opinions over whether it should reverse its 2007 rejection of the original application, which was based on expert opinion saying the group promoted hatred toward other religious groups.
The government again allocated approximately 40 million euros ($48 million) in annual state subsidies to the 18 registered religious groups. The basis for each allocation was the number of clergy each group had, and a large portion of each group’s subsidy continued to be used for payment of the group’s clergy. The Expert Commission on Financing of Religious Groups and Societies, an advisory body within the Ministry of Culture, continued discussions with representatives of registered religious groups about changes in the model to be used for their future funding, with the stated aim of developing a new financing model based on the principles of “justice, transparency, solidarity, and independence.”
NGOs and unregistered religious groups reported they continued to have difficulties altering negative public attitudes towards smaller, unregistered religious organizations, because of the social stigma associated with not having the same legal benefits accorded to registered religions.
Members of registered Christian churches said stringent registration requirements limited religious freedom by preventing dissent within churches. Dissenting members stymied in attempts to reform official theological positions might normally split off to form their own church, but the difficulty in registering a new religion prevented such an action.
The Muslim community reported the lack of registration meant it continued to be unable to employ an imam formally. Muslim community leaders stated prisons and detention facilities continued to prevent their spiritual representatives from gaining access to their adherents. Members of the Muslim community also continued to report the lack of official registration made obtaining the necessary construction permits for prayer rooms and religious sites more difficult, although there was no law prohibiting unregistered groups from obtaining such permits.
The Ministry of Culture’s cultural grant program continued to allocate money for the upkeep of religious monuments.
Jewish community leaders continued to criticize the Nation’s Memory Institute (UPN), a state-chartered institution, for reportedly downplaying the role of prominent World War II-era figures in supporting anti-Semitic policies.
In January LSNS MP Stanislav Mizik issued a statement on LSNS social media criticizing President Andrej Kiska for giving state awards to individuals of Jewish origin. Mizik’s statement said important Slovak historical figures had a negative perception of Jews, “because they impoverished the Slovak nation, and because of usury.” In April police charged Mizik with producing extremist materials and defamation of nation, race, and belief, in connection with the comments. Criminal proceedings were pending at year’s end.
In July police charged LSNS Chair Kotleba with supporting movements that promoted the suppression of rights and freedoms and spread religious hatred, after he made an 1,488 euro ($1,800) donation from the party in March to a family in need. Experts stated the amount was a symbolic representation of a 14-word white supremacist phrase and the numeric representation of a salute to Hitler.
In August police charged Marian Magat, who ran as an LSNS candidate in the 2016 parliamentary elections and was described by the press as a far-right radical, with Holocaust denial related to online content published between 2013 and 2016, which praised Adolf Hitler and downplayed the Holocaust. Criminal proceedings were pending at year’s end.
In September parliament rejected a liberal opposition amendment to reduce the minimum waiting period for burial following death, from 48 hours to 24 hours, specifically designed to accommodate the rights of the Jewish community.
In March President Kiska and Prime Minister Robert Fico participated in a commemoration at the Poprad train station of the 75th anniversary of the first transport of Slovak Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In his speech, Prime Minister Fico said the World War II Slovak state had been a puppet of Hitler’s Germany and remained unworthy of admiration today because key representatives of the regime had helped facilitate the deportation of Slovak citizens, including women and children, to Nazi death camps.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs reported continued online hate speech towards Muslims and refugees. Muslim community leaders continued to report greater levels of fear in the community compared with previous years and said they continued to keep their prayer rooms low-key and not publicize the locations of the prayer rooms so as not to inflame public opinion.
In February the Institute of Leo XIII, a local NGO characterized in the press as conservative, distributed flyers and books to a number of churches that said Islam was a base religion filled with hate and Muhammad was the predecessor of the anti-Christ.
The Islamic Foundation in Slovakia again reported an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric by what it described as “extremist” groups. In July the foundation reported extensive negative online reaction to an iftar organized by the foundation for Muslim and non-Muslim religious and civic representatives. The foundation catalogued numerous social media posts threatening violence and death to individuals who attended the event.
Some Christian groups and other organizations characterized in the press as far-right continued to issue statements praising the World War II-era fascist government responsible for the deportation of thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps, and they continued to organize gatherings where participants displayed symbols of the World War II fascist state. While there were no press reports of direct Holocaust denial by these groups, the organizers often included photographs showing World War II symbols in online posts promoting their events. On March 14, for example, the LSNS used such symbols in its online postings about an annual commemoration it organized for the founding of the World War II fascist state. A Catholic priest again participated in the commemoration along with LSNS members of parliament.
In April the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nitra and the Faculty of Roman Catholic Theology of Comenius University in Bratislava organized a seminar about the president of the fascist World War II Slovak state, Jozef Tiso, which focused on Tiso’s role as a Catholic priest and avoided discussion of his regime’s internment of Jews in concentration camps and their later deportation to Nazi death camps. The Jewish community criticized the seminar for praising Tiso and for inviting an individual associated with a far-right group to give a presentation.
In February UZZNO criticized a video produced by the Matica Slovenska cultural heritage organization about the founding of the fascist World War II Slovak state for what UZZNO described as downplaying and attempting to justify the crimes perpetrated by the Slovak state. Jewish organizations said the video implied Slovak Jews would have suffered the same fate even if the fascist Slovak state had not existed. Minister of Culture Marek Madaric also criticized the Matica Slovenska video for “trivializing” the responsibility of the fascist World War II Slovak state for the fate of Slovak Jews.
The Ecumenical Council of Churches continued to be the only association for interreligious dialogue.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to discuss the treatment of religious minority groups and the growth of anti-Muslim sentiment in meetings with government officials. After passage of the new law requiring 50,000 members for a religious group to qualify for registration, the embassy continued to express to government officials its concerns over the new requirement. The Ambassador again participated in the annual Holocaust observation ceremony in Bratislava.
Embassy officers continued to meet with registered and unregistered religious organizations and civil society groups to discuss hate speech directed against Muslims and the negative impact on religious minorities of the new membership requirement as well as of previously existing legal requirements for registration of religious groups. On November 21, the embassy hosted a roundtable lunch and interfaith discussion with representatives of various religious, governmental, and NGO groups. Attendees shared their views on religious freedom and tolerance, including the proper social role of churches and religious communities as advocates for human rights and against the rise of far-right extremism.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall enjoy equal rights and prohibits the incitement of religious hatred or intolerance. The law does not require religious groups to register with the government to engage in religious activities, but registration is necessary to obtain status as legal entities, preferential tax treatment, and social benefits, such as social security contributions for clergy. Representatives of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) visited the country in March and continued to engage the government regarding remaining unresolved Jewish claims for restitution. The Ministry of Culture (MOC) sponsored two interfaith dialogues, one on providing spiritual services in hospitals and the other on circumcision and the spiritual needs of Muslims in the military.
In April Bernard Brscic, an economist and former state secretary in a previous prime minister’s cabinet, made inflammatory anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim remarks during a television interview, referring to the “so-called” Holocaust and “an invasion of Muslim…hordes.” The state prosecutor was investigating whether he should have been prosecuted for hate speech. In January vandals defaced a Catholic chapel on Smarna Gora hill above Ljubljana with graffiti reading, “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic). Police had not made any arrests in the case by year’s end. Muslim and Catholic leaders condemned the act, and National Assembly Speaker Milan Brglez condemned the vandalism as an “outrageous act of intolerance against believers.” Construction continued in Ljubljana on the country’s first mosque, but completion was delayed due to a shortage of funds. The Muslim community anticipated opening the mosque in 2018.
U.S. embassy officers continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding religious freedom, including the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities. In observance of Religious Freedom Day in January, the Ambassador hosted a luncheon for leaders of the major religious communities, including representatives from the Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish communities, to discuss ways to protect religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. Other issues included religious communities’ response to the 2015-16 immigrant and refugee crisis, concerns about hate speech and vandalism of religious structures, and their interactions with the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights’ Religious Dialogue Council.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 2.0 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2002 census, the most recent available, 57.8 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, 2.4 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Serbian Orthodox, 0.9 percent “other Christian,” and 10.1 percent atheist. In addition, 23 percent identified as “other” or did not declare a religion, 3.5 percent declared themselves “unaffiliated,” and 10.1 percent selected no religion. The Jewish community estimates its size at approximately 300 individuals. The Orthodox and Muslim communities include a large number of immigrants from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion and the right of individuals to express their beliefs in public and private. It declares all religious communities shall have equal rights and provides for the separation of religion and state. The constitution guarantees equal human rights and fundamental freedoms to all individuals irrespective of their religion; it also prohibits incitement of religious discrimination and inflammation of religious hatred and intolerance. The constitution recognizes the right of conscientious objection to military service for religious reasons.
The law states individuals have the right to freely select a religion; the freedom of religious expression (or rejection of expression); the right – alone or in a group, privately or publicly – to express their religious beliefs freely in “church or other religious communities,” through education, religious ceremonies, or in other ways; and the right not to be forced to become a member or to remain a member of a religious group, nor to attend (or not attend) worship services or religious ceremonies. In addition, the law guarantees the right to refuse to comply with legal duties and requirements that contradict an individual’s religious beliefs, provided such refusals do not limit the rights and freedoms of other persons.
The law requires churches and other religious communities to register with the government to obtain status as legal entities, but it does not restrict the religious activities of unregistered religious groups. According to the law, the rights of religious groups include autonomy in selecting their legal form and constituency; freedom to define their internal organization as well as name and define the competencies of their employees; autonomy in defining the rights and obligations of their members; latitude to participate in interconfessional organizations within the country or abroad; authority to provide religious services to the military, police, prisons, hospitals, and social care institutions; and freedom to construct buildings for religious purposes. The law states religious groups have a responsibility to respect the constitution and the legal provisions on nondiscrimination.
The rights of registered religious groups as recognized legal entities include eligibility for rebates on value-added taxes, government cofinancing of social security for clergy, and authorization to request social benefits for their religious workers.
To register legally with the government, a religious group must submit an application to the MOC providing proof it has at least 10 adult members who are citizens or permanent residents; the name of the group in Latin letters, which must be clearly distinguishable from the names of other religious groups; the group’s address in the country; and a copy of its official seal to be used in legal transactions; it must pay an administrative tax of 22.60 euros ($27). The group must also provide the names of the group’s representatives in the country, a description of the foundations of the group’s religious beliefs, and a copy of its organizational act. If a group wishes to apply for government cosponsorship of social security for clergy members, it must show it has at least 1,000 members for every clergy member.
The government may only refuse the registration of a religious group if the group does not provide the required application materials in full or if the MOC determines the group is a “hate group” – an organization engaging in hate crimes as defined by the penal code.
By law MOC’s Office for Religious Communities monitors and maintains records on registered religious communities and provides legal expertise and assistance to religious organizations. The MOC establishes and manages the procedures for registration, issues documents related to the legal status of registered communities, distributes funds allocated in the government’s budget for religious activities, organizes discussions and gatherings of religious communities to address religious freedom concerns, and provides information to religious groups about the legal provisions and regulations related to their activities.
In accordance with the law, citizens may apply for the return of property nationalized between 1945 and 1963. The state may provide monetary compensation to former owners who cannot receive payment in kind; for example, the state may authorize monetary compensation if government institutions are using the property for an official state purpose or public service such as education or healthcare.
According to the constitution, parents have the right to provide their children with a religious upbringing in accordance with the parents’ beliefs. The government requires all public schools to include education on world religions in their curricula, with instruction provided by school teachers. The government allows churches and religious groups to provide religious education in their faiths in both private and public schools and preschools, on a voluntary basis outside of school hours.
The law mandates Holocaust education in schools. This instruction focuses on the history of the Holocaust inside and outside of the country. Schools use a booklet published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as part of the Holocaust education curriculum to create awareness of the history of Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe before World War II (WWII) and of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. The booklet emphasizes the responsibility of everyone to remember the victims of the Holocaust.
The constitution provides for an independent Office of the Ombudsman for the Protection of Human Rights to investigate and report on alleged human rights violations by the government. The national assembly appoints the ombudsman and allocates the office’s budget, but otherwise the ombudsman operates independently of the government. Individuals have the right to file complaints with the ombudsman to seek administrative relief regarding abuses of religious freedom committed by national or local authorities. The ombudsman’s office may forward these complaints to the state prosecutor’s office, which may then issue an indictment, call for further investigation, or submit the claim directly to a court, whereupon the complaints become formal. The ombudsman also submits an annual human rights report to the national assembly and provides recommendations and expert advice to the government.
The Ombudsman for the Protection of Human Rights has issued an opinion that, based on the constitution and the law, “circumcision for nonmedical reasons is not permissible and constitutes unlawful interference with the child’s body, thereby violating his rights.”
The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter, which effectively bans Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter.
The penal code’s definition of hate crimes includes publicly provoking religious hatred and diminishing the significance of the Holocaust. Punishment for these offenses is imprisonment of up to two years, or, if the crime involves coercion or endangerment of security – defined as a serious threat to life and limb, desecration, or damage to property – imprisonment for up to five years. If an official abusing the power of his or her position commits these offenses, he or she may be subject to imprisonment of up to five years. Members of groups that engage in these activities in an organized and premeditated fashion – hate groups, according to the law – may also receive a punishment of up to five years in prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives from the WJRO visited the country in March for continued talks on property restitution issues involving the Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and the WJRO discussed carrying out a research project to determine the scope of heirless and unclaimed Jewish-owned property, and negotiations were continuing at year’s end. Restitution efforts for property seized during the Holocaust were complicated by the timeframe (1945-63) covered by the law on property nationalization claims, which excluded property seized from Jewish families prior to 1945.
The Constitutional Court continued its review of a case the Slovene Muslim Community filed in 2014 that alleged a 2012 law prohibiting the slaughter of animals without prior stunning violated religious freedom. The Slovene Muslim Community was not affiliated with the larger Islamic Community of Slovenia. The Jewish community had reportedly also raised concerns over the prohibition. The government defended the law as necessary to comply with EU regulations to prevent “unnecessary suffering” to animals.
In a January 27 speech to parliament commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Speaker of the National Assembly Brglez told parliamentarians they must never forget the Holocaust and said the inalienable rights to religious freedom enshrined in international conventions and the country’s constitution were intended to protect against such horrors in the future.
The Council of the Government of the Republic for Dialogue on Religious Freedom conducted two interfaith dialogue meetings with representatives of the country’s largest religious communities. The government established the council under the auspices of the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities to promote transparency between religious groups and the government, while encouraging dialogue on issues of concern among the country’s religious communities. Although the dialogues were closed to the media and general public, the Office for Religious Communities subsequently published transcripts online.
In January the council organized a dialogue on providing spiritual care in hospitals. While many hospitals had Roman Catholic chapels, members of other faiths had more limited opportunities to attend religious services while hospitalized. Council participants agreed clergy and members of other religious faiths should be free to use the Roman Catholic chapels for worship and religious services. The October meeting focused on providing spiritual care for Muslims in the military. The armed forces (SAF) employed full-time Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy to provide religious services, but no Muslim imams. While Muslims in the SAF had access to their local religious communities while serving domestically, such access could be limited during foreign missions or training abroad. The council came to no conclusion on this issue but stated it would continue the search for possible solutions in future dialogues. The SAF also did not employ Orthodox Christian or Jewish clergy.
Council participants at the October dialogue also discussed religious objections to the human rights ombudsman’s 2012 opinion that “ritual circumcision of boys for religious reasons…is unacceptable for legal and ethical reasons and doctors should not perform it.” The ombudsman, who reviewed the issue in 2012 at the request of the country’s medical ethics committee, told the council participants new legislation would be necessary to make religious circumcision legal and regulate how the procedure was would be carried out in the public health system. The government, however, did not make any changes to the law or the constitution pertaining to circumcision. As a result, many Muslims had the procedure performed in Austria. There were no reports that the prosecutor’s office had received any complaints or prosecuted any cases regarding illegal circumcision.
The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights received one formal complaint pertaining to religious freedom concerning an incident in September in which local school administrators invited two Roman Catholic clergy to offer a religious blessing for a new primary school building near Grosuplje. The complaint alleged the blessing, in which the clergy read from religious scriptures and invited the audience to join in prayer, violated the law prohibiting organized religious ceremonies and confessional activities in public schools. The ombudsman’s office chose not to forward the complaint to prosecutors pending an investigation by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Sport.
In May authorities in the country’s second-largest city, Maribor, banned performances by Croatian singer Perkovic Thompson, citing security risks. The mayor of Maribor, Andrej Fistravec, said Thompson’s concert, scheduled for May 20, should not take place, because the singer promoted fascism, which the mayor could not condone. Fistravec cited Thompson’s use of the Croatian WWII Ustasa fascist chant “Za dom spremni” (“Ready for the Home (land)”) and his use of the names of Ustasa concentration camps in his songs. Several other mayors, including Ljubljana Mayor Zoran Jankovic, said they agreed with Fistravec, and more than 800 citizens signed an online petition stating Thompson’s concert breached the constitution and the criminal code by “glorifying fascism, Nazism, and intolerance.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During an April interview on a Nova24 television news program, Bernard Brscic, an economist who served as a state secretary in the cabinet of a former prime minister, described Europe’s 2015-16 immigration crisis as an “invasion of Muslim and Negro hordes” and referred to the “so-called” Holocaust as “a perfidious way for the Jews to create collective guilt…and establish a multicultural dystopia.” The country’s media reported widely on and criticized Brscic’s comments, and the director of the Jewish Cultural Center threatened to press charges under the country’s Holocaust denial law. The local prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute after an investigation, concluding that Brscic was expressing an opinion on whether contemporary Germans bore responsibility for the Holocaust rather than denying the Holocaust itself. In July the general state prosecutor ordered an internal investigation, which remained in progress at year’s end, as to why the local prosecutor’s office had dropped the case against Brscic.
In January police received a report that individuals had defaced a Catholic chapel on Smarna Gora hill above Ljubljana with graffiti in the Latin alphabet reading, “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and “sharia.” The Slovenian Bishops’ Conference and the Islamic Community in Slovenia both condemned the vandalism, as did National Assembly Speaker Brglez, who described the incident as “an outrageous act of intolerance against believers.” According to press reports, former Defense Minister Ales Hojs wondered why police had not responded more vigorously to the incident.
Construction continued in Ljubljana on the country’s first mosque, which was reportedly delayed because of insufficient funds to complete the project. Most of the funding for the mosque had come from Qatar. The Islamic community said it expected the mosque to open in 2018.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials responsible for upholding the constitutional commitment to religious freedom, including the MOC’s Office for Religious Communities, to discuss issues such as interfaith dialogue, the status of the Constitutional Court case pertaining to the prohibition of animal slaughter without prior stunning, and the Islamic community’s efforts to complete construction of the Ljubljana mosque.
In March the State Department Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, along with his Israeli counterpart, visited the country to participate in talks with the WJRO and the government on how to resolve the remaining property restitution issues involving the Jewish community.
Embassy officers continued to meet regularly with representatives of all major religious groups to discuss protection of the rights of religious groups. In January in observance of Religious Freedom Day, the Ambassador hosted representatives of the Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss ways to protect religious freedom and promote religious tolerance. Other issues included religious community response to the 2015-16 immigrant and refugee crisis, concerns about hate speech and vandalism of religious structures, and their interactions with the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights’ Religious Dialogue Council.
The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. The federal government had limited ability to implement the PFC beyond greater Mogadishu; most other areas of the country were outside its control. Federal state and interim regional administrations, including Somaliland, Puntland, the Interim Juba Administration (IJA), the Interim South West Administration (ISWA), the Interim Hirshabelle Administration (IHA), and the Interim Galmudug Administration (IGA), governed their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but did not fully control them. The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland declare Islam as the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia. In July Somaliland authorities closed the only Catholic church in Hargeisa; the church had reopened in October 2016. In May the minister of education, culture, and higher education unveiled the National Curriculum Framework for public and private primary and secondary schools, which the minister said was in part to better regulate Islamic instruction.
The terrorist group al-Shabaab killed, maimed, or harassed persons suspected of converting from Islam or those who failed to adhere to the group’s religious edicts. During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, members of parliament, Somali national armed forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country. According to Morning Star News reports, in February al-Shabaab forces killed a secret Christian convert from Islam, Faduma Osman, and her 11-year-old son and wounded her husband. In June al-Shabaab fighters stormed an army base in Puntland, killing 70 persons and wounding dozens more. Al-Shabaab said it attacked the base because of the presence of foreign soldiers and Puntland “apostates.” ISIS-affiliated fighters maintained a presence in the northern regions of Puntland.
There was strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions. Conversion from Islam to another religion remained socially unacceptable in all areas. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment by members of their community.
The U.S. government did not maintain a permanent diplomatic presence in the country. Travel by U.S. government officials to the country continued to increase from previous years, although trips remained limited to areas when security conditions permitted. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom focused on supporting efforts to bring stability, reestablish rule of law, and advocate for freedom of speech and assembly.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11 million (July 2017 estimate). Other sources, including the World Bank, estimate the population to be at least 14 million. According to the federal Ministry of Religious Affairs, more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Members of other religious groups combined constitute less than 1 percent of the population and include a small Christian community, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims. Immigrants and foreign workers, who are mainly from East African countries, belong mainly to other religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The PFC provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion but prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam. It states all citizens, regardless of religion, have equal rights and duties before the law but establishes Islam as the state religion and requires laws to comply with sharia principles. No exemptions from application of sharia legal principles exist for non-Muslims. The PFC does not explicitly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions.
The constitutions of the regional administrations of Somaliland in the northwest and Puntland in the northeast make Islam the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting, prohibit the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia.
The Somaliland constitution states: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of belief and shall not be compelled to adopt another belief. Islamic Sharia does not accept that a Muslim can renounce his beliefs.” The Puntland constitution prohibits any law or culture that contravenes Islam and prohibits demonstrations contrary to Islam. The constitution and other laws of Puntland do not define contravention of Islam.
Other regional administrations, including the IGA, IHA, IJA, and ISWA, have constitutions identifying Islam as the official religion. These constitutions stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. The IGA, IHA, and ISWA have not enacted laws directly addressing religious freedom.
The national penal code generally remains valid in all regions of the country. It does not prohibit conversion from Islam to another religion, but it criminalizes blasphemy and “defamation of Islam,” which carry penalties of up to two years in prison.
The PFC and the Puntland constitution require the president, but not other office holders, to be Muslim. The Somaliland constitution requires, in addition to Somaliland’s president, the candidates for vice president and the House of Representatives to be Muslim.
The judiciary in most areas relies on xeer (traditional and customary law), sharia, and the penal code. Each area individually regulates and enforces religious expression, often inconsistently.
The Somaliland constitution prohibits the formation of political parties based on a particular religious group, religious beliefs, or interpretation of religious doctrine, while the PFC and the constitutions of other regional administrations do not contain this prohibition.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs has legal authority to register religious groups. Guidance on how to register or what is required is inconsistent. The ministry has no ability to enforce such requirements outside of Mogadishu.
Somaliland does not have a mechanism to register religious organizations or specific requirements to register Islamic groups. The Puntland government does not have any laws governing registration or a mechanism to register religious groups. Other regional administrations do not have a mechanism to register religious organizations.
In Puntland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Puntland Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs. In Somaliland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Somaliland Ministry of Religion. Neither Puntland nor Somaliland law delineates consequences for operating without permission. All other regional administrations require formal places of worship and religious schools to obtain permission to operate from local authorities.
The federal Ministry of Education has the mandate to regulate religious instruction throughout the country. Federal and regional authorities require Islamic instruction in all schools, public or private, except those operated by non-Muslims. Private schools have more leeway to determine their curriculum. Non-Muslim students attending public schools may request an exemption from Islamic instruction, but according to federal and regional authorities, there have been no such requests.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.
Federal and regional governments maintained bans on the propagation of religions other than Islam, but there were no reports of enforcement. According to federal and regional government officials, there were no cases of individuals charged with apostasy, blasphemy, or defamation of Islam.
The government reportedly continued not to strictly enforce the registration requirement for religious groups opening schools for lay or religious instruction. Many religious groups did not register, but some religious groups said the government did not pursue adverse actions against them.
The Somaliland government neither banned unregistered religious groups nor imposed financial penalties on any religious groups. In July Somaliland authorities closed the only Catholic church in Hargeisa; the church had reopened in October 2016. Government authorities said they closed the church to respect the wishes of the majority Muslim population and their religious leaders who believed the church was trying to sway Muslim believers. Somaliland Religious Affairs Minister Sheikh Khalil Abdullahi publicly said the issue created divisions that were “not in [the region’s] interests.”
The Puntland government neither banned nor imposed financial penalties on any religious groups.
In May the minister of education, culture, and higher education unveiled a national curriculum framework for public and private primary and secondary schools, which he said was designed in part to regulate Islamic instruction more effectively.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Al-Shabaab continued to impose violently its own interpretation of Islamic law and practices on other Muslims and non-Muslims. Al-Shabaab forces targeted and killed federal government officials and their allies, calling them non-Muslims or apostates. In June hundreds of al-Shabaab fighters stormed an army base in Puntland, killing up to 70 persons and wounding dozens more in one of the deadliest attacks to target Somali security forces. Al-Shabaab said it attacked the base because of the presence of foreign soldiers and Puntland “apostates.”
Between May 21 and May 24, al-Shabaab abducted approximately 70 persons, including women and children, burned numerous homes, and caused more than 15,000 persons to flee their homes during raids in Lower Shabelle, according to the United Nations. Some men who were abducted told human rights groups they were not allowed to pray and did not have access to water for ablutions. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least two dozen were released following clan intervention, but an unknown number remained in detention.
According to Morning Star News reports, in February al-Shabaab forces killed a secret Christian convert from Islam, Faduma Osman, and her 11-year-old son and wounded her husband. Osman’s two daughters and her nine-year-old son escaped and were found safe in another town. On January 10, al-Shabaab announced it had executed a teenage boy and young man in Middle Juba for engaging in sexual conduct.
Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country. In July al-Shabaab’s ambush on an AMISOM convoy in Lower Shabelle resulted in the deaths of at least 24 soldiers. Al-Shabaab stated it killed the soldiers to protest the continued presence of foreign and western-trained peacekeepers. According to Human Rights Watch, al-Shabaab abducted AMISOM troops during attacks. The Ugandan government confirmed seven Ugandan AMISOM troops remained captive from a 2015 attack on the AMISOM base in Janale. An unknown number of Kenyan and other AMISOM troops also remained captive.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued to threaten to execute anyone suspected of converting to Christianity. In the areas it controlled, al-Shabaab continued to ban cinemas, television, music, the internet, and watching sporting events. It prohibited the sale of khat (a popular stimulant drug), smoking, and behavior it characterized as un-Islamic, such as shaving beards. It also enforced a strict requirement that women wear full veils.
According to humanitarian groups, al-Shabaab continued to harass secular and faith-based humanitarian aid organizations, threatening the lives of their personnel and accusing them of seeking to convert Somalis to Christianity.
Fear of reprisals from al-Shabaab often prevented religious groups from operating freely. Al-Shabaab reportedly threatened to close mosques in areas it controlled if the mosques’ teachings did not conform to the group’s interpretation of Islam.
In areas under its control, al-Shabaab continued to mandate schools teach a militant form of jihad emphasizing that students should wage war against those it deemed infidels, including countries in the region, the federal government, and AMISOM. Following the introduction of its new education curriculum in April, al-Shabaab began forcing communities in Hirshabelle and Galmudug to enroll children ages seven to 14 into al-Shabaab-managed Quranic schools, according to humanitarian groups. Al-Shabaab arrested or fined parents who failed to comply with the directive. According to humanitarian groups, on June 17, al-Shabaab militants in Xarardhere arrested 17 elders for refusing to obey the group’s edict; days later, the group released 15 of the elders who promised to enroll 50 children. On June 20, al-Shabaab threatened parents in Jowle, Dhalwo, and Tulo-Hajji villages for refusing to enroll persons 10 to 20 years old in the newly opened al-Shabaab-managed madrassahs in Jowle and Xarardhere, according to humanitarian groups. On July 4, humanitarian groups reported that at least 100 elders, imams, and teachers of Quranic schools not linked to al-Shabaab were arrested within the vicinity of Warshubo, Xarardhere, for resisting al-Shabaab’s school enrollment demands. Reports from humanitarian groups indicated that in early July al-Shabaab abducted at least 45 elders in Ceel Buur for failing to hand over 150 children to the group.
Al-Shabaab extorted high and unpredictable zakat (an Islamic obligation to donate to charity during Ramadan) and sadaqa (a voluntary charity contribution paid by Muslims) taxes in the regions it controlled, according to humanitarian groups.
A small group of ISIS fighters remained in Puntland and were proponents of sharia. Its strength was estimated as small (approximately 200 combatants), but the group enjoyed relative freedom of movement and recruited from within towns surrounding the Golis Mountains.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There reportedly continued to be strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islam traditions.
Conversion from Islam to another religion continued to remain socially unacceptable, and individuals suspected of conversion and their families were reportedly subject to harassment from members of their local communities.
Christians and members of other non-Muslim religious groups continued to report they were unable to practice their religion openly due to fear of harassment across most of the country. The small Christian community continued to keep a low profile with regard to religious beliefs and practices. Other non-Islamic groups likely also refrained from openly practicing their religion.
There were no public places of worship for non-Muslims in the country.
Private schools were the primary source of education. The majority offered religious instruction in Islam. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab controlled areas.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Travel by U.S. government officials to the country continued to increase during the year, although trips remained limited to select areas and only when security conditions permitted. Embassy officials met with Ministry of Religious Affairs officials and religious leaders to advocate the promotion of religious tolerance. U.S. government efforts to promote religious freedom focused on supporting the efforts of the government to bring stability, reestablish rule of law, and advocate for freedom of speech and assembly.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status. In June the High Court ruled that public schools could not promote one religion to the exclusion of others. The Organization for Religious Education and Democracy, which brought the court case against six schools, argued that religious practices at these schools resulted in the suppression of scientific teachings of evolution and that a religious ethos was a form of coercion and an abuse of learners’ rights. Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws requiring religious groups to register with the government and to define and punish hate crimes and speech could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech. In January twin brothers Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie appeared in court to face terrorism charges after their 2016 arrests for allegedly planning to attack U.S. and Jewish targets. The Johannesburg High Court postponed their trial to February 20, 2018, to allow for arguments regarding the constitutionality of the Terrorism Act, under which they were arrested. In March Rastafarians welcomed a High Court ruling that declared a ban on marijuana use by adults in private homes to be unconstitutional.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 44 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, compared with 43 in 2016. The SAJBD also reported members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee made anti-Semitic comments during Israel Apartheid Week in March. Other individuals publicly made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year. Unknown individuals vandalized two mosques in Western Cape Province, smearing pig’s blood and leaving a pig’s snout at one of the mosques.
U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions receive permission to operate.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 54.8 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 81 percent of the population is Christian. Approximately 15 percent of the population adheres to no particular religion or declined to indicate an affiliation; some of these individuals are likely adhere to indigenous beliefs. Muslims constitute 1.7 percent of the population, while Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and adherents of traditional indigenous beliefs together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Many indigenous persons adhere to a belief system combining Christian and indigenous religious practices. The Church of Scientology estimates it has approximately 100,000 members.
The Pew Research Center estimates 84 percent of the Christian population is Protestant, 11 percent Roman Catholic, and 5 percent other denominations (2010 estimate). African independent churches constitute the largest group of Christian churches, including the Zion Christian Church (approximately 11 percent of the population), the Apostolic Church (approximately 10 percent), and a number of Pentecostal and charismatic groups. Other Christian groups include Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Greek Orthodox, Dutch Reformed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Congregational churches.
Persons of Indian or other Asian heritage account for 2.5 percent of the total population. Approximately half of the ethnic Indian population is Hindu, and the majority resides in KwaZulu-Natal Province. The Muslim community includes Cape Malays of Malayan-Indonesian descent, individuals of Indian or Pakistani descent, and approximately 70,000 Somali nationals and refugees. The SAJBD estimates the Jewish community at 75,000 to 80,000 persons, the majority of whom live in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief, including the right to form, join, and maintain religious associations. It prohibits religious discrimination and specifies freedom of expression does not extend to advocacy of hatred based on religion. The constitution permits legislation recognizing systems of personal and family law to which persons professing a particular religion adhere. It also allows religious observances in state or state-supported institutions, provided they are voluntary and conducted on an equitable basis. These rights may be limited if the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom” and takes account of “all relevant factors.” Cases of discrimination against persons on the grounds of religion may be taken to Equality Courts, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), and the Constitutional Court. The constitution also provides for the promotion and respect of languages used for religious purposes, including, but not limited to, Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit.
The constitution allows for the presence and operation of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities (CRL) with the mission of fostering the rights of communities to freely observe and practice their cultures, religions, and language. The CRL is an independent national government institution whose chair is appointed by the president and whose commissioners include members of the clergy, scholars, and politicians, among others.
The law does not require religious groups to register; however, registered religious and other nonprofit groups may qualify as public benefit organizations, allowing them to open bank accounts and exempting them from paying income tax. To register as a public benefit organization, groups must submit a nonprofit organization application, including their constitution, contact information, and list of officers and documentation stating they meet a number of prescribed requirements that largely ensure accounting and tax compliance, to the provincial social development office. Once registered, the group must submit annual reports on any changes to this information, important achievements and meetings, and financial information, as well as an accountant’s report.
The government allows, but does not require, religious education in public schools but prohibits advocating the tenets of a particular religion.
The law allows marriages to be conducted under customary law; however, it only applies to “those customs and usages traditionally observed among the indigenous African people” and may be performed by all religious groups and their leaders.
The constitution grants detained persons visitation rights with their chosen religious counselor.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June the High Court ruled that a public school could not promote that it adhered to only one or predominantly only one religion to the exclusion of others and could not favor or promote the interests of one religion over others. The ruling would also be binding on other schools nationwide. The Christian Action Network criticized the ruling, arguing that parents must be allowed to decide the religious ethos of schools through the School Governing Bodies (school boards). The Organization for Religious Education and Democracy (OGOD) brought suit against six schools: Randhart, Baanbreker, and Garsfontein primary schools; and Linden, Oudtshoorn, and Langenhoven secondary schools. The OGOD argued that required religious practice at these schools resulted in the suppression of scientific teachings of evolution and that a religious ethos was a form of coercion and an abuse of students’ rights.
In March the High Court issued a ruling declaring unconstitutional a ban on marijuana use by adults in private homes. The court gave parliament two years to change the related sections of the relevant legislation. Since 2002, the Rastafarians had called for the drug, colloquially known as dagga, to be declared lawful on religious grounds. Jeremy Acton, the head of the Dagga Party of South Africa, brought the court case.
In June Muslim inmates at the Tswelopele Correctional Service in Northern Cape Province stated the prison was preventing them from practicing their religious beliefs and sometimes forced them to attend Christian gatherings against their will. The Northern Cape Department of Correctional Services denied the allegations.
Several groups, including the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the nonprofit Christian organization Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), and the International Institute for Religious Freedom, stated their opposition to a CRL legislative proposal in 2016 requiring religious groups to register, stating it would restrict their religious freedom. The proposal would require religious groups to register formally with the government and to create a peer review council, consisting of representatives from various religious groups, which would grant organizations and individual religious leaders permission to operate. Accredited umbrella organizations for each religious group would recommend the licensing of institutions and individual members of the clergy. Another recognized umbrella organization would then either approve or decline licensing the institutions. The groups in opposition stated the proposal’s envisioned regulation of all religious organizations was unconstitutional and unnecessary because existing laws could be used to address governmental concerns of improper religious activities, such as feeding congregants snakes and dangerous substances. In a May 16 open letter to CRL Chairwoman Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, FORSA argued that the proposal’s designation of the CRL as the final arbitrator of religious affairs exceeded its constitutional and self-described mandate as a governmental advisory body. The groups also expressed concern that the bill would prevent religious groups that are independent of mainstream religious faiths and organizations from legally operating in the country.
According to the media, the proposal was prompted by the CRL’s 2016 investigation that revealed some independent church leaders instructed their congregations to eat live snakes, expose their faces to insect repellant, drink gasoline, and pay large sums of money to receive blessings and miracles. The CRL also found that some religious organizations failed to adhere to tax rules and demonstrated a lack of financial transparency. Opponents of the proposal stated the CRL based its investigation and subsequent report that justified the recommendation for legislation on generalizations about alleged abuses. They said the supporting evidence was based on an inadequate number of interviews with religious groups. The Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms – established to oversee the process drawn up by religious and civil organizations that define religious freedoms, rights, and responsibilities of citizens – described the report’s proposals as “the fruit of a poisonous tree.” In October the CRL submitted its report and recommendations for draft legislation to the Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs for review before parliament recessed.
In February and December, the government held public meetings with religious groups, civil society, and NGOs to discuss a draft hate crimes and hate speech bill. The bill, first introduced in October 2016, would criminalize any action or statement motivated by bias or hatred towards an individual based upon his or her ethnic, national, religious, or sexual identity; health status; employment status or type; or physical ability. The bill would provide law enforcement officials and courts increased authority to arrest and punish offenders and would mandate prison sentences of up to three years for first-time offenses. The Ministry of Justice invited public commentary on the draft bill and received more than 77,000 responses from individuals, religious groups, and other organizations. Opponents to the bill, including religious figures, media representatives, and civil society and NGOs, argued the bill’s definition of hate crimes and speech was too vague and could potentially restrict freedom of religion and speech. FORSA expressed concern that the bill’s provisions were “over-broad and unconstitutional” and could punish churches and Christians who spoke out against homosexuality. The Hate Crimes Working Group, a network of civil society groups, stated that existing laws adequately addressed hate speech and the bill, if passed, could have unintended consequences. As of December, the government took no further action on the draft bill, and the draft legislation was expected to be debated in parliament in early 2018, according to media reports.
In January twin brothers Brandon-Lee and Tony-Lee Thulsie appeared in court to face terrorism charges after their 2016 arrest for allegedly planning to attack U.S. and Jewish targets. The Johannesburg High Court postponed their trial to February 20, 2018, to allow for arguments regarding the constitutionality of the Terrorism Act, under which they were arrested.
In August the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town heard a case brought by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) regarding the nonrecognition of Islamic marriages by the state. The WLC stated the failure of legislation to recognize Islamic marriages degraded Muslim women’s rights. The Association of Muslim Women of South Africa and the United Ulama Council of South Africa opposed the WLC case, stating it violated freedom of religion by singling out Islam. According to media sources, the president, the minister of home affairs, and the minister of justice and correctional services all filed papers opposing the WLC on the grounds that Muslim communities in the country did not support the idea of new legislation. The case was pending as of year’s end.
Some prominent individuals were quoted throughout the year making anti-Semitic statements. According to the South African Jewish Report, on June 29, the South African Equality Court ruled that Bongani Masuku, International Relations Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), had to issue a formal apology to the Jewish community for anti-Semitic comments he made in 2009. The COSATU announced its intention to appeal the ruling. In September the Times of Israel reported the South African Jewish Board of Directors filed a lawsuit against Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama after the board said he posted several anti-Semitic messages online. The Equality Court reviewed the case and reportedly dismissed it.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In January unknown individuals vandalized two mosques in the Cape Town region, smearing pig’s blood and leaving a pig’s snout at one of the mosques. As of the end of the year, police had not charged or prosecuted anyone in the case.
The SAJBD recorded 44 anti-Semitic incidents in 2017, compared with 43 in 2016. The incidents included verbal threats and intimidation (7), verbal abuse (15), abusive communications – all mediums (16), and graffiti/offensive slogans (6). The organization also reported members of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee made anti-Semitic comments during Israel Apartheid Week in March. One member said he wanted to kill Jews because “they don’t behave when they are in other people’s countries,” and another member impersonated Hitler and made Nazi-style salutes.
On February 3, the media news service quoted Edward Zuma, son of President Jacob Zuma, as saying that “white fund managers and many more Jewish-based entities” enjoyed preferential treatment from the Public Investment Corporation.
On May 29, a student from Edenvale High School in Johannesburg interrupted a Holocaust-related student theater performance with anti-Semitic statements. The student and his school’s principal apologized for the incident, and the school agreed to work with the Jewish community to improve sensitivity training for students. In August unknown individuals painted anti-Semitic messages and swastikas on several University of Pretoria message boards. The university condemned the incident.
In October during a sermon at Masjid Al-Furqaan in Cape Town, Imam Abduragmaan Alexander addressed the Islamic community, saying: “You have no guts, no courage, no power, and no motivation to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the bloody hands of the Zionist entity.” Imam Alexander further said Palestine and the Al-Aqsa Mosque were crying out, “Nation of Islam, you are a billion Muslims, yet you are unable to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the hands of the oppressive occupying Jews.” Iman Alexander continued to say “never will the Jews or the Christians approve of you until you follow their religion.”
As of December the Equality Court had yet to render a ruling on the 2015 case of Port Elizabeth lawyer Maureen Jansen, who posted anti-Semitic statements on social media.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy representatives met with religious leaders and NGOs, including individuals from the Muslim Judicial Council, Islamic Council of South Africa, the Church of Scientology, the Inner Circle (a Muslim lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex organization), Hindu Maha Sabha, and the SAJBD to discuss the environment for religious freedom and concern over cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. In February a representative from the Office of International Religious Freedom met with representatives from Jewish organizations to discuss anti-Semitism trends in the country and campus anti-Semitism. He also met with CRL, FORSA, and SAHRC representatives to discuss the draft legislation regarding registration and hate crimes and hate speech.
The transitional constitution stipulates separation of religion and state, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides religious groups freedom to worship and assemble, organize themselves, teach, own property, receive financial contributions, communicate and issue publications on religious matters, and establish charitable institutions. In connection with the continuing civil conflict, government and opposition forces reportedly engaged in killings of religious workers, including the killing of five churchgoers by government forces in January. On November 11, army and local police in Tonj State reportedly arrested and physically mistreated at least 150 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The members were released on November 18 after Tonj State Governor Akech Tong Aleu intervened. On March 13, opposition forces in Unity State temporarily detained eight religious aid workers affiliated with Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S.-based, nondenominational evangelical Christian relief organization. In connection with the civil conflict, government and opposition forces continued to loot and burn down churches and religious centers, including the Catholic diocesan pastoral center in Lutaya, which was burned by the army in January. Religious leaders reported the government shut down some Catholic radio programs in its efforts to censor media programs critical of the government.
St. Mary’s Cathedral in Wau sheltered more than 10,000 residents fleeing intense fighting in the town in April. Christian and Muslim religious leaders regularly communicated and coordinated activities, particularly in connection with peacebuilding and humanitarian aid. The South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) issued a statement in August condemning continued violence in the country and emphasized a return to the “path of dialogue.”
U.S. embassy officials met with Advisor on Islamic Affairs Sheikh Juma Saaed Ali in November to discuss the Muslim community’s role, challenges, and outreach in the country’s peacebuilding process. The U.S. Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and embassy representatives promoted religious freedom through discussions and outreach with religious leaders and civil society organizations.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 13 million (July 2017 estimate). The majority of the population is Christian. The Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project report from 2010 estimated Christians make up 60.5 percent of the population, indigenous religions 32.9 percent, and Muslims 6.2 percent. Other religious groups with small populations include the Bahai Faith, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism.
According to the SSCC and the government Bureau of Religious Affairs, the groups that make up the majority of Christians are the Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Sudan Interior, Presbyterian Evangelical, and African Inland Churches. Smaller populations of Eritrean Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also present. Many of those who adhere to indigenous religious beliefs reside in isolated parts of the country; a substantial part of the population in these areas also combines Christian and indigenous practices.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The transitional constitution stipulates separation of religion and state. It prohibits religious discrimination, even if the president declares a state of emergency. It states that all religions are to be treated equally and that religion should not be used for divisive purposes.
The transitional constitution provides for the right of religious groups to worship or assemble freely in connection with any religion or belief, solicit and receive voluntary financial contributions, own property for religious purposes, and establish places of worship. The transitional constitution also provides religious groups the freedom to write, issue, and disseminate religious publications; communicate with individuals and communities in matters of religion at both the national and international levels; teach religion in places “suitable” for these purposes; train, appoint, elect, or designate by succession their religious leaders; and observe religious holidays.
The government requires religious groups to register with the state government and the Ministry for Humanitarian Affairs through the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. Faith-based organizations are required to provide their constitution; a statement of faith documenting their doctrines, beliefs, objectives, and holy book; a list of executive members; and a registration fee of $3,500 (which is charged for all organizations, including faith-based ones). This requirement, however, was not strictly enforced, and many churches operated without registration. International faith-based organizations are required also to provide a copy of a previous registration with another government and a letter from the international organization commissioning its activities in the country.
The transitional constitution specifies the regulation of religious matters within each state is the executive and legislative responsibility of the state government. It establishes the responsibility of government at all levels to protect monuments and places of religious importance from destruction or desecration.
The transitional constitution allows religious groups to establish and maintain “appropriate” faith-based charitable or humanitarian institutions.
The transitional constitution guarantees every citizen access to education without discrimination based on religion.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On November 11, army and local police in Tonj State reportedly arrested and physically mistreated at least 150 members of the local Seventh-day Adventist Church. The members were released on November 18 after Tonj State Governor Akech Tong Aleu summoned Akop County Commissioner Lino Dut Awech and intervened. Media sources and human rights activists reported members of the congregation were harassed, beaten, forced to drink alcohol and smoke tobacco, and denied food and water for three days. A church leader stated he believed the Akop county commissioner ordered the detention of parishioners, reportedly responding to complaints from local chiefs and traditional spiritual leaders known as “spear masters,” for not attending a November 4 youth meeting. The church leader said he could not attend because he was participating in a Sabbath religious service, and he added that traditional chiefs were upset that the Seventh-day Adventist Church converted their sons and daughters to a new religion. The spear masters and traditional chiefs reportedly threatened to kill Seventh-day Adventist members if the church reopened. Religious leaders and human rights activists characterized this as an isolated occurrence.
There were continued reports that in connection with the civil conflict, security forces, opposition forces, and armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition committed killings and other abuses against civilians, including religious aid workers and churchgoers. On March 13, opposition forces in Unity State temporarily detained eight religious aid workers affiliated with Samaritan’s Purse, a U.S.-based evangelical Christian relief organization, and later released them.
In February media sources reported government forces threatened employees of a church bookstore in Juba. Soldiers allegedly removed books they declared critical of the government.
Government and opposition forces reportedly looted or burned down churches and religious centers in various towns around the country, including the Catholic diocesan pastoral center in Lutaya, which Catholic media stated was burned by the army in January. Separately, religious leaders reported the government shut down some Catholic radio programs in its efforts to censor media programs critical of the government.
On March 10, President Salva Kiir held a National Day of Prayer where he asked for “God’s forgiveness and guidance.” Some religious leaders criticized the commemoration, with Catholic Archbishop of Juba Paulino Lukudu Loro calling the event a “political prayer” and “a mockery” amid conflict-related abuses committed by government forces.
Both a Christian representative and a Muslim representative read prayers at most official events, with the government often providing translation from English to Arabic.
Several religious groups were represented in government positions. President Kiir, a Catholic, employed a high-level advisor on religious affairs, Sheikh Juma Saaed Ali, a leader of the Islamic community in the country. Additional Muslim representation in government included at least one governor and 14 members of the 400-member Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA). All principal religious groups were represented in the TNLA.
Although not mandated by the government, religious education was generally included in public secondary school and university curricula. Theoretically, students could attend either a Christian or an Islamic course, and those with no religious affiliation could choose between the two courses. Because of resource constraints, however, some schools only offered education in one course. Christian and Muslim private religious schools set their own religious curriculum without government interference.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Christian and Muslim religious leaders regularly communicated and coordinated activities, particularly around peacebuilding and humanitarian aid. The SSCC, in implementing its Action Plan for Peace, held a series of community-level dialogues throughout the country aimed at facilitating mutual understanding and respect among various groups, including religious groups. According to observers, the dialogues were well received and enjoyed wide participation among various faiths and ethnic groups. The SSCC and the Islamic Council served as hubs for coordination of the peacebuilding events. Churches were often used as shelters for those seeking to escape violence. For example, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Wau sheltered more than 10,000 residents fleeing intense fighting in the town in April.
Religious leaders worked together across denominations to advance peace. The SSCC issued a statement in August condemning continued violence in the country and emphasized a return to the “path of dialogue.” Christian and Muslim leaders expressed their willingness to assist with the peacebuilding process. In May Pope Francis canceled plans to visit during the year due to security concerns.
Leaders from all major religious groups attended ceremonial public events, including the opening of the National Assembly and Independence Day ceremonies.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials met with Advisor on Islamic Affairs Sheikh Juma Saaed Ali in November to discuss the Muslim community’s engagement in the peacebuilding process. The U.S. Ambassador regularly participated in discussions in Juba with leaders of the South Sudan Islamic Council, South Sudan Council of Churches, Episcopal Church of Sudan, Presbyterian Church, United Methodist Church, and Catholic Church on faith-based peace initiatives, implementation of the 2015 peace agreement, and religious tolerance. Embassy officials expressed concern to faith-based leaders regarding conflict-related violence and the recent detention and mistreatment of Seventh-day Adventist churchgoers in Tonj State.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and states the government shall consider the religious beliefs of society and form cooperative relations with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious faiths. The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See that grants the Roman Catholic Church special benefits not available to other groups. Organizations representing Protestants, Muslims, and Jews also have agreements with the state, providing them with benefits. Other groups lack agreements but receive some benefits if registered with the government. Registration is not required. In November the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) issued its 2016 annual report on religious freedom, which cited concerns of religious groups over such issues with the government as equal treatment and access to state institutions, access to religious education in schools, and responses to attacks on religious sentiment and incitement to hatred. As of July the government had granted citizenship to approximately 1,091 descendants of Jews the country expelled in 1492. A court upheld a ban on the wearing of the hijab by prisoners. Protestant religious leaders said regional and local governments applied unfair regulations, which could potentially close some churches or prevent the opening of others. The Muslim community in Getafe had to repurpose its mosque for non-worship activities after the city threatened to close it for building code violations. The Muslim and Jewish communities reported progress with municipalities over cemetery access; several cities signed agreements to expand or establish new cemeteries for these communities, although none had implemented the agreements by year’s end. Leaders of other religious groups said the state favored Catholicism, allowing citizens to allocate part of their taxes to the Catholic Church or charities, but not other religions, and paying pensions to retired Catholic priests. In November the Supreme Court ruled the state should relax government pension eligibility requirements for Protestant pastors. The decision applied to Protestants only, not other religious groups. The MOJ began to compile a list of recognized religious clergy authorized to perform legal ceremonies such as marriages. The government began outreach to Muslim leaders and youth to combat radicalization and religious discrimination and promote religious freedom and integration. The Barcelona city government initiated a program to combat anti-Islamic sentiment, the first such program in the country.
There were incidents of assaults, threats, and incitement to violence against Muslims and Jews during the year, including attacks on four Moroccan children in two separate incidents, which resulted in injuries. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Observatory for Religious Freedom and Conscience (OLRC), there were 100 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year, eight fewer than in 2016, 74 percent of which were against Christians. Crimes included three incidents of violence, threats, and vandalism. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) documented 47 incidents of hate crimes with religious motivations in 2016, compared with 70 in 2015. Citizens’ Platform against Islamophobia, an NGO, reported 573 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, compared with 278 the previous year. There were reports of anti-Semitic discrimination at universities, and anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements in social media and public speech continued. There were reports of vandalism of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic facilities; Islamic facilities were particular targets after August 17-18 terrorist attacks in Catalonia. The government prosecuted several cases of religiously motivated hate crimes that occurred in the previous year.
U.S. embassy and consulate officials met regularly with the MOJ’s Office of Religious Affairs and the governmental Pluralism and Coexistence Foundation (the Foundation). Topics discussed included anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, anticlerical sentiment, the failure of some regional governments to comply with legal requirements pertaining to equal treatment of religious groups, concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities, access to religious education and cemeteries for religious groups, and pensions for clergy. The consulate general in Barcelona supported the creation of a national network of young Muslim leaders that discussed problems of identity, relations with security forces, prevention of radicalization, Islamic education, and other issues important to Muslim youth. In June the embassy hosted an iftar at which the Charge d’Affaires introduced the new network to national government officials. The embassy supported the formation of a group of former participants of U.S. exchange programs, which included Muslims, members of the security forces, and academics, and helped the group win a Department of State grant in July to improve government-Muslim community relations, including promoting respect for religious freedom and reducing religious discrimination. As part of the initiative, the group held the first of seven planned sessions around the country on October 20-21 in Madrid, and held roundtable discussions at a conference on December 18 at the Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 49.0 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a survey conducted in July by the governmental Center for Sociological Research, 68.8 percent of respondents identified themselves as Catholic, and 2.2 percent as followers of other religious groups. In addition, 15.7 percent described themselves as “nonbelievers,” 10.2 percent as atheists, and the remaining 3.1 percent did not answer the question.
The (Catholic) Episcopal Conference of Spain estimates there are 32.6 million Catholics. The Federation of Evangelical Religious Entities (FEREDE) estimates there are 1.7 million Protestants, 900,000 of whom are immigrants. The Union of Islamic Communities of Spain (UCIDE), the largest member organization of the Islamic Commission of Spain (CIE), estimates there are 1.9 million Muslims, while other Islamic groups estimate a population of up to two million. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain (FCJE) estimates there are 40,000 Jews. According to the Episcopal Orthodox Assembly, there are 900,000 Orthodox Christians; the Jehovah’s Witnesses report 113,000 members; the Federation of Buddhist Communities estimates there are 85,000 Buddhists; and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) cites 54,000 members. Other religious groups include Christian Scientists, other Christian groups, Bahais (approximately 12,000), Scientologists (11,000 members), and Hindus. The regions of Catalonia, Andalusia, and Madrid, and the exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa contain the highest percentage of non-Christians, nearly 50 percent in each of those two cities.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion and guarantees freedom of religion and worship for individuals and communities, but allows limits on expression if “necessary to maintain public order.” According to the Foundation, reasons would include overcrowding in small facilities or public spaces. A law restricts public protest, but authorities have not used it or the constitutional limits on expression against religious groups.
The constitution states no one may be compelled to testify about his or her religion or beliefs. The constitution also states, “No religion shall have a state character;” but “public authorities shall take into account the religious beliefs of Spanish society and consequently maintain appropriate cooperative relations with the Catholic Church and other denominations.” The Catholic Church is the only religious group explicitly mentioned in the constitution.
The government does not require religious groups to register, but registering confers religious groups with certain legal benefits. Groups registered in the MOJ’s Registry of Religious Entities have the right to autonomy; may buy, rent, and sell property; and may act as a legal entity in civil proceedings. Registration entails completing forms available on the MOJ’s website and providing notarized documentation of the foundational and operational statutes of the religious group, its legal representatives, territorial scope, religious purposes, and address. Any persons or groups have the right to practice their religion whether or not registered as a religious entity.
Registration with the MOJ and notorio arraigo (“deeply rooted” or permanent) status allows groups to establish bilateral cooperation agreements with the state. The government has a bilateral agreement with the Holy See, which is executed in part by the Episcopal Conference. The government also has cooperation agreements with FEREDE, which represents Protestants, CIE, which represents Muslims, and FCJE, which represents Jews. These agreements are legally binding and provide the religious groups with certain tax exemptions, the ability to buy and sell property, open a house of worship, and conduct other legal business; grant civil validity to the weddings they perform; and permit them to place teachers in schools and chaplains in hospitals, the military, and prisons. Groups with cooperation agreements are also eligible for independently administered government grants.
The agreement with the Holy See covers legal, educational, cultural, and economic affairs; religious observance by members of the armed forces; and the military service of clergy and members of religious orders. The later cooperative agreements with FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE cover the same issues.
Registered groups who wish to sign cooperative agreements with the state must acquire notorio arraigo status through the MOJ. To achieve this status, groups must have an unspecified “relevant” number of followers; a presence in the country for at least 30 years; and a “level of diffusion” that the MOJ considers demonstrates a “social presence,” not further defined. Groups must also submit documentation demonstrating the group is religious in nature to the MOJ’s Office of Religious Affairs, which maintains the Register of Religious Entities.
The Episcopal Conference deals with the government on behalf of the entire Catholic community. Per the state’s 1979 agreement with the Holy See, individual Catholic dioceses and parishes are not required to register with the government. In addition to FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Federation of Buddhist Communities (FCBE), Mormons, and the Orthodox Church are registered religions with notorio arraigo status. New religious communities may register directly with the MOJ, or religious associations may register on their behalf.
If the MOJ considers an applicant for registration not to be a religious group, the group may be included in the Register of Associations maintained by the MOI. Inclusion in the Register of Associations grants legal status, but offers no other benefits. Registration itself simply lists the association and its history in the government’s database. Registration as an association is a precursor to requesting that the government deem the association to be of public benefit, which affords the same tax benefits as charities, including exemption from income tax and taxes on contributions. For such a classification, the association must be registered for two years and maintain a net positive fiscal balance.
The government funds religious services within the prison system for Catholic and Muslim groups. Examples of religious services include Sunday Catholic Mass, Catholic confession, and Friday Muslim prayer. The cooperation agreements of FCJE and FEREDE with the government do not include this provision; these groups provide religious services in prisons but at their own expense. Other religious groups registered as religious entities with the MOJ may provide services at their own expense during visiting hours upon the request of prisoners.
The regions of Madrid and Catalonia have agreements with several religious groups which have accords with the national government that permit activities such as providing religious assistance in hospitals and prisons under regional jurisdiction. According to the MOJ, these subnational agreements may not contradict the principles of the federal agreements, which take precedence. The Catalan government has agreements with Catholics, FEREDE, and CIE. The Madrid region has agreements with Catholics, FEREDE, FCJE, and CIE.
The government guarantees religious workers of groups with cooperative agreements with the state access to refugee centers, known as Foreign Internment Centers, so that these groups may provide direct assistance to their followers in the centers. According to the MOJ, other religious practitioners may enter the internment centers upon request.
Military rules and prior signed agreements allow religious military funerals for Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, should the family of the deceased request it. Other religious groups may conduct religious funerals upon request.
The government recognizes religious marriages for all religious communities that have notorio arraigo status, not only those that have a specific agreement with the state.
Religious groups must apply to local governments for a license to open a place of worship, as with other establishments intended for public use. Requirements for licenses vary from municipality to municipality. The MOJ states documentation required is usually the same as other business establishments seeking to open a venue for public use and includes information such as architectural plans and maximum capacity. Religious groups must also inform the MOJ after opening new places of worship.
Local governments are obligated to consider requests for use of public land to open a place of worship. If a municipality decides to deny such a request after weighing factors such as availability and value added to the community, the city council must explain its decision to the requesting party.
As outlined in agreements with religious groups, the government provides funding for salaries for teachers for Catholic, Protestant, and Islamic instruction in public schools when at least 10 students request it. The Jewish community is also eligible for government funding for Jewish instructors but has declined public school Judaism education. The courses are not mandatory. Those students who elect not to take religious education courses are required to take an alternative course covering general social, cultural, and religious themes. The development of curricula and the financing of teachers for religious education is the responsibility of the regional governments, with the exception of Andalusia, Aragon, the Canary Islands, Cantabria, and the two autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla, which leave the curricula and financing of education to the national government in accordance with their individual regional statutes. Religious groups that have an agreement with the state are responsible for providing a list of approved teachers for their particular religion. Either the national Ministry of Education (MOE) or the regional entity responsible for education certifies teachers’ credentials.
Autonomous regions develop the requirements for religious education instructors. For example, prospective instructors must provide personal data, proof that the educational authority of the region where they are applying to work has never dismissed them, a degree as required by the region, and any other requirement as stipulated by the religious association to which they correspond. The associations are required to provide a list of approved instructors to the government. MOE-approved guidelines, prepared by the CIE, stress “moderate Islam” in worship practices, with emphasis on plurality, understanding, religious tolerance, conflict resolution, and coexistence. Instructors are also required to have a certificate of training in Islamic education.
Catholic clergy may include time spent on missions abroad in calculations for social security, and to claim retirement pension credit for a maximum of 38.5 years of service. Protestant clergy are eligible to receive social security benefits, including health insurance and a government-provided retirement pension with a maximum credit of 15 years of service, but pension eligibility requirements for these clergy are stricter than for Catholic clergy. The law allows Protestant ministers to count towards retirement time worked prior to 1999, the date of a prior decree, only if these pastors adjusted their status in 1999 and does not allow Protestant pastors to claim retirement credit for time worked abroad. Protestant pastors must also pay back pension contributions in one lump sum rather than via monthly salary deductions as Catholic clergy do. Clergy from the Russian Orthodox Church, CIE, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are also eligible for social security benefits. The benefits for clergy from these groups depend on the specific terms of separate social security agreements that each of these groups negotiated with the state.
The penal code definition of hate crimes includes acts of “humiliation or disrespect” against victims because of their religion, with penalties of one to four years in jail. By law authorities may also investigate and prosecute criminal offenses committed by neo-Nazi groups as “terrorist crimes.” Genocide denial is a crime if it incites violent attitudes, such as aggressive, threatening behavior or language.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: In November the MOJ issued its 2016 annual report on religious freedom in the country, which had the stated objective of gathering data on problems as a starting point to resolving them. The report cited concerns of religious groups, including seeking authorization to provide services in hospitals, prisons, refugee centers, and the military and equal treatment in establishing and retaining places of worship. Several groups complained about obstacles to providing religious education in schools. Groups said they received unequal benefits and treatment from the government. Multiple groups asked the government to be more responsive to offenses against religious sentiment and incitement to hatred. FEREDE criticized the report because it lacked a plan of action. The Foundation worked to educate local governments on their responsibilities towards minority religious groups. Between January and July the government granted citizenship to 1,091 descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in 1492. A court upheld a regulation banning prisoners from wearing the hijab. Protestant leaders expressed concerns about difficulties in obtaining permits to operate or build places of worship. Jews and Muslims had still not obtained access to additional land for cemeteries, although they said they had made some progress. Muslims stated there were not enough Muslim religious teachers in public schools and cited discrimination against women wearing hijabs. Religious minorities called for the government to allow their members to allocate a portion of their taxes to their churches in the same way that Catholics could. The MOJ began compiling a list of recognized religious clergy who could perform religious acts with civic impact, such as marriages. The MOI launched an outreach effort to Muslims to seek their collaboration in combating religious discrimination and integrating the Muslim community.
The interagency Religious Freedom Advisory Committee, led by the minister of justice, continued to hold plenary and standing committee sessions to review issues pertaining to religious freedom in the country. The committee comprised representatives from the Office of the Presidency; the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Finance, Interior, Education, Employment, and Health; academics; and religious leaders from the Catholic Church, FEREDE, FCJE, CIE, the Mormon Church, the Federation of Buddhist Communities, and the Orthodox Church. It had working groups to address the following issues: the annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country, issued by the MOJ and approved by the committee; the establishment of places of worship; the scheduling of school exams on religious holidays and establishment of dress codes in public administration employment; cemeteries for minority faiths; and religious dietary requirements.
FEREDE executive secretary Mariano Blazquez said he was the only committee member to withhold his signature on the 2015 and 2016 reports by the MOJ on the state of religious freedom in the country. Blazquez said he had withheld his signature because the reports lacked a plan of action. Citing Article 9 of the constitution, he stated that the state failed to protect the liberty and equality of the individual by not acting on the problems described in the report. FEREDE, according to the religious freedom report, recommended the committee undertake its own analysis of the state of religious freedom in the country and make its own proposals for advancing religious freedom. Commenting on the 2015 report, the director of the NGO Movement Against Intolerance, Esteban Ibarra, said the government attributed little importance to the commission due to internal strife within the group. A Foundation representative, however, stated the government valued the contributions of the commission.
The Barcelona Prosecutor Against Hate Crimes and Discrimination, Miguel Angel Aguilar, distributed a manual on investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, including religiously motivated crimes, for the Catalan region’s penal judges and prosecutors and to all the hate crimes prosecutors in the country. The manual defined hate crimes and the obstacles to prosecuting such crimes and cited best practices. It called for more training, greater institutional coordination, the updating of protocols, and the tracking of statistics. Officials used the manual in administering training for judges, legal aides, law enforcement, academics, and others.
Movement Against Intolerance Director Ibarra stated authorities should apply the criminal code pertaining to hate crimes, including religiously motivated crimes, more widely. He criticized public prosecutors and police, saying they were not prepared to combat intolerance.
On November 7, the Madrid Municipal Police Diversity Management Unit opened a headquarters office, staffed by 32 agents, to respond to victims and pursue criminal complaints related to hate crimes, including religiously motivated crimes. The launch was accompanied by an awareness campaign to fight hate crimes in the capital and encourage victims to report them.
The Foundation informed local governments of the rights of minority religious groups and the governments’ responsibilities toward those groups, especially in cases of local regulations or restrictions interfering with the right to worship. It also provided local governments with research about religious communities, met with religious leaders, fostered dialogue between municipalities and local religious leaders, and provided lists of local places of worship and religious cemeteries for Jewish and Islamic burial. The Foundation completed rounds of legal assistance with eight municipalities during the year, including the cities of Santander, Logrono, Albacete, Guadalajara, and Toledo. Movement Against Intolerance Director Ibarra described the Foundation’s role as “weak,” suggesting it could do more to combat anti-Islamic sentiment with public information campaigns.
FCJE Director Carolina Aisen reported implementation of the law allowing descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in 1492 the right to gain citizenship ran more smoothly during the year, following prior technical problems with the online application. According to Aisen, who said she met monthly with the MOJ to discuss progress, 1,091 Sephardi descendants had obtained citizenship between January and July, compared with only one in all of 2016. Approximately 5,000 Sephardis had started the application process. Applicants were from more than 100 countries, with the bulk of recent applicants coming from Venezuela. Other applicants were from Israel, other countries in Latin America, and the United States. The Jewish community said burdensome financial and administrative requirements, such as a requirement to self-fund a trip to the country for the personal interview, reduced the response to the law. Aisen said MOJ officials had assured her the law would be extended beyond its scheduled 2019 expiration date.
The Office of Religious Affairs continued to maintain an online portal for information about registered minority religious groups to aid new immigrants or citizens moving into a community to find his or her locally registered religious community and place of worship. The MOJ reported the tool provided no personally identifiable information and abided by the information protection law.
Religious groups reported progress with state and local governments to accommodate the needs of religious minorities in hospitals, the military, and public cemeteries, according to representatives of FCJE, CIE and UCIDE’s Andalusian Observatory, and FEREDE. According to the MOJ’s 2016 report on religious freedom, however, FEREDE, FCJE, and the Romanian Orthodox Church all called on the government to guarantee or facilitate access for all religious groups so they could provide religious services in such locations as hospitals, penitentiaries, refugee centers, and in the armed forces.
In July the National Court prohibited a Muslim prisoner, Soukaina Aboudrar, from wearing the hijab in jail. The court stated the prohibition did not violate her right to religious freedom. Citing security concerns at penitentiaries, the court said the hijab “…only leaves visible a reduced part of the face, which makes identification difficult, going against security protocols, and the possibility of hiding prohibited objects.” The court also based the prohibition in part on “the use made by the prisoner of such garment as a jihadist claim in the work of radicalization of other inmates of her own religion, as appears from the reports.” The court left the door open to wearing a veil smaller than a hijab. The case set a precedent for similar cases that might arise in the future, according to media reports. In an agreement with prosecutors in July, Aboudrar pled guilty to being a member of ISIS and received a three-year prison sentence.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, several groups cited local government restrictions on their ability to proselytize or manifest their faith in public spaces. FEREDE said religious group members had received fines and penalties for carrying out religious activities in public or distributing leaflets with religious content. According to FEREDE, city councils were increasingly willing to restrict these actions through their municipal bylaws. As an example, it cited the Huelva City Council, which in 2016 excluded religious bodies from using public municipal spaces. In addition, according to the report, Mormons said their missionaries faced obstacles in disseminating their ideas through banners or stalls at book fairs. Jehovah’s Witnesses cited some problems in preaching in public spaces, although they said the number of city councils placing obstacles had decreased.
Protestants stated again that city governments imposed burdensome and unequal regulations on religious groups seeking licenses or permits for places of worship. FEREDE Executive Secretary Blazquez said obtaining city permits to construct new churches or keep current churches open, especially in Madrid, remained a challenge. FEREDE estimated that about half its places of worship did not have a permit because the process of obtaining one was so difficult. For example, FEREDE stated its churches must meet the same soundproofing building codes as nightclubs. Blazquez said this requirement was too burdensome for new churches and put existing ones at risk of closure.
The government’s report on religious freedom cited a call by FEREDE for the government to take into account the needs of religious groups when engaging in urban planning to ensure all religious groups received equal treatment in the establishment of places of worship. According to the report, FCJE asked for clear norms to guarantee religious groups the right to open places of worship, while CIE called for the government to take steps to overcome obstacles to the opening of mosques. The report also stated FCBE outlined a need for legislative action to protect minority religious groups from forced expulsion from, or expropriation of, places of worship.
Muslim and Jewish communities reported improved collaboration with municipalities over cemetery access and establishment, although no new cemeteries were opened or expanded to include access during the year. CIE negotiated a 108,000 square-foot parcel of the Carabanchel Cemetery in Madrid for Islamic burials, and was in final negotiations at year’s end regarding maintenance costs before interment could begin. CIE reported Muslims could already receive a religious burial at Grinon Cemetery in Madrid. CIE reported there still were no Islamic cemeteries in the regions of Galicia and Extremadura. FCJE reached agreement with the cities of Valencia and Alicante under which the cities would provide Jewish cemeteries. FCBE President Luis Morente said an agreement reached with the government in 2016 for refrigerating bodies prior to Tibetan burials in order to abide by health regulations was functioning well.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, FCJE said there was still room for improvement in its access to parcels of land for use as burial plots, and the CIE called for regulations governing burials without coffins and the granting of land parcels for Islamic burials in municipal cemeteries.
In July the city of Getafe threatened to close the local mosque for building code violations, citing overcrowding on prayer days because of the growth of the Muslim community. After negotiations with CIE and the Foundation, the city and local Muslim community agreed to repurpose the building for activities other than worship, such as religious education, where participants would not exceed the maximum building capacity. Muslims were reportedly worshipping at another location in the city.
The Catalan Muslim community stated the Barcelona city government supported the building of a mosque, unlike in previous years, when there was both local and neighborhood opposition to a mosque. The Muslim community, however, lacked the necessary funding. Both city and regional government officials said that, as with other religious groups, the Muslim community was responsible for raising the necessary funding to buy land and build the mosque and submitting a request to the city.
Regional commitments to provide religious education to minorities, as prescribed in 1992 agreements, remained problematic, according to Gabriel Jairodin Riaza, the author of the annual report on Islamophobia in Spain by the Andalusian Observatory, an NGO under UCIDE auspices. He said that whether a region fulfilled its obligation to provide religious education to children depended on the will of local politicians. Riaza also stated that some politicians deliberately stalled Muslim initiatives by, for example, failing to contract Islamic education instructors.
Jairodin stated the fundamental problem with the regional governments’ failure to provide Islamic education instructors was difficulty in implementing the national protocol for collecting the minimum of 10 requests from parents for religious education. The NGO Al Ihsan Women’s Association in Melilla reportedly met with the provincial education director in the city in 2016 to discuss religious education. It then educated Muslim parents of their rights under the law to request religious education in secondary schools. The NGO’s director, Mimuntz Mohamed Hammu, said more than 10 requests were submitted in each of the city’s seven secondary schools; in every case, the school refused to receive the letters, stating it did not have necessary authorization from the provincial education office of the MOE. Mohamed said the provincial education director had not yet responded to a formal letter of complaint.
Federal and regional governments employed 56 Islamic education instructors nationwide, according to CIE, which certified teachers. CIE stated this number only allowed for religious education for 20 percent of the Muslim students whose parents desired such education for their children. CIE again emphasized the need to extend Islamic education to secondary schools, targeting adolescent Muslims, who it said otherwise sought answers about Islam on the internet and might become susceptible to radical influences. CIE Secretary Mohamed Ajana commended the region of Castille and Leon for adding five Islamic education instructors during the year. The MOJ said it worked with CIE to intercede with regional governments that were not providing Islamic education instructors, helping to forge agreements that avoided costly and lengthy court battles.
On November 3, a Muslim family won an appeal of a suit filed in 2016 on behalf of a group of Muslim students against the region of La Rioja for not providing Islamic education in public schools. The La Rioja High Court ruled the regional education authority was required to provide religious education to the students, overturning a lower court decision in April in favor of the local government, which stated the CIE had failed to provide a list of instructors. Muslim leaders stated the region of La Rioja had long opposed providing Islamic education in public schools. Before the higher court decision in November, the MOJ said it had mediated between the CIE and the La Rioja education counselor after the April ruling. It stated the region had expressed willingness to incorporate Islamic religious instruction in schools. The region would pay for the instructors and use the national government’s Islamic education curriculum.
The MOJ’s report on religious freedom also cited complaints by several religious groups, including the Catholic Church, FEREDE, FCJE, and CIE, about the inability to provide religious education and the integration of religious teachers in schools.
Holocaust education in secondary school curricula continued to expand in accordance with an MOE mandate contained in two existing royal decrees. The subject was included in fourth-year compulsory geography and history class and first-year contemporary history of the world class. Jewish community members, however, described the Holocaust education provided in public schools as inadequate, especially in regions outside Madrid. Regional governments compiled Holocaust and Sephardi history curricula with input from the FCJE and the MOE.
Approximately 40 teachers from across Spain whose responsibilities included Holocaust and Sephardi education traveled to Jerusalem in July using funds from the state-supported cultural center “Centro Sefarad-Israel”, the MOE, and the Madrid regional government. They completed coursework at the study center of the Israel Museum of the Holocaust to enhance their classroom instruction. Centro Sefarad-Israel said more than 600 instructors had taken part in the program.
FEREDE said that because of the stricter pension eligibility requirements for Protestant ministers, no retired Protestant clergy member had yet been able to access a government pension. In November the Supreme Court ruled in favor of FEREDE in a suit the group had filed in 2015, protesting the unequal pension eligibility requirements. The court decreed FEREDE clergy should be eligible for pensions under the same terms as Catholic priests. The ruling was not retroactive to clergy who were already retired and applied only to Protestant ministers. FEREDE said it hoped government promises to modify the law in the wake of the Supreme Court decision would rectify the pension problem for both its retired and active clergy.
Representatives of FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE stated they did not receive all of the benefits to which they were entitled under their cooperative agreements with the government. Mormons, according to the MOJ report on religious freedom, said groups with notorio arraigo status, but which had no cooperative agreement with the government, did not receive the same benefits, such as tax exemptions and the right to provide religious assistance and instruction in public institutions, as religious groups that had concluded such agreements. FCBE and the Romanian Orthodox Church also noted the disparate treatment in tax exemptions, according to the report.
Protestant representatives stated the government favored Catholicism over other religious groups in various practices, including by permitting citizens to allocate 0.7 percent of their taxes due to the Church. The tax designation yielded an estimated 250 million euros ($300 million) in annual donations to the Catholic Church, according to news reports.
Equal opportunity to allocate a portion of an individual’s taxes to a chosen religious group remained an issue of debate; several religious groups, including Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and Mormons, continued to express their desire to have their groups included on the tax form so they could be eligible to receive the 0.7 percent allocation from taxpayers. In June during the Second University Conference of the Association of Young Researchers on Religious Sciences, representatives of FEREDE and FCJE stated they did not oppose the voluntary income tax payments to the Catholic Church, but would like to see the same benefit provided to minority religious groups. FEREDE Executive Secretary Blazquez said, “It is better to collect through the income taxes box than through a direct assignment. Evangelicals [i.e., Protestants] do not want that money to be used to pay pastors’ salaries, but for solidarity activities.” FEREDE said possible uses of such revenue could include support for a food bank, residences for victims of violence or refugees, worker training programs, and social reinsertion programs for ex-convicts. Isaac Querub, president of FCJE, said, “I do not mind the tax allocation to the [Catholic] Church, since 90 percent of Spaniards are Catholics, but the same allocation should be studied for Jews.”
Religious groups said government support for social programs through the Foundation was inadequate. Religious representative bodies, including FEREDE, CIE, and FCJE, indicated that they depended on governmental support through the Foundation (70 percent of their operating budget or more) to cover administrative and infrastructure costs. The Foundation had a budget of 1.4 million euros ($1.7 million) to support religious groups. Of the total budget, 900,000 euros ($1.1 million) went to religious communities for social projects, down from 992,000 euros ($1.2 million) in 2016. Most of the grants (780,000 euros, or $936,000) went to the federations representing religious groups with agreements with the state (Jews, Muslims, and Protestants). Another 120,000 euros ($144,000), down from 200,000 euros ($240,000) in 2016, was divided into small grants of less than 5,000 euros ($6,000) awarded to dozens of local religious associations. According to the Foundation director, the 2016 grants were unusually large because they included carryover funds from winning projects not executed in 2015. Foundation grants to minority religious groups also funded projects promoting tolerance and dialogue, conferences on religious diversity, research about religious minorities, and cultural projects to increase knowledge of minority religious groups.
In June the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that certain tax exemptions to the Catholic Church might constitute unlawful state aid. The case involved a municipal tax refund a Catholic school was seeking in connection with the construction of a school building. The congregation filed a legal suit after local tax authorities denied the refund, and the courts referred the case to the ECJ. The ECJ declared that the tax exemption would use state resources to give a selective economic advantage to the congregation running the school. It referred the case back to Spanish courts to determine whether the exemption would meet the minimum threshold for unlawful state aid.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, the CIE asked the government to take steps to prevent discrimination against some Muslim women, particularly in schools and in the workplace, for wearing the hijab.
Members of the large Muslim community in the North African exclave of Ceuta reported widespread discrimination. A Muslim merchant in the Muslim-majority neighborhood of Principe opined that Catholics had limited the opportunities and influence of minorities so they could “take back Spain for Spaniards.” Representatives from the federal and city governments denied there was discrimination against Muslims. One government official said the two Muslim-majority political parties in Ceuta used a message of exclusion and victimization to rally supporters and extract political concessions.
In August the MOJ began working with religious entities to compile a list of clergy, including imams, to be included within a Register of Religious Entities. This would identify religious officials from all groups empowered to perform religious acts with civil effects, such as marriages. The new registry, completed in November, was a voluntary, comprehensive, and private list of all clergy belonging to religions with notorio arraigo status, according to the MOJ. The MOJ added that while contribution to the list was voluntary, groups were required to submit the names of clergy authorized to perform religious weddings with civil effects. CIE secretary Ajana said the list would protect believers by ensuring that imams were registered and the marriages they officiated were legal.
On September 6, the MOJ again denied the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Pastafarianism, recognition as a religious group. The group took its case against the MOJ to the national court, which has national jurisdiction and hears cases affecting more than one region. At year’s end the case was pending. The Office of Religious Affairs and the Foundation said the Church had never requested a meeting.
The Attorney General for Hate Crimes launched an investigation in January and initiated a legal process in October to determine the criminal responsibility of municipalities that supported the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, considered by FCJE as an Anti-Semitic movement. In November a district court in Seville issued a writ of interim injunction against the City Council of La Roda de Andalucia, suspending its participation in BDS, which it had joined in 2014. The court’s injunction was the result of a suit brought by the NGO The Lawfare Project in Spain.
On January 26, politicians on the city council of Valencia voted down a BDS motion introduced by the Valencia en Comu coalition. The anti-BDS NGO Action and Communication about the Middle East had told the council that participating in BDS proposals was illegal, based on convictions against those participating in similar actions in several other municipalities. Xeraco, a town of 6,000 inhabitants near Valencia, was under investigation by local prosecutors for BDS support. On January 26, Judicial Court 10 of Valencia halted Xeraco’s Israel boycott.
The Parliament of Catalonia approved a motion July 27 requesting the regional government to submit within 90 days an action plan to combat anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Semitism. The government had not presented the plan by year’s end. Based on a 2016 report on the religious practices of Muslim communities in Barcelona, Mayor Ada Colau and the city administration announced a “Plan of Action against Islamophobia” on January 17 to address rising anti-Muslim sentiment. As part of the plan, the first of its kind in the country, municipal authorities conducted seminars and training and published educational materials to sensitize the population to anti-Muslim sentiment and its impact. The plan also outlined a communications campaign, in partnership with Muslim communities, to highlight anti-Islamic sentiment as a form of discrimination, but the city had not launched that campaign by year’s end.
In July the MOJ, the Foundation, and the Center for Intelligence Against Terrorism and Organized Crime (CITCO) held their first meeting with CIE leadership to explain the government’s National Plan Against Radicalization (PNCR). Although the central government announced the PNCR in 2015, it had implemented little programming under the plan since its passage, relying instead on local municipalities to implement their own counter-radicalization and community engagement measures with guidance from CITCO. The CIE offered to collaborate on radicalization detection and on the plan’s implementation, specifically offering religious sensitivity training to help rectify what it described as racial profiling by police at the local level. CIE Secretary Ajana said security forces often relied erroneously on aspects of physical appearance such as a beard, or the wearing of a hijab, as indicators of radicalization. By year’s end, the government had not responded to CIE’s offer to provide sensitivity training related to the PNCR. CIE confirmed it had longstanding programs to conduct such training for new Civil Guard cadets and UN Peacekeepers before their deployment.
On September 9, representatives from MOJ, the Foundation, and CITCO met with approximately 30 young Muslims in Madrid to discuss problems in the Muslim community and to explain the PNCR to Muslim youth. An MOJ official and the Foundation’s director said Muslim youth were able to share their opinions about the PNCR and discuss problems related to anti-Islamic sentiment, religious freedom, and preventing radicalization in their communities. The group included men and women ages 18-30 and converts to Islam. The CIE president later said he believed such meetings would be more effective if they targeted all youth, not just Muslim youth.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, FEREDE and FCJE called for greater neutrality on the part of the national and local governments in conducting certain official activities, for example by not organizing Catholic state funerals. FCBE called for better training of civil servants pertaining to the treatment of religious minorities under the law, for example in the registration of religious marriages. The report cited concerns by the Catholic Church of acts by local governments the Church considered to be anti-Catholic, for example, a prohibition against the celebration by police of a local patron saint’s feast day or the cancellation of religious festivities or limitations on Catholic liturgical acts.
On October 2, the national government, in collaboration with Menendez Pelayo International University, held a celebration in Cuenca to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of a 1992 state pact with leaders of the three principal minority religions: Judaism, Islam, and Protestantism. The all-day ceremony and workshops included participation by the government and religious leaders, including a roundtable discussing how to fully execute the 1992 accords and best practices in ensuring religious freedom.
In April Criminal Court 16 of Barcelona convicted Barcelona bookstore owner Pedro Varela of intellectual property crimes for selling Mein Kampf without authorization from the state of Bavaria, Germany. The court sentenced Varela to six months in prison and ordered him to pay Bavaria 67,637 euros ($81,200), the total profit obtained from the sale of the book. Varela had edited and sold more than 4,300 copies of the book between 1997 and 2010 through his bookstore in Barcelona and other establishments in the country and abroad. Authorities continued to investigate Varela on criminal charges that he sold books promoting religious hatred and discrimination. Authorities had arrested Varela and closed down his bookshop and websites in 2016, the first time the government had acted against a business in connection with religious hate crime charges. The judge and Barcelona Prosecutor Against Hate Crimes and Discrimination Miguel Angel Aguilar called Varela an active neo-Nazi. Varela remained free pending an appeal of his intellectual property violation conviction.
According to FCJE Director Aisen, while membership in ultra-right parties had not increased, the parties had gradually expanded their online and public presence, including through public meetings, marches, and statements in the press. She said that even though they had gradually increased incidents of hate speech – which included propagating anti-Semitic hate speech, writing, and cartoons through social media – her organization still viewed the parties as marginal. She said far-left parties were generally intolerant of the role of religion in any aspect of public life. Aisen emphasized the connection between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism. She stated, however, that politicians had reduced their casual use of historical Spanish phrases that were critical of Jews. She added that police generally pursued violators of laws against religiously motivated hate speech.
According to the MOJ’s report on religious freedom, the Catholic Church stated the government was not responding to a growing number of attacks on Catholic religious sentiments as called for by law, while CIE recommended the government take measures to combat an increase in offenses against religious sentiment and hate crimes. The report also cited FEREDE’s call on the government to pay greater attention to a growing number of cases of offenses and incitement to hatred against Christianity, many of which involved vandalism, but that the government did not classify as religiously motivated, according to FEREDE.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: OLRC reported 100 hate crimes against Christians, Jews, and Muslims during the year, including three incidents of violence and 41 of vandalism, compared with 107 hate crimes in 2016, of which three involved violence and 39 vandalism. The MOI reported 47 hate crimes with religious motivation in 2016. NGO Citizens’ Platform against Islamophobia recorded 573 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, an increase from previous years. In June police detained a woman for encouraging attacks against Jews on social media, and in December a court convicted two men of beating a pregnant woman wearing a niqab in Barcelona in 2016. Anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic discourse was prevalent in social media and public speech. In August more than 2,000 persons participated in a demonstration organized by Catalan Muslims to condemn terrorism.
OLRC reported 100 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year (eight fewer than in 2016), of which 74 were against Christians, 14 against Muslims, 11 against Jews, and one against believers in general. The most common type of crime was vandalism, with 41 incidents, but there were also two attacks against Muslims and one against a Christian. Fourteen crimes involved “humiliating individuals for their faith,” with 12 targeting Christians, one a Muslim, and one religious believers in general.
The MOI documented 47 incidents of hate crimes with religious motivations in 2016, the most recent year for which it had data, compared to 70 in 2015.
According to a report by Citizens’ Platform against Islamophobia published on August 27, the NGO recorded 573 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, up from 278 in 2015 and 59 in 2014. The platform said it reported more incidents in 2016 because it had more volunteers and hence greater capacity to record incidents than in previous years. In addition, it stated incidents had increased as a result of terrorist attacks in Europe, the European refugee crisis, anti-Muslim rhetoric, media reports connecting Muslims to ISIS, and discriminatory discourse on social media by some politicians. The most frequent type of incidents, according to the platform, were online hate speech, at 22 percent, and discrimination against women wearing hijabs, at 19 percent. According to the NGO, the targets of the incidents were Muslims and Islam in general (284), women (81), children (23), refugees (31) and mosques (72).
The Andalusian Observatory’s yearly report on anti-Muslim sentiment in the country cited 27 anti-Muslim incidents in 2016. Incidents included verbal and physical abuse, graffiti, and hate speech via the internet.
In August a man attacked a 14-year-old Moroccan boy in Valencia. The aggressor kicked the boy in his left thigh and ribs, made death threats, and insisted that he return to his country. In the same month, two men assaulted three children of Moroccan origin who were participating in a rally at Fitero Town Hall in Navarre. While the children were participating in a moment of silence for victims of the Barcelona terror attack, the aggressors insulted and threatened them before pushing and hitting them on the head with a stick. One of the victims suffered a traumatic brain injury, head wounds, and chest trauma, and lost consciousness. The Civil Guard arrested two persons; the judge was investigating them for injuries, but ruled out prosecution for a hate crime. The accused were currently free pending the completion of the investigation.
In separate incidents in Palencia in August, a man harassed and insulted a woman of Maghreb origin in front of her young daughter and tried to remove her veil, and a man insulted a woman of Maghreb origin on a city street, according to press reports. The Palencia City Refugee Platform, a local NGO, denounced the incidents.
In December a court sentenced two men accused of beating and insulting a pregnant Muslim woman wearing a niqab in Barcelona in 2016 to a one-year suspended prison sentence. The court ordered the men to attend a human rights course and pay the victim 6,500 euros ($7,800) in compensation in lieu of serving their prison sentence.
In June the National Police in Zaragoza detained a woman for inciting attacks against Jews through social media, where she moderated an anti-Israel group with more than 2,000 subscribers. According to the authorities, the messages she sent encouraged killing Jews, with messages including, “stab the Jews,” and “Palestinian slaughter.”
In February the Civil Guard in the Region of Murcia detained two men who organized demonstrations in 2010 and 2011 that encouraged violence against Jews. The men’s social media profiles professed hatred towards the Jewish community and Israel.
According to FCJE director Aisen, some Jewish university students reported discrimination on campus, mainly with regard to conflict with pro-Palestinian student groups. She said that, as a result, some Jewish university students felt they had to conceal their religion.
Anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic discourse was prevalent in social media. In August following the Catalonia terrorist attacks, through the messaging tool WhatsApp, individuals urged a mobilization to ban mosques in the country, according to media reports. The hashtag “#StopIslam” became a trending topic on Twitter and the most commented topic on the day of the Barcelona terrorist attack in August.
Citizens’ Platform against Islamophobia denounced a wave of anti-Muslim incidents in the days after the August terrorist attacks in Catalonia. The group cited an extensive campaign of hate speech via social media and the spread of false and damaging news targeting Muslims. Local media reported several incidents, including graffiti on mosques with such slogans as “Stop Islamization,” as well as damage to mosques in Seville, Tarragona, and Granada. The media also reported several incidents of verbal abuse and minor assaults against Muslims in the days after the attacks.
Immediately after the terrorist attacks, Chief Rabbi of Catalonia Meir Bar-Hen said Muslim communities harbored “radical fringes” and government authorities were failing to adequately address the threat of radical Islam. The rabbi said he told his congregants not to think they were in the country permanently and encouraged them to buy land in Israel. FCJE responded with a statement expressing full confidence in the security forces and their ability to prevent terrorist attacks.
A journalist who tracked Muslim issues in the country said politicians had not helped to reduce the anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the Catalonia terrorist attacks but that, overall, the media had provided fair coverage.
FCJE said it had received reports of 18 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, including anti-Semitic and anti-Israel hate speech via social media and anti-Semitic graffiti and vandalism of memorials and burial sites.
In October, according to press reports, during and after a march of hundreds of thousands of people against Catalan independence, dozens of demonstrators were observed performing the Nazi salute and chanting “Sieg Heil.”
In November organizers of an exhibition of artifacts from the Auschwitz extermination camp were targeted with social media attacks ahead of the exhibition’s opening in Madrid on December 1. According to press reports, organizers received more than 100 messages, including some denying the Holocaust.
On August 21, approximately 2,500 persons representing 150 civic and religious organizations joined a demonstration in Barcelona organized by Catalan Muslims to condemn terrorism. Muslims from throughout the region attended the event and read a joint statement. Speakers stated that radicalization posed “a real problem that we should not hide.” The media reported that representatives of most leading political parties in Catalonia participated in the demonstration.
According to OLRC President Maria Garcia, there were 41 acts of vandalism against places of worship during the year, compared with 39 in 2016. There were 31 incidents against Christian churches, eight against mosques, and two against Jewish community buildings. She stated neither the Catholic nor Protestant Churches provided information about any attacks. Garcia also said attacks against Catholic churches had traditionally come from far-left groups, anarchists, and radical feminists.
According to OLRC, in February individuals painted the phrase “Against the Jews” and a noose with the Star of David at the entrance of the Jewish Community of Asturias. In March individuals defaced a wall at the Jewish Community of Madrid office. They painted a swastika, along with disparaging words.
In March a group wrote, “All Jews to the gas chamber,” on a wall at the University of Barcelona.
In April in the city of Vitoria, individuals painted a swastika around the Star of David on a Jewish cemetery monument. The City Council removed the graffiti, according to media reports.
In August individuals painted “Jewish murderers,” stars of David with the word “assassins,” and swastikas on tombs and monuments to Soviet soldiers, International Brigades, and other Civil War fighters at the Fuencarral Cemetery in Madrid, according to media reports.
In April a Barcelona judge sentenced a man to four months in jail for painting a swastika on a Barcelona synagogue’s door in 2016. The judge also ordered him to attend a human rights course and make periodic visits to a synagogue in order to “break prejudices and anti-Semitic stereotypes.”
Following the terrorist attacks in August in Cunit, Catalonia, individuals vandalized a mosque with what appeared to be motor oil. Local and regional police investigated the case and concluded the attack was a hate crime but closed the cases because they could not identify the perpetrators.
Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant representatives signed a “Coexistence Pact” September 16 designed to encourage joint work toward promoting coexistence; spreading the message of diversity; and fighting terrorism, radicalization, and hate crimes. The pact included participation by the Episcopal Conference, University Governing Council, and the Council of Psychologists. Another objective of the pact, that members said they intended to implement in 2018, was for members of the religious groups to conduct workshops for journalists to encourage use of less discriminatory or stereotypical language in the media. CIE Secretary Ajana said the pact was not yet open to the other notorio arraigo religions.
In September Director General of the European Office of the Church of ScientologyIvan Arjona Pelado presented religious freedom awards to academics involved with human rights. The main topic of discussion at the ceremony was the right to freedom of belief and respect for the beliefs of others. Pelado emphasized the need to combat intolerance among different religious groups and the responsibility of the international community to promote religious coexistence. Government representatives from the MOJ and Foundation attended.
CIE began naming a representative delegate for each of the country’s autonomous regions and cities to respond directly to the national organization and better coordinate national and local efforts to promote religious tolerance and equal treatment under the law. CIE had named 17 of 19 delegates by year’s end, with only the regions of Murcia and Castilla la Mancha remaining to name delegates.
In July FEREDE organized a public commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which was attended by the Catholic Archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Carlos Osoro, as well as representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox, and Buddhist faiths and politicians. Minister of Justice Rafael Catala delivered remarks in which he spoke of Protestantism’s struggle for freedom and tolerance and affirmed the government’s “firm commitment” to implement articles 9 and 16 of the constitution “so that the right to religious freedom is made real and effective.”
In September the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Association for Interreligious Dialogue (AUDIR) organized the second commemoration of its “Night of Religions” in Barcelona, in which 33 religious centers representing 14 different faiths shared their religious traditions with the public. During Ramadan, more than 50 Muslim prayer centers organized iftars open to members of other faiths and the general public. In January AUDIR launched the project “Building Bridges,” in which 40 youths from different faiths attended courses on interfaith dialogue, among other subjects. As part of the program, the participants visited places of worship in their neighborhoods to promote tolerance.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with MOJ officials to discuss anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, anticlericalism, and concerns about societal discrimination against religious minorities. Issues discussed included access to religious education, cemeteries and burial, pensions, religiously motivated hate crimes and hate speech, and public statements and campaigns to promote tolerance. The MOJ and the Foundation underscored their effort to safeguard religious freedom and educate regional and municipal governments on the application of laws that protect religious freedom and the improved integration of minority religious communities.
Embassy officials met and communicated with leaders of CIE, FEREDE, FCJE, the Federation of Buddhist Communities, Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other community members, including imams of local mosques, Muslim youth leaders, NGOs, politicians, and business leaders in Madrid, Barcelona, and Melilla. Embassy and consulate officials heard the concerns of community members regarding discrimination and the free exercise of their religious rights, including anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, lack of religious education, and access to permits for places of worship. Embassy officials discussed these concerns separately with appropriate government officials.
In March and April the consulate general in Barcelona funded a gathering of 50 young Muslim leaders from four cities (Barcelona, Madrid, Malaga, and Valencia), who created the country’s first “Network of Young Muslim Leaders for Dialogue,” managed by local NGO Xarxa de Convivencia, with U.S. government funding. This initiative brought together influential Muslim youth to facilitate dialogue about issues that included religious freedom and tolerance and to empower them as future leaders in their communities.
In June the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar in which he introduced the Network of Young Muslim Leaders to national government officials. He invited the leader of Xarxa de Convivencia to show a video and present examples of the group’s work to promote diversity, religious tolerance, and freedom of worship through its nationwide meetings with municipal government officials and local activists. An MOJ official said the discussion at the iftar helped prompt the Foundation to organize a September meeting to discuss radicalization with Muslim youth from across the country.
The embassy also formed a group that included Muslim individuals who had formerly taken part in U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs, as well as members of the security forces and academics, and helped the group win a U.S. government grant in July. The grant supported an initiative to promote government-Muslim community engagement and mutual understanding, tolerance, and respect, as well as address problems identified by Muslim communities across the country. Following initial meetings in October and December, the group planned to hold further meetings and community forums in seven cities to discuss issues including freedom of worship, religious tolerance, the role of the media, and prevention of radicalization in Muslim communities.
Participants and former participants of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs, including the Network of Young Muslim leaders, condemned the August 17-18 Catalonia terrorist attacks through broadcast media interviews, opinion pieces, social media messaging, and meetings with government leaders. They also helped to organize an August 21 Muslim antiterrorism march of approximately 2,500 persons in Barcelona that included participation by 150 predominantly Muslim organizations.
The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The constitution and other laws give Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of religious minority communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials at the local level engaged in systematic discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims and converts to nondenominational Christian groups. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities. There were some reports of government officials being complicit in physical attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship. In June then Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe publicly threatened to disbar and jail prominent human rights attorney Lakshan Dias for giving a media interview in which he stated that more than 190 documented attacks on evangelical Christians had occurred under the current government. Nondenominational Christian churches, often referred to as “evangelical” or “free groups,” continued to report physical attacks and harassment by police and local government officials who often sided with the religious majority in a given community. The government continued to enforce the ministerial circular issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs in 2008, which required registration of and permission for construction of new places of worship.
Attacks on religious minorities continued unabated from the previous year. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 97 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services. The Sri Lankan Muslim Council (MCSL) reported dozens of violent attacks on mosques and Muslim prayer rooms during the year, especially during Ramadan. Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force) continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrate religious and ethnic minorities, especially via social media.
The U.S. Ambassador repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel held outreach events and met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation and confidence building.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.4 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2012 national census lists 70.2 percent of the population as Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.4 percent Christian. According to census data, the Theravada Buddhist community, which comprises nearly all Sri Lankan Buddhists, is a majority in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, and Western Provinces.
Tamils, mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority, constitute the majority in Northern Province and are the second largest group, after Muslims, in Eastern Province. Most Muslims self-identify as a separate ethnic group. Tamils of Indian origin, who are mainly Hindu, have a large presence in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces. Muslims form a plurality in the Eastern Province, and there are sizable Muslim populations in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Uva, and Western Provinces. Christians reside throughout the country but have a larger presence in the Eastern, Northern, Northwestern, and Western Provinces and a smaller presence in the Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces.
Most Muslims are Sunni, with small Shia and Ahmadi minorities. An estimated 82 percent of Christians are Roman Catholic. Other groups include Anglicans (Church of Ceylon), the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Baptists, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christian evangelicals, “free groups,” and house churches have grown in recent years, although there are no reliable estimates of their numbers, and membership remains relatively low compared to the larger Christian community. There is a very small Jewish population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including the freedom to choose a religion. The constitution gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, both in public and in private. The constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and requires the government to protect it, although it does not recognize it as the state religion. A 2003 Supreme Court ruling determined the state was constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism, and other religions did not have the same right to state protection. The same ruling also held that no fundamental right to proselytize exists or is protected under the constitution.
According to some legal experts, there is no legal basis for compulsory registration of places of worship with the state. The government, however, keeps in place a 2008 ministerial circular, introduced by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs, requiring all new construction of places of worship, regardless of the religion, to receive permission from the Ministry of Buddha Sasana.
Religious groups must register with the government to obtain approval to construct new places of worship, sponsor religious worker (missionary) visas/immigration permits, operate schools, and apply for subsidies for religious education. Religious organizations may also seek incorporation by an act of parliament, which requires a simple majority and affords religious groups state recognition.
Specific government ministers are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community. Departmental/ministerial assignments are based on the religion of the respective incumbent minister – a customary political tradition that has spanned the past several governments. Currently, the minister of sustainable development and wildlife is also responsible for the religious affairs of Buddha Sasana; the minister of prison reforms, rehabilitation, and resettlement is also responsible for Hindu religious affairs; the minister of postal services is also responsible for Muslim religious affairs; and the minister of tourism development is also responsible for Christian religious affairs.
Religion is a compulsory subject in both public and private school curricula. Parents may elect for their children to study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity, provided sufficient demand (at least 15 students) exists within the school for the chosen subject. Students may not opt out of religious instruction. All schools teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus must use the Ministry of Education curriculum on religion, which covers the four main religions and is compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level exams (equivalent to U.S. grade 12). Private schools not following the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus (international schools) are not required to teach religious studies.
Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and property inheritance, are adjudicated either under customary law of the ethnic or religious group in question or under the country’s civil law. Religious community members, however, report the practice varies by region, and numerous exceptions exist. Sharia and cultural practice typically govern Muslim marriages and divorces while civil law applies to most property rights. According to civil society groups in Northern Province, civil law governs marriages while the Thesawalamai (Hindu) customary law often governs the division of property. Civil law also governs most Sinhalese and Tamil marriages, including mixed marriages or those of individuals who claim no religious affiliation.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. According to religious and civil society groups, local government actors often ignored – or were reportedly complicit in – abuses of and illegal restrictions on religious freedom. Victims said government actors and police at the local (village, division, and provincial) level responded minimally or not at all to numerous reported incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities. Nondenominational Christian churches continued to report physical attacks and harassment by police and local government officials. These churches asserted authorities often sided with the religious majority in a given community and demanded Christian groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. The government maintained the ministerial circular issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs in 2008, which required registration of and permission for construction of places of worship. According to evangelical Christian groups, local authorities selectively applied the circular and used it as a pretext for abuses of religious minorities. The legal requirement of religious education for children resulted in cases in which students belonging to religious minorities were forced to study the dominant religion in a given region, such as Buddhism or Hinduism.
Nondenominational Christian churches (often referred to as “evangelical” or “free groups”) continued to report physical attacks and harassment by police and local government officials whom they said often sided with the religious majority in a given community. Local authorities sometimes demanded the Christian groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. Local police and government officials reportedly continued to cite a 2011 government circular requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities. The circular extended the provisions of the 2008 circular on construction of religious facilities. The Ministry of Buddha Sasana, however, revoked the 2011 circular by a letter issued in 2012. The 2008 circular – although still legally in force – had no explicit basis in national law, according to observers. Local police and government officials, however, reportedly continued to cite the 2011 circular to intimidate local Christian groups and threaten them with incarceration. Police also cited the 2008 circular in dozens of reported cases to prohibit, intimidate, and close down Christian and Muslim places of worship. According to Christian and Muslim civil society groups, official harassment often happened in concert with harassment by ?local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations.
On July 11, villagers from Illangaithurai in the Eastern Province broke into the premises of the Jesus’ Touch Church while the pastor was conducting a prayer meeting. The villagers assaulted the pastor and dragged him outside the church. Police prevented an escalation of violence. On July 12, the pastor lodged a complaint regarding the incident, but the police officer in charge (OIC) showed him a letter from the divisional secretary of Trincomalee Town that accused his church of proselytizing and instructed police to take action against the pastor.
On April 29, local sources reported two unknown assailants assaulted two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ridigama, North Central Province. The victims were subsequently taken to the local police station. The police officer on the scene reportedly affirmed persons have the right to share their religious beliefs with others, but he asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses not to proselytize in the Ridigama area. Police also discouraged the Jehovah’s Witnesses from filing a complaint, stating any action by police would prompt the leader of the Ridigama Buddhist temple to call President Maithripala Sirisena and dismiss the officers.
In June human rights activist and lawyer Lakshan Dias fled to Singapore after stating on television there had been more than 190 attacks on evangelical Christian groups since the current government came to power. President Sirisena publicly refuted Dias’s statement, saying that he had spoken to the head of the Catholic Church in the country, Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, who disputed Dias’s claim and said, “I don’t know where those statistics came from.” Ranjith added there had been no attacks on Catholics under the current government. Following the president’s remarks, then Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, whom the government subsequently removed from office for reasons unrelated to this issue, publicly threatened Dias with disbarment and imprisonment. Dias received a police summons in response to a complaint lodged by three Buddhist monks and a fourth person who accused him of inciting racial and religious hatred. He responded with a statement to the police citing evidence of the attacks in question. As of year’s end, there were no additional reports that Dias had been summoned or questioned. He remained free, but the case remained open.
On June 17, civil society activists reported approximately 20 villagers, the local police OIC, five other police officers, and three Buddhist monks gathered at the premises of the Elim Prayer Centre in Galgamuwa, Kurunegala. The group threatened the local pastor because the monks stated he was converting the people of the village, and the OIC ordered the pastor to stop all religious activities and leave the village permanently. In a follow-up order on June 21, the Galgamuwa Police OIC demanded the pastor obtain approval from the central government’s Department of Christian Religious Affairs in order to continue with his religious worship activities in the district.
According to civil society groups, on August 14, officers of the Civil Security Department visited a Christian family and informed members they would need approval from the Galgamuwa divisional secretary to conduct prayer meetings in their home. The divisional secretary then told the pastor that because Galgamuwa was a Buddhist village, he would not grant approval. On August 21, the pastor presented a letter from the Department of Christian Religious Affairs explaining that registration was not required. Police reportedly accepted the letter but still compelled the family to sign a statement that they would not increase the number of attendees at their prayer meeting.
Civil society groups and local politicians stated the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups and the military in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted religious intimidation, as some shrines were built in areas with few, if any, Buddhist residents. According to local politicians in the north, the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist statues. After meeting with the Buddhist prelates (leaders) of the Malwatte and Asgiriya temples in Kandy, Northern Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran told the press on September 9 that persons in the north had no objections to Buddhist statues, but they must be built legally without creating conflict.
After receiving invitations from the president’s office to attend the opening of a Buddhist temple in Mannar, the Thiruketheeswaram Hindu Temple and Federation of Community Based Organizations in Mannar urged President Sirisena not to participate in the event since the temple had allegedly been built on private land seized from non-Buddhist Tamils during the conflict. The president ultimately declined to attend the opening on September 29.
In December two Buddhist monks visited and reportedly laid claim to the site of a Hindu temple in Muttur, Trincomalee District, shortly after local Hindu villagers had bulldozed the area in preparation for a renovation project at the site. The Hindu villagers claimed to have worshipped at the site for more than 100 years, although the temple had only been registered with the government since 2013. Shortly after the monks’ visit, the Eastern Province governor and other government officials held a meeting at the temple, which prompted angry protests by Hindu villagers and a shouting match between the villagers and the governor’s wife. The Department of Archaeology planned to excavate the site to determine whether a Buddhist temple did, in fact, predate the Hindu temple.
Although religious education is compulsory, not all schools had sufficient resources to teach all four recognized religions – Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity – and some students were forced to study religions other than their own. Government schools frequently experienced a shortage of teachers, sometimes requiring available teachers to teach the curriculum of a faith different from their own.
While the law requires government and semigovernment schools, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths, there were some reports of schools refusing students admission on religious grounds. According to human rights groups, on September 27, the interview board of a government school, St. Anne’s College in Kurunegala, informed a parent it had denied her child admission because she was a member of the Assemblies of God church. St. Anne’s accepts children from Buddhist and Catholic backgrounds, but reportedly refused entry to evangelical Christian children. In September the principal of another government Catholic school, Holy Family Balika Vidyalaya in Kurunegala, reportedly refused admission to two students for the same reason. Human rights groups filed legal cases alleging the denial of fundamental rights before the Supreme Court in both cases.
The Department of Christian Affairs launched a public awareness campaign to encourage nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, but the government had not actually registered them because a political decision by the minister on the registration of nondenominational Christian groups was pending as of December 31. Instead, nondenominational Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property. Without formal government recognition via the registration process, however, nondenominational churches reported they could not t sponsor “religious worker” visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship. According to evangelical groups, nondenominational churches experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements. First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys. Second, without the consent of the majority of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings. Church leaders reported they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for Christian religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.
In May President Sirisena ordered law enforcement agencies to take stern action against those responsible for attacking Muslims and damaging their places of worship. The president asked then-Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake to lead the effort, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said local police must be held accountable for responding to the incidents. On May 31, the president proposed a district-level interreligious forum to address ongoing violence between Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian communities. He said there should be no room for religious conflicts, which spread disunity in the country.
Also in May the independent but quasigovernmental Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission issued an appeal to President Sirisena, expressing concern about the escalating “acts of violence and aggression” against religious minorities and urging the government to take action against the perpetrators. Some civil society groups stated the government had failed to take prompt action in response to the attacks.
On June 21, authorities arrested the general secretary of the BBS, Galabodatthe Gnanasara, for failing to appear in court concerning a case filed against him for forcefully entering and sabotaging a press conference in 2014. After he posted bail, authorities rearrested Gnanasara the same day for hate speech and obstructing police duties. They subsequently released him again on bail. On June 7, police arrested a suspect in connection with a Molotov cocktail attack on a shop in Maharagama. The suspect confessed to four attacks on Muslim shops and stated he was a BBS member. On June 9, police arrested a suspect in a different Molotov cocktail attack on a mosque in Trincomalee.
The cases against all of the accused in the 2014 attacks on Muslims progressed slowly during the year. Lawyers with knowledge of the cases stated 42 cases related to the anti-Muslim riots in 2014 in Aluthgama remained pending.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Buddhist nationalist groups such as the BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrate religious and ethnic minorities, especially via social media. Civil society observers expressed concern the rhetoric of the BBS and other Buddhist nationalist groups incited societal actors to commit acts of violence against members of religious minority groups.
The NCEASL documented 97 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 89 cases in 2016. The Centre for Policy Alternatives stated several Buddhist nationalist organizations regularly espoused hate speech and continued to enjoy impunity from arrest and investigation.
In January a mob of villagers, reportedly with two Buddhist monks, attacked and destroyed the Kithusevana Church in the village of Karuwalagaswewa in Puttalam District. The mob threatened church members and tried to force a congregant and his daughter to participate in the destruction of the church. Two court cases on the incident were ongoing at the Puttalam Magistrates Court at year’s end.
According to witness statements, in August neighbors assaulted the pastor and a congregant from the House of Prayer Ministries in Batticaloa while the latter were preparing for prayer meeting. One of the neighbors had disturbed the church service on other occasions. The neighbor complained to police about noise pollution and threw stones at the church, breaking windows.
In September a mob led by Buddhist monks from the nationalist Sinhale Jathika Balamuluwa (Sinhalese National Force) attacked a shelter outside of Colombo housing 31 Rohingya refugees from Burma. The monks accused the Rohingya of being members of ISIS and demanded their immediate deportation. The mob outnumbered local police at the scene, who did not make any arrests at the time, reportedly out of fear of inciting violence; however, police facilitated the evacuation of the Rohingya from the site . In close coordination with the government, the local UN resident coordinator moved all of the refugees to a refugee detention center outside the capital. On September 27, a second group of Buddhist monks led an impromptu protest at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Colombo objecting to the Rohingya group’s presence in the country. The government condemned the demonstration. In September police arrested six suspects in connection with the attack. In October they arrested , two Buddhist monks who allegedly led the attack. Afterward, the police arrested an unnamed additional suspect, but did not make details of the arrest available. Of the nine suspects, police released eight on bail and one was remanded until December 11. Their cases were pending as of the end of the year’s end.
On March 17, police arrested five Jehovah’s Witnesses for proselytizing in Nikaweratiya, North Western Province. Buddhist monks reportedly verbally abused the Witnesses,, told them to leave the area, and demanded they stop preaching.
In March a civil society organization reported a group of approximately 50 persons, including Buddhist monks, forced its way into a Christian church in Ingriya following a Sunday service. The group threatened members of the congregation who were still present, demanding they provide their names and stop holding services. After the church filed a complaint, a mob smashed windows in the home of the church’s pastor and surrounded the home. Police arrived and recommended the pastor and his family go to a safer place. Civil society members also reported that in April a group of 30 Buddhist monks, together with villagers, surrounded a church in Devinuwara in Matara District. The mob yelled death threats, grabbed Bibles from members of the congregation, and threatened to destroy the church if services did not stop. In May a larger crowd of nearly 2,000, led by 30-40 Buddhist monks, conducted a large demonstration, again threatening they would destroy the church. Later in May five demonstrators disrupted the church’s services, shouting death threats and derogatory remarks.
Local press reported widespread assaults on mosques and Muslim prayer rooms throughout the year, and especially in May and June during Ramadan. Attackers threw stones and other objects at buildings, and there were some reports of homemade Molotov cocktails. There were also reports of several attacks on Muslim businesses by unknown assailants during Ramadan. In May the general secretary of the BBS, Galabodatthe Gnanasara, called Islam a “mental illness” and threatened a “bloodbath” in predominantly Muslim areas. Several of Gnanasara’s followers also threatened self-immolation if the authorities arrested or imprisoned the monk. During the year, some Muslim NGOs stopped documenting incidents targeting the community due to financial constraints, but the MCSL listed 22 attacks in May and June alone. Some Muslim civil society leaders believed the attacks were a response to a Supreme Court decision on May 15 to hear a contempt of court case against Gnanasara.
On May 15, a group firebombed a mosque in the Colombo suburb of Panadura, and on May 16, a group of eight attacked a mosque in another Colombo suburb, Kohilawatte, damaging the mosques on both occasions.
On May 17 and 18, arsonists set fire to three Muslim shops in Wennappuwa. On May 19, unknown assailants firebombed a mosque in Manarapitiya in Central Province. On May 21, assailants attacked a mosque in Kurunegala, and on June 15, police announced the arrest of two suspected BBS members in connection with the attack. On May 20 and 21, unknown arsonists set fire to three shops owned by Muslims in Beruwal in Southern Province, Maharagama in the Western Province, and Ampara in Eastern Province. Unknown assailants also firebombed a Muslim-owned pharmacy in Navinna in Western Province on May 23.
On June 2, unknown assailants threw four Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Manayaweley in Eastern Province. On June 3, unknown assailants firebombed a Muslim-owned pharmacy in Nugegoda in Western Province. On June 5 and 6, unknown assailants set other Muslim-owned shops on fire in Nugegoda and Maharagama, also in Western Province, and, on June 7, a Muslim-owned bakery was set on fire in Maligakanda in Western Province. On August 23, an unknown group threw stones at two mosques in Kurunegala.
On May 16, civil society reported heightened tensions between a Buddhist monk and Muslim community members in the Eastern Province town of Selva Nagar in Trincomalee District. Villagers stated the monk, who was head of a temple with six acres of land, was attempting to claim an additional 49 acres of surrounding land cultivation by local Muslim farmers. More than 1,000 Muslim villagers later moved en masse to a neighboring village overnight out of fear for their safety.
On November 17, a mob damaged dozens of Muslims’ homes and at least two mosques in arson attacks in Ginthota after a minor road accident involving a Buddhist and a Muslim inflamed tensions between members of the two groups. Police arrested 22 persons for involvement in the attacks.
In December Jaffna-based civil society activists protested the cremation in Jaffna of Meegahajandure Gnanarathana, chief Buddhist prelate of Northern Province since 1991. A politically active Tamil lawyers group filed a lawsuit to block the ceremony in the local magistrate’s court, and protestors called the funeral ceremony a “hostile act” and a “desecration.” Protestors noted Buddhists in the area were few and objected to the funeral location. Others in both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities, including National Peace Council Director Jehan Perera, pleaded for tolerance. They noted Gnanarathana had served in Jaffna for many years, and there were no longer significant numbers of Buddhists in Jaffna because most had fled or been forcibly expelled from the area during the war.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In regular meetings with the president, prime minister, and other senior government officials, the Ambassador emphasized the need for respect for and inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities in the post-conflict reconciliation process. During times of heightened religious and ethnic tensions, the Ambassador urged political leaders to defuse the immediate crisis and called on citizens to disavow religious violence. Embassy officers also met regularly with cabinet ministers with religious portfolios to encourage them to build ties across religions as part of sustainable reconciliation.
In response to the Ramadan attacks on Muslim mosques and businesses and threats to the NCEASL and evangelical Christians, the Ambassador publicly tweeted his support for freedom of religion and protection from violence. In June the Ambassador met with Muslim civil society members about the attacks and traveled to Batticaloa in the Eastern Province where he held a highly publicized iftar to show solidarity with Muslims. In his public remarks, the Ambassador said, “Attacks on religious places of worship are reprehensible” and called for the arrest and trial of the perpetrators. During the same visit, the Ambassador met with the Catholic bishop and two Jesuit priests in Batticaloa.
Department and embassy officials met with Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu civil society activists and victims of reported attacks across the country to gauge the climate for religious minorities. In addition, embassy and visiting Department officials met with religious groups, civil society organizations, and government officials to express concern about harassment of, attacks on, and government and societal discrimination against members of religious minority groups. In outreach events, the Ambassador and other U.S. officials encouraged religious leaders and civil society to play a productive role in demonstrating how a post-conflict, religiously diverse country could achieve lasting peace and inclusive prosperity. They also hosted and participated in events with religious groups.
The Department of State and the embassy supported the work of civil society organizations to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees, consisting of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. In July a senior embassy official spoke to a district interreligious reconciliation committee in Kandy to promote religious harmony in the Central Province. In November the embassy held an interreligious outreach event in Kalutara, an area marked by violent anti-Muslim riots in 2014, to formulate a youth action plan and promote interreligious and interethnic understanding. Attendees included young persons and clergy from all four main religious groups, who lauded the event’s focus on local community-based dialogue.
The Interim National Constitution (INC) provides for freedom of religious creed and the rights to worship, assemble, and maintain places of worship. Some laws and government practices are based on the government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups state does not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups. The law criminalizes apostasy, blasphemy, conversion from Islam to another religion, and questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet. While the law does not specifically address proselytizing, the government has criminally defined and prosecuted proselytizing as a form of apostasy. On April 3, a member of the government-appointed Presbyterian Evangelical Community Committee (ECC) of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPECS) killed church elder Yonan Abdullah during an altercation between ECC supporters and those opposing the ECC’s efforts to sell a school property to a private investor. Between February and April, the authorities arrested – and released on bail – more than 60 members of the SPECS who protested the sale. On January 29, authorities convicted Czech religious worker Peter Jasek and two Sudanese associates of eight crimes, including espionage and “warring against the state,” and sentenced them to life imprisonment. The court dropped all charges against another colleague and released him. Both Jasek, who had been documenting abuses of Christian converts, and his two Sudanese associates received presidential pardons and authorities released them in February and May, respectively. Human rights groups continued to accuse the government of interfering in internal community disputes over the sale of church lands to investors, such as those belonging to evangelical Protestant groups, including the SPECS and the Sudan Church of Christ (SCOC), and the inability of these Christian groups to seek legal recourse. Authorities continued to influence the internal affairs of churches through intimidation, harassment, and arrests of those opposed to government interference within evangelical churches. While the law does not prohibit the practice of Shia Islam, authorities took actions against adherents. Some Shia reported authorities continued to prevent them from publishing articles about Shia beliefs. In August government officials accused a Shia Muslim man of espousing “nonmainstream beliefs.” The man subsequently signed a written statement of repentance. In May authorities demolished two SCOC churches in Soba County of Khartoum State, stating the churches were constructed on publicly-owned land. In July Khartoum State officials reportedly rescinded a 2016 order to demolish 25 churches; no further demolitions took place through the end of the year. According to multiple sources, authorities regularly charged and convicted Christian and Muslim women with “indecent dress” for wearing pants and fined and lashed them. The Khartoum State Ministry of Education ordered Christian schools to operate on Sundays in order to meet minimum required instruction hours.
Muslims and non-Muslims said a small and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups continued to be a concern because some advocated violence. Some Christian leaders of the Sudan Inter-Religious Council said they felt the council was dominated by Muslim leaders, although others felt the council was a good forum to discuss challenges faced by evangelical Christian churches. The imam of Khartoum’s Al-Noor Mosque delivered a sermon in response to the investment minister’s statement in favor of normalizing ties with Israel, saying Jews were to blame for “all things evil.” In November fans of the al-Hilal soccer team displayed a portrait of Adolf Hitler and a sign that spelled out the word “Holocaust” during a match; the Sudanese Football Association fined the team and took action against the fans responsible.
In high-level discussions with the government, U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. The Deputy Secretary of State, USAID Administrator, U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, an official from the U.S. Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom, and U.S. embassy officials raised specific cases with government officials and emphasized the government’s need to take concrete steps to improve religious freedom and bring the country’s legal framework into compliance with its international human rights obligations. In meetings with the foreign minister, the Charge d’Affaires raised the issue of the detained pastors, urging the government to grant a fair and speedy trial. Embassy officials stressed that respect for religious freedom was crucial to improved relations with the United States. The embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings for those prosecuted in connection with their religious beliefs. The embassy used social media to highlight its concerns about the April killing of the Presbyterian Church leader, as well as the demolition of Soba Al-Aradi Church.
Since 1999, Sudan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the restriction on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, currently set forth in section 7042(j) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2014 (Div. K, Pub. L. 113-76), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.3 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the Sudanese government, approximately 97 percent of the population is Muslim. It is unclear whether government estimates include South Sudanese (predominantly Christian or animist) who did not leave after the 2011 separation of South Sudan or returned after conflict erupted in South Sudan in 2013, or other non-South Sudanese, non-Muslim groups. During the year 195,000 South Sudanese refugees arrived in the country, bringing the total estimated number of South Sudanese refugees in Sudan to more than 772,000. Some religious advocacy groups estimate non-Muslims make up more than 20 percent of the population.
Almost all Muslims are Sunni, although there are significant distinctions among followers of different Sunni traditions, particularly among Sufi orders. There are also small Shia Muslim communities based predominantly in Khartoum. At least one Jewish family remains in the Khartoum area.
The government reports the presence of 36 Christian denominations in the country. Christians reside throughout the country, primarily in major cities such as Khartoum, Port Sudan, Kassala, Gedaref, El Obeid, and El Fasher. Christians also are concentrated in some parts of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State.
There are relatively small but long-established groups of Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Christians in Khartoum, El Obeid in North Kordofan, River Nile and Gezira States, and eastern parts of the country. There are also Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities, largely made up of refugees and migrants, in Khartoum and the eastern part of the country. Other larger Christian groups include the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal Anglican Church, Sudan Church of Christ, Sudan Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Presbyterian Church of the Sudan. Smaller Christian groups include the Africa Inland Church, Armenian Apostolic Church, Sudan Interior Church, Sudan Pentecostal Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Government statistics indicate less than 1 percent of the population, primarily in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States, adheres to traditional African religious beliefs. Some Christians and Muslims also incorporate aspects of these traditional beliefs into their religious practice. There is also a small Bahai community, which operates primarily underground.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The INC provides for freedom of religious creed and worship, and grants individuals the right to declare their religious beliefs and manifest them through worship, education, practice, or performance, subject to requirements of laws and public order. It prohibits the coercion of individuals to adopt a faith they do not believe in or to engage in rites or services without consent. Authorities may suspend these rights during a state of emergency. The INC states that nationally-enacted legislation shall be based on sharia. The government has not amended the INC to reflect the 2011 independence of South Sudan.
The INC allows religious groups to establish and maintain humanitarian and charitable institutions, acquire property and materials related to their religious rites and customs, write and disseminate religious publications, teach religion, solicit public and private contributions, select their own leaders, observe days of rest, celebrate religious holidays, and communicate with constituents on matters of religion.
The INC states that where the majority of residents do not practice the religion or customs on which the national legislation is based, citizens may introduce new legislation consistent with their religion and customs or refer the existing legislation to the Council of States, the lower house of parliament.
The INC denies recognition to any political party that discriminates based on religion and specifically prohibits religious discrimination against candidates for the national civil service. Constitutional violations of freedom of religion may be pursued in the Constitutional Court; however, cases of discrimination often originate and are addressed in lower courts dealing with civil or criminal charges.
National laws are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence. The criminal code states the law, including state and local, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudood, qisas, and diyah principles (specific serious crimes and related restitution and punishment). The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib). The Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers (Fiqh Council) determines under which conditions a particular school of thought will apply. Other criminal and civil laws, including public order laws, are determined at the state and local level.
The law does not prohibit individuals from converting to Islam from another religion. The criminal code does not explicitly mention proselytizing, but criminalizes both conversion from Islam to any other faith (apostasy) and acts that encourage conversion from Islam. Those who convert from Islam to another religion as well as any Muslim who questions or criticizes the teachings of the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet may also be considered guilty of apostasy and sentenced to death. Those charged with apostasy are allowed to repent within a period decided by the court, but may still face up to five years in prison.
The criminal code’s section on “religious offenses” criminalizes various acts committed against any religion. These include insulting religion, blasphemy, disturbing places of worship, and trespassing upon places of burial. The criminal code states, “whoever insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof” shall be punished with up to six months in prison, flogging of up to 40 lashes, and/or a fine. The article includes provisions that prescribe penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment and 40 lashes for any non-Muslim who curses the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, or members of his respective households.
The Ministry of Guidance and Endowments (MGE) regulates Islamic religious practice, including activities such as reviewing Friday sermons at mosques, supervises churches, and is responsible for guaranteeing equal treatment for all religious groups. The MGE also provides recommendations to relevant ministries regarding religious issues government ministries encounter. The president appoints the Fiqh Council, an official body of 40 Muslim religious scholars responsible for explaining and interpreting Islamic jurisprudence, to four-year renewable terms. The council advises the government and issues fatwas on religious matters, including levying customs duties on the importation of religious materials, payment of interest on loans for public infrastructure, and determination of government-allotted annual leave for Islamic holidays. The council’s opinions are not legally binding. Muslim religious scholars are free to present differing religious and political viewpoints in public.
To gain official recognition by the government, religious groups must register at the state level with the MGE, or a related ministry such as the Ministry of Culture, or the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), depending on the nature of the group and its activities. The HAC oversees NGOs and nonprofit organizations. Religious groups that also engage in humanitarian or development activities must register with those bodies as nonprofit NGOs by filing a standard application required by the HAC for both local and international NGOs. The application must include the names and addresses of founding members, a copy of the organization’s constitution, and an organization chart, and be accompanied by a fee. Such organizations must have at least 30 members, although the relevant minister may register an organization with fewer members if it provides proof of its financial stability. In addition, the law states an international NGO may not be from a country in a state of war with Sudan, must be registered in its country of origin, have an approved registration certificate from a Sudanese embassy or diplomatic mission, present evidence of its financial and technical capabilities, and meet other conditions the minister may apply. Groups registered with the HAC must then submit their activities and financial statements to the government for review and approval. Only religious groups that register are eligible to apply for other administrative benefits, including land ownership, tax exemptions, and work permits.
The law does not permit Shia Muslims to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.
The state-mandated education curriculum requires that all students receive religious instruction. It further mandates that all schools, including international schools and private schools operated by Christian groups, provide Islamic education classes to Muslim students, from preschool through the second year of university. The law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, and mandates that public schools provide Christian students with other religious instruction if there are at least 15 Christian students in a class. According to the Ministry of Education, following the separation of South Sudan, this ratio has not been met in most schools. Non-Muslim students therefore normally attend religious study classes of their own religion outside of regular school hours in order to fulfill the religious instruction requirement.
The Ministry of Education is responsible for determining the religious education curriculum. According to the ministry, the Islamic curriculum must follow the Sunni tradition.
The MGE determines, along with the state-level entities responsible for land grants and planning, whether to provide authorization or permits to build new houses of worship, taking into account zoning concerns such as the distance between religious institutions and population density (the allocation of land to religious entities is determined at the state level). The MGE is mandated to assist both mosques and churches in obtaining tax exemptions and duty-free permits to import items such as furniture and religious items for houses of worship; it also assists visitors attending meetings sponsored by religious groups and activities to obtain tourist visas through the Ministry of Interior. The MGE also coordinates travel for the Hajj and Umra for government representatives.
Public order laws, based largely on the government’s interpretation of sharia, vary by state. These laws prohibit “indecent” dress and other “offenses of honor, reputation, and public morality.” Authorities primarily enforce such laws in large cities and enforce laws governing indecent dress against both Muslims and non-Muslims. The criminal code states that acts are contrary to public morality if they are deemed so by the religion of the person performing the act or the custom of the country where the act occurs. In practice, the special Public Order Police and courts, which derive their authority from the Ministry of Interior, have wide latitude in interpreting what dress or behaviors are indecent and in arresting and passing sentence on accused offenders.
Some aspects of the criminal code specify punishments for Muslims based on government interpretation of sharia punishment principles. For example, the criminal code stipulates 40 lashes for a Muslim who drinks, possesses, or sells alcohol; no punishment is prescribed for a non-Muslim who drinks or possesses alcohol in private. The criminal code stipulates if a non-Muslim is arrested for public drinking, or possessing or selling alcohol, he or she is subject to trial, but the punishment will not be based on hudood principles. The INC was amended in August to change the penalty for adultery with a married person from stoning to hanging (a punishment more commonly executed than stoning, according to legal experts). The penalty for adultery by an unmarried person is 100 lashes. An unmarried man could additionally be punished with expatriation for up to one year. These penalties apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims. Adultery is defined as sexual activity outside of marriage, prior to marriage, or in a marriage that is determined to be void. The code was not changed after the secession of South Sudan, and most articles of the code specify punishments according to region, the North (majority Muslim) and the then-South (majority Christian), rather than the religion of the accused.
Under the law, the justice minister may release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his or her prison term. The release requires a recommendation for parole from the prison’s director-general and a religious committee composed of the Sudan Scholars Organization and members of the Fiqh Council, which consults with the MGE to ensure decisions comply with Islamic legal regulations.
Under the law, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman (although most Sudanese sharia schools of thought advise that the non-Muslim women must be “people of the book,” i.e. either Christian or Jewish). A Muslim woman, however, legally may only marry a Muslim man. A Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man may be charged with adultery.
Separate family courts exist for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion. By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam.
According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim.
Government offices and businesses are closed on Friday for prayers and follow an Islamic work week of Sunday to Thursday. The law requires employers to give Christian employees two hours off on Sundays for religious activity. Leave from work is also granted to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, an official state holiday, along with several key Islamic holidays.
An interministerial committee, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), and in some cases Military Intelligence, must approve foreign clergy and other foreigners seeking a residency permit.
The INC’s bill of rights says all rights and freedoms enshrined in international human rights treaties, covenants, and instruments ratified by the country are integral parts of the INC’s bill of rights.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: A member of the government-appointed ECC of the SPECS killed a SPECS elder during an altercation. Plainclothes police reportedly witnessed but did not intervene in the attack, and then arrested the alleged attacker, whose trial was pending at year’s end. A Khartoum court in January convicted a Czech Christian aid worker, a Sudanese Church of Christ pastor, and a Sudanese student from Dafur of crimes including espionage and “warring against the state.” The three were pardoned separately in February and May. While authorities permitted the Czech aid worker to immediately leave the country, the two Sudanese were eventually allowed to leave the country after intense international pressure prompted the government to lift the travel ban imposed on them at their release. Evangelical Protestant groups, including the SPECS and the SCOC, continued to oppose the government’s involvement in internal disputes about continued sale of church lands to investors, the detention of clergy and other religious leaders, and the inability of Christian groups to seek legal recourse. On August 23, the NISS arrested seven SCOC church leaders and interrogated them for six hours, reportedly for refusing to comply with an August 14 government order to hand over church leadership to a government committee. The leaders reportedly were released on bail after authorities told them to comply with the government order, which they rejected. On October 22, police briefly detained and later released five SCOC church leaders after they refused to cancel prayer services at the Harat Church in Omdurman. The government reportedly charged them with disturbing the peace. There were reports of authorities arresting, intimidating, and detaining Christian clergy and church members on religious grounds, denying permits for the construction of churches, closing or demolishing existing churches and church schools, censoring religious materials and leaders, and restricting non-Muslim religious groups and missionaries from operating in or entering the country.
On April 3, a member of the ECC stabbed and killed SPECS elder Yonan Abdullah during an altercation between ECC supporters and opponents within SPECS over control of the SPECS-operated Omdurman Evangelical Church School. According to SPECS members, the ECC supported government efforts to sell off church properties to private investors; the SPECS members accused the government of interfering in the internal affairs of the church. Yonan was among a group of SPECS members protesting against ECC efforts to take control of the school. Eyewitnesses reported that plainclothes police officers at the school did not intervene in the attack but arrested the alleged attacker whose trial was pending at year’s end. From February to April police arrested more than 60 SPECS members opposed to the ECC’s efforts to sell the school. The government denied the accusation that it was behind the April 3 attack and attributed the incident to “internal feuding between two Christian administrative boards.” At year’s end, the government had not implemented a 2015 court decision stipulating that only a SPECS-appointed entity could govern the property decisions of the SPECS Church in Khartoum, and not the government-recognized ECC, which continued to sell the church’s land to private investors throughout the year. As of year’s end, the government had implemented neither a February Constitutional Court ruling that the government-recognized ECC was illegal, nor the court’s order for the ECC’s dissolution.
On January 29, a Khartoum court convicted Czech Christian aid worker Petr Jasek, Sudanese Church of Christ pastor Hassan Abdelrahim, and Sudanese student Abdelmoneim Abdumaula, from Darfur, of eight crimes, including espionage and “warring against the state.” On January 29, a court sentenced Jasek to life imprisonment, and Abdelrahim and Abdumaula to 12 years’ imprisonment. The men had been in detention since their initial arrest in December 2015. They had reportedly donated money to fund medical treatments for Ali Omer, a Darfuri student injured during antigovernment demonstrations in 2013, and documented alleged abuses against Christians who said they were persecuted in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur. Authorities arrested Jasek at Khartoum Airport when he attempted to leave the country with photos and documentation of abuses against Sudanese Muslims who converted to Christianity. Authorities said Jasek had illegally entered Sudan via South Sudan and provided money to rebel movements, and that Jasek, Abdelrahim, and Abdumaula conducted interviews and took pictures without obtaining prior governmental permission.
Following pressure from the international community and the arrival in Khartoum of Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir pardoned Jasek, who returned to the Czech Republic on February 26 after 14 months in NISS custody. On May 11, President Bashir pardoned and released Abdelrahim and Abdumaula following sustained international advocacy on their behalf, but the government banned them from obtaining passports and leaving Sudan. Following further international pressure, the NISS and Ministry of Interior lifted the travel ban on the two men in October. While in detention the three men were transferred multiple times with no reason given to various NISS detention facilities and were finally held in Al Huda Prison during their trial. All three men reported prison officials physically abused them and kept them in poor conditions. Jasek additionally said he suffered from several medical problems caused by his poor treatment in prison.
On January 19, the MGE reportedly appointed Angel Alzaki to head a government-backed Executive Committee of the SCOC, effectively removing Yacoub Tilian from SCOC’s leadership position. On August 23, the NISS arrested seven SCOC church leaders and interrogated them for six hours, reportedly for refusing to comply with an August 14 government order to cede church leadership to a government committee. The leaders reportedly were released on bail after authorities told them to comply with the government order, which they rejected. SCOC Head of Missions Pastor Kowa Shamaal and SCOC Moderator Ayoub Mattan were among the seven church leaders arrested for challenging the order. Shamaal was previously arrested in December 2015 with Petr Jasek, Hassan Abdelrahim, and Abdelmoneim Abdumaula but was acquitted of all charges and released in January.
According to Morning Star News, on September 22, the NISS arrested SCOC Elder Mahjoub Abotrin at his home in Omdurman. They interrogated him and released him the same day without charges. According to SCOC sources, Abotrin was arrested for his refusal to turn over the leadership of the SCOC to government appointees. The mandate of the current leadership expires in March 2018. The SCOC constitution calls for a general assembly every three years to appoint church leaders. Some observers stated a factor in the government’s intervention was that most SCOC members are ethnically Nuba, from the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan state, where the government was fighting a continuing insurgency. The observers said the government has accused ethnic Nuba of supporting the 2011 secession and continuing conflict in the areas adjacent to the border with South Sudan and has thus targeted them for their religious and ethnic affiliations. On October 22, police briefly detained and later released SCOC Moderator Reverend Ayoub Tiliyan, Reverend Ali Haakim Al Aam, Pastor Ambrator Hammad, evangelist Habil Ibrahim, and Elder Abdul Bagi Tutu for refusing to cancel prayer services at the Harat Church in Omdurman. The government reportedly charged them with disturbing the peace.
According to reports the Public Order Police frequently charged women with “indecent dress,” and there were numerous court convictions. Religious leaders and government officials confirmed that Muslim and Christian women were fined and lashed on a daily basis in Khartoum for wearing pants and other dress considered indecent by the Public Order Police.
International and domestic human rights observers continued to express concern that 2015 legal amendments widening the definition of apostasy targeted and discriminated against minority Muslim groups, especially Shia, whose practice of Islam differs from that of the Sunni majority. Many individuals from Muslim minorities, such as Shia or Quranist groups, reported that their places of worship have remained closed since 2014. They also stated that they needed to keep a low profile regarding their places of worship, as well as religious events and gatherings. Some Shia reported they remain prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs. In August government officials accused a Shia man of espousing “non-Sunni” religious beliefs. Reportedly, the man signed a written statement of repentance under pressure from the government. Persons continued to reference the case against 25 Muslims who faced the death penalty in 2015 on charges of apostasy for following the “wrong” version of Islam and who were acquitted in early 2016.
The Public Order Police arrested journalist Marwa Altijani on September 24, after she published two satirical articles on a popular website discussing religious concepts, including the divinity of God. She also reportedly wrote that it was not wrong to be a lesbian. Authorities charged her with apostasy under the relevant articles of the Criminal Code and released her two days later. They later dismissed the charges against her based on their assessment that she was psychologically unfit to stand trial.
In May the Omdurman sector prosecutor filed apostasy and public disturbance charges against Mohamed Salih Aldisogi after he attempted to change his religion on his state identification documents from Muslim to “nonreligious.” The prosecutor dropped all charges against Aldisogi after a state-appointed psychiatrist examined him without his consent and concluded he was not mentally competent to stand trial.
On October 1, police arrested Salafist preacher Muzamil Fageeri in front of his house in Khartoum State and charged him with apostasy after lawyers accused him of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, his companions, and wives while lecturing at the Musaab bin Omair dormitory in Khartoum. Police released Fageeri several days later. Independent observers stated they believed police arrested him because of a personal dispute between Fageeri and another imam.
On August 15, police evicted Reverend Yahia Nalu, pastor of the SPECS Omdurman church, and another minister who was living with Nalu and his family. from their home where Nalu and his family had lived for one year and a half. Police later arrested Nalu and held him for one day for “criminal trespass” after he refused to leave his home. The Administrative Court denied Nalu’s appeal of his eviction on August 20, and his legal counsel decided to take his case to the Supreme Court. Nalu’s trial began in November, but the judge repeatedly postponed hearings for administrative reasons.
There were reports government security services continued to monitor mosques closely for Friday sermon content. Observers stated authorities provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons.
Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but authorities did not allow Shia prayers independent of Sunni prayers. Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular.
The government continued to state it did not have non-Muslim teachers available to teach Christian courses in public schools. Some public schools excused non-Muslims from Islamic education classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided Muslim teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes.
According to various church representatives, the government skewed its decisions on permit issuances for houses of worship towards mosques. Some churches reported they were less willing to apply for land permits or to construct churches given the government’s previous repeated denials. The government attributed its denial of permits to the churches not meeting government population density parameters and zoning plans.
Local parishioners reported that, compared to Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by zoning changes, closures, and demolitions. The government said places of worship that were demolished or closed lacked proper land permits or institutional registration. The government stated mosques, churches, schools, hospitals, and residences were all affected equally by the urban planning projects. Sources estimated at least 24 churches, Christian schools, libraries, and cultural centers were “systematically closed,” demolished or confiscated by the government between 2011 and 2017.
In May government authorities demolished the SCOC in Khartoum (also known as Soba Al-Aradi church). In December 2016 the government issued a written notice to the Church, stating it had no legal right to the land on which the church was built in 1986. The Sudanese Council of Churches (SCC) and lawyers appealed on behalf of the church. While the church’s case was still pending in May, authorities appeared during a Sunday morning service to demolish the church. Parishioners and neighbors prevented the complete razing of the church by standing in front of the demolition vehicle until authorities left the site. Some of the church walls remained standing, but the church was rendered unusable. News of the demolition circulated widely on social media. As of year’s end, the church neither received compensation nor relocated elsewhere in Khartoum.
Two weeks after the demolition of Soba Al-Aradi church, authorities carried out the demolition of a large brick wall surrounding the Dihinat SCOC in the Kalakla sector of Khartoum State. A man dressed in a military uniform reportedly told church leaders that he had bought the land on which the church stood, as well as an adjacent plot. As of year’s end, the church building remained partially demolished.
During the July visit of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, government officials told Welby they had formally cancelled a July 2016 order from the Khartoum State Government to demolish 25 churches the government had repeatedly denied existed. The government did not demolish any of the 25 churches by year’s end.
In August the state government made a request to five pastors that they demolish their churches – two SCOC churches, two Episcopal churches, and one Baptist church – located in Jaboronna Camp outside of Khartoum. The reason provided was that the Khartoum State Ministry of Physical Planning had begun rezoning the surrounding area three weeks earlier than announced and had already demolished several nearby homes. The pastors demolished their church buildings accordingly on August 3, based on verbal guarantees from government officials that the churches would be compensated and granted land elsewhere in Khartoum. Church leaders confirmed that the government provided temporary places of worship to each of the five pastors until they were fully compensated for the demolished churches. These were the first such reports of government provision of temporary places of worship to Christians pending compensation. There were no reports of compensation to two demolished churches (one Catholic and one Presbyterian) in Soba County of Khartoum State in December 2016, which authorities stated were on publicly owned land.
Unknown intruders on broke into the home of a human rights lawyer who defended multiple pastors in religious freedom trials on August 19, while his family was out of town. The individuals broke the metal locks on his steel door, took all of his English-language files and academic papers, and two removable flash drives. They also took his family’s television, his two children’s guitars and laptops, and his wife’s jewelry. In October 2016 unknown assailants also broke into his home and smashed all of the windows and mirrors; no belongings were taken. The lawyer was forced to relocate his family as a result of the intrusions. Observers alleged that authorities may have been responsible for both incidents.
The Church of Jesus Christ in Aliza, Khartoum North, continued to seek restitution for the government’s demolition of its church building in 2014 due to what the MGE said was lack of proper land permits and registration. According to the SCC, the church had not received compensation, and authorities continued to prevent it from constructing a new building.
The government continued to state that church demolitions were purely a land administrative issue that impacted not only churches, but also mosques, hospitals, schools, and private homes, but did not provide examples of mosques being destroyed during the year. The NISS noted the locations of other churches and mosques it was tracking which were located on what the government referred to as “unplanned areas” in Khartoum State. Christian leaders and lawyers said that gaining outright land titles remained very difficult given that the government legally continued to own all land, and thus the legal status of churches remained unclear.
In July the Khartoum State Ministry of Education ordered Christian schools (except for Coptic schools) to operate on Sundays in order to adhere to the national general schedule of operations mandating that schools operate from Sunday to Thursday. Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour publicly expressed concern that the order would damage the country’s international reputation. Members of the Khartoum State parliament also voiced opposition to parliamentary Deputy Speaker Mohamed Hashim, and told the Khartoum State minister of education the decision to cancel the Sunday holiday was not well studied. The order remained in place at year’s end; Coptic schools continued to be exempted. Local authorities reportedly threatened schools planning to oppose the order and resume Saturday instruction, although no schools reported they had been sanctioned for noncompliance. Schools temporarily increased instruction hours during the week in order to remain closed on Sundays and still meet the required hours of annual instruction. Schools and parents voiced concern that this was unsustainable for schools and students, and feared that schools would need to open on Sundays to alleviate the burden on teachers and families. Religious rights groups, including the SCC, stated the order could prevent Christian students from attending worship services and prevent parents from raising their children as Christians. In September approximately 60 parents of Christian and Muslim students who studied at Christian schools gathered outside of the Council of Ministers in Khartoum to protest the order requiring the schools to operate on Sundays.
The government continued to restrict some religiously-based political parties, including the Republican Brothers Party, which opposes the government’s use of sharia as a source of law. The Political Parties Affairs Council, which oversees the registration of political parties, refused to register the party, and the party’s leader filed a case in the Constitutional Court, which remained pending at year’s end.
Government officials continued to state Islamic principles should inform official policies and often pointed to sharia as the basis for the country’s legal framework. President Bashir and other senior figures frequently emphasized the Islamic majority of the country.
The government continued to restrict non-Muslim religious groups from operating or entering the country and continued to monitor activities and censor material published by religious institutions. The MGE said it granted a limited number of Christian missionary groups permission to engage in humanitarian activities and promote Muslim-Christian cooperation.
The government denied Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status. Christian churches reported authorities required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles.
Leading officials from various churches reported the government refused to grant, or delayed renewing, work and residency visas to church employees of foreign origin, including missionaries and clergy, or to individuals it thought would proselytize in public places. This reportedly had a particularly negative impact on the Catholic Church whose clergy are mostly of foreign origin, while most clergy of other Christian denominations are ethnically Sudanese. The government only granted residence permits with less than a year’s validity. According to Catholic Church officials, the government continued to maintain restrictions on the entry of foreign clergy. In October the government issued 30 visas and residence permit renewals to Church personnel (clergy and nuns) after a six-month delay, representing only a portion of the international staff requested by the Church. Approximately 25 foreign missionaries left the country during the year due to protracted delays in obtaining visas and/or renewing residence permits. The government required clergy to pay a 70 Sudanese pounds (SDG) ($8) fine for every day they were not in residency status, approximately 12,600 SDG ($1,400) over six months.
The government closely scrutinized those suspected of proselytizing and used administrative rationales, or other aspects of the law such as immigration status, to either deport or exert financial pressure on such individuals. As a result, most non-Muslim groups refrained from public proselytizing.
Some religious groups reported the government barred the import of unapproved religious texts, and said most Christian denominations were unable to import teaching materials and religious texts as guaranteed by the constitution. According to a Morning Star News Service report in October, authorities in Port Sudan continued to detain a shipping container with Arabic language Bibles destined for Khartoum for two years without explanation.
A small number of Christian politicians, the majority of whom were members of the Coptic Church, continued to hold seats in the government.
Christian groups continued to call for a Christian director in the MGE Office of Church Affairs. The MGE-appointed director as of year’s end was a Muslim.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Government officials reported continued tensions between members of some Muslim groups. Muslims and non-Muslims said a small, growing, and sometimes vocal minority of Salafist groups continued to be a concern because some advocated violence. Some groups said that, by allowing the largest of these Salafist groups, the Ansari al-Sunna, to operate with little surveillance or intervention, the government gave tacit approval to the organization’s views.
Individual Muslims and Christians reported generally good relationships at the societal level and stated that instances of intolerance or discrimination by individuals or nongovernmental entities were generally considered to be isolated incidents.
The Sudan Inter-Religious Council, a registered nonprofit, nonpolitical organization consisting of scholars, half Muslim and half Christian, was mandated by its constitution to advise the MGE and to encourage interfaith dialogue. During the year members stated they continued to search for ways in which their involvement could promote the coexistence of religious groups in the country. The council, which was very active during the secession of South Sudan, became less active in resolving domestic religion-related disputes thereafter. Some Christian leaders stated they felt the council was dominated by Muslim leaders, while others, particularly those who participated, felt the council was a good forum to discuss challenges faced by evangelical Christian churches.
On August 25, Muhammad Hassan Tanoun, imam of Khartoum’s Islamist Al-Noor Mosque, delivered a sermon in which he stated, “ever since [the Jews] appeared on the face of the Earth, they have been the head of the serpent” and that “all things evil and all the tragedies on Earth are caused by their schemes, their deception, and their wickedness.” He also said, “How can the movement for normalization [of ties with Israel] be spreading in Muslim countries, even though those Jews are your worst enemies, oh Muslims?” His sermon followed statements made by Investment Minister Mubarak Al-Fadil Al-Mahdi on August 21 in favor of normalizing ties with Israel.
In another reaction to the investment minister’s remarks on normalizing ties with Israel, Major General Younis Mahmoud stated during an August 23 interview on Khartoum TV, reported on the Memri TV website, that the Quran provided evidence that “these Jews, these Zionists, never adhere to treaties” adding that “the fingerprints of the Jews and Zionists are on today’s problems.”
On November 25, fans of the al-Hilal soccer team displayed a portrait of Adolf Hitler and a sign that spelled out the word “Holocaust” during a match against a rival team. While the team condemned the fans responsible for the incident, its Facebook page posted pictures of the fans holding up the signs and portrait. The Sudanese Football Association (SFA) fined the team 40,000 SDG ($4,400) and banned the fans responsible from attending al-Hilal’s first 2018 game. As of December the International Football Association (FIFA) was investigating the incident, as was the team and the SFA. The UK-based organization Football Against Racism in Europe described the team’s fans celebrating the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler as “a gruesome first for Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Rival factions within SPECS led by Nalu and the MGE-supported Reverend Hamad Mohamed Saleh, who replaced Rafat Samir Musaad as leader of the SPECS in 2013, contested ownership of land where a house was located adjacent to a SPEC church and two evangelical Christian schools. Saleh, who possessed government-recognized ownership documentation for the property, signed a 50-100 year rental agreement with a business investor. The property is located next to the Omdurman Evangelical School, where SPECS church elder Yonan Abdullah was killed in April during an attack on Nalu’s supporters who protested the investor’s purchase of the school. Saleh previously signed legal agreements that allowed the same investor to rent properties where the SPECS-operated Bahri Presbyterian Evangelical Church, Omdurman Evangelical School, and Wad Medani Evangelical School were located. Although government officials denied playing any role in the dispute between Nalu’s and Saleh’s rival SPECS church factions, observers considered Nalu’s eviction to be another government attempt to support Saleh’s faction and to interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In high-level meetings, Department of State officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State and the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, encouraged the government to respect religious freedom and protect the rights of minority religious groups. In a speech on religious freedom at the Al-Noor Mosque in November, the Deputy Secretary urged the government to take concrete steps to protect the rights of religious minorities, and called for an immediate suspension of the demolition of houses of worship. The Special Envoy raised, in high-level government meetings, the prolonged detention of Hassan Abdelrahim and other clergy by the NISS without charge and urged the government to grant a fair and speedy trial.
In meetings between the Charge d’Affaires and the minister of guidance and endowments, the Charge promoted religious freedom as a means of achieving peace and stability. He said persons of different religions need to be able to practice their religious beliefs freely and that creating an environment without fear of harassment based on religion was crucial to bringing peace and stability to the country’s conflict areas. This included the Nuba Mountains, where there is a large Christian population. He also noted that as fighting has returned to South Sudan, the daily number of South Sudanese arrivals, many of whom are Christian, was increasing and the government should accommodate these refugees.
In May an official from the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom met in Khartoum with government representatives, including Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour. They discussed ways Sudan could take concrete steps toward substantially improving the state of religious freedom in the country by addressing the concerns that had led to its designation as a Country of Particular Concern. The official stressed the need to address religious freedom concerns and urged a formal response to the proposed religious freedom action plan provided by the embassy in 2016. During the trip, the official also visited Bahri and Omdurman churches, and met with both SPECS factions, the Sudan Interreligious Council, and several other religious groups. Embassy officials proposed a roundtable on the registration and construction of religious properties as an important first step in such a process.
Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires emphasized religious freedom formed a key basis for broader normalization of bilateral relations and conveyed strong concerns to Minister of Guidance and Endowments Amar Mirghani Hussein Mohammed and other relevant officials regarding imprisoned evangelical Christian religious workers convicted of espionage; harassment of Muslim minorities; apostasy and blasphemy laws; threats by the Governor of Khartoum State to demolish more than 25 churches and religious establishments; arrests at the Omdurman Evangelical School of more than 60 clergy and lay members of Omdurman Presbyterian Church; the illegal sale of church properties; the denial of licenses for new churches; and enforcement of “indecent dress” laws.
Embassy officials met regularly with imams and Sufi clerics, and clergy and parishioners of Catholic and Protestant churches to hear their views on the religious freedom situation. Embassy officials attended religious ceremonies of different groups and underscored in regular meetings with leaders of Muslim and Christian groups the importance of religious tolerance. U.S. government representatives closely monitored and attended many of the legal proceedings concerning religious organizations and religious leaders. Embassy officials regularly attended weekly hearings from August to November for Peter Jasek, Pastors Kowa Shamal and Hassan Abdelrahim, and human rights activist Abdelmoneim Abdumaula. The Charge d’Affaires also attended the funeral of slain SPECS elder Yonan Abdullah.
The embassy regularly utilized its social media outlets to share articles and messaging related to religious tolerance and freedom. The embassy used social media to draw attention to the demolition of Soba Al-Aradi church and the killing of the Presbyterian elder by other church members aligned with the government. Messaging also often highlighted religious diversity in the United States and efforts by local communities to remain inclusive and maintain an open dialogue. The embassy issued statements in observance of both Christian and Islamic holidays.
Since 1999, Sudan has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. On December 22, 2017, the Secretary of State redesignated Sudan as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the restriction on making certain appropriated funds available for assistance to the Government of Sudan in the annual Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, currently set forth in section 7042(j) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2014 (Div. K, Pub. L. 113-76), and any provision of law that is the same or substantially the same as this provision, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and both the constitution and the penal code prohibit discrimination based on religion. Any violation may be brought before a court of justice. Religious groups seeking financial support from the government are required to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Limited financial support is available, primarily as a stipend for clergy. The government subsidizes schools managed by religious organizations, providing a fee per registered student and the salaries of teachers. On October 27, the government reiterated its strong support for religious freedom and encouraged religious organizations to develop equitable values and norms in society during a workshop in honor of the International Day of Religious Freedom.
The Inter-Religious Council (IRIS), an organization of the country’s different religious groups, including two Hindu groups, two Muslim groups, the Jewish community, and the Catholic Church, continued to meet monthly to discuss planned interfaith activities and positions on government policies. Throughout the year, the IRIS made public statements on societal issues, including expressing support for freedom of religious practices and encouraging mutual respect among religious groups.
Embassy representatives met with a government official from the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Religious Organizations Office during the October 27th International Day of Religious Freedom roundtable. Embassy representatives also met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At these meetings, the officials reiterated the government’s commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian communities to discuss how the different organizations promoted respect for religious diversity within their communities. Embassy officials hosted a religious roundtable discussion in January to discuss the current status and a historical perspective on religious freedom and tolerance in the country. In October the embassy hosted a workshop in honor of the International Day of Religious Freedom. Embassy representatives emphasized U.S. government policy on promoting religious freedom and respect for religious diversity worldwide.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 592,000 (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2012 census, the most recent available, 48 percent of the population is Christian, of which 22 percent is Roman Catholic. Other Christian groups include Moravian, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, evangelical Protestant, Baptist, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Hindus are 22 percent of the population, including the Sanathan Dharm and the Arya Dewaker. Muslims, including Sunni and Ahmadi Muslims and the World Islamic Call Society, are 14 percent. The remaining 13 percent includes Bahais, Jews, Buddhists, Brahma Kumaris, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and three Rastafarian organizations: the Aya Bingi Order, 12th Tribe, and Bobo Shanti.
Some Amerindian and Maroon populations, approximately 3 percent of the population, adhere to indigenous religions. Certain Amerindian groups, concentrated principally in the interior and to a lesser extent in coastal areas, practice shamanism through a medicine man (piaiman). Many Maroons worship nature. Those of Amerindian and Maroon origin who identify as Christian often combine Christian practices with indigenous religious customs. Additionally, some Creoles in urban areas worship their ancestors through a rite called wintie.
There is some correlation between ethnicity and religion. The Hindustani-speaking population is primarily Hindu, while some ethnic Indians, Javanese, and Creoles practice Islam. Christianity crosses all ethnic backgrounds.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that everyone has freedom of religion, and individuals may not be discriminated against on the grounds of religion. Individuals may choose to change their religion. Any violation may be brought before a court of justice.
The penal code provides punishment for those who instigate hate or discrimination of persons based on religion or creed in any way; however, the law has not been applied. Those found guilty may be sentenced to a prison term of no longer than one year and a fine of up to 25,000 Surinamese dollars (SRD) ($3,300). In cases where an insult or act of hatred is instigated by more than one person, as part of an organization, or by a person who makes such statements habitually or as part of work, the punishment can include imprisonment of up to two years and fines of up to SRD 50,000 ($6,600).
Religious groups are required to register with the Ministry of Home Affairs only if they seek financial support, including stipends for clergy, from the government. To register, religious groups must supply contact information, a history of their group, and addresses for houses of worship. Most religious groups are officially registered.
The law does not permit religious instruction in public schools. The government funds teacher salaries and provides a stipend that partially covers maintenance costs to all elementary and secondary schools established and managed by various religious groups. Religious groups are required to provide the remaining funding, which includes construction costs, funding for school furniture, supplies, and additional maintenance expenses. Approximately 50 percent of primary and secondary schools in the country are managed by religious organizations. The Roman Catholic diocese, Moravian Church, and Hindu community manage the majority of private schools. Through the Ministries of Education and Finance, the government provides a fee per registered child and pays teacher salaries to the religious organizations managing these schools.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to emphasize in government-hosted events and in the media its commitment to protecting religious freedom, including of religious minorities, and to fostering respect for religious diversity and promoting tolerance. Government officials attended events hosted by religious organizations to emphasize its support.
Schools, including public schools, celebrated various religious holidays that are also national holidays, including Christmas, Easter, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, and Phagwa, but the government continued to ban public schools from allowing prayer groups during breaks. Schools managed by religious groups included religious instruction in the curriculum. All students attending schools run by religious groups were required to take part in religious instruction, regardless of their religious background. Parents were not permitted to homeschool children for religious reasons.
The armed forces maintained a staff chaplaincy with Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic clergy available to military personnel.
On October 27, the government reiterated its strong support for religious freedom and underscored the importance of religious organizations in developing equitable societal values and norms during a workshop in honor of the International Day of Religious Freedom.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
IRIS continued its efforts to promote respect for religious diversity and freedom in the country. Although non-Catholic Christian groups were not IRIS members, the council consulted them on the possible impact of a verdict in a trial of President Bouterse for his alleged involvement in the killings of 15 political opponents in 1982 that remained in progress at the end of the year. Different religious groups supported a proposal from the Catholic Church to establish a platform for reconciliation regarding the president’s trial, with the assistance of the Holy See and the Organization of American States. The council met monthly to discuss planned interfaith activities and positions on government policies, such as the draft National Development Plan and legislation impacting social welfare. Government officials continued to consult with the council, recognizing it as a social partner and seeking its advice on how these proposed laws could impact society. The IRIS chairman emphasized on several occasions the council’s support for freedom of religious practice and encouraged mutual respect among all religious groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy representatives met with an official from the Ministry of Home Affairs’ Religious Organizations Office during the October 27th International Day of Religious Freedom roundtable. Embassy representatives also met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At these meetings, the officials reiterated the government’s commitment to tolerance and pluralism, in response to embassy representatives raising the importance of government protection of religious freedom for all groups regardless of religious affiliation.
Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian communities to discuss promotion of respect for religious diversity.
The embassy hosted a roundtable discussion in January to discuss the current status and a historical perspective on religious freedom and tolerance in the country. Participants included representatives from the Catholic Church, Suriname Islamic Organization, Moravian Church, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Arya Dewaker, and Commission on World Prayer Day – the organizing body of an international prayer event the country was selected to host in March 2018. In October the embassy hosted a workshop in honor of the International Day of Religious Freedom. Embassy representatives emphasized U.S. government policy on advancing religious freedom and respect for religious diversity worldwide.
The constitution protects “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others” and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government facilitated revenue collection for 17 religious groups through the taxation system and distributed publicly funded grants to 42 applicant religious groups in proportion to their membership. The government also provided grants to religious groups for religious education, spiritual work in the healthcare sector, refugee reception and integration, and security measures. The government continued to implement a plan to combat hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones. The plan resulted in additional funding and training for police and funding for civil society to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiments. The Living History Forum, a government-funded agency, trained 2,500 teachers and other school personnel on preventing and combating intolerance, including anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments. Leading national and local politicians, including the prime minister, condemned anti-Semitic incidents in December. After a television broadcaster aired footage of a government-funded Muslim school seemingly segregating its pupils by gender on a school bus, the prime minister called the separation of the students “despicable.” Jewish groups criticized the police for approving an application by the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), widely characterized as a neo-Nazi group, for a protest march that would have passed near a Gothenburg synagogue on Yom Kippur. A court later changed the routing of the march. Several representatives of the Sweden Democrats (SD) political party made anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic remarks. The prime minister and other national and local officials stated their public support for religious freedom and the protection of religious groups.
According to the government, there were 1,177 suspected religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the police in 2016, a 24 percent decline from 2015. As in previous years, Muslims were the most frequently targeted group and Jews the most targeted relative to the size of the community. Incidents included acts of violence, illegal threats, discrimination, defamation, hate speech, vandalism, and graffiti. The government’s National Council for Crime Prevention (NCCP) stated it was likely all hate crimes continued to be significantly underreported, and a suspect was charged in just 4 percent of cases reported in 2015. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Open Doors reported 123 Christian immigrant interviewees, the majority from Muslim-majority countries, had been the victims of at least 512 anti-Christian incidents, including violence, sexual assault, death threats, social exclusion, insults, and other threats between 2012 and 2017. Assailants threw flaming objects at the synagogue in Gothenburg and at the Jewish cemetery in Malmo in December, and protesters in Malmo yelled “shoot all the Jews.” Government officials, including the prime minister, condemned the Gothenburg and Malmo incidents. A Jewish association in Umea closed in April after repeated harassment, which it tied, at least in part, to the NRM. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups expressed concern about the increase in NRM activities. In what police suspected were cases of arson, the country’s largest Shia mosque, in Jarfalla, was severely damaged in a fire in April, and another mosque in Orebro was destroyed by fire in September. In September, 10 Muslim groups called for action to guarantee the safety of the country’s mosques and their visitors.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Culture, members of parliament, the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities (SST), the office of the national coordinator to combat violent extremism, and national and local police on issues related to religious freedom, including reports of tensions between religious groups, reports of antireligious acts against immigrants and other minorities, and the increased activity of neo-Nazi groups. Embassy officials spoke to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Gothenburg, Malmo, Stockholm, Umea, and Uppsala about their ability to practice their faiths freely and safely, and raised the concerns of specific religious groups with political leaders.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.0 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the Church of Sweden (Lutheran), approximately 61 percent of citizens are members. According to government statistics and estimates by religious groups, other Christian groups – including the Roman Catholic Church, the Pentecostal movement, the Missionary (or Missions) Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) – together total less than 7 percent of the population. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2016 that 8.1 percent of the population is Muslim. According to the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, Jews number approximately 20,000-30,000, concentrated mainly in larger cities such as Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo.
Smaller religious communities include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and members of the Church of Scientology, Word of Faith, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Mandaeism.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides “the freedom to practice one’s religion alone or in the company of others.” The law mandates there be no limitation of rights or freedoms on the grounds of religious opinion.
The constitution instructs public institutions to combat discrimination based on religious affiliation. According to law, complaints about discrimination for religious reasons in the private sector, in the government, or by a government agency or authority must be filed with the Discrimination Ombudsman. The ombudsman represents an individual in the event of legal proceedings.
The constitution states that “the opportunities of religious minorities to preserve and develop a cultural and social life of their own shall be promoted.” No one is obliged to belong to a religious community or “divulge religious beliefs in relations with public institutions.”
There is no requirement in the law to register or recognize religious groups. Faith communities registering with the SST, however, receive tax exemptions similar to those of nonprofit organizations and are eligible to receive government funding. In order to register with the SST, a religious group must submit an application to the Ministry of Culture demonstrating the group fulfills certain requirements, including that it be stable and have operated in the country for at least five years, have a clear and stable structure, be able to function on its own, serve at least 3,000 persons (with exceptions), and be present in different locations in the country.
According to the law, animal slaughter must be preceded by stunning and/or the administration of anesthetics to minimize the animal’s suffering.
The law stipulates that male circumcision may be performed only by a licensed doctor or, for boys under the age of two months, by a person certified by the National Board of Health and Welfare. The board certifies mohels (individuals who conduct ritual Jewish circumcisions) to perform the operations on boys younger than two months but requires the presence of a medical doctor, who must administer anesthesia to the infant.
The government facilitates fundraising by religious groups by offering them the option of collecting contributions through the internal revenue service in exchange for a one-time fee of 75,000 Swedish kronor (SEK) ($9,200) and an annual fee of SEK 21 ($2.60) per member per year. The Church of Sweden is exempted from the annual fee as it, unlike the other religious groups participating in the scheme, does not receive financial support from the SST. Only religious groups registered with the SST may participate in the scheme. Religious groups freely choose what percentage of members’ annual taxable income to collect, with a median collection rate of 1 percent. When an individual joins a registered religious organization, the organization informs the Tax Agency that the new member wants to participate in the scheme. The Tax Agency subsequently begins to subtract a percentage of the member’s gross income and distributes it to the religious organization. The contribution is then noted on the member’s annual tax record. The member’s contribution is not deductible from income tax. Seventeen religious organizations participate in the scheme, including the Church of Sweden, the Roman Catholic Church, four Muslim congregations, and two Syriac Orthodox churches.
The government provides publicly funded grants to registered religious groups through the SST, which is under the authority of the Ministry of Culture. The grants are proportional to the size of a group’s membership. Registered religious groups may also apply for separate grants for specific purposes, such as security expenses.
The military offers food options compliant with religious dietary restrictions. Each military district has a chaplain who holds the position regardless of his or her religious affiliation. According to the law, chaplains may be of any religious affiliation, but all chaplains seconded to the armed forces belong to the Church of Sweden. Regardless of religious denomination, chaplains are required to perform religious duties for other faiths or refer service members to spiritual leaders of other faiths if requested. Jehovah’s Witnesses are exempt from national military service. Armed forces guidelines allow religious headwear. Individuals serving in the military may observe their particular religious holidays in exchange for not taking leave on public holidays.
Religious education to include all world religions is compulsory in public and private schools. Teachers use a curriculum that encompasses lessons about the major world religions without preference for any particular religious group. Parents may send their children to independent religious schools, which are supported by the government through a voucher system and which must adhere to government guidelines on core academic curricula, including religious education. Such schools may host voluntary religious activities outside the classroom, but these activities may not interfere with government guidelines on core academic curricula.
Hate speech laws prohibit threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on several factors, including religious belief. Penalties for hate speech range from fines to a sentence of up to four years in prison, depending on the severity of the crime.
Law enforcement authorities maintain statistics on hate crimes, including religiously motivated hate crimes. Authorities may add a hate crime classification to an initial crime report or to existing charges during an investigation, as well as at the trial and sentencing phase of a crime. In such cases, the penalties would increase.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Swedish Police Authority (SPA) continued to strengthen efforts to combat hate crimes, including antireligious hate crimes, in response to government directives from 2014. The police expanded its designated hate crime investigation units in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo and conducted training for police across the country throughout the year. The National Police Commissioner announced in September that an additional SEK 10 million ($1.22 million) would be spent over the following year to prevent and investigate hate crimes. A follow-up report the SPA issued in February assessed “that it is still too early to comment on the effect with regard to the increased ability to investigate hate crimes.”
The SST offered security training to all 42 religious communities in its network and carried out such training for 75 religious representatives throughout the year. The training sessions taught the community leaders to evaluate and respond to threats, deal with hate crimes, and improve physical security.
The Jewish congregation in Malmo welcomed security grants from the SST that, for the first time, could be spent on hiring security personnel. The share of the congregation’s budget spent on security decreased significantly during the year as a result. The congregation also commended the Malmo police for providing increased protection during religious services and the municipal government for funding public tours of the synagogue. The Stockholm Jewish congregation similarly welcomed the new security grants but nevertheless reported that it spent 20-25 percent of its budget on security.
Several Christian churches and organizations criticized the Swedish Migration Agency for its treatment of asylum seekers who risked religious persecution in their home countries. According to a representative of an ecumenical organization, Migration Agency staff routinely evaluated asylum seekers’ claims to be Christian using questions that cast undue doubt on the asylum seekers’ faith and required an unreasonable level of knowledge about scripture, denominations, and other aspects of Christianity. The Christian newspaper Dagen reported in July and August that the Migration Agency had denied asylum requests of nine self-professed Christians who risked religious persecution in Iran and Pakistan. The representative of the ecumenical organization estimated that the actual number of Christians who risked religious persecution in their home countries after being denied asylum was “much higher.” The Migration Agency announced in July that it would review its procedures, investigate alleged wrongful denials of asylum, and increase religious training for its staff.
In April the Swedish Labor Court ruled against a midwife who had sued the regional administration of Jonkoping for discrimination on religious grounds. Hospitals in the region did not hire the midwife because she refused to participate in abortions, citing her Christian faith. The court ruled the regional administration’s decision to employ other candidates willing to carry out all the duties of a midwife and participate in abortions did not constitute a violation of her religious rights.
The government continued to implement its “national plan to combat racism, similar forms of hostility, and hate crimes,” launched in late 2016, including a focus on Holocaust remembrance. In accordance with the plan, the government gave the Living History Forum an additional SEK 14.1 million ($1.72 million) to promote tolerance, including religious tolerance. Throughout the year, the forum and the National Agency for Education carried out college-accredited training for 1,200 teachers and other school personnel to prevent and combat intolerance, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. The forum also arranged five conferences across the country attended by 1,500 school personnel on the same topics and conducted regular training for police, social workers, and other civil servants. In October the forum launched an online training platform to assist teachers in classes about anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
After the Jewish Association in Umea closed in April following threats and harassment, the Governor of Vasterbotten, Magdalena Andersson, and leading municipal politicians joined a “kippah (yarmulke) walk” in support of the city’s Jewish community. Minister for Home Affairs Anders Ygeman commented, “It is of course completely unacceptable that any person is subjected to threats based on his or her religion. We must therefore ensure that the association has all the support it needs.”
The SST regularly educated municipalities about how to support and communicate with religious minorities and promote religious tolerance on the local level, for example, in conjunction with the planned construction of a mosque in Karlstad.
The SST held courses throughout the year for foreign-educated religious leaders and religious youth leaders to inform them about their rights and responsibilities in accordance with national laws and norms and strengthen their ability to safeguard religious freedom in their communities.
An imam and a Christian leader separately expressed concern about calls from leading politicians for increased government control over government-supported independent schools run by religious groups, as well as calls by some politicians to ban such schools outright. The governing Social Democratic Party decided at a party congress in April to support a prohibition on all religious activities at schools receiving government funds, including independent schools. “I want all children to attend schools free of religious aspects,” stated Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. In April the leader of the Left Party, Jonas Sjostedt, called for a ban on all independent religious schools, adding that “it is completely wrong that schools exist in Sweden that indoctrinate children into a specific religion. To learn about religion is one thing – you should learn about all faiths. But to practice religion in school is another thing; it does not belong there.” The Liberal Party and the SD decided at their respective party congresses in November to support a prohibition on establishing new independent religious schools. Three SD Members of Parliament (MPs) – Jeff Ahl, Johan Nissinen, and Marcus Wiechel – introduced a bill in parliament in September to ban all such schools outright. By year’s end, the government had not taken any action to propose such a prohibition.
In April television broadcaster TV4 aired secretly recorded footage showing a government-funded independent school with a self-identified “Muslim profile” in Stockholm seemingly segregating its pupils by gender on a school bus. Some students and teachers said the school had separated the boys from the girls because the former were being disruptive. Reacting to the broadcast, Prime Minister Lofven said, “I think this is despicable. This doesn’t belong in Sweden,” adding, “We take the bus together here, regardless if you’re a girl or a boy, woman or a man.” The school’s vice principal said it had no intention of separating the children by gender and said, “This is not something that has been known or sanctioned by school management.”
According to a survey conducted by the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet in April, there were 71 independent schools that self-identified as religious, of which 59 were Christian, 11 Muslim, and one Jewish.
Schools continued to sponsor visits to Holocaust sites such as Auschwitz as educational tools. Students participated in such trips regardless of religious background.
The SST distributed grants totaling SEK 88.8 million ($10.84 million) to 42 religious groups in 2016, the latest year for which figures were available, consisting of SEK 53.5 million ($53.5 million) for operating expenses, SEK 10.6 million ($1.29 million) for theological training and spiritual care in hospitals, SEK 15 million ($1.83 million) for building renovations and refugee assistance, and SEK 9.7 million ($1.18 million) to install physical security measures and hire security personnel. Other than for operating expenses, the SST allocated funds based on grant applications for specific projects, which several religious groups often carried out jointly.
Financed in part by a grant of SEK 1.2 million ($147,000) from the Agency for Youth and Civil Society (MUCF) and supported by the City of Malmo, the city’s Jewish congregation and NGO Xenofilia carried out training to combat anti-Semitism and other forms of religious intolerance in schools. A total of 256 teachers, librarians, student counselors, and youth leaders in Malmo and the broader Skane region participated in the project during the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017; 87 percent of participants stated the course had improved their ability to counteract anti-Semitism.
The MUCF distributed SEK 1.4 million ($171,000) to civil society to combat anti-Muslim sentiment in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available. For example, the MUCF awarded the NGO Fritidsforum SEK 811,000 ($99,000) to counter anti-Muslim attitudes at youth recreation centers.
Some Muslim groups and the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities continued to state they considered the law requiring stunning of and/or administration of anesthetics to animals prior to slaughter to be in conflict with their respective religious rituals. The Muslim community remained divided over whether the requirement conformed to halal procedures. The Jewish community reported the law effectively prevented the production of kosher meat. Most halal and all kosher meat was imported.
The Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, the U.S. NGO Anti-Defamation League (ADL), media, politicians, and others criticized the Gothenburg police for approving an application by the NRM for a protest march that would have passed within 500 yards of the Gothenburg synagogue on Yom Kippur (September 30). The Administrative Court of Gothenburg subsequently ruled to move the NRM’s protest further from the synagogue.
There were multiple reports that representatives of the SD, the country’s third largest political party, made denigrating comments about religious minorities. The newspaper Expressen and other media outlets reported in April that Susanne Larsen, the SD’s party chairperson in Halland and a member of the Halmstad municipal council, had made denigrating comments about Muslims on social media and shared articles from anti-Muslim online sources. Larsen denied allegations that in 2014, she wrote, “Muslims are evil and dangerous. What the Swedish government is doing today with the construction of mosques is to recognize Islam as a religion, and then the Muslims have received what they need to continue their mission … War is being imported to all of Europe in the form of Muslims.” Larsen resigned in August, citing personal reasons, and the SD expelled her from the party in September.
In Fargelanda, the SD expelled a local politician and party member after public broadcaster Radio Sweden reported in February that he had made anti-Muslim comments on social media in December 2016: “We should begin by placing pig’s blood and pig’s offal in places where Muslims congregate. When they subsequently get angry and attack us, we can take the next step and claim self-defense as permitted by the law.”
In January the SD forced a local politician to resign from the party after she told a newspaper she “hated all Muslims” and posted other derogatory comments about them online. The local SD leadership condemned her statements.
The SD expelled a local politician in Borlange in February after he referred to a party colleague as a “[expletive] Jew whore” in an audio clip that was circulated in the media.
In September Mattias Karlsson, an SD MP and the party’s former interim leader, called the Church of Sweden’s practice of occasionally inviting imams to read from the Quran in its churches “absurd, directly deplorable, and sickening.” He added, “Reading from the Quran in a Christian church – when the Quran states that Christians should be killed – is almost comparable to reading aloud from Mein Kampfin a synagogue.”
Speaking at the SD’s party congress in November, Martin Strid, a local party representative from Borlange stated, “There is a scale from one to 100. At one end of the scale, you are 100 percent a human, humane. At the other end of the scale, you are 100 percent ‘Mohammedan.’ All Muslims are somewhere along that scale. If you are ISIS, you are pretty close to 100 percent ‘Mohammedan.’ If you are an ex-Muslim, you have come pretty far toward being fully human.” He added, “[Islam] is a religion based on hatred, lies, and bondage … The punishment for leaving Islam is death, the punishment for criticizing Islam is death, and the punishment for making jokes about Islam is death.” SD leader Jimmie Akesson threatened to expel Strid from the party and called his statements “completely unacceptable” and “the worst thing I have ever heard in such a context.” Strid left the SD shortly after the party congress, and members of the public reported him for hate speech to the police and the discrimination ombudsman.
An SD-owned online newspaper, Samtiden, featured authors who made denigrating comments about Islam and Muslims. For example, on May 29, columnist Olof Hedengren called Islam an “existential threat,” and on April 25, he stated, “Islam is nondemocratic, homophobic, segregationist (us versus ‘the infidels’), and demeaning to women.”
In conjunction with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Minister for Home Affairs Ygeman and Minister for Culture and Democracy Kuhnke spoke at separate events to commemorate victims of the Holocaust and call for religious tolerance. Prime Minister Lofven condemned the Holocaust during a visit to Auschwitz in June accompanied by a survivor.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to an annual report by the NCCP, the number of hate crimes, which the NCCP classified as having a religious motivation, reported to the police declined by 24 percent in 2016, (the latest year for which figures were available) to 1,177, compared with 1,558 in 2015. According to the NCCP, “The statistics in the report can indicate how hate crimes are labeled as such in police reports and indicate structures among reported cases. However, the statistics say very little about the prevalence of hate crimes in society because most acts of crime are not reported to the police.”
Reported hate crimes with suspected anti-Muslim motives declined by 21 percent (to 439), those with suspected anti-Christian motives declined by 26 percent (to 289), and those with suspected anti-Semitic motives declined by 34 percent (to 182). As in previous years, Muslims were the most frequently targeted group among reported cases, and Jews were the most targeted relative to the size of the community. The number of reported incidents in the category “other antireligious hate crimes” declined by 19 percent (to 267). The NCCP categorized this group of incidents as those directed at religions other than Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; those between denominations of the same religion; and those related to conversions from one faith to another.
For each group in the NCCP report, the most common type of reported incident was making of illegal threats. The NCCP identified 38 anti-Muslim acts of violence (a decline of 17 percent), 32 reported anti-Christian acts of violence (no change from 2015), 10 reports of anti-Semitic violence (an increase of 25 percent), and 56 acts of violence in the category “other antireligious hate crimes” (an increase of 47 percent). Other types of reported incidents included discrimination, defamation, hate speech, and vandalism and graffiti.
According to the NCCP, the share of total reported hate crimes committed at housing facilities for asylum seekers increased from 1 percent in 2015 to 6 percent in 2016. The increase was particularly pronounced for reported anti-Christian incidents and those in the category “other antireligious hate crimes,” which increased from 7 percent to 13 percent and from 10 percent to 16 percent, respectively.
An NCCP poll released during the year illustrated the issue of underreported hate crimes. Of 11,600 Swedish residents who participated in the poll, 0.6 percent stated they were victims of religiously motivated hate crimes in 2015 – equivalent to approximately 47,000 individuals as a proportion of the country’s population. Only 26 percent of respondents who said they had been victims of such crime, however, had reported the incident to the police, according to the poll. Of those incidents that were reported, the NCCP stated authorities charged suspects in only 4 percent of cases.
The NGO Open Doors released a report describing the results of a survey, conducted between February and May, on religious persecution of Christian migrants in the country. The report consisted of a survey among 123 individuals who arrived in the country after July 1, 2012, and had “experienced religiously motivated persecution in Sweden due to their Christian faith.” The study questioned victims about the types of religious harassment they had experienced; it was not a survey of the prevalence of religiously motivated incidents experienced by all migrants. Respondents reported they had been the victims of at least 512 acts of religious persecution because of their Christian faith since arriving in the country. Fifty-three percent of respondents had reportedly been victims of at least one act of religiously motivated violence, 45 percent had received at least one religiously motivated death threat, and 6 percent were reportedly victims of religiously motivated sexual assault. Other incidents of religious persecution included social exclusion (30 percent), insults (28 percent), and threats (26 percent).
The respondents identified the perpetrators as other refugees and migrants (in 415 incidents), interpreters (in 52 incidents), and others (in 45 incidents). Eighty-one percent of respondents reported the anti-Christian incidents taking place in housing operated by the Swedish Migration Agency. Of the 123 participants in the study, 75 percent were male and 85 percent were citizens of Iran, Afghanistan, or Syria. Converts were overrepresented in the study, constituting 77 percent of participants. According to the report, only 33 respondents reported at least one of the incidents to the police, and only 49 out of 512 incidents were reported to the police. The authors of the report consequently concluded the actual prevalence of religious persecution of Christian migrants was significantly more widespread than suggested by the number of incidents reported to the police.
On December 9, a group of 10-20 masked men threw flaming objects at the synagogue in Gothenburg. No one was injured in the attack, and the building did not catch fire. Members of a Jewish youth group hosting a party in a connecting building hid and alerted police. Police arrested three men for suspected arson, one of whom remained detained by the end of the year, and the other two remained suspects. The prosecutor in charge of the case said she believed the incident was a response to unrest in the Middle East following the recognition of Jerusalem by the United States as the capital of Israel. The community group Together for West Gothenburg arranged a demonstration on December 10, during which they “love bombed” the synagogue by decorating it with flowers and paper hearts.
On December 11, an unknown perpetrator threw two Molotov cocktails at a chapel in a Jewish cemetery in Malmo. There were no injuries, and the chapel did not sustain any damage.
On December 12, two young men issued a bomb threat to a security guard working at the offices of the Malmo Jewish congregation.
At a protest in Malmo on December 8 and 9 in response to the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, protesters shouted “shoot all the Jews” and “the Jews should remember that Mohammed’s army will return,” according to public broadcaster Radio Sweden. The Jewish community in Malmo reported the statements to the police as hate speech.
Prime Minister Lofven condemned the incidents in Gothenburg and Malmo in a statement issued on December 10, which read in part, “I am outraged at the attack on the Gothenburg synagogue yesterday and at incitements of violence against Jews at a demonstration in Malmo. Anti-Semitism has no place in our Swedish society. The perpetrators will be brought to justice.” Prime Minister Lofven and other ministers also spoke at a demonstration of approximately 150 persons in support of religious rights and tolerance outside the Great Synagogue of Stockholm on December 20. Mayors Ann-Sofie Hermansson of Gothenburg and Kent Andersson of Malmo condemned the incidents and issued their support for the Jewish communities in their respective cities. Minister for Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke attended a “kippah (yarmulke) walk” in Malmo on December 16 in support of the city’s Jewish community. Minister for Coordination and Energy Ibrahim Baylan and Minister for the Environment Karolina Skog both visited the Gothenburg synagogue to show the government’s support. Other members of the government, including Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom and Minister for Justice Morgan Johansson, also condemned the incidents in Gothenburg and Malmo, as well as anti-Semitism more broadly.
The country’s largest newspapers condemned the attacks on the Jewish congregations in Gothenburg and Malmo. The country’s largest broadsheet Dagens Nyheter stated in an editorial on December 10, “Anti-Semitism is a specific type of disease that must be strongly attacked wherever it spreads.” The country’s largest tabloid Aftonbladet stated in an editorial on December 11, “It is important that the perpetrators in Gothenburg and Malmo are brought to justice. It must be clear to all that Sweden does not accept any form of anti-Semitism.”
The Jewish association in Umea closed its office in April and was looking for a new location in response to repeated neo-Nazi threats and harassment, which it tied, at least in part, to the NRM. For example, one member received Nazi literature in her home mailbox every year on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day; individuals repeatedly placed stickers featuring Nazi imagery and links to the website of the NRM and painted swastikas and the phrase, “We know where you live,” on the association’s building. Association members received online threats, and neo-Nazis interrupted at least one of the association’s events. In addition, a board member’s car was vandalized in an incident that the police suspect may have been tied to his involvement with the association. Victims reported a number of the incidents, but police had made no arrests by year’s end. Speaking about the closure of the Jewish association’s office, a representative of the ADL said, “This situation simply cannot be acceptable in today’s Sweden.” The ADL wrote to Prime Minister Lofven, urging the government to do more ensure the protection of Jewish institutions in the country.
An imam in Malmo reported that members of his congregation were frequently victims of harassment on religious grounds, mainly in the form of hate speech. According to the imam, most victims did not report the incidents to the police due to a belief that the perpetrators would neither be identified nor brought to justice.
The newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported in May that suspected supporters of ISIS and other extremist groups had threatened and harassed Shia Muslims, including by making death threats.
The country’s largest Shia mosque, the Imam Ali Islamic Center in Jarfalla, was severely damaged on April 30 in what police labeled a suspected act of arson. A representative of the congregation stated, “There is hatred and threats against us because Islamic State considers us their greatest enemy, whereas rightwing extremists view Muslims as a homogenous group.” Police arrested and quickly released a suspect shortly after the incident and had made no subsequent arrests by year’s end. No one was injured in the fire.
A mosque in Orebro was destroyed in a fire on September 26. Police labeled the incident as suspected arson and arrested a suspect on the same day. The suspect admitted to the crime, but police stated they did not believe there was a political or religious motive, citing the suspect’s possible mental illness.
In response to the arson attack on the mosque in Orebro and to “a series of attacks on mosques since 2014 that are becoming more frequent and vicious,” 10 Muslim groups issued a joint statement in September. They “demanded that necessary action is taken to guarantee the safety of the country’s mosques and their visitors,” and added that Muslim groups “have repeatedly pointed out the threat and security risks the country’s mosques. The government agencies in question have responded with an unwillingness to take action.” A leader of a signatory group added in an interview with news service TT, “We think this is so serious that the authorities must act quickly and forcefully to stop similar attacks against mosques and other religious places of worship, such as synagogues and churches.”
The NRM was involved in a number of antireligious incidents during the year, and Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders described the increased activity of the group as a significant concern for members of their faiths. In September a court in Eskilstuna charged an NRM member with hate speech for raising a Nazi flag outside the Eskilstuna city hall to commemorate Adolf Hitler’s birthday on April 20. On September 30, Yom Kippur, approximately 500 supporters of the NRM marched through Gothenburg, clashing with police and approximately 10,000 counterdemonstrators. Jewish community members said their Yom Kippur observance was not disrupted. Police arrested 22 NRM supporters and on December 18, charged NRM leader Simon Lindberg with hate speech for raising his fist and yelling “Hell seger (Hail victory)” during the September 30 march.
On December 18, a court in Gothenburg convicted 11 counterdemonstrators, sentencing eight to prison, for throwing rocks and firecrackers at police during the NRM’s September 30 march in Gothenburg.
A group of self-professed NRM members disrupted the December 20 demonstration supporting religious rights in front of the Great Synagogue of Stockholm, which included the participation of Prime Minister Lofven and other political leaders, by yelling during a speech by Minister of Culture Alice Bah Kuhnke. Police arrested one man for hate speech.
On September 20, the Hudiksvall District Court convicted a man of hate speech for posting on social media a picture of himself wearing a T-shirt with the text “Death to ZOG [Zionist Occupation Government].” According to the magazine Expo, the man “had been involved in the white power movement for several years.”
An imam at a mosque in Helsingborg called Jews “the offspring of monkeys and swine” during a speech at a protest in July against Israeli policies in Jerusalem. A local Jewish group reported the imam to the police for hate speech.
In March the World Jewish Congress released a report analyzing anti-Semitism on social media in the country in 2016. According to the report, there were approximately 2,350 anti-Semitic posts on social media in 2016, a decline from previous years. The report stated the government had been actively working to prevent such occurrences. It reported most of the anti-Semitic discourse consisted of expressions of hatred against Jews and the use of anti-Semitic symbols.
Citing a lack of evidence, a court in Malmo acquitted a man with stated ISIS sympathies of terrorist charges in conjunction with a fire at a Shia mosque in the city in 2016.
In July NRM members vandalized an art installation in Visby commemorating victims of the Holocaust. The perpetrators posted pictures of the incident on their own online Twitter feed.
Individuals posted NRM leaflets on the Malmo synagogue on two separate occasions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives continued to engage regularly with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Culture, MPs, the SST, the office of the national coordinator to combat violent extremism, national and local police, and local government officials on issues related to religious freedom, including concerns of specific religious groups, reports of tensions between religious groups, reports of religiously motivated acts against immigrants and other minorities, and the increased activity of neo-Nazi groups.
Embassy officials spoke to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Gothenburg, Malmo, Stockholm, Umea, and Uppsala about their security concerns and about threats to religious freedom more broadly.
Embassy officials made presentations on two occasions, in February and November, to a group of young evangelical Christian leaders on religious freedom in the country and abroad.
The constitution guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, and, along with the penal code, prohibits discrimination against any religion or religious adherents. The constitution delegates regulation of the relationship between government and religious groups to the 26 cantons. In a referendum, Glarus Canton rejected a ban on face coverings in public; the Cantonal Parliament of St. Gallen enacted a similar ban, not yet in force at year’s end, and Ticino Canton enforced its existing ban. The national government decided against regulating the display of religious symbols in government buildings or by civil servants. The Basel-Landschaft cantonal government sustained a Muslim couple’s complaint against a school that penalized one of their two sons after the boys allegedly refused to shake hands with their female teacher in 2015. A government report concluded protecting Jewish institutions was of national importance and established a working group to assess potential vulnerabilities in the security of religious groups. A Sion court fined a lower house parliamentarian after he publicly condoned the killing of a Muslim in 2015. The government organized a conference to discuss and raise awareness of the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment in society, media, and politics.
Muslim representatives reported an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, attributing it to the increasing politicization of Islam and negative media reporting. They stated many Muslims felt socially excluded and that Muslim women wearing headscarves experienced job and housing discrimination. Jewish representatives reported anti-Semitic incidents, including on social media. There were three reports of physical assaults against Jews in 2016, the most recent year for which data were available. Ahmadis reported discrimination by other Muslims. Several surveys and studies reported bias against Muslims and, in one survey, against Jews. In October vandals desecrated several Muslim gravesites at a recently opened cemetery in Lausanne, and city authorities were prosecuting them. The case was continuing at year’s end.
U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom with the government, focusing on federal government-supported projects aimed at promoting religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy officials met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), civil society officials, and religious leaders from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities as well as representatives of other religious minorities, eliciting their views on the extent of religious discrimination. The embassy hosted an iftar, which included discussions of religious tolerance and religious diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the Federal Statistics Office, as of 2015, the latest year for which figures are available, 37.3 percent of the population (49.7 percent of those who cited a religious affiliation) is Roman Catholic, 24.9 percent (33.3 percent) Reformed Evangelical, 5.8 percent (7.8 percent) other Christian groups, 5.1 percent (6.7 percent) Muslim, and 0.2 percent Jewish. Persons identifying with no religious group constitute 23.9 percent, and the religious affiliation of 1.3 percent of the population is unknown. According to the Federal Statistics Office, of the population over the age of 15 belonging to other Christian groups, 2.3 percent is Orthodox Christian or Old-Oriental Christian, 2.3 percent is other Protestant, including evangelical, Pentecostal, and charismatic Christian, and the remaining 1.3 percent includes Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Christian Catholics (also known as Old Catholics). Religious groups together constituting 1.3 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Bahais, and Sikhs.
Approximately 95 percent of Muslims are of foreign origin, with over 30 countries represented. Media reports state most come from countries of the former Yugoslavia, while others come from Albania, Turkey, North Africa, and Somalia. According to a 2017 Bertelsmann Foundation report, 51 percent of the Muslim community is Sunni; the remainder includes 6 percent Alevis, 5 percent Shia, 7 percent others, including Ahmadis, and 19 percent who do not identify with a particular Islamic group. Muslim populations are largest in the cities of Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Winterthur, Bern, and St. Gallen. Approximately 50 percent of Jewish households are located in Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Lausanne, and Lugano.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In its preamble, the constitution states it is adopted in the name of “Almighty God.” It guarantees freedom of faith and conscience, states each person has the right to choose his or her religion and to profess it alone or with others, and prohibits religious discrimination. It states the confederation and cantons may, within the scope of their powers, act to preserve peace between members of different religious communities.
The federal penal code prohibits any form of “debasement,” which is not specifically defined, or discrimination against any religion or religious adherents. Inciting hatred or discrimination, including by electronic means and on the basis of religion, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine. The law also penalizes anyone who refuses to provide a service because of someone’s religion, organizes, promotes, or participates in propaganda aimed at degrading and defaming adherents of a religion, or “denies, justifies, or plays down genocide or other crimes against humanity.”
The constitution delegates regulation of relations between the government and religious groups to the 26 cantons. The cantons offer legal recognition as public entities to religious communities that fulfill a number of prerequisites and whose applications for recognition are approved in a popular referendum. The necessary prerequisites include a statement acknowledging the right of religious freedom; the democratic organization of the religious community; respect for the cantonal and federal constitutions and rule of law; and financial transparency.
The Cantons of Basel, Zurich, and Vaud also offer religious communities legal recognition as private entities. This gives them the right to teach their religions in public schools. Procedures for obtaining private legal recognition vary; for example, in Basel the approval of the Canton’s Grand Council (the cantonal legislature) is required.
There is no law requiring the registration of a religious group in the cantonal commercial registry. Religious foundations, characterized as institutions with a religious purpose that receive financial donations and maintain connections to a religious community, must register in the commercial registry. To register, the foundation must submit an official letter of application to the respective authorities and include the organization’s name, purpose, board members, and head office location as well as a memorandum of association based on local law, a trademark certification, and a copy of the organization’s statutes.
The granting of tax-exempt status to a religious group varies from canton to canton. Most cantons automatically grant tax-exempt status to those religious communities that receive cantonal financial support, while all other religious communities must generally establish they are organized as nonprofit associations and submit an application for tax-exempt status to the cantonal government.
All of the cantons, with the exception of Geneva, Neuchatel, Ticino, and Vaud, financially support at least one of four religious communities that the cantons have recognized as public entities – Roman Catholic, Christian Catholic, Reformed Evangelical, or Jewish – with funds collected through a mandatory church tax for registered church members and, in some cantons, businesses. Only religious groups recognized as public entities are eligible to receive funds collected through the church tax, and no canton has recognized any other religious groups as public entities. The church tax is voluntary in the Cantons of Ticino, Neuchatel, and Geneva, while in all others an individual who chooses not to pay the church tax may have to formally leave the religious institution. The Canton of Vaud is the only canton that does not collect a church tax; however, the Reformed Evangelical and Roman Catholic denominations are subsidized directly through the cantonal budget.
The constitution prohibits the construction of minarets. The prohibition does not apply to the four existing mosques with minarets established before the constitution was amended to include the ban. New mosques may be built without minarets.
The constitution sets education policy at the cantonal level, but municipal school authorities have some discretion in implementing cantonal guidelines. Most public cantonal schools offer religious education, with the exception of schools in Geneva and Neuchatel. Public schools normally offer classes in Catholic and/or Protestant doctrines, with the precise details varying from canton to canton and sometimes from school to school; a few schools provide instruction on other religions. The municipality of Ebikon, in the Canton of Lucerne, offers religious classes in Islamic doctrine, as does the municipality of Kreuzlingen, in the Canton of Thurgau. In some cantons, religious classes are voluntary, while in others, such as in Zurich and Fribourg, they form part of the mandatory curriculum at the secondary school level; however, schools routinely grant waivers for children whose parents request them. Children from minority religious groups may attend classes of their own faith during the religious class period. Minority religious groups must organize and finance these classes and hold them outside of the public schools. Parents may also send their children to private religious schools at their expense or homeschool their children.
Most cantons complement traditional classes in Christian doctrines with more general classes about religion and culture. There are no national guidelines for waivers on religious grounds from religion classes not covering doctrine, and practices vary.
A federal animal welfare law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior anesthetization, effectively banning kosher and halal slaughter practices. Importation of traditionally slaughtered kosher and halal meat is legal, and such products are available.
Religious groups of foreign origin are free to proselytize, but foreign missionaries from countries not members of the EU or the European Free Trade Association must obtain a religious worker visa to work in the country. Visa requirements include proof the foreigner does not displace a citizen from a job; that he/she has completed formal theological training; and that he/she will be financially supported by the host organization. Nonrecognized religious groups must also demonstrate to cantonal governments that the number of their foreign religious workers is not out of proportion to the size of the community when compared to the relative number of religious workers of cantonally-recognized religious communities.
Foreign missionaries must also have sufficient knowledge of, respect for, and understanding of national customs and culture; be conversant in at least one of the three main national languages; and hold a degree in theology. The law requires immigrant clerics with insufficient language skills and knowledge of local culture and customs, regardless of religious affiliation, to attend mandatory language courses, as well as related specialist training, to facilitate their integration into society. In some instances, the cantons may approve an applicant lacking this proficiency by devising an “integration agreement” that contains certain goals the applicant must try to meet. The host organization must also “recognize the country’s legal norms” and pledge it will not tolerate abuse of the law by its members. If an applicant is unable to meet these requirements, the government may deny the residency and work permits.
The law also allows the government to refuse residency and work permits if a background check reveals an individual has ties to religious groups deemed “radicalized” or has engaged in “hate preaching,” defined as publicly inciting hatred against a religious group, disseminating ideologies intended to defame members of a religious group, organizing defamatory propaganda campaigns, engaging in public discrimination, denying or trivializing genocide and other crimes against humanity, or refusing to provide service based on religion. The law authorizes immigration authorities to refuse residency permits to clerics the government considers “fundamentalists” if authorities deem internal security or public order is at risk.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The Canton of Glarus voted against a ban on face coverings, while the Canton of St. Gallen enacted such a ban (though it had not entered into force by year’s end), and Ticino enforced its existing one. The Federal Council (cabinet and collective head of government) declined to issue regulations on the display of religious symbols in public buildings or by public officials. Muslims continued to call for more Islamic burial grounds; Muslims were able to bury their dead according to Islamic rites in 10 of 26 cantons. A Jewish group reported increasingly strict school policies restricted the wearing of religious garb, such as skullcaps, by Jewish as well as Muslim students. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld a school requirement in Basel that Muslim parents send their children to mixed-gender school swimming lessons. Basel’s government sustained a complaint by Muslim parents of two sons, one of whom had been punished at school for allegedly refusing to shake his female teacher’s hand. Following a government report in October calling the protection of Jewish institutions of national importance, the government established a working group to address security vulnerabilities of religious groups.
In May the Canton of Glarus rejected a referendum on proposed legislation submitted by a politician from the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) that would have banned burqas, niqabs, and other face coverings in public. The proposal was based on a Ticino Canton law banning the public wearing of facial coverings for religious reasons or for purposes aimed at maintaining anonymity while perpetrating violent acts in public. Violators were subject to fines of up to 10,000 Swiss francs (CHF) ($10,300).
In January the city of Lugano in Ticino fined a citizen, a Muslim woman, 250 CHF ($260) for wearing a niqab in violation of the Canton of Ticino’s face covering ban, shortly after the ban’s implementation in July 2016. The woman faced another possible fine by the city of Locarno, also in Ticino, for wearing a niqab in that city on the first day of the ban’s implementation. Locarno had not fined the woman by year’s end.
In November the Cantonal Parliament of St. Gallen passed new legislation penalizing the wearing of facial concealments in public if the concealment posed “a threat to public security or religious and/or societal peace.” The law, which stated threats would be determined on a case-by-case basis and did not specify penalties for violators, had not come into effect by year’s end. While the legislation did not specifically mention the burqa, political discussions about the law predominantly focused on Islamic garb, including the burqa and niqab, with the SVP calling the decision “a stance against extremism.”
In December the Cantonal Parliament of Valais declared invalid a people’s initiative (a type of referendum) by the SVP that called for a ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools. The Valais branch of the SVP appealed the decision, with the case pending at the Federal Court at year’s end.
In June the Federal Council decided against introducing federal rules and regulations regarding the public display of religious symbols in government buildings or the wearing of religious symbols by public officials. The council said it based its decision, which responded to a request by parliament’s lower house to examine the legal framework for displaying and wearing religious symbols, on a government-commissioned study by the Swiss Center for Human Rights. The center concluded that court cases over religious symbols were rare and that large cantonal differences in the traditions and use of religious symbols would make it difficult to devise national regulations.
Muslims were able to bury their dead according to Islamic rites in 10 out of 26 cantons. In 2016, the municipalities of Baden in the Canton of Aargau, Glarus North in the Canton of Glarus, and Lausanne in the Canton of Vaud issued permits for establishing Islamic burial grounds in their cemeteries. Muslim representatives continued to call for more Islamic burial grounds in municipalities to reduce the financial costs of repatriating deceased family members to their country of origin. The representatives added that second-generation migrant Muslims increasingly wanted to be buried in the country.
In an article published in a government magazine in June, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities (SIG) stated increasingly strict school policies about religious attire and religious observances resulted in education authorities more frequently denying Jewish children school dispensations for religious reasons. According to SIG, while stricter school policies were mainly directed at Muslim students, they also had the potential to increasingly restrict Jewish students’ religious expression, such as wearing the Jewish skullcap (kippah). Some members of the Muslim community also stated they believed the schools’ restrictions were primarily aimed at Muslim students.
In January the ECHR upheld a policy in the Canton of Basel-Stadt requiring Muslim parents to send their two daughters to mixed-gender school swimming lessons. The parents had been fined 1,400 CHF ($1,450) for refusing to allow their daughters to participate in the mandatory lessons, citing their religious beliefs. The parents appealed to the ECHR after losing an appeal in Federal Court in 2012. The ECHR judges found freedom of religion had been “interfered with” but that the move was legitimized by the aim of “social integration” and the fine was appropriate.
In May the government of the Canton of Basel-Landschaft ruled in favor of a Muslim couple’s complaint against the school of their two teenage sons for ordering one of the boys (the other reportedly withdrew from the school) to perform 10 hours of social work as punishment in 2016, after both sons purportedly refused in 2015 to shake hands with their female teacher for religious reasons. The parents successfully argued the school could not name a specific instance in which the son’s teacher had actually insisted that he shake hands with her. The boys’ alleged refusal to shake their teacher’s hand resulted in Basel migration authorities suspending the citizenship application of the Muslim family in April 2016. According to press reports, the citizenship application remained suspended. Also in reaction to this incident, the Basel education directorate informed local schools in 2016 they could fine parents up to 5,000 CHF ($5,150) if their children repeatedly refused to adhere to a school’s code of conduct, which could include an obligation to shake hands with teachers. The case generated widespread local and international media attention.
A government report released in October concluded the protection of Jewish institutions was an “issue of national importance,” following repeated calls by Jewish representatives to increase government efforts to safeguard the community’s security. The report reversed the conclusion of a previous report the interior ministry had issued in November 2016 stating that, while the government was required to protect Jews at risk, it had no responsibility to protect Jewish institutions. According to the October report, the government established an interdepartmental working group to assess potential security gaps in the protection of religious groups, including the Jewish and Muslim communities, and prepare a protection plan. The government had not issued the protection plan by year’s end. The Federal Office for Justice also established a coordination office for religious issues during the year to improve the government’s handling of religious matters.
In September the Parliament of the Canton of Basel cast a nonbinding vote to pay a maximum contribution of 500,000 CHF ($532,000) per year for the security of the local Jewish community.
In March the authorities of Bern-Mittelland in Bern Canton rejected a complaint by the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS), a group comprised of approximately 40 active members, after the city of Bern denied a 2016 application by the ICCS to host a public event aimed at promoting peace and the denunciation of ISIS. Bern-Mittelland officials justified the city of Bern’s application denial by stating security forces would not have been able to guarantee the safety of the demonstrators because of the country’s “increased threat level” and the “radical Islamic ideology” espoused by the ICCS. The ICCS appealed the Bern-Mittelland rejection of their complaint, but local government authorities rejected the initial appeal in October, and the Bern-Mittelland Administrative Court denied a second appeal in December.
In September the Federal Commission Against Racism, a committee in the Federal Department of Home Affairs tasked with combating discrimination, organized a conference to raise awareness and discuss the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment in society, media, and politics. In his opening speech, Federal Councilor and Minister for Home Affairs Alain Berset stressed the importance of not equating Islam with extremism.
In August the district court of Sion in the Canton of Valais sentenced lower house SVP parliamentarian Jean-Luc Addor to a suspended fine of 18,000 CHF ($18,500) and an additional unsuspended fine of 3,000 CHF ($3,100) for breaching the antiracism law after the man publicly condoned the killing of a Muslim in a St. Gallen mosque in 2015 with a tweet that read, “We want more!”
During a party meeting in October, the SVP proposed a new list of measures for combating religious extremism, including the surveillance of imams and the prohibition of overseas financial support of Muslim communities. The President of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Switzerland (FIDS), Montassar BenMrad, and the Association of Islamic Organizations of Zurich called the proposed measures anti-Muslim. The youth branch of the Social Democratic Party stated the SVP’s proposed measures would lead to social divisions and the marginalization of Muslims. Two weeks after the SVP proposed the measures, Social Democratic Party President Christian Levrat said that parties such as the SVP and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) were promoting anti-Muslim sentiment with their rhetoric, although Levrat did not refer specifically to the SVP measures. In December the CVP also presented a new list of proposals pertaining predominantly to Muslims, which included calls for a burqa ban and other prohibitions against “discriminating” attire, such as wearing headscarves at school.
In May a Zurich court convicted a man of defamation after he “liked” Facebook posts that attacked the head of an animal rights group – describing him as racist, anti-Semitic, and fascist and his organization as neo-Nazi.
The government continued to grant visas primarily to religious workers who intended to replace individuals serving in similar functions in the same religious community. Turkish nationals applying for short- and long-term religious worker visas needed to show they were associated with the Turkish Central Authority for Religious Affairs.
Pursuant to past court decisions, the government continued not to issue missionaries of certain denominations, such as Mormons, religious visas because they did not possess a theology degree. Mormon missionaries from Schengen Area countries could work, however, because they did not require visas to enter the country.
As of November the Federal Service for Combating Racism, which was responsible for matters related to religious discrimination, had provided 100,000 CHF ($103,000) to fund nine projects focusing on religious freedom, including combating religious discrimination and prejudice against Muslims and Jews. One project, titled Swiss Muslim Stories, entailed producing and showing short films about Muslims in the country in a campaign to counter anti-Muslim sentiment and extremism.
Although not a requirement, schools continued to include Holocaust education as part of their curriculum, and to participate in the Holocaust Day of Remembrance on January 27. Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr as well as the 2017 Chair of the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Benno Battig, and the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Historical Services, Francois Wisard, attended an official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at the Yehudi Menuhin Forum in Bern.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and chaired the alliance during the year. During its chairmanship, the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs supported several Holocaust education projects, including the publication of a collection of testimonials by Holocaust survivors and mobile exhibitions on the last Swiss Holocaust survivors. In November the government launched a new initiative for introducing Holocaust study topics at the University of Teacher Education in Lausanne beginning in 2018.
The country is a signatory to the Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets. The government reported Holocaust-era restitution was no longer a significant issue. Both the government and SIG stated there were no litigation or restitution claims regarding real or immovable property covered by the Terezin Declaration pending before authorities.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: The government, NGOs, and media outlets reported several cases of religiously motivated physical assault against Jews in 2016; an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the German speaking areas; a decrease in the French speaking area; and a significant rise in anti-Semitic speech on social media. A report by a government-NGO group cited fewer anti-Muslim incidents in 2016, the last year for which data were available, and said most incidents were verbal. Muslim representatives reported an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, including continuing suspicion, discrimination, and social exclusion from their communities, which they attributed to increasing politicization of Islam and negative media reports. Ahmadi Muslims said other Muslim groups refused to recognize Ahmadis as Muslims and continued to exclude them from opportunities to engage with the government. Several surveys and studies reported social bias against Muslims and, in one survey, Jews. A Green Party parliamentarian resigned after comparing the transport of pigs for slaughter to the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Vandals desecrated Islamic gravesites in Lausanne and city authorities initiated criminal proceedings against them. NGOs and religious groups organized interfaith events and programs to promote tolerance. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The 2016 Anti-Semitism Report, produced jointly by the SIG and the NGO Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism, cited 25 anti-Semitic incidents (excluding anti-Semitic hate speech online) in the German-speaking part of the country in 2016, compared with 16 incidents in 2015. The SIG attributed the increase in recorded incidents to a potential improvement in reporting by the public. The report documented two physical assaults against Jews. In 2016, the Geneva-based Intercommunity Center for Coordination against Anti-Semitism and Defamation reported 153 anti-Semitic incidents in the French-speaking region, compared with 164 cases in 2015, of which it deemed one “grave” (involving acts against the integrity and wellbeing of a person, including aggression, harassment, or destruction of property), and five “serious” (involving acts such as anti-Semitic letters, insults, or graffiti). The report described an increase in anti-Semitic incidents motivated by the myth of a global Jewish conspiracy controlling the world, as well as a steep rise in anti-Semitic incidents on social media, primarily by right-wing extremist groups.
In April the Consulting Network for Racism Victims, a collaboration between the NGO humanrights.ch and the Federal Commission Against Racism, consisting of a network providing consulting and counseling services related to racism, released its report for 2016. It documented a decrease in anti-Muslim incidents but an increase in discrimination against persons of Arab background. According to the report, anti-Muslim incidents were predominantly verbal and occurred mainly in public spaces, at work, at school, and in neighborhoods. In one incident, a doctor refused to treat a Muslim woman’s children because she did not want to shake hands with him for religious reasons. The doctor reportedly told the woman Muslims had to conform to local customs. In another incident, a woman told a Muslim woman waiting at the bus stop, “Go home, we don’t want any headscarves here!”
Muslim representatives, such as FIDS President BenMrad, said the increasing politicization of Islam by right-wing political parties and polarizing media narratives about Muslims led to growing anti-Muslim sentiment. Other Muslim representatives, including Nida-Errahmen Ajmi, from the Frislam Muslim youth association in Fribourg, and Islamic scholar Rifa’at Lenzin, stated Muslims perceived society to regard them with constant suspicion felt pressured to defend Islam and their religious practices, which led to increased social isolation. Muslims also reported female Muslims wearing headscarves were discriminated against in the labor and housing markets but did not cite any examples.
In August the innkeeper of an apartment hotel in the Canton of Graubunden posted a sign reading: “To our Jewish guests – women, men, and children: Please take a shower before you go swimming … If you break the rules, I’m forced to close the swimming pool for you.” The innkeeper posted a similar notice regarding access times for a dedicated freezer the hotel provided for strict kosher guests to use. The innkeeper later removed the signs and publicly apologized for the incident. While the Federal Commission Against Racism called the signs “apparently discriminatory,” SIG stated it did not perceive the incident as anti-Semitic.
In September Green Party parliamentarian Jonas Fricker resigned from office after being criticized for comparing the transport of pigs with the mass deportation of Jews to Auschwitz during a debate on a fair food initiative. “The last time I saw a documentary on the transport of pigs, it conjured up images of the mass deportations to Auschwitz from the movie Schindler’s List,” he said, adding, “The people who were brought there had a small chance of surviving. The pigs are faced with certain death.” Federal Councilor Alain Berset, who presided over the debate, said the Federal Council rejected the comparison in all its forms, while the man’s party colleagues distanced themselves from his comments. The parliamentarian apologized for his “inappropriate comparison” during the debate, and attributed his comments to “naiveté.”
In October the magazine Swordsmen, a quarterly German publication described by other press as neo-Nazi, featured a deceased German SS Officer on its cover, which appeared in approximately 20 newsstands run by the supermarket Coop. According to Coop, a distribution error by an external supplier caused the incident. Coop ordered all of its newsstands to remove the magazine.
In December the president of the youth branch of the SVP in the Canton of Neuchatel, Steve Cao, resigned from office after media made public a tattoo on the man’s lower arm, which cited the Nazi SS slogan, “My honor is my loyalty.” SVP President Albert Rosti called on the youth branch to take a closer look at its members and stated, “right-wing extremism has no place in our party.”
Several studies and surveys throughout the year reported evidence of anti-Muslim sentiment and sometimes anti-Semitism in society. According to a biennial survey on multicultural coexistence the Federal Statistics Office published in April, 17 percent of respondents consistently agreed with negative Muslim stereotypes, while 12 percent consistently agreed with negative Jewish stereotypes. A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation found Muslims generally earned less than non-Muslims, although employment rates were similar, and that 35 percent of Muslims said they had experienced discrimination in the previous 12 months. The survey found 98 percent of Muslims (it excluded refugees arriving since 2010) felt connected to the country. It reported that 17 percent of Swiss residents – a low number relative to other European countries surveyed – opposed having Muslim neighbors. A separate survey by the national newspaper Sonntagsblick found 80 percent of respondents wished to prohibit Salafism, while 65 percent advocated conducting Friday prayers in mosques in a national language; 61 percent endorsed a ban on the foreign financing of mosques, and 38 percent said they felt threatened by Islam.
Another study, in which the average respondent’s age was 19, found 46 percent of youths regarded Muslims as a “threat to their way of life.” A study released in the fall by the Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society cited a growing focus by local media on radicalization and terrorism when reporting on Islam and Muslims. According to the study, there was a noticeable absence of positive media coverage related to the Muslim community.
Ahmadi Muslims said many Muslim groups refused to recognize them as followers of Islam and excluded them from opportunities to engage in joint dialogue with the government.
According to media and NGO reports, the main groups responsible for engaging in anti-Semitic rhetoric were Geneva Noncompliant, European Action, the Party of Nationally Oriented Swiss (PNOS), and the Swiss Nationalist Party – the French-speaking branch of PNOS. The NGOs Foundation against Racism and anti-Semitism and the Society for Minorities in Switzerland reported an increase in online anti-Semitic rhetoric of neo-Nazi groups. The NGOs also said some groups in the French and Italian-speaking parts of the country succeeded in recruiting new members.
In January a military tribunal launched legal proceedings against six soldiers who took a photograph of themselves performing the Hitler salute next to a swastika drawn in the snow. The case was pending at year’s end. In July the cantonal police of Schwyz opened investigations into the appearance of several banners bearing Nazi symbols along a highway. Investigations continued at year’s end. In August the Federal Tribunal backed the Cantonal Court of Geneva’s sentencing of three men for violating the antidiscrimination law after they performed a gesture resembling the Hitler salute in front of Geneva’s Beth-Yaacov Synagogue in 2013. The court sentenced the men to suspended fines.
In December 2016, the state prosecutor of the Canton of St. Gallen rejected, due to a lack of evidence, a complaint filed by the Foundation against Racism and Anti-Semitism against Swiss neo-Nazi band Amok and German neo-Nazi bands Stahlgewitter, Confident of Victory, Excess, and Frontalkraft for performing what the NGO perceived to be racist and anti-Semitic songs at what was widely described as a right-wing extremist concert attended by 6,000 people in the Canton of St. Gallen two months earlier.
Jewish groups, such as SIG and the NGO Intercommunity Coordination Against Anti-Semitism and Defamation (CICAD), reported a rise in anti-Semitic incidents on social media. They did not provide additional details, but CICAD stated right-wing extremists carried out 68 percent of anti-Semitic incidents on social media in 2016.
In October vandals desecrated several Islamic gravesites in the Bois-de-Vaux cemetery in Lausanne, which was established in 2016. The vandals uprooted plants, overturned headstones, and sprayed messages on the burial grounds that called on Muslims to leave the country. City authorities initiated criminal proceedings in October. A few days after the incident, approximately 500 people participated in a pro-Muslim march through the city, carrying banners reading, “Stop Islamophobia!” One participant told the press, “We stand in solidarity with the 30,000 Muslims in this canton.”
Many NGOs and representatives of the religious community coordinated interfaith events to promote tolerance locally and nationwide. The Week of Religions in November featured more than 100 interfaith events nationwide, including exhibitions, music and dance concerts, film screenings, roundtables, panel discussions, and communal dinners. SIG, FIDS, and NGOs continued to support a project to encourage tolerance and address misconceptions between Muslims and Jews. The independent Zurich Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, established in 2016 and run by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, provided a platform to study the religious histories and cultures of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as to discuss contemporary developments related to the religions, by organizing educational courses, speeches, panel discussions, and excursions.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials discussed with the government’s Federal Service for Combating Racism Swiss federal government-supported projects for promoting religious freedom and tolerance.
Embassy officials met with religious associations, including FIDS, NGOs, such as humanrights.ch, representatives from civil society, and leaders from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities as well as representatives of other religious minorities, including the Bahai, Alevi Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu communities, to discuss discrimination against religious groups and availability of religious education for religious minorities.
U.S. embassy staff participated in events promoting religious tolerance, including an iftar, a tour of Bern’s House of Religions – a community-funded association working to strengthen religious and cultural dialogue – and a visit to a Sikh temple. U.S. embassy staff spoke about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance at these events. U.S. embassy staff organized an iftar to discuss religious tolerance and diversity with Muslim representatives and persons involved in the integration of religious minorities.
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death. There were continued media reports the government and its Shia Muslim militia allies killed, arrested, and physically abused members of opposition groups which were predominantly Sunni Muslim. According to multiple observers, the government continued to employ tactics aimed at bolstering the most extreme elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict with various resistance groups so it would be seen as one in which a religiously moderate government was facing a religiously extremist opposition. As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment, including a chemical weapons attack in April resulting in mostly Sunni causalities. The government reportedly damaged and destroyed places of worship, including 63 churches and numerous mosques. According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its control by continuing to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran to travel to Syria and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces. The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayers, and limit the activities of religious groups, and said the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.” According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.
The UN Human Rights Council and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled. Two explosions in March near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, a well-known Shia pilgrimage site, killed 44 civilians and injured 120, the majority of whom were Iraqi Shia pilgrims. HTS claimed responsibility for the attack. Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of Syrian territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilians through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings of men, women, and children on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God. In addition, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI), ISIS’s continued executions of those perceived to violate its strict religious rules applied to women accused of adultery and men accused of sodomy. Moreover, ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria because of their religious beliefs to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war.” While many Yezidi women were liberated when Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing. ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for what ISIS said were religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress. ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution. It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam. HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against religious minorities. HTS also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist ideology including through schools and youth training camps.
There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and HTS targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric. Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other minority groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian conflict was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers. Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence including kidnappings at the hands of violent extremist groups. Neighborhoods, towns, and villages once religiously diverse were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated, seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists. There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.
The U.S. President and the Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in Syria leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely. On August 15, the Secretary of State stated ISIS was responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims, as well as for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities. Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Security for the Levant, the Representative for Syria, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18 million (July 2017 estimate). At year’s end there were more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees, primarily Sunni, registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries and 6.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates approximately 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.
U.S. government estimates put the Christian population at 10 percent of the overall population, although media and other reports of Christians fleeing the country as a result of the civil war suggest the Christian population is now considerably lower. Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, and NGOs estimate fewer than 20 Jews remain in the country. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.
Sunni Muslims are present throughout the country. Shia Muslims live mostly in rural areas, particularly in several majority-Shia towns in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces. Twelver Shia generally live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. The majority of Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia Governorate, but they also have a presence in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs, and Damascus. The highest concentration of Ismailis is in the city of Salamiyeh, Hama Governorate.
Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox churches, the Eastern Catholic (or Uniate) churches (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian churches. Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast section of the country. While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has since moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq. Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Governorate of Suweida, where they constitute the majority of the local population. Yezidis, found primarily in the northeast, were previously also in Aleppo.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in these areas there is often a breakdown in law and order leaving militias, often sectarian in nature, in a dominant position. In areas of the country controlled by opposition or terrorist groups, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these do not disturb the public order. There is no official state religion, although the constitution states the religion of the president of the republic is Islam. The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.
The constitution states “[issues] of personal status of the religious communities is protected and respected,” and “the citizens are equal in rights and duties, without discrimination among them on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or creed.” Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it has violated their rights.
According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees. This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism. Neither the government nor the state security court defined the parameters of what constituted “Salafist” activity or explained why such activity is illegal. Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment.
The law restricts proselytizing and conversion. It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to Islamic law. The law recognizes conversion to Islam. The penal code prohibits “causing tension between religious communities.”
By law all religious groups must register with the government. Recognized religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.
All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.
Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools. There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula. Religious instruction covers Islam and Christianity only, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Members of religious minority groups may choose to attend public schools with Muslim or Christian instruction, or attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.
For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their affiliation with Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce. A Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man, but a Christian woman may legally marry a Muslim man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in a Muslim cemetery unless she converts to Islam. If a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the law states the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.
The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges. In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence. A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce. Additionally, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.
The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less. When a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is not entitled to an inheritance from her husband unless she converts to Islam.
An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation. Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: There were continued reports the Alawi-led government’s war with opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among Syria’s majority Sunni population. According to civil society activists and journalists, the government continued to engage in extrajudicial killings and detentions. In May the U.S. released satellite imagery showing evidence of a crematorium within the Sednaya military prison compound which would enable the government to dispose of the bodies of executed prisoners, the vast majority of whom were Sunni Muslims. Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to detain tens of thousands of citizens without affording them due process, and there were reportedly multiple forced disappearances of Sunnis and continued massive and systematized deaths in state-controlled detention facilities. Sources reported government-affiliated forces and militias seized homes in majority Sunni communities, after “reconciliation” agreements forcefully displaced entire communities. Sources reported the regime intended to alter the demographics of the evacuated communities by installing non-Sunni residents, whom they viewed as supportive of the regime’s rule.
According to some analysts, religious and sectarian factors were present on all sides of the civil war, but there were also other factors underlying the violent competition for political power and control of the central government in Damascus, and violence committed by the government against opposition groups and civilians inherently had sectarian and nonsectarian elements. According to many observers, the government’s policy, aimed at eliminating opposition forces threatening its power, was sectarian in its effects, although it was not motivated primarily by sectarian ideology.
In an August speech, President Bashir Asad described enemies of Syria in religious terms. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks that destroyed or damaged places of worship and religious cultural property, including 63 churches and numerous mosques. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.
According to numerous reports, government and partner forces – including Iranian-backed Shia militias composed mostly of foreigners – killed, arrested, and physically abused individuals in attacks on opposition-held territory as part of their effort to defeat the armed insurrection mounted by opposition groups, as well as terrorist groups, and to intimidate Sunni communities that may support opposition groups. According to the SNHR, the civilian death toll for the year was 10,204 and approximately 207,000 between March 2011 and March 2017. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry stated Sunnis accounted for the majority of civilian casualties and detainees. The government, according to the UN and press, resumed its chemical weapons attacks on civilians, with an April bombing in predominantly Sunni Idlib Province involving sarin that killed at least 83 civilians.
Civil society activists and journalists reported the government continued to engage in extrajudicial executions and detentions. In May the U.S. released satellite imagery and evidence the government installed a crematorium within the Sednaya military prison compound which could be used to dispose of the bodies of executed prisoners with little evidence. The vast majority of tortured and executed prisoners were Sunni Muslims, which analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition. The government reportedly continued to imprison, and on some occasions summarily execute, individuals it deemed to be associated with opposition groups, including armed opposition groups, civil society activists, and media activists, including those whose religious programming did not meeting government criteria. Many citizens previously reported missing were eventually accounted for in prisons, while others were later determined to have been executed by the regime.
Some opposition groups and terrorist groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist groups in statements and publications and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, giving government targeting of the opposition a sectarian element. NGO sources also stated the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from Sunni extremist groups, while simultaneously bolstering radical Sunni groups and controlling the activities of religious groups. As a result, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists, according to international media reports.
Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to detain tens of thousands of citizens without due process. The UN and human rights organizations reported the continued detention as well as the disappearance and forcible conscription of civilians, IDPs, and fighters during and following the government’s December 2016 assault on rebel-held Aleppo. Sources stated the abuses reported by a UN COI, including multiple forced disappearances and continued massive and systematized deaths in state-controlled detention facilities, remained ongoing. The SNHR reported at least 6,500 cases of arbitrary arrests, the vast majority of detentions Syrian government forces committed during the year. Human rights groups and opposition activists stated the majority of detainees the government took into custody were Sunni Arabs.
By the end of the year, the government and its partners had placed the Sunni-majority Damascus suburb of East Ghouta under a tight siege. A UN report stated that 1,114 children in East Ghouta were suffering from various forms of malnutrition, including the most dangerous form, “severe acute malnutrition.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated in October 2017 the siege of Eastern Ghouta was an outrage and he called on the parties to the conflict to allow badly needed food and medical supplies into the area. Subsequent regime military operations in East Ghouta killed and wounded thousands of civilians, causing tens of thousands to flee the fighting and forcing tens of thousands more to evacuate under terms of surrender.
The UN COI, SNHR, and Syrian activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the regime. Analysts said this was evidenced by shifts in Homs. Groups such as the SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature. Such violence contributed to the widespread displacement of civilians.
According to media reports, the presence of foreign sectarian militias fighting on the side of the government exacerbated and sharpened the sectarian element of the war. Reports indicated the government relied on Shia foreigners from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and elsewhere to target Sunni-majority opposition groups.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continued to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants residing in Iran to assist the government in its conflict against armed opposition groups. HRW reported Iran supported and trained thousands of Afghans to fight in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun Division since 2013. HRW and other sources estimated the size of the division to be up to 14,000 fighters. According to analysts the use of Shia fighters from as far as Afghanistan as soldiers in an armed conflict against a mostly Sunni opposition further exacerbated sectarian divisions.
According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers. It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.
Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. The banners expressed the willingness of individuals to sacrifice themselves for Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad revered in Shia Islam. In addition, Hezbollah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.
The government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of a form of Islam it deemed appropriate. State media allowed only those clerics it approved to preach, and booksellers were prohibited from selling literature that was against the government’s interpretation of Islam.
According to academic experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and other security services, according to media and academic reports; however, the senior officer corps of the military reportedly continued to include individuals from other religious minorities. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.
Media and academic experts said the government continued to portray the armed resistance in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance. The official state news agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on the government’s fight against “takfiri terrorist organizations” throughout the year (a group is defined as takfiri if it declares another Muslim or a Muslim group as apostate). In an August speech, President Asad stated Syria was “facing a takfiri terrorist enemy the likes of which has never been seen throughout history in terms of treachery, malevolence, and hatred, an enemy backed by several regional and international parties which have been seeking for years to impose their dominance over the whole area through the gate of Syria.” According to international media reports, leaders from a number of minority religious groups, such as representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities as well as prominent Druze activists, continued to state the government had their support because it protected them from violent Sunni extremists.
The government continued to threaten Sunnis publicly, warning against communications with foreign coreligionists and defining such communication as opposition political or military activity. For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the international religious hierarchies governing some religious groups. It continued to prohibit, however, contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.
Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons. SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the opposition of serving “the Zionist project.” The government repeated its claim a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s conflict.
The government continued to allow foreign Christian faith-based NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering. It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive approval from the Ministry of Religious Endowments to operate. Security forces continued to question these organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.
The SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in the destruction of or damage to places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques, in addition to targeted attacks against places of worship the regime claimed were occupied by armed actors. On November 8, regime warplanes fired missiles in front of al Kabir Mosque in Kafr Batna town in eastern Ghouta east of Damascus, damaging it severely, according to the SNHR. The government continued to state the mosques it targeted were being utilized by opposition forces for military purposes.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Summary paragraph: Nonstate actors, including ISIS, HTS – a merger of Salafist groups but mostly al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (JAN), a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization – and other groups, such as Lebanese Hezbollah, designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and other governments, controlled portions of the country’s territory in opposition to, or support of, the government. These nonstate actors were responsible for killings, physical mistreatment, kidnappings, and arrests of members of religious groups and those they suspected of opposing their rule. Particularly ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law. On April 15, HTS targeted the predominantly Shia Aleppo district of Al-Rashidin, with a car bomb that killed 96 individuals, including 68 children. Following the attack, dozens of persons went missing, with armed groups taking at least 17 civilians hostage, according to a September COI report. Many rebel groups self-identified as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis. Armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law. Religious offenses ISIS deemed punishable by death included blasphemy, apostasy, and cursing God.
As of December Coalition forces and the SDF liberated the vast majority of Syrian territory that ISIS once controlled and governed. As such, ISIS no longer governed over large populations and was limited in its ability to subjugate religious groups to harsh treatment. It continued, however, to operate as an insurgency and target individuals on the basis of religion on a smaller scale.
ISIS regularly targeted and massacred Shia, and used its media arms to target, demonize, and incite violence against Shia, including the May massacre of 52 civilians in the eastern district of Aqareb al-Safi. Numerous sources stated ISIS also targeted Christians throughout the country. A monitoring group reported ISIS massacred more than 100 Christians in the Christian town of Al-Qaryatayn in October, after temporarily capturing it. Activists, media, and ISIS sources reported ISIS continued to force Christians and other minorities in areas under its control to pay a protection tax –164,000 Syrian pounds ($320) per person, according to a Christian organization – or convert to Islam, or be killed.
There were reports throughout the year by activists and local media organizations that ISIS executed and imprisoned Sunnis in areas of its control for violating regulations based on its strict interpretation of Islamic law. Materials released by ISIS depicted the executions and explained the religious justifications for them.
ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law. A September COI report noted two explosions in March near the Bab al-Saghir cemetery, a well-known Shia pilgrimage site. The explosions detonated 10 minutes apart in the parking lot of the cemetery, where buses transporting pilgrims were parked. The explosions killed 44 civilians and injured 120, the majority of whom were Iraqi Shia pilgrims. HTS claimed responsibility for the attack. According to the same report, on April 14, a truck bomb exploded in Al-Rashidin near Aleppo, killing evacuees from Fu’ah and Kafraya – two predominantly Shia Muslim towns – who believed the truck would deliver food. The attack killed 95 persons, including 68 children and 13 women, and injured 276, including 42 children and 78 women. Onlookers yelled sectarian insults at the Shia victims. No party claimed responsibility for the attack, and HTS and Ahrar al-Sham explicitly denied involvement. In May ISIS militants attacked the town of Aqarib al-Safiyah and attempted to attack the nearby Al-Manbouja village in Hamah, both predominantly populated by Ismaili Muslims. The attackers killed 52 civilians, the vast majority Ismailis. Survivors reported being verbally insulted by ISIS fighters on account of their religious beliefs.
Human rights groups reported unidentified militias in July killed Dr. Elias Kafarkis Isaq, an Assyrian Christian and former dean of Al-Furat University in Hasakah Province. He was the second Assyrian Christian from that university killed, and the Assyrian Observatory for Human Rights and press reports stated the crimes were part of a campaign targeting Christians.
According to a 2016 UN COI report, Ahrar al-Sham and HTS took hostages, especially women and children, to force prisoner exchanges with the government or other armed groups or for ransom. A September 2017 COI report stated, although some hostages were released during the year, up to 100 men from Adra al-Omaliyah belonging to minority religious groups remained hostages, waiting to be exchanged. Up to 175 women and children from Adra al-Omaliyah were still detained at the end of the year. The status of other individuals kidnapped because of their religious affiliation remained unknown. Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, kidnapped in 2013, remained unaccounted for at year’s end. The condition of Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, whom ISIS kidnapped in 2013 in Raqqa, remained unknown.
Thousands of the Yezidi girls and women abducted in Iraq and brought to Syria remained missing after the liberation of ISIS-held Syrian territory. Starting in 2014, ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as several Christians and Turkmen, and brought them to Syria for sale as sex slaves in markets or as rewards for ISIS fighters as “spoils of war” because of the captives’ religious beliefs. According to numerous sources, ISIS fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions. In interviews with the COI, the women described multiple rapes by multiple men, including incidents of gang rape. A 2016 COI report entitled They Came to Destroy: ISIS Crimes Against the Yazidis concluded ISIS “committed the crime of genocide as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Yezidis, thousands of whom are held captive in the Syrian Arab Republic where they are subjected to almost unimaginable horrors.”
Terrorist and other armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law. According to opposition armed groups and media reports, this included the authorization of public executions and physical abuse of minorities accused of working with the government, particularly Alawites. In July HTS cemented its power in Idlib by defeating Ahrar al-Sham forces and monopolizing key assets in the province, including many of the local sharia courts. HTS also dissolved local councils in Idlib that were not supporting its objectives.
According to ISIS statements and other sources, in areas under its control, ISIS police forces continued to administer summary punishments for violations of the ISIS morality code. Men and women continued to face public beatings and whipping for smoking, possessing alcohol, listening to music, having tattoos, conducting business during prayer times, not attending Friday prayers, fighting, and not fasting during Ramadan.
HST continued to characterize its fight against the government in derogatory terms aimed at delegitimizing and dehumanizing government supporters on the basis of their Alawite religious identity. In media releases, HST threatened to cleanse Aleppo of Alawites and mutilate their bodies. HST and other rebel groups also used sectarian language to describe the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and SDF.
ISIS, HTS, and some Islamist opposition groups continued to call for establishing a Sunni theocracy in press statements and media interviews.
Antigovernment protests, particularly those that occurred under the auspices of violent extremist groups, and publicity materials from antigovernment groups continued to include anti-Alawite and anti-Shia messages. HTS sponsored several protests in Idlib in which some protestors carried signs denouncing Shia Islam, and the group erected billboards in the province declaring, “The Shia are the enemies of Islam.”
Until the loss of the bulk of its territory, ISIS continued to use curricula based on its interpretation of Islam in schools it governed. According to observers, the group banned several subjects it considered contrary to its ideology, including music, art, and aspects of history it deemed nationalist. ISIS schools justified ISIS’ declaration of a caliphate and described other forms of governance as un-Islamic. The textbooks also sought to justify practices including execution, excommunication, and other punishments for apostasy, heresy, and other religious crimes, according to multiple media reports and the group’s own statements. ISIS publicized efforts to “re-educate” teachers who had previously taught in government schools. ISIS maintained a number of “Cubs of the Caliphate” youth training camps throughout its areas of control, releasing several videos documenting the training, including footage of weapons training and video of youth executing prisoners held by ISIS. According to activists from Raqqa and former educators in the city, many families refused to send their children to ISIS schools, choosing to homeschool them instead. HST and affiliated groups continued to use schools, youth training camps, and other means to teach children their Salafi-jihadi philosophy in areas under their control. In “proselytization sessions,” a term used by HST, the group invited children to participate in games whose content was based on al-Qaida’s religious beliefs.
In March, according to multiple media outlets, the Democratic Union Party – the political arm of People’s Protection Units (YGP) – shut down the headquarters of rival Kurdish and Assyrian parties and announced there would be no gatherings in al-Qamishli to celebrate the Nowruz festival, which had Zoroastrian religious origins.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There continued to be reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, cultural rivalries, and sectarian rhetoric.
Christians reported they continued to feel threatened by religious intolerance among the opposition as the influence of violent extremist groups increased. According to observers, the Sunni Islamist character of the opposition continued to drive members of the Christian community to support the government.
The self-segregation of members of internally displaced religious groups into towns and neighborhoods organized along sectarian lines continued. Internally displaced Sunnis, however, reportedly continued to relocate to traditional Alawite areas along the coast.
Advocacy groups reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversion relatively rare, especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions banned by law. They also reported societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or leave the country to practice openly their new religion.
The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the opposition’s primary political umbrella organization, and the Syrian Negotiations Committee (SNC), an opposition umbrella organization responsible for negotiating on behalf of the opposition with the regime, continued to condemn attacks and discrimination against religious groups, both by the government and by extremist and terrorist groups. Many members of the political opposition openly called for an inclusive and democratic state, in which religious minorities would have freedom to practice their faiths. The SNC’s blueprint for reaching a political solution to the conflict called for a six-month negotiating process leading to a single transitional governing body responsible for overseeing a single, decentralized state that would oversee an 18-month negotiation on constitutional reform and election. The SNC’s blue print commits to a democratic, nonsectarian state.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The President and the Secretary of State continued to condemn the government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The President repeatedly stressed the need for a political solution to the conflict that would be inclusive of all religious groups in the country. In August the Secretary of State said ISIS was “clearly responsible for genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims, as well as for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.”
In pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens, the Secretary of State continued to work with the UN special envoy for Syria, the moderate opposition, and the international community to support the UN-led Geneva intra-Syria negotiations. The Secretary hosted representatives from 17 like-minded nations to discuss the future of Syria during the UN General Assembly session in September. The Secretary affirmed the U. S. commitment to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and nonsectarian character; to ensuring state institutions remain intact; and to protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.
The U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012. U.S. government representatives met with Syrian religious groups and leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere in the region and the world, such as His Beatitude John X, the Patriarch of Antioch, leaders from the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, and the former Imam Moaz al-Khatib of the Umayyad Mosque, as part of its effort to promote an inclusive political settlement for the conflict. The U.S. Acting Deputy Secretary of State, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Levant, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, and other high ranking U.S. officials met with members of the Orthodox Christian, Sunni, Druze, and Alawite communities to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations, countering sectarian violence, and encouraging positive dialogue between members of the opposition and minority communities who felt threatened. The Deputy Assistant Secretary and other officials participated in dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on increasing religious tolerance and countering extremist violence, including meetings with Yezidi-rights groups and meetings with leaders of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. U.S. government officials continued to press the political opposition to expand and include representatives from all religious backgrounds in order to better reflect the diversity of the country’s population. The U.S. continued to support the documentation of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict through the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic and through direct support to Syrian-led documentation efforts.