The federal constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and free exercise of religious beliefs is guaranteed. The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any specific religion. In response to instances of religious intolerance, particularly directed at followers of African-originated religious groups, the federal government launched national public awareness campaigns on social media to highlight respect for religious plurality and announced the creation of a national Network for Protection of Victims of Religious Intolerance. A number of state and municipal-level legislatures throughout the country held public hearings on combating religious intolerance. New initiatives to combat religious intolerance included enhanced training for law enforcement officials involved in combating crime based on religion.
According to the federal government Secretariat of Human Rights (SDH), its hotline received 19 percent more calls about religious intolerance than the previous year. According to a report from the non-governmental organization (NGO) Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance (CCIR), 70 percent of religious intolerance cases between 2012 and 2015 in the state of Rio de Janeiro were directed at practitioners of African-originated religions. In August a group of men broke into a temple for the practice of an African-originated religion in Nova Iguacu (on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro), destroying religious images and statues, and burning the temple to the ground. In April an Ubanda practitioner stabbed his evangelical Christian neighbor for lighting candles that he said would bring “negative vibrations.” The victim was admitted to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries; the assailant was detained by police.
Embassy officials met with members of the National Committee for the Respect of Religious Diversity (CNRDR), which includes members from various federal ministries, civil society organizations, and faith-based organizations to discuss tolerance and religious diversity. U.S. officials also met with the president of the Palmares Foundation of the Ministry of Culture to learn about its initiative to promote respect for the practice of African-originated religions in the country. The Ambassador discussed interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance in meetings with the president and secretary general of the Catholic National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) and the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, among others.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 205.8 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2010 census, 64.6 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and 22 percent is Protestant. Approximately 60 percent of Protestants belong to Pentecostal churches, 18 percent to “mainstream” Protestant churches, and 22 percent to other Protestant groups. Other Christian groups, each constituting less than 1 percent of the population, include Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Atheists, agnostics, those who claim no religion, and those whose religion is unknown make up roughly 8 percent of the population.
Other groups, each constituting less than 1 percent of the population, include Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and African and syncretic religious groups such as Candomble and Umbanda. There are a small number of adherents of indigenous religious beliefs.
According to the 2010 census, there are approximately 35,200 Muslims, while the Federation of Muslim Associations of Brazil states the number at approximately 1.5 million. Other observers estimate the number of Muslims to be between 400,000 and 500,000. There are significant numbers of Muslims in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba, and Foz do Iguazu, as well as in smaller cities in the states of Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.
According to the Jewish Confederation of Brazil, there are approximately 125,000 Jews, 65,000 of whom reside in Sao Paulo State and 25,000 in Rio de Janeiro State. Many other cities have smaller Jewish communities.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The federal constitution states that freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and the free exercise of religious beliefs is guaranteed. The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any specific religion. The law provides penalties of up to five years in prison for crimes of religious intolerance. Courts may fine or imprison for two to five years any individual who displays, distributes, or broadcasts religiously intolerant material. It is illegal to write, edit, publish, or sell literature that promotes religious intolerance.
Religious groups are not required to register to establish places of worship, train clergy, or proselytize, but groups seeking tax-exempt status must register with the Department of Federal Revenue and the local municipality. States and municipalities have different requirements and regulations for obtaining tax-exempt status. Most jurisdictions require groups to document the purpose of their congregation, provide an accounting of finances, and have a fire inspection of any house of worship. Local zoning laws and noise ordinances may limit where a religious group can build houses of worship or hold ceremonies. A constitutional provision provides the right of access to religious services and counsel in all civil and military establishments.
Public schools are required to offer religious instruction, but neither the constitution nor legislation defines the parameters. By law the instruction should be nondenominational and without proselytizing, with alternative instruction for students who do not want to participate. The law prohibits public subsidies to schools operated by religious organizations.
The law requires religious access, including for members of African-originated religions, in public institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and other institutions. African-originated religions are understood, but not officially recognized, to be “religions whose theological and philosophical essences have their roots in traditional African religions.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The SDH released the preliminary results of its Report on Religious Intolerance and Violence in Brazil covering the period 2011-2015. The report included press coverage of religious violence and intolerance reported to national ombudsmen, and analysis of current jurisprudence. Of the 409 articles published on religious violence and intolerance from 2011 to 2015, 53 percent involved victims who practiced African-originated religions. Print media published more than half of these stories, 212, in 2015, a sharp increase from the 84 published in 2014 and 45 in 2013.
SDH requested data on reported incidents of religious intolerance from 113 ombudsmen offices; only 37 responded to the inquiry. Of these 37 offices, 14 reported they had received 1,031 complaints of religious violence and intolerance during the reporting period. The largest proportion of victims – 27 percent – professed to practice African-originated religions, and 83 percent of all reported incidents took place in private homes.
On January 21, the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance, the federal government hosted a panel discussion in which the representative of the Ministry of Culture’s Palmares Foundation – mandated to promote and protect the country’s culture of African descent – spoke about the link between racism and cases of religious intolerance. The Palmares Foundation launched a new national Network for Protection of Victims of Religious Intolerance at the event.
In July the city of Sao Goncalo completed demolition of the home where Brazilians founded the African-originated religion known as Umbanda. The city first scheduled demolition of the house in 2011. The CCIR stalled complete demolition for five years while it led preservation efforts, lobbying the city mayor, the governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the Office of the President, and the Institute of National Historic and Artistic Heritage. The Office of the President has yet to deliver on promises to build an Umbanda Museum at the site.
Although religious instruction was optional, a large portion of public schools considered it mandatory and continued not to offer alternatives or opt-out options for students. The SDH Report on Religious Intolerance and Violence in Brazil found 25 percent of 110 legal cases from 2011 to 2015 concerned incidents that occurred in schools.
The federal government launched national public awareness campaigns on social media to highlight respect for racial equality and religious plurality. #AcrediteNoRespeito (I believe in respect) and #SouFilhoDoBrasil (I am a child of Brazil) were hashtags used to underscore the cultural importance of African-originated religions. The federal government created a new website to raise awareness about religious diversity and intolerance. Another initiative included capacity building and training for government officials, particularly in law enforcement to assist them in understanding crimes involving religion. In November the state government of Paraiba, for example, carried out training on combating racism and religious intolerance in the city of Joao Pessoa for members of the civil police units that work in the Integrated Operations Center.
The CNRDR identified ensuring safe spaces for refugees of various religions to practice their faiths, and maintaining respect for the country as a secular state as their goals. In April the Committee released a statement expressing concern for the “depredation of spaces of worship of religions of African origin.”
A number of state and municipal legislatures held public hearings on combating religious intolerance. In a hearing in the Federal District of Brasilia, the governor cited the creation of a specialized police station to receive reports of crimes related to discrimination on the basis of race, sexual orientation, and religion. The Federal Public Ministry in Rio Grande do Sul State held a hearing to develop practices to combat what it characterized as the “trivialization” of public demonstrations of political and religious intolerance.
The Rio de Janeiro city government launched the Municipal Office for the Respect of Religious Diversity in May. Representatives of religious groups and local NGOs (including the CCIR, the NGO responsible for the Annual Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom in Rio de Janeiro) criticized the city government for filling the office’s 19 positions with individuals they said were political allies who lacked experience and technical knowledge of religious affairs. The representatives said the lack of dialogue between the city government and civil society before the office opening called into question the legitimacy of the initiative.
The report also analyzed 110 legal cases. Contrary to the trend exhibited in print media stories, 45 percent of the victims in the cases examined were Adventist while only 7 percent were practitioners of African-originated religions. The cases included a Seventh-day Adventist college student in Sao Paulo who requested makeup sessions for night classes missed because of the Adventist observance of the Sabbath. Similarly, the Center for Jewish Education requested an alternative date for the National Secondary School Examination on behalf of 22 Jewish students because the original exam date coincided with Shabbat; the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in both cases. In another case, the Federal Public Ministry sued Google Brazil to secure the immediate removal from YouTube of videos that fostered prejudice against African-originated religions; the Ministry also asked for the identities of the account holders responsible for posting the videos for possible criminal investigation.
The SDH report recommended more awareness raising campaigns about institutional resources, highlighting the low number of complaints filed with ombudsmen as an example of the disconnect between the general population and public institutions available to provide assistance. The report cited the 12th National Conference on Human Rights, which took place in Brasilia in April, during which participants shared the difficulty of filing formal complaints of religious violence and intolerance at police stations and public prosecutors’ offices throughout the country.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Between January and September SDH’s Dial 100 human rights hotline registered 300 complaints related to cases of religious intolerance, exceeding the 252 total complaints during 2015. The CCIR released in January a national report that revealed that 70 percent of religious intolerance cases in the State of Rio de Janeiro during the period July 2012 to August 2015 were directed against practitioners of African religions. In April CNRDR expressed concern about an increasing trend of religious intolerance and called for respect of religious beliefs and the secular state.
In April an Ubanda practitioner stabbed his evangelical Christian neighbor for lighting candles that he said would bring “negative vibrations.” The victim was admitted to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries; the assailant was detained by police.
In August a group of unidentified men broke into a temple for the practice of an African-originated religion in Nova Iguacu (Baixada Fluminense, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro), destroying religious images and statues and burning the temple to the ground. The person responsible for the temple stated the attack was motivated by religious intolerance. Police registered the incident as a case of domestic break-in instead; the police were investigating the case at year’s end.
Civil society representatives and government officials continued to state that religious intolerance was often related to racism.
Givania Maria da Silva, the former Secretary for Traditional Community Policies of the former Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights, attributed acts of aggression against African-originated religions to historical religious discourse that demonized these religions for polytheism, deities of various genders, and racism.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador discussed interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance in meetings with the president and secretary general of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops (CNBB) and the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, among others. Embassy officials met with CNRDR to discuss tolerance and religious diversity. U.S. officials also met with the president of the Palmares Foundation of the Ministry of Culture to learn about its initiative to promote respect for the practice of African-originated religions in the country.
The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i school of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths, but has banned several religious groups it considers “deviant.” Phase one of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC) has operated in parallel with the existing common law-based criminal justice system since 2014 and primarily involves offenses punished by fines or imprisonment, such as propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, close proximity of unmarried people of the opposite sex, and “indecent behavior,” which is defined broadly. The SPC applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. During the year, phases two and three of the SPC, which would include punishments such as stoning to death for fornication, sodomy, or apostasy, and amputation of the hand for thievery, were not implemented. The government has not published the criminal procedure code that is a necessary precursor to implementation of these phases of the SPC. During the year, religious enforcement officers investigated an international franchise on suspicion of “propagating a religion other than Islam.” A fatwa barring church and temple expansions or renovations remained in place; only six churches and one Chinese temple were recognized in the country. Throughout the year, the government published guidance for respecting Islam, especially during Ramadan, and stood by previous warnings that the public display of religions or cultures other than Islam, including Christmas decorations and Chinese traditional lion dances, could amount to an offense under the SPC and be prosecuted.
Some non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. Islamic authorities organized a range of proselytizing activities and incentives to explain and propagate Islam. Anecdotal reports indicated some Muslims who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. In August an individual on social media called for the demolition of churches along the highway in Malaysia near the border with Brunei, accusing the churches of proselytizing Christianity to Bruneian Muslims. The posting launched a social media debate in both countries about religious freedom. According to Christian and community leaders, more Muslims were open to allowing other religious groups to celebrate their holidays than in the years since the SPC was launched.
Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador and other U.S. government officials including the President, Secretary of State, U.S. Trade Representative, and U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities repeatedly expressed to officials at all levels concern that full implementation of the SPC, including the severe penalties in the remaining phases, would undermine several of the country’s international human rights commitments, including the freedoms of religion and of expression, and prohibitions on torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials also urged the government at the highest levels to defer the implementation of phases two and three of the SPC and encouraged the government to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment of Punishment (UNCAT); sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and engage in interfaith dialogue and open academic discussions on religion and human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 437,000 (July 2016 estimate). According to a 2011 census, approximately 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions including indigenous beliefs.
There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups. According to official statistics (Brunei Darussalam Statistical Yearbook 2015), ethnically Malay Bruneians comprise 66 percent of the population, and are presumed to be Muslim as an inherited status. The Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian. Indigenous tribes such as Dusun, Bisaya, and Murut make up approximately 4 percent of the population and are roughly 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder are other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices. The remaining fifth of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Asia, and stateless residents. According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.
The legal system is divided between civil law and sharia, which run parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. While the civil courts are based on common law, the sharia courts follow Islamic jurisprudence, including no law of precedence. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC. In some cases non-Muslims are subject to sharia courts.
Almost all crimes included in the first phase of the SPC, currently in force, were already prohibited in the country; however, the SPC applies some laws to non-Muslims for the first time, increases penalties such as fines, and broadens some definitions. Phase one of the SPC runs in parallel with the existing common law-based criminal law system and primarily involves offenses punishable by fines or imprisonment. It expands restrictions in longstanding domestic sharia law on drinking alcohol, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, close proximity between unmarried people of different genders, and propagating religions other than Islam. It includes a prohibition of “indecent behavior,” which criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.” The SPC applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, as well as to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempted from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers or payments of zakat (obligatory annual alms-giving). It states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation.”
The second phase of the SPC, which would include amputating the hands of thieves, is not scheduled to come into effect until one year after the publication of a Sharia Courts Criminal Procedure Code (CPC). The government has not published the CPC. Phase three of the SPC – which includes punishments, in certain situations, such as stoning to death for rape, adultery, or sodomy, and execution for apostasy, contempt of the Prophet Muhammad, or insult of the Quran – is scheduled to be implemented two years after the publication of the CPC. The punishments included in phases two and three include different standards of proof than the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, could be supported by a confession in lieu of evidence at the discretion of a sharia judge.
The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which the government defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and its main defense against extremism. A government body, the MIB Supreme Council, seeks to spread and strengthen the MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.
The Religious Enforcement Division under the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) is the lead agency in many investigations related to religious practices, but other agencies also play a role. MORA’s Religious Enforcement Division leads investigations on crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. Cases involving crimes that are not covered by sharia legislation such as human trafficking are investigated by the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF). Cases involving crimes covered by both sharia and the existing civil code are also investigated by the RBPF and referred to the Attorney General’s Chamber (AGC). In these cases, the AGC determines in each case if a specific crime should be prosecuted and whether it should be filed in the sharia or civil court. No official guidelines for the AGC’s determination process have been published.
The government bans several religious groups it considers deviant, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, Al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Bahai Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas made by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is publicly available on the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ website. The SPC also bans any practice or display of “black magic.”
The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam.
The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the first phase of the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($13,840), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam, including the SPC itself, though no cases, arrests, or charges under this provision have been reported.
Muslims are legally permitted to renounce their religion until phase three of the SPC is implemented but must inform the Islamic Religious Council in writing. The law states the conversion of children is not automatic with the conversion of the parent. A person must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert to Islam. Children are presumed to be of the same religion as their parents.
The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks for leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information requested by the registrar. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, to reserve space in public buildings, and to apply for permission to raise funds. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The general penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to BND 10,000 ($6,920), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.
The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private.
The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum and administered by the Ministry of Education (MOE), and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA. MOE schools teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge, which is required for all Muslim children aged seven to 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Ugama instruction in the MORA schools is a seven to eight-year course that teaches the day-to-day practice of Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school and is mandatory for Muslim students aged seven to 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency. Ugama is studied alongside the national curriculum. Alternatively, MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education. Muslim parents who fail to enroll their children in ugama school may face a BND 5,000 ($3,460) fine, imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year, or both. The law promulgates the officially recognized Shafi’i school and does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs.
Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction in beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam during school hours. Schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religion to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law also requires practitioners to obtain official permission before teaching any matter relating to Islam. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer non-Shafi’i Islam education in private settings.
Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith.
All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to mixed-faith parents. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.
Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (close proximity between the sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.
The country is not a party to the ICCPR.
The government continued to enforce sharia restrictions and prosecute offenses under the SPC. It continued to apply sharia to Muslims and, for certain offenses, non-Muslims, resulting in arrests, fines, and confiscations, as well as to impose traditional Islamic social norms more broadly. These included placing limitations on businesses, activities suspected of encouraging mingling of men and women, proselytizing, and religious education.
The authorities continued to arrest and prosecute persons for offenses under both the SPC and longstanding sharia. From January to August the government reported 52 criminal cases prosecuted under sharia including not respecting the month of Ramadan, intercourse or pregnancy out of wedlock, and alcohol consumption. During the same period the government also prosecuted 55 khalwatcases, resulting in 46 convictions including one of a non-Muslim. Not all of those investigated or accused of sharia crimes were formally arrested. There were some reports of administrative penalties, such as travel bans or suspension from government jobs, for individuals accused but not yet convicted of khalwat, but application of such practices reportedly was not consistent. Implementing regulations governing sharia proceedings were not issued by year’s end.
In August a local man was arrested for wearing women’s clothing in a public area as part of a joint operation between religious enforcement officers and the RBPF, but was not convicted. Other arrests and prosecutions under sharia were generally not reported by local media.
The government continued to enforce restrictions on non-Muslims proselytizing to Muslims or people with no religion. During the year, religious enforcement officers investigated an accusation of “propagating a faith other than Islam” against a manager of an international franchise.
Friday sermons were uniform across all mosques with approved texts drafted by MORA and preached by registered imams. The government periodically warned the population about “outsiders” preaching non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism. Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in December warned students studying abroad not to misuse the internet and to be cautious of religious gatherings so as to not “fall into any activities that violate any laws and religion.” In February the sultan called for the strengthening of da’wah (dissemination of Islamic teachings) amid “uncertain times” and “social ills” affecting the country.
During the Christmas season religious leaders and government officials warned citizens that the act of publicly displaying symbols of religions other than Islam could be seen as the propagation of religions other than Islam, an offense under the SPC. In February the minister of religious affairs spoke at an education seminar in which he encouraged Muslims to be respectful and tolerant of other religions as commanded in the Quran, while also reminding them of the restriction imposed in Islam that forbids one to imitate or copy other religious practices or beliefs. There were no reports of raids or charges, although businesses and members of the Christian community reported practicing self-censorship. As with past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the Chinese temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members. There were no reports of charges. Members of the royal family and the minister of religious affairs publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with extensive coverage in state-influenced media.
There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear the tudong (a traditional Muslim head covering) and many women did so. Muslim civil servants were expected to join prayers in the workplace, and some employees reported being pressured by supervisors to attend. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.
The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic religious teaching materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution.
The MOE required courses on Islam and MIB in all schools, with non-Muslims exempted from some religious requirements. The government reported many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. MORA posted religious teachers in some embassies abroad to teach Brunei citizens in those locations. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.
Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. The government tolerated non-Islamic religious education in private settings, such as at home or in approved churches. All church-associated schools were recognized by the MOE and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to teach religions other than Shafi’i Islam.
Churches confirmed that a longstanding fatwa that discourages Muslims from assisting in perpetuating non-Muslim faiths continued to inhibit expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities. With only six approved churches in the country, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Chinese temples were also subjected to the same fatwa, with only one official Chinese temple in the country preserved as a cultural heritage. Data from 2015 indicated there were 99 registered mosques. Christian churches and associated schools were generally allowed, for safety reasons, to repair and renovate buildings on their sites, but the approval process remained lengthy and difficult and there were reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated permitting process requirements. Government officials denied permission for a church to shift the location of one of its facilities. Christian worshippers reported difficulty accessing churches on some Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled to other times.
Throughout the year, the government enforced business hour restrictions for all businesses, requiring they close for the two hours of Friday prayers. Religious enforcement officers continued to enforce a ban on restaurants serving dine-in food during the fasting hours of Ramadan, although take-out food to be consumed in private was permitted, and officers issued verbal warnings to restaurants and customers found in breach of the ban. According to Chinese social media, at least three restaurants were raided, with religious enforcement officers issuing warnings to those present. The government continued to enforce a ban on eating, drinking, or smoking in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, which was applied to both Muslims and non-Muslims. The government reported 17 convictions during the year for not respecting Ramadan.
The government maintained a longstanding ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, and a restriction against the import or consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslims. Religious authorities partnered with the RBPF in conducting “anti-vice raids” in which they confiscated alcoholic beverages and nonhalal meats brought into the country without proper customs clearance. They also monitored restaurants and supermarkets to ensure conformity with halal practices. In June the sultan warned the government to avoid shortcuts in halal certification that could violate Islamic law. Religious authorities allowed non-halal restaurants and non-halal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.
The government continued to favor the propagation of Shafi’i beliefs and practices, particularly through public events and the education system.
The government clarified that the use of certain words, such as “Allah” by non-Muslims, did not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity, and there were no reports during the year of charges or prosecutions based on violations of using words or expressions in question.
Incentives offered to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, included help with housing, welfare assistance, or funds to perform the Hajj. In April the Islamic Da’wah Center gave three Muslim convert families new homes using zakat funds, and in August, seven converts each received BND 14,000 ($9,688) in funding for the Hajj as a gift from the sultan. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media, which reported conversions to Islam increased in the first half of the year. According to government statistics, each year an average of 500 people convert to Islam. Converts included citizens and permanent residents, as well as foreigners. Official government policy supported the Islamic faith through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (a nation that remembers and obeys Allah).
Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings required approval from the sharia courts, and officiants, who are imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.
Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.
The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity, which were used in part to determine whether he or she was Muslim; for example, all Malays were assumed to be Muslim. Female Muslim citizens were required to wear a tudong in photographs on national identity cards and passports, and non-Muslim women were required to dress conservatively. Ethnic Malays traveling in the country were generally assumed to be Muslim and required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Religious authorities reportedly checked identity cards for ethnicity when conducting raids against suspected violators of sharia. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications and foreign Muslims were subject to the same laws governing local Muslims.
In February the sultan called on his officials to proceed with finalizing the CPC, the prerequisite for implementing phases two and three of the SPC. Officials continued to state the harshest punishments included in the later phases of the SPC, if implemented, would rarely if ever be applied because of the extremely high standards of proof required.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. There were fewer reports of public debate and more reports of Muslims being open to allowing other religious groups to celebrate their holidays than in the years since the SPC launched. For example, Christian leaders reported more Muslims wished Christians a “Merry Christmas” and attended holiday parties.
Some Muslims who wished to convert to another religion reportedly feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community. If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same. Some non-Muslims said they felt pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam.
Residents who questioned the SPC or Islamic values on social media sometimes received online abuse and threats, and reported official monitoring. One social media user relayed how positive reactions to his postings criticizing sharia would disappear on some sites while only the negative comments remained. Some vocal activists who challenged established norms reported family and friends would pressure them to keep quiet out of fear they would attract the attention of authorities or damage the family’s reputation.
In August a self-identified Bruneian made a post on social media calling for the demolition of churches in Malaysia along the highway between Brunei and the Malaysian city of Miri. The individual accused the churches of proselytizing to Muslims by displaying “provocative” words praising Jesus Christ and God on exterior walls. The post launched a social media debate in which online users also identifying as Bruneian chastised the poster, many of whom applauded the religious unity displayed in Miri.
Some Muslim women who did not cover their heads before the SPC was implemented said they started to do so because of social pressure.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
After the sultan indicated he would continue implementation of the SPC, the U.S. President, Secretary of State, and U.S. Trade Representative exchanged letters with him and Foreign Minister II Pehin Lim Jock Seng in which U.S. officials urged the government to commit, including publicly, that implementation of sharia would be consistent with international human rights obligations and standards; to ratify the UNCAT and the ICCPR; and to establish a national human rights commission.
In July the Secretary of State met with the foreign minister II in Laos to emphasize the SPC, if implemented, should be fully consistent with Brunei’s international human rights commitments and obligations, including the UNCAT.
The U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities (SRMC) returned to the country in August to follow up on previous conversations and visits. He met with the sultan, the state mufti, minister of religious affairs, and other key officials. He urged the government to delay further implementation of the SPC until it could ensure that implementation would not undermine the country’s international human rights commitments. The SRMC encouraged open academic discussions on religion and human rights and interfaith dialogue. The meetings received wide and positive press coverage. The SRMC followed up on these points in a meeting with the foreign minister II in September.
The Ambassador and other U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns and suggestions about religious freedom throughout the year to government officials on all levels. U.S. officials coordinated with other governments including Australia and the United Kingdom to raise concerns about implementation of the SPC and suggested postponing implementation. U.S. embassy officials emphasized the seriousness with which the United States takes assurances from the government that the evidentiary and witness standards in the SPC would as a matter of procedure and policy be so exacting as to effectively guarantee that torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment will not be carried out in practice. The Ambassador and other U.S. government officials also raised concerns that a confession could be used in lieu of evidence, and that those accused could feel social pressure to confess. They urged officials to defer the publication of the procedural code that is a necessary precursor to the remaining phases of the SPC. Embassy officials also urged compliance with international human rights norms with religious enforcement officers and officials involved in drafting, implementing, and enforcing the SPC.
Embassy exchange programs exposed students to concepts of religious freedom in other countries and allowed them to discuss religion and religious freedom with individuals of other faiths. Events with U.S. government officials also encouraged discussion of these ideas. In August the SRMC engaged local youth in a roundtable conversation on “Being Muslim in America” and discussed the value of interfaith dialogue and interfaith action locally and around the world. The embassy also selected an official from the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports to visit the United States on a three-week exchange project on community engagement with young people to examine policies and practices used in the United States to prevent at-risk youth and individuals from engaging in violent activities and becoming attracted to extremist views.
Embassy officials met with representatives of all principal religious groups, sharia court judges, and religious enforcement officers, as well as lawyers defending individuals charged with violations of sharia.
Embassy and other U.S. government officials visited places of worship, spoke with leaders of various religious groups, and facilitated discussions on religious freedom issues, including obstacles to practicing religions and beliefs other than Shafi’i Islam and laws and policies affecting religious freedom, including provisions of sharia. The embassy hosted a holiday reception that brought together the minister of religious affairs and leaders of religious minority groups. The Ambassador emphasized religious tolerance by participating in numerous Lunar New Year celebrations and attending a Christian schoolchildren’s Christmas event, while a senior embassy official represented the embassy at a Catholic Mass on Christmas Eve. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, as well as other official visitors, engaged legal, religious, and political leaders on the SPC and the country’s international human rights and religious freedom commitments.
The constitution describes freedom of belief as “absolute” but only provides adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism the right to practice their religion freely and to build houses of worship. The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation. The government continued not to recognize several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and the Bahai Faith, and restricted their activities. Rights advocates said the government was sometimes slow in responding to sectarian violence, especially outside of major cities. Government officials regularly encouraged participation in “customary reconciliation” sessions to address incidents of sectarian violence, which human rights groups and Christians said constituted an encroachment on the judicial system and on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and regularly led to outcomes unfavorable to minority parties. Courts charged citizens with “denigration of religion.” Some of these cases resulted in convictions and jail sentences. In September the government enacted a new law facilitating approval of church construction and licensure of churches, replacing one mandating presidential approval for the construction of any new church. Some government entities continued to use anti-Shia rhetoric, and the government regularly failed to condemn anti-Semitic commentary. Christians reported discrimination by authorities at local levels, especially in rural areas. After a string of violent sectarian incidents in Minya, the government replaced the governor and chief of security there as part of a larger reshuffle. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continued to call on Muslim scholars to renew religious discourse and challenge the ideology of extremists. In response, government and religious institutions at times defended the rights of Shia, continued to reform school curricula, and openly discussed alternatives to consensus Islamic jurisprudence. According to several churches’ representatives, the government had nearly completed rebuilding the 78 churches and other religious sites that were damaged or destroyed in mob violence in 2013, following the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Religious minorities continued to face significant threats of terrorist attacks and sectarian violence. On December 11, a suicide bomb attack later claimed by ISIS killed 29 people during Sunday services at part of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo. Three armed men killed a Coptic Orthodox priest in North Sinai in June, and assailants armed with bats and knives attacked the families of two Coptic Orthodox priests in Minya in July, killing one family member and injuring three. In May a crowd stripped an elderly Christian woman at a village in Minya, paraded her through the streets, and set fire to her house. According to International Christian Concern, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), Christians were targeted for kidnapping. Media reported that two men burned down a church in Ismailia village. Individuals accused of denigration of religion often faced social intolerance. Societal resistance, including acts of violence, to the building and rebuilding of churches continued. Anti-Semitic speech continued. Reports of defamatory speech against other minority religious groups were fewer than in the previous year.
Senior U.S. representatives met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. During a visit in September, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Middle East and South and Central Asia called for equal rights for all Egyptian citizens. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior, he emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of cases, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Bahais and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the rights of Shia to perform their religious rituals publicly. Embassy officers regularly engaged with human rights advocates, religious leaders, and community members on questions of religious freedom, for example, on the rights of all citizens to choose their religion, build houses of worship, and practice their religious rituals, as well as the government’s responsibility to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian attacks.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 94.7 million (July 2016 estimate). Most media reports state that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and approximately 10 percent Christian (estimates range from 5 percent to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.
Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population and include the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Greek, Latin, and Syrian), Orthodox (Greek and Syrian), Anglican/Episcopalian, and other Protestant churches, which range in size from several thousand to hundreds of thousands. The Protestant community includes Presbyterians, Baptists, Brethren, Open Brethren, Seventh-day Adventists, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), Faith (Al-Eyman), Church of God, Christian Model Church (Al-Mithaal Al-Masihi), Apostolic, Grace (An-Ni’ma), Pentecostal, Apostolic Grace, Church of Christ, Gospel Missionary (Al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), and the Message Church of Holland (Ar-Risaala). Jehovah’s Witnesses account for 1,000-1,500 people, according to media estimates. Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.
Estimates regarding the number of Shia Muslims range from 800,000 to two million, according to media reports. There are also small groups of Quranist Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims.
According to an estimate by the Washington, D.C.-based media site Al Monitor, the number of atheists may be as high as four million, although other accounts place their number in the low thousands.
Accurate numbers for the Jewish community are difficult to determine, but it is believed to number approximately 23 persons, according to members of the community. There are between 2,000 and 3,000 adherents of the Bahai Faith, according to media estimates.
There are many foreign resident adherents of various religious groups, including Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons. There is also a small Dawoodi (a branch of Ismaili Shia Islam) Bohra Community, numbering approximately 660, mostly comprising Indian nationals, according to a member of the community.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the primary source of legislation. The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes incitement to hate a crime. It describes freedom of belief as absolute; however, it limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.
While neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam or efforts to proselytize Muslims, and the law states individuals may change their religion, the government does not recognize conversion from Islam for those born Muslim. The government does recognize conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, automatically remain classified as Muslims.
In keeping with sharia, non-Muslim men must convert to Islam to marry Muslim women, although Christian or Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. Under the law, a divorced mother is entitled to custody of a child until the age of 10 in the case of a son and until the age of 12 in the case of a daughter.
According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar, the nation’s premier institution of Islamic education. The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.
The law does not recognize the Bahai Faith or its religious laws and bans Bahai institutions and community activities. Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.
The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP) ($2,800). The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (861 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines. Any imam who fails to follow the guidelines loses the bonus and can be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license. The ministry also issues prewritten sermons, but use of them by imams is voluntary.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) bans wearing the hijab in primary schools, but allows it in middle and high schools upon written request from a girl’s parent. Cairo University, which falls under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education, bans professors in certain fields from wearing the niqab during class.
The prime minister has authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.
A law enacted at the end of September delegates authority to approve requests for church building and renovation permits to governors, rather than the president as was required previously. The governor is to respond within four months; any refusal must include a written justification. The new law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches and rescinds preconditions established in the 1930s. It stipulates that, in the event a request to license an existing building used as a church is refused, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the new law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. New churches must also meet land registration and building codes not required for mosques.
Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. The law does not stipulate any government role in reviewing the number or size of mosques based on its assessment of the number of Muslims in the area, but there is a provision regarding the minimum distance between mosques. The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.
In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other.
The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs.” The constitution stipulates that the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.
The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to … religion, or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 EGP ($1,700) and no more than 50,000 EGP ($2,800) as penalties of discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 EGP ($2,800) and no more than 100,000 EGP ($5,600).
The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric. Since the state does not recognize Bahai marriage, married Bahais are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence.
In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but adhere to different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia. In accordance with sharia, the law forbids adoptions for all. In matters of inheritance, the courts generally apply sharia unless a will instructs otherwise.
The law requires the government to specify religion on national identity cards, with the only options being Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. According to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order, the government may enter a “dash” in place of religion for Bahais.
According to the law, a minimum of 24 Christians must be elected out of the total 120 members elected as members of party lists in the first parliamentary elections after the constitution’s 2014 ratification.
The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), whose members are appointed by parliament, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It is also charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.
The constitution mandates the state to eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. By year’s end, the government had not yet established such a commission.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of sharia do not conflict with the covenant.
In spite of numerous speeches by President Sisi underscoring that all Egyptians were equal citizens under the law, numerous religious freedom and human rights activists said that government officials, courts, and prosecutors sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards and rights of due process to members of minority faiths. For example, prison authorities at the local level delayed a court-ordered release of a noted convert from Islam to Christianity, according to international human rights groups and the press. According to sources in the Christian community, security and police officials sometimes failed to respond in a timely manner to attacks on Christians and their homes, businesses, and places of worship, especially in Upper Egypt. The government frequently failed to investigate or prosecute such attacks, relying instead on the controversial practice of “customary reconciliation” sessions whereby both sides in a dispute negotiated a settlement brokered by religious or other community leaders. Although there were reports that police rescued Christian victims of kidnappings, police action was not always prompt, activists said.
On June 16, Grand Imam of Al Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb appeared on multiple television channels stating that all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence agreed that an apostate “should be pressed upon to recant…or be killed,” and calling apostasy from Islam “high treason.” He also presented evidence from Islamic doctrinal sources, however, to defend the view that ex-Muslims who posed no threat to society should be left alone.
Subsequently, at an October conference on fatwa issuance for imams serving in Muslim expatriate communities, the grand imam encouraged qualified Islamic scholars to use their analytical reasoning skills in issuing fatwas appropriate for the modern-day societies in which they live, and not allow fear of going against centuries-old jurisprudence to cause their fatwas to “stagnate.” Subsequently he announced that Al Azhar would establish a “Committee of Fiqh” (jurisprudence) which would engage in ijtihad (analytical reasoning) to address some Islamic doctrinal issues, thereby asserting space for renewal of religious discourse, although the scope remained limited.
In July Mohamed Hegazy, known as Bishoy Armia Boulous after his conversion from Islam to Christianity, was released after spending over 18 months in detention, beyond the six-month legal limit for those charged with misdemeanors, pending investigation for “denigrating Islam.” On June 26, a court ordered Boulous/Hegazy’s release on bail. Authorities subsequently stated they had lost the court order, required him to produce additional documentation, and “transferred him from prison to prison across Egypt under the orders of the Ministry of the Interior” without informing his attorney, according to Morning Star News, a news service that reports on persecution of Christians. Ultimately, Boulous/Hegazy recorded a video testifying that he was reconverting from Christianity to Islam and was released on bail on July 23. His legal case remained pending at year’s end.
Local authorities frequently encouraged participation in “customary reconciliation” sessions to address incidents of sectarian violence, saying such sessions prevented further violence by quickly defusing tensions. According to the authorities, the intent was for the parties to agree on measures to stop the conflict, which might include punishment of the perpetrators by expulsion from the village, compensation for the affected parties, or a penalty clause for the future breaching of any agreement. Beginning in 2014, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in customary reconciliation as a substitute for the rule of law, only approving its use as an immediate measure to stop bloodshed and deescalate tensions. Human rights groups and members of the Coptic community said that such sessions regularly led to outcomes unfavorable to minority parties and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system in most cases, as victims were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges. One human rights NGO said “customary reconciliation” constituted an encroachment on the judicial system and on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship.
Courts continued to apply the penal code to prosecute those charged with denigrating Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Government prosecutors investigated criminal complaints filed by private citizens on such charges, leading to prosecution of at least 13 individuals, including two convictions pending from 2015 and six convictions from cases in 2016. Citizens charged under the penal code included Muslim reformers, Christian children, a social media tweeter, an atheist, and a Salafi television preacher.
On January 26, Al-Khalifa Misdemeanor Court convicted writer Fatima Naoot in absentia and sentenced her to three years in prison and a fine of 20,000 EGP ($1,100) for denigrating Islam by describing the Islamic ritual of sacrificing cows or sheep during Eid al-Adha as a “massacre,” in a tweet on her personal account in December 2014. On November 24, the Sayeda Zeinab Appellate Misdemeanor Court affirmed Naoot’s conviction of denigration of religion but reduced her sentence to a suspended six months’ imprisonment.
On February 23, Edko Misdemeanor court upheld Mostafa Abdel-Naby’s three-year prison sentence for denigrating religion for declaring his atheism and insulting Allah on Facebook in 2014.
On February 25, Bani Mazar Juvenile Misdemeanor Court sentenced four Christian males ages 16 to 17 to five years’ imprisonment for “denigrating Islam” after they appeared in a half-minute-long video clip in which they allegedly mocked Islamic prayer and made silly gestures. Villagers had discovered the video on a phone allegedly belonging to their teacher, Gad Youssef Younan, whom the same court had convicted in December 2015 for capturing the youths’ actions on video. According to international press reports, the youths fled the country.
On May 25, El-Gamaliya Misdemeanor court sentenced El-Sayed Youssef Ahmed El-Naggar to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 EGP ($55) for denigrating Islam after he burned a volume of Al-Bukhari, a ninth century compilation of sayings and deeds (hadith) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, in front of Al Azhar as a protest of such books for “espousing extremist thought,” according to a local human rights organization. On September 21, El-Gamaliya Appellate Misdemeanor Court confirmed the sentence.
On May 28, First October 6 Misdemeanor Court acquitted Salafist television preacher Mohamed Hassan of denigrating Islam when he recounted a story from early Islamic sources that Khadija, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, had deliberately plied her father with wine and extracted his approval of the marriage when he was drunk.
In July the Court of Cassation (appellate court) rejected an appeal by Islam El-Beheiry of his one-year prison sentence for “defaming religious symbols.” He received a presidential pardon in late November. Prosecutors had pressed charges against the TV host after a lawyer filed a complaint accusing him of denigrating Islam through his critique of Islamic texts with links to violence, including certain hadith, on his show Ma’a Islam (With Islam). This case, based on the blasphemy law, was widely regarded in the press as undercutting President Sisi’s ongoing calls for Islamic scholars to “renew religious discourse” and “combat the ideology of extremists.”
In the wake of these and other convictions for denigration of religions, a coalition of 13 human rights organizations, four political parties, and a number of lawyers, journalists, and public figures issued a statement condemning the rulings for “supporting terrorism” by “suffocating every opinion exposing the roots of terrorism in our heritage and ideas.” Signatories included the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
The government did not prevent members of unregistered religious groups, such as Bahais, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, from worshiping privately in small numbers. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the government sometimes engaged in surveillance of their homes, questioned them about their activities, and continued to confiscate personally owned religious materials from them at airports. The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Bahai and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.
The government closed the tomb of Imam Al-Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, located in Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura in October, for what it said were security reasons. The mosque remained open.
By year’s end, the government had nearly completed rebuilding and restoring 78 churches and other Christian sites damaged or destroyed by mob violence after the 2013 forcible dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, according to Christian leaders. President Sisi announced that two sites remained in need of painting, which was expected to be completed within two months. While still defense minister, Sisi had vowed to have the military rebuild the churches immediately after they were attacked in 2013. He apologized to attendants at the Christmas Eve service at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral on January 6 that the government had not been able to complete rebuilding them in 2015 and promised to try to complete the work in 2016.
President Sisi approved the licenses of three new churches during the first eight months of the year, until the new law transferred this authority to governors.
After a string of violent sectarian incidents in Minya, the government replaced the governor and chief of security there as part of a larger reshuffle. According to press reports, Copts regarded the move as a positive step toward improving security in the region. When the new governor visited the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Minya on his first day in office on September 9, the governor stated that Minya’s sectarian problems should be resolved by upholding the law, according to press reports. The bishop called for the rule of law, justice, and equality, and said the governor’s appointment “promised a new era of peace and security,” according to press reports. The Bishop of Minya repeated in several statements to the media that he would no longer agree to deal with sectarian incidents through customary reconciliation. According to a study published July 27 in Watani, the country’s Coptic-run weekly, 65 percent of violent attacks against Copts took place in Minya.
Efforts to revise textbooks were ongoing, according to government and religious officials, in a response to President Sisi’s continuing calls for Islamic scholars to renew religious discourse and challenge the ideology of extremists.
All 27 of Egypt’s governors, appointed by the president, were Muslim.
Children legally identified as Muslims but who self-identified as Christians and who lived in Christian homes were required to attend religion classes for Muslim students, as a matter of policy. In addition, such children could not be admitted to a Christian orphanage and had no recourse to choose their religion when they reached legal age.
Two public middle schools in Zaqaziq, Sharqia Governorate, designated the hijab as part of its mandatory uniform for female students. After complaints from parents, the Ministry of Education issued an administrative decision on October 23 prohibiting schools from mandating the hijab and referred the principal of one of the schools for internal investigation, according to the local woman’s rights group New Women Foundation.
According to members of academia, no Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities and few Christians occupied dean or vice dean positions in the public university system. Only Muslims could study at Al-Azhar University, a publicly funded institution. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, because the curriculum involved study of the Quran.
On October 11, after a Christian applicant to a postgraduate program at Cairo University complained that his rejection likely was due to his religion, Cairo University President Dr. Gaber Nassar issued an official directive to remove any indication of a student’s religion on any application, certificate, or document issued by the university. A university investigation had determined that none of nine Christian applicants to the program in question had been accepted. Nassar subsequently ordered that the nine Christian students be accepted into the program and issued a directive to remove the question of religion from application forms. In December the Religious Committee of the House of Representatives rejected the university’s directive, describing it as “unnecessary,” and recommended that Nassar annul it. Nassar rejected the recommendation, stating that university application forms were not under the purview of parliament.
The Ministry of Education withdrew its appointment of Mervat Abo Sefein as Director of Beni Mazar Secondary Girls’ School, Minya, after students chanted that they would not accept a Christian director, according to human rights organization Tahir Institute. The ministry then appointed Abo Sefein as Director of the Boys’ Technical School of Beni Mazar but rescinded the appointment after students protested it. The ministry stated it had reversed the decision based on complaints from “earlier in Abo Sefein’s career,” according to media outlet Youm7.
In January Al Azhar canceled a competition entitled “The Spread of Shia Islam in the Sunni Community: Reasons, Dangers, and How to Confront It.” According to press reports, the cancellation was due to the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar’s desire to promote unity and fraternity among Muslims.
The government generally failed to take action against or condemn anti-Semitic comments that appeared in government-owned and private media. State-owned and private media used anti-Semitic rhetoric, including by academics, cultural figures, and clerics, and published cartoons and commentary demonizing Jews and Israel.
In May and June the government-owned newspaper Al Ahram published a five-week series of articles accusing Jews of “plotting to enslave the world,” “claiming that their religion is the only religion,” “inventing atheism,” “leading countries to religious and political extremism,” and staging an “economic takeover of the world.” Most of these allegations of “evil” referenced the long-debunked Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Positive coverage of the country’s Jewish community appeared in government-owned media as well. On May 30, state television aired an interview with the president of the Cairo Jewish community during which she spoke about Judaism as a religion and corrected what she said were misconceptions about the Jewish community in the country. The interview took place in one of Cairo’s remaining synagogues.
The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country on condition they not proselytize to Muslims. According to community representatives, non-Muslim minorities and foreign religious workers generally refrained from proselytizing to Muslims to avoid risking legal penalties and extralegal repercussions from authorities and members of the local community.
During the year, government officials took custody of historical records of births, marriages, deaths, and other community records of the greatly diminished Jewish community whose membership at one time exceeded 75,000 people. Officials stated that they were taking the records in order to preserve them, according to members of the community. The Ministry of Antiquities, which is charged with preserving Egyptian heritage, began to assess Egyptian Jewish heritage sites and to catalogue their contents; however, important Jewish religious and historical sites, including a grand synagogue in Alexandria and a millennium-old Jewish cemetery in Cairo, continued to deteriorate from decades of disuse. The newspaper The Arab Weekly estimated there were 19 synagogues in the country, a few in good condition, the others in very poor condition.
Dar Al Ifta, the official government institute for issuing fatwas and Islamic legal research, issued a fatwa in June stating, “Openly violating the fast during Ramadan does not fall under personal freedom but, rather, is a kind of chaos and assault on the sanctity of Islam.” According to Mada Masr, a news website, social media users regarded the statement as an attack on personal freedom, with some seeing it as potentially inciting violence against individuals who publicly eat during Ramadan. Despite the fatwa, restaurants remained open during Ramadan in parts of Cairo, and there were no reports of harassment of those eating during the day.
Construction continued on a state-funded church in honor of 20 Egyptian Copts beheaded by an ISIS affiliate in Libya.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Lethal violence connected with religion continued. On December 11, 29 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack during Sunday services at Saints Peter and Paul Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo. In attacks claimed by a terrorist organization that had pledged allegiance to ISIS, a Coptic priest and a Sufi sheikh in northern Sinai were killed. Assailants killed a Christian in Minya. The construction of churches continued to meet societal resistance, including acts of violence. According to International Christian Concern, there were kidnappings of Christian women and children. Muslim Brotherhood groups adopted rhetoric targeting Christians and Jews, according to media reports.
On December 11, 29 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack during Sunday liturgy in the women’s section of Saints Peter and Paul Church, which is part of the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral complex in Cairo. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed to further attack Christians in “a war against polytheism,” referring to the Christian belief in the Trinity. The Ministry of Interior said it had arrested four people in connection with the bombing. The army repaired the damage in two weeks’ time, following President Sisi’s order for it to be completed in time for Coptic Orthodox Christmas on January 7.
On June 30, three armed men in a truck shot and killed Father Raphael Moussa, a priest at St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in al-Arish in North Sinai, according to press reports. The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility on social media the same day. The attack took place on the third anniversary of the mass protests calling on the army to oust former president Mohamed Morsi.
The same group abducted Suleiman Abu Heraz, a renowned 98-year-old blind Sufi sheikh, from his home in North Sinai, accused him and another sheikh of sorcery, and beheaded both of them, according to press reports. In a November 19 statement, the ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for the beheadings and published a video of the attack.
There were numerous reports of incidents of sectarian mob violence against Coptic Christians, including attacks resulting from Muslim opposition to the presence of churches in their communities. On July 17, assailants armed with bats and knives attacked the families of two Coptic priests in their homes in Tahna El-Gabal village in Minya, killing one family member and injuring three, including an elderly man, according to an official statement by the local Coptic Orthodox bishopric. Several news outlets reported that the attack was the result of a fight between the assailants and the priests’ families; however, a Christian news outlet reported that a group of 100 villagers had attacked the victims in response to a rumor that the community was building a new church in the village. A human rights activist told Mada Masr news that the villagers were mobilized against the Christian family due to their religious identity.
On November 24, the press reported that a mob of Muslim residents in Al-Naghameesh village in Sohag Governorate burned a Christian-owned guesthouse that was being used for worship services. Christians had applied to have the building registered as a church, under the new law on licensing churches. Four Christians were injured in the attack, and the mob also looted three Christian-owned stores and damaged or destroyed 10 Christian-owned properties, consisting of nine homes and a garage. According to press reports, security and military forces used tear gas to disperse the mob. On November 26, prosecutors ordered the detention of 14 suspects pending investigations. The governor of Sohag promised to restore the guesthouse at governorate expense.
According to press reports, on May 20 in the village of El-Karm in Minya Province, approximately 300 Muslim villagers stripped naked an elderly Coptic Christian woman, Souad Thabet, and paraded her through the streets after a rumor spread that her son was having an affair with a married Muslim woman. The villagers also set fire to the woman’s house, along with three other houses owned by Coptic Christians unrelated to the woman, looted two others, and injured two Christians. The fire spread to several neighboring houses. According to one witness, during the attacks the mob shouted slogans against Copts and called them infidels. Police did not arrive until more than an hour after the incidents, according to press reports. The Minya Bishopric stated that Thabet and her husband had filed a formal police complaint the day before the attacks about receiving threats, stating that they expected an attack the following day, but police had not responded. In the days following the incidents, police arrested 16 Muslim suspects and several Christians whom they accused of setting fire to the neighboring houses that had caught fire, three of which were owned by Muslims, according to press reports. Immediately after the attack, President Sisi announced that the perpetrators would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. By July 13, all suspects had been released on bail pending criminal investigations. On October 6, 25 suspects were referred to criminal court on charges of illegal assembly, arson, vandalism, and illegal possession of firearms.
On June 29, Muslims in Kom al-Loufi village in Minya Governorate attacked a Christian-owned home after rumors spread that he intended to use the new house he was building as a church. The assailants set fire to the home and to three other homes owned by the Christian resident’s brothers. Two days earlier, security officers had forced construction workers to stop work at the house, reportedly due to tensions between Christians and Muslims in the community. Following the attack, police arrested 19 suspects on charges of “creating chaos,” arson, and resisting authorities. All were released on bail within a month. An MP told the press that victims had received death threats if they did not agree to customary reconciliation and withdraw their complaints. The victims refused, insisting that the perpetrators be prosecuted in court.
On July 9, a journalist for the newspaper Watani specializing in coverage of sectarian violence incidents reported the victims in Kom al-Loufi were living under poor conditions, “almost locked up, in fear of leaving their temporary residence, due to the threats they were receiving.” He quoted a threat by one of the village elders against the victims: “Not a single Copt will live in the village, if the police complaints are not withdrawn.” The Minya Governorate disbursed compensation to the victims, but the funds covered only a fraction of the costs of repair, according to press reports. The case remained pending at year’s end. The village continued without a church; a request to build one had remained pending for 10 years.
On July 22, several dozen residents returning from Friday prayers attacked the homes of Christians, throwing rocks and glass, in Saft Al Kharsa village in the Governorate of Beni Suef. According to media outlet Youm7 and videos of the attack on Youtube, the attack was incited by a rumor that a Christian resident intended to transform the second floor of his house into a church. Police arrested 18 Muslims for the violence, as well as eight Christians, following the attack. According to press reports, the Muslim suspects were detained pending investigation on charges of inciting violence, rioting, and attacking the houses and property of Christians, but released after several weeks. Christian news outlet Watani reported that eight Christians were also held without charge for varying periods, with some for up to one month. Two were released after 18 days of detention and three after 29 days on August 19, while the remaining three were released a few days after that.
Numerous press outlets reported arson attacks by Muslims opposed to the presence of churches in El-Ameriya village in Alexandria and Abo Yacoub in Minya, leading to the arson and destruction of five Christian-owned houses and injuries to at least two Christians. In El-Ameriya, six suspects were arrested and released the next day; in Abo Yacoub, 16 were arrested but released on bail after victims withdrew their complaints during customary reconciliation, according to press reports. By year’s end, authorities had not referred any of the attackers to court in either incident.
Kidnappers disproportionately targeted Christians, according to International Christian Concern, a human rights organization. On April 5, unknown assailants kidnapped a 13-year-old Christian boy outside his school in the village of Mansheyet Manbal in Minya, according to press reports. The kidnappers released the boy 12 days after his family paid 300,000 EGP ($16,700) in ransom. Police arrested the child’s three kidnappers on April 25 and returned the ransom money to his family. Also according to International Christian Concern, on May 12 a Muslim man abducted a 16-year-old Christian female from Bani Mazar, Minya and demanded 250,000 EGP ($13,900) in ransom. Police rescued her two weeks later, after her family staged a sit-in at the Bani Mazar police station demanding that police take action against a known suspect. On May 26, police raided the man’s hideout, rescued the youth, and arrested the kidnapper, who had been torturing and abusing her, according to the organization.
On November 5, the press reported that residents in Ezbet Talata village in Damietta Governorate filed a complaint about a teacher who had converted from Sunni to Shia Islam and whom they alleged was preaching the Shia faith to her students. Residents had learned about her conversion after she called in to a Shia satellite channel. The Ministry of Education subsequently transferred the teacher to another school in a different village. When her landlord in the new village learned that she was a Shia he evicted her, according to the mayor of Ezbet Talata. The teacher returned to Ezbet Talata but residents there ostracized her, the mayor told the press in a video interview.
On May 12, the makeshift Coptic Virgin Mary Church in the village of Ismailia, Minya was burned down, according to an official statement from the Minya Coptic Orthodox Bishopric. The congregation had been using the church for more than a year, with the knowledge of security agencies and local authorities, who had closed its previous location due to opposition from Muslim residents of the village. Police arrested two men on May 14 in connection with the crime.
On April 20, an Islamic militant group calling itself “Popular Resistance” claimed responsibility for setting fire to St. George Coptic Catholic Church in Luxor. The group issued a statement on Facebook stating it had set the fire as a “warning to the church to stop what happens against Muslims,” alluding to perceived Christian support for the government.
On July 16, fire broke out in a second church in Luxor, Coptic Orthodox Archangel Michael Church, in Madamod village. No group claimed responsibility and authorities never announced a final determination as to whether the case was arson; however, according to one journalist, the congregation had faced resistance from “extremists in the area” when attempting to build the church.
In September during a television interview, lawyer and political commentator Nabih Al Wahsh physically attacked an Islamic scholar who had stated Islamic doctrine did not require a woman to cover her hair.
Public discussions continued among policy makers and in the media about universities, hospitals, and other service-oriented entities that adopted policies prohibiting professors, doctors, nurses, and others from wearing the niqab while at work. Banha University investigated a dean after he asked a female security officer to verify a student’s identity in order to prevent cheating during a final exam, according to press reports. The student union issued a statement complaining that security officers had asked the student to lift her niqab in front of others. The statement stated that choosing to cover the face was “an act of personal freedom.”
Representatives of some Salafist groups, including the Coalition of Muslims in Defense of the Companions and the Prophet’s Family, published negative remarks about Shia Muslims. On February 1, the group threatened to sue the minister of culture for “spreading Shia ideology” when the minister rejected their calls to confiscate Shia books exhibited at the Cairo International Book Fair.
Discrimination in private hiring continued to occur, according to sources within human rights groups and religious communities. According to the NGO Coptic Solidarity, Christians also faced discrimination in sports, especially soccer, with some players unable to pursue careers in sports or join prominent teams due to religious discrimination. The NGO stated that, despite passing selections stages, Christian athletes had been excluded from national and international competitions due to their religious identity. For example, it said that none of the country’s participants in the last two Olympics was a Copt and that there were no Copts represented as players, coaches, or trainers in any of the clubs in the country’s premier soccer league.
Islamic groups continued to use discriminatory speech against Christians in the press and on websites. In September the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood-associated Freedom and Justice Party published an op-ed on its website in which it denounced the new law governing the construction and renovation of churches. It called Christianity a “rogue sect” for challenging the beliefs of Muslims and said that Christians wanted to create a Christian state in Egypt, thereby changing the identity of society, and that Christians “look forward to the day Egypt becomes Christian.”
Societal anti-Semitism was widespread, including by media commentators. In May lawyer and political commentator Nabih Al Wahsh appeared in a television interview during which he accused Israel of shooting down Egypt Air flight 804 with a missile and of “exporting AIDS, aphrodisiac bubble gum, and all kinds of catastrophes” to the country. He called on “any Egyptian or Arab man who comes across an Israeli person to kill him and mutilate his body” and for “death squads to hunt down any Israeli anywhere in the world,” according to the Middle East Media Research Institute. Copies of anti-Semitic literature, including translations of Mein Kampf, were widely available for purchase.
In July professor and political activist Mamdouh Hamza posted a series of tweets in which he expressed his opposition to a rumored proposed law to sell Egyptian citizenship. Hamza said he feared Jews who had been forced out of the country in the 1950s and 1960s might return to “overturn Egyptian laws” and “confiscate” land. The press repeated Hamza’s statements.
Presbyterians, Baptists, Brethren, Open Brethren, Seventh-day Adventists, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), Faith (Al-Eyman), Church of God, Christian Model Church (Al-Mithaal Al-Masihi), Apostolic, Grace (An-Ni’ma), Pentecostal, Apostolic Grace, Church of Christ, Gospel Missionary (Al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), and the Message Church of Holland (Ar-Risaala) constituted the Protestant Council. The Anglican Church in Egypt operated outside the council as a diocese of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Ambassador and other Department of State and embassy officials, raised religious freedom concerns with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior. These included cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; participated in customary reconciliation sessions to address sectarian violence which human rights groups and many Christians described as unfair; placed restrictions on religious discourse; and failed to recognize conversion of Muslim-born citizens. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, the Coptic Orthodox Pope, other leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish and Bahai communities.
In addition, Department of State officials, including the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights and the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, met with representatives of these and other religious minority communities. In meetings with high level officials at the Ministries of Foreign affairs and Interior, the Special Advisor emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of cases, for example of attacks on Christians, recognition of Bahais and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the rights of Shia to publicly perform religious rituals. Embassy officials maintained an active dialogue with human rights advocates, religious leaders, and community members on questions of religious freedom, for example, on combating anti-Semitism, supporting the rights of all citizens to choose their religion, build houses of worship, and practice their religious rituals as well as the government’s responsibility to prosecute perpetrators of sectarian attacks.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, subject to limitations to ensure public order, health, and safety or to protect the rights of others. The law does not allow religious groups to register as legal entities, creating obstacles for them in conducting their affairs. The government approved and parliament considered but did not vote on a draft law that would allow religious groups to register as legal entities so they would be able to conduct business and legal matters with the state and private entities. Religious groups said municipal authorities often did not provide them with equal rights and benefits, especially with regard to religious property and burial sites. The Pristina Municipality, citing the lack of a construction permit, halted Serbian Orthodox monks from cleaning and making light repairs at the unfinished St. Saviors Church after vandals set fire to it. The Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) said Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sport (MCYS) Kujtim Shala did not fulfill a pledge to issue a permit for the reconstruction of a chapel in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren. The government worked with the Kosovo Islamic Community (BIK) to combat violent extremism, and condemned vandalism of religious places.
Protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at participants in several events hosting Serbian Orthodox pilgrims. In one incident, ethnic Albanian protestors threw stones and prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from celebrating the Feast of the Assumption in Mushutishte/Musutiste. On several occasions, vandals damaged SOC religious properties, despite government protection. An ethnic Serb damaged a Muslim mosque.
U.S. embassy representatives met frequently with government officials to urge religious tolerance, passage of legislation to allow religious institutions to obtain legal status, and full implementation of the law protecting religious sites and to discuss efforts to resolve religious property disputes. The embassy engaged with religious communities to discuss access to cemetery sites for Protestants and cosponsored a conference on the role of women in interfaith dialogue and countering violent extremism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (July 2016 estimate). Census data from 2011 identifies 95.6 percent of the population as Muslim, 2.2 percent as Roman Catholic, and 1.4 percent as Serbian Orthodox. A boycott of that census by ethnic Serbs resulted in a significant undercounting of SOC members. The SOC estimates there are 120,000 Serbian Orthodox believers in Kosovo, or 6.3 percent. Protestants and those without a religious affiliation said they were incorrectly classified as Muslims by census takers. Per the census regulation, census takers did not inquire if citizens were Protestant. The Protestant community estimates 20,000 followers throughout the country, or 1.1 percent of the population. Census categories for “other,” “none,” or “no response” each constitute less than 1 percent.
The majority of the Muslim population belongs to the Hanafi Sunni school, although a number follow Sufi and Shia traditions that are part of Bektashi or Tarikat groups. Most SOC members reside in majority ethnic Serb municipalities in the south of the country, or in four northern Serb-majority municipalities. The largest Catholic communities are in Gjakove/Djakovica, Janjeve/Janjevo, Kline/Klina, Pristina, and Prizren. Evangelical Protestant populations are located throughout the country and concentrated in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica. There are small numbers of Jews in Prizren and Pristina.
Religion and ethnicity are often linked. The majority of ethnic Albanians are Muslim, while some are Catholic and Protestant; almost all ethnic Serbs belong to the SOC. The majority of ethnic Ashkalis, Bosniaks, Egyptians, Goranis, Roma, and Turks are also Muslim, while most ethnic Montenegrins and some Roma belong to the SOC. Ethnic Croats almost all belong to the Catholic Church.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion for all residents, including the right to change, express, or not express religious belief; to practice or abstain from practicing religion; and to join or refuse to join a religious community. These rights are subject to limitations for reasons of public safety and order or to protect the health or rights of others. The constitution provides for the separation of religious communities from public institutions, including the right of religious groups to independently regulate their own organizations, activities, and ceremonies, and the right to establish religious schools and charity institutions. It guarantees equal rights for all religious communities, stipulates the country is secular and neutral with regard to religion, declares that the state shall ensure the protection and preservation of the country’s religious heritage, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution stipulates the law may limit freedom of expression to prevent provocation of violence and hostility on grounds of race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion. It allows courts to ban organizations or activities that encourage racial, national, ethnic, or religious hatred.
The constitution stipulates communities traditionally present in the country, including religious communities, shall have specific rights, including to maintain, develop, and preserve their religion, use their own language, establish and manage their own private schools with financial assistance from the state, have access to public media, establish and use their own media, maintain unhindered peaceful contacts with persons outside the country with whom they share a religious identity, and have equitable access to public employment. It guarantees 20 of 120 seats in the national assembly to minority communities and stipulates the adoption, amendment, or repeal of any laws pertaining to religious freedom and cultural heritage or to agreements with religious communities requires a majority of the deputies present holding seats guaranteed for minority communities as well as a majority of the all the deputies present.
The constitution provides for the Ombudsperson’s Institution, which is responsible for monitoring religious freedom among other human rights and recommending actions to correct violations. It stipulates the state shall take all necessary measures to protect individuals who may be subject to threats, hostility, discrimination, or violence because of their religious identity.
The law does not provide a legal mechanism or specific guidance for religious groups to obtain legal status through registration or other means. The law does not require groups to register, but without legal status, religious groups may not own property, open bank accounts, employ staff, access the courts, or perform other administrative tasks in their own name.
The law stipulates there is no official religion, but it lists five “traditional” religious communities: the BIK, the SOC, the Catholic Church, the Hebrew (Jewish) community, and the Evangelical (Protestant) Church. The law provides extra protections and benefits to these five groups, such as reduced taxes and relief from water tariffs. According to a law passed in 2015, religious buildings belonging to these five communities, but not their administrative offices, are eligible for waivers of water utility fees. Religious institutions must apply with the public water provider to be granted the waiver.
According to the law, “public education institutions shall refrain from teaching religion or other activities that propagate a specific religion.”
Municipalities hold titles to all public cemeteries, including those for religious communities, and are required by law to maintain them.
The law provides safeguards for religious and cultural Special Protection Zones (SPZs), based on religious and cultural significance, by restricting nearby activities that could damage the surrounding historical, cultural, or natural environment. According to the law, the Implementation and Monitoring Council (IMC) arbitrates disputes between the government and the SOC concerning SPZs and other matters related to protecting the SOC’s religious and cultural heritage. The IMC is a special body that stems from the Comprehensive Plan for Kosovo and the SPZ law. It became operational in 2010. Its mandate includes safeguarding SOC heritage as included in the law on Velika Hoca/Hoce e Madhe village and the law on Prizren’s historic center. The IMC includes the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning (as cochair); the MCYS; the SOC; the Special Representative of the European Union (as cochair) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The IMC’s charter calls for meetings every two months; however, the group only met once during the year in April.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government took steps to counter radicalization and violent extremism related to religion. According to religious communities, the government continued to respond to societal violence and vandalism against several religious minority communities. Parliament considered, but did not vote on, a government-recommended bill that would allow religious groups to register and acquire legal status so they would be able to conduct business. Religious minorities said municipalities failed to act on requests to build churches and cemeteries, and the government failed to assist them with zoning issues. Several longstanding disputes over ownership of religious property remained unresolved.
On January 30, the Kosovo Police (KP) arrested four ethnic Albanians in front of the Visoki Decani Monastery. According to the KP, the suspects were in possession of an AK-47 rifle and a pistol, and some wore clothing that the authorities stated was typically associated with ISIS militants. On February 1, a local prosecutor told the press two of the arrestees had been involved with the conflict in Syria. According to the KP, those arrested were fined for illegal possession of weapons and the case was closed. Father Sava, the monastery’s Abbot, said the KP was uncooperative with the monastery during the investigation and deliberately downplayed the case in public. He said this incident demonstrated the need for Kosovo Force (KFOR) troops to remain at the monastery. Sava also expressed his concern that the suspects were not charged with more serious offenses.
On May 20, the Basic Court of Ferizaj/Urosevac convicted Imam Zekirja Qazimi, formerly from a BIK mosque in Gjilan/Gnjilane, on charges of recruitment for terrorism and incitement of hatred, and sentenced him to 10 years’ imprisonment. On November 25, the Court of Appeals confirmed his sentence.
On July 26, prosecutors charged Iranian cleric Hasan Azari Bejandi with laundering money through a nominally nongovernmental organization (NGO) he operated. Authorities said Bejandi was the head of the Quran Foundation of Kosovo, the reported umbrella group for five Shia organizations he ran in the country with links to Iran. The KP did not arrest Bejandi, who fled the country on July 28. The government subsequently shut down the five organizations.
On September 15, prosecutors charged four ethnic Albanian imams; two of the imams were charged with committing terrorist acts and the other two were charged with “inciting national, racial, religious, or ethnic hatred.”
The government worked with the BIK and civil society groups to combat violent extremism. As part of the government’s strategy, the BIK held sessions in its madrassahs and Islamic studies facilities that urged students not to fall prey to extremism.
Leaders of the country’s BIK, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, SOC, Tarikat (Sufi and Shia orders) and Bektashi (Shia orders) communities continued to criticize the government for its failure to complete a draft law that would provide a legal mechanism through which religious groups could gain legal status so they would be able to conduct business and legal matters with the state and private entities. The Bektashi community also requested that such a law should state it is a community constituting part of the historical heritage and cultural and social life of the country. Although many groups said they had found alternative methods to conduct some of their business affairs, most reported difficulties in registering property and vehicles, opening bank accounts, and paying taxes on employee salaries. Some religious communities opened bank accounts that were not in their communities’ names, and the Kosovo Protestant Evangelical Church received a tax accounting number from the government in order to pay taxes as if it were a business. Some communities said it was difficult to undertake basic financial tasks, and that they were taxed as for-profit businesses.
Ethnic Albanian protestors threw stones and bottles and prevented Serbian Orthodox pilgrims from celebrating the Feast of the Assumption on August 28 at the ruins of the SOC Holy Trinity Monastery in the village of Mushutishte/Musutiste in the Suhareka/Suva Reka Municipality. The protestors also targeted police, injuring six. The KP evacuated a local priest and his aide from the monastery and turned back approximately 150 pilgrims, accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Branimir Stojanovic and Communities and Returns Minister Dalibor Jevtic, who observed the holiday in Zociste Monastery (approximately 14 miles away). The KP responded to the violence with tear gas and antiriot measures, and arrested 25 protesters. President Hashim Thaci and Speaker of Parliament Kadri Veseli condemned the violence and called for peace and respect for displaced persons, regardless of their ethnicity. Opposition parties condemned “police violence” against protesters.
Some school officials applied a mandatory administrative instruction previously issued by the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology prohibiting primary and secondary students from wearing religious garb on school property; others did not. According to the BIK, public schools did not expel any students for wearing headscarves while attending classes. The Ombudsperson Institution did not receive any reports of a school barring students wearing religious garb, such as headscarves, from attending classes. Some members of the BIK, however, reported girls were forced to remove headscarves in order to study in public schools.
Religious groups said government authorities did not take steps to ensure municipalities treated religious organizations equally on property issues, in particular with regard to churches and cemeteries. Although the law specified that municipalities held title to cemeteries and were responsible for their upkeep, in practice some municipalities allowed religious groups to take de facto possession of public cemeteries. Protestants said most municipalities had not granted land for cemeteries, nor addressed most of their requests to build churches on land the community owned. The Pristina Municipal Assembly approved a Protestant cemetery on December 2; however, at year’s end, challenges remained at the central government level. The Gllogovc/Glogovac Municipality also granted land to the Protestant community for a cemetery and a church, and the community was working with the municipality to implement the decision. At year’s end, none of these municipalities had a Protestant cemetery where Christians could be buried with a cross. Existing Jewish cemeteries were reportedly in disrepair. Members of the Jewish community said they lacked the resources to maintain Jewish cemeteries and local authorities did not maintain these public sites as required by law. The Serbian Orthodox cemetery in Pristina was reportedly also in disrepair and not maintained by municipal authorities. The SOC cited member displacement from the area as a reason for its inability to adequately care for the cemetery. In both cases, the Municipality of Pristina denied these cemeteries were in disrepair.
Protestants continued to lack a designated burial area anywhere in the country. Protestant leaders in Pristina and Gjakove/Djakovica said they faced limitations on holding Protestant funeral services or burying members with crosses at the public cemetery. Protestants said they faced discrimination from municipal or religious leaders who exercised de facto control over some publicly owned burial sites. They said the BIK and the Catholic Church had dedicated spaces, but the Protestant community did not, particularly in Gjakove/Djakovica.
Protestant leaders met with central and local government officials, including Pristina Mayor Shpend Ahmeti, Gjakove/Djakovica Mayor Mimoza Kusari-Lila, Gjilan/Gnjilane Mayor Lutfi Haziri, and former Gllogovc/Glogovac Mayor Nexhat Demaku to discuss these issues. The Protestant community engaged in negotiations with Gjakova/Djakovica municipal officials, including Mayor Kusari-Lila, on providing a dedicated space where its parishioners could be buried in a Protestant ceremony and with a Christian cross at the city cemetery. The municipality stated Protestants could be buried with a cross and that the grave was personal property of the owner. The municipality allowed the Protestant community to join the municipal safety council, which acts as a forum for community institutions to discuss local issues of significance. Municipal officials in Ferizaj/Urosevac issued a decision to cover the burial expenses for all citizens, including Protestants. Ferizaj/Urosevac Mayor Muharrem Svarqa also pledged to identify land for a Protestant cemetery, but at year’s end the municipality had not done so.
Representatives of the Messiah Evangelical Church in Pristina reported the Municipal Assembly agreed to issue a building permit in November for a house of worship, on land the church purchased. Municipal authorities had previously denied a permit for this church for more than a decade. The Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, however, had not issued a final permit by year’s end.
The BIK expressed concern over what it said were false press reports that the Municipality of Mitrovica/Mitrovice North would seize the site of the former Ibar Mosque for use for an international humanitarian project. On September 27, BIK Mufti Naim Ternava visited the site where the mosque had stood before Serb forces destroyed it in 1999 and confirmed the community’s intention to rebuild the mosque as soon as the European Union completed revitalization work on the adjacent Austerlitz Bridge. In reference to the mosque reconstruction, Mitrovica/Mitrovice Noestarth mayor Goran Rakic told the media on July 22 that a yet-to-be-established association of Serb-majority municipalities would decide upon mosque construction in the north of the country.
On May 20, after 16 years of litigation, the Constitutional Court confirmed the Special Chamber of the Supreme Court’s (SCSC) 2012 ruling that more than 24 acres of land should be returned to the SOC’s Visoki Decani Monastery. The ruling legally ended the SOC’s dispute with a defunct state-owned enterprise from the Yugoslav era and the municipality of Decan/Decani. The Constitutional Court’s decision rejected the 2015 finding of the SCSC’s Appellate Panel that had sought to return jurisdiction of the case to the Basic Court in Decan/Decani. The Mayor of Decan/Decani, Rasim Selmanaj, called the Constitutional Court’s ruling unacceptable and vowed not to implement it, stating he would resign rather than register the SOC as the owner. At year’s end, the mayor had not resigned. Municipal employees went on strike for one week in objection to the ruling. On May 25, the Decan/Decani Municipal Assembly adopted a resolution opposing the ruling, calling the monastery’s property claims dishonest and unjust. Italian KFOR troops continued to provide fixed security at the monastery. In response to a call for action from Decan/Decani Mayor Selmanaj, several hundred protestors demonstrated in opposition to the ruling on May 26. On June 16, approximately 800 people again protested against the Constitutional Court’s decision. The leader of the Vetevendosje party, Visar Ymeri, called the ruling “shameful,” stating it “gave legitimacy to the [Slobodan] Milosevic regime’s decisions.”
The Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) continued to occupy an SOC-owned building and parking lot in Pristina without paying the rent stipulated by a 2011 prime ministerial decision. The Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare (MLSW) vacated a second SOC-owned building adjacent to the agency. The MLSW stopped paying the agreed rent on that building to the SOC in 2014. The MLSW said it recognized that rent was owed to the SOC, and negotiated with the ACA to settle with the church on past and future rent. At year’s end, however, no agreement had been reached, and the ACA continued to block a settlement proposed by the MLSW despite multiple years of Auditor General Reports stating it should pay the rent.
On February 17, the SOC received notice that the University of Pristina (UP) had appealed the Pristina Basic Court’s 2015 dismissal of the UP’s 2012 lawsuit that requested the demolition of the unfinished Christ the Savior Church and the transfer of the land back to the university. A municipal assembly decision had transferred the land from the UP to SOC in the 1990s. On February 24, the SOC responded that the UP’s claim should be dismissed as unfounded.
On September 9, unknown persons burned tires inside the SOC St. Saviors Church, which caused large plumes of black smoke to be emitted from the church. The church’s gate, interior, and facade were also damaged. The KP attributed the damage to a homeless person. SOC Bishop Teodosije Sibalic condemned the “arson” of the church, and blamed police for failing to protect the area. He also called for the unfinished church’s construction to recommence. On September 11, Bishop Teodosije, accompanied by clergy and Deputy Prime Minister Branimir Stojanovic, with a KFOR guard, cleaned and attempted to make light repairs to the gate. According to international experts on site, on September 15, Pristina municipal inspectors entered the church without legal permission and ordered the church to stop cleaning debris and repairing the fire damage, on the grounds that it lacked a construction permit to do so. The SOC called the entry official harassment and discrimination. Inspectors, assisted by police, reportedly confiscated the clergy’s IDs and threatened to seal the church with crime scene tape if the clergy failed to report to the municipal inspection department. The SOC presented ownership documents, including those issued by the municipality itself in 2012, and departed the church. The municipal inspectors did not address their complaint in the Serbian language, as required by law. Pristina Mayor Ahmeti stated on social media the municipality had no evidence the SOC owned the property, and Pristina authorities stated the church needed to hold a construction permit to undertake work, including painting over graffiti, inside the church.
On October 12, the MCYS’s Institute for the Protection of Monuments denied the SOC’s request to reconstruct the St. Nicolas Church in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren. The monastery’s only church was destroyed in 1999, and the St. Nicholas Church was destroyed at the end of the 16th century. According to some IMC members, MCYS Minister Kujtim Shala’s refusal to issue the permit for reconstruction prompted the SOC to stop participating in the IMC. In November the SOC submitted additional information, in support of its application, but by years’ end the institute had not issued the permit. Due to the lack of a permit, municipal inspectors ordered the SOC to halt construction on several occasions. The SOC stated the institute’s denial of the permit came after a legal deadline, after which the construction should have been allowed to proceed automatically. Notwithstanding the application, the SOC had full discretion to manage its property based on Annex V of the Ahtisaari plan.
The Municipality of Pristina appealed the Basic Court’s 2015 ruling that the Catholic Church owned property adjacent to the Mother Teresa Cathedral. An appeal was pending at year’s end.
The SOC expressed concern that the MCYS did not consult with it on a draft law on cultural heritage that it said could annul the SOC’s legally guaranteed autonomy and preclude it from independently deciding upon the restoration and renovation of its buildings. At year’s end, the MCYS had not completed development of the new cultural heritage strategy.
The central government provided some funding to Islamic education in BIK madrassahs in Pristina, Prizren, and Gjilan/Gnjilane. The government did not provide funding for religious education to any other religious group. Some members of other religious groups and secular representatives voiced concern about the government’s funding of religious education in madrassahs over others.
Kosovo Serbs, Kosovo Gorani, Kosovo Croatians, and some Kosovo Roma attended Serbian-language public schools that followed a curriculum designed by the Serbian government, based on municipal education laws and in coordination with the education ministry. Restrictions on religious education did not apply to these public schools. Most ethnic Serbs elected to enroll in Serbian Orthodox religious classes instead of civic education. The Serbian government funded the salaries of all teachers in Serbian-language schools, including religious instructors. The Kosovo government supplemented the salaries of some teachers and staff in Serbian-language schools.
On September 23, the Water Regulatory Agency issued an administrative instruction based on the law waiving water utility fees for religious buildings belonging to the five “traditional” religious communities. The instruction directed eligible religious institutions to apply for the waiver with the public water provider. Although the law stipulated the waiver was applicable to all five religious communities, the Protestant community stated it followed the procedure but was not granted a waiver, whereas another religious group had received it.
The police’s unit for specialized protection of cultural and religious heritage sites provided 24-hour security at 24 sites around the country. Despite this protection, theft and vandalism continued at SOC sites, primarily outside of the SPZ where special protection was not provided. For example, individuals set a fire set inside the unfinished Christ the Savior Church in Pristina on September 6. According to SOC Bishop Teodosije, the fire and other acts of desecration were a result of the government’s failure to provide permanent police protection at the church.
On October 3, the SOC said the Pristina Municipality had ignored the vandalism of a chapel at the Serbian Orthodox cemetery in Pristina, stating it had been used as a garbage dump and toilet despite the presence of a guard.
In May the Pristina Municipality approved a request by the Beit Israel NGO to provide assistance in constructing a synagogue. By year’s end, however, the municipality had not provided the assistance, and Beit Israel criticized it for not following through on its approval.
During the year, supporters of Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen stated authorities, including the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology as well as Kosovo Police, sought to overly regulate their schools and restrict the ability of their affiliated clergy to lead prayers. As a result, Gulenist school representatives said they might be forced to close some of their licensed schools in the country.
As part of its Interfaith Kosovo program, the government undertook several initiatives to promote religious tolerance. The Interfaith Kosovo website provided news about all religious communities in the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized the fifth International Interfaith Conference on June 1-2, highlighting the role of women in interfaith dialogue and countering violent extremism. On March 19, Interfaith Kosovo organized a workshop in Prizren, focusing on interfaith dialogue and cultural heritage protection to promote reconciliation and combat religious extremism. The workshop gathered 100 participants from around the world.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were instances of religious-based violence, interference with religious pilgrimages, hate speech, and vandalism. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
In Gjakove/Djakovica, where a group of 150 Serbian Orthodox pilgrims was visiting a Serbian Orthodox monastery for the Assumption Day Feast, protestors attempted to block the car of a visiting Serbian official and threw stones as he exited the monastery. The pilgrims departed safely to Visoki Decani Monastery.
On June 28, an unidentified person threw stones at a van on its way to the Jarinje border crossing, causing slight injuries to two visiting Serbian pilgrims who were celebrating St. Vitus Day. On the same day, the KP reported unidentified individuals threw two Molotov cocktails at an escorted convoy of buses near Mitrovice/Mitrovica South, causing no damage. There were no arrests in either incident.
On January 6, a group of demonstrators gathered in front of an SOC church in Gjakove/Djakovica to protest Orthodox Christmas services. Protestors threw eggs and snowballs at police and towards pilgrims from Serbia who were refugees and previously lived in the city. Protest organizer Mimoza Shala, an activist from the Vetevendosje Party, told the media “war criminals disguised as pilgrims” were unwelcome in Kosovo. The KP removed the protestors without making any arrests. Gjakove/Djakovica Mayor Kusari-Lila called for peaceful protest and respect for religious rites.
The SOC criticized the media for calling its representatives “criminals” and for what it said was contributing to a climate of intolerance. The BIK said the media generally portrayed Muslims in a negative light.
As of September the police had registered 20 incidents of property usurpation, theft, and damage involving SOC facilities, primarily vandalism or theft of metal objects later sold for scrap.
Early in the year, unknown perpetrators urinated in the SOC’s unfinished Christ the Savior Church in Pristina. Deputy Prime Minister Branimir Stojanovic condemned the act.
On August 14, an ethnic Serb from the village of Pasjane in the Partes/Partesh Municipality broke into a nearby mosque in Velekince/Velekinca village and climbed the minaret, partially dismantling and damaging it. Police arrested the perpetrator, while a local imam helped calm several hundred ethnic Albanians who witnessed the vandalism. On August 15, Kosovo-Serb leaders condemned the incident, and SOC Bishop Teodosije addressed a letter to Mufti Naim Ternava, expressing solidarity and stating the perpetrator suffered from drug addiction and mental health problems. On August 16, the Gjilan/Gnjilane Basic Court ordered the perpetrator to one month’s detention.
On October 9, Catholics inaugurated a new church in the village of Llapushnik/Lapusnik in the Gllogovc/Glogovac Municipality, following protests in 2015 by Muslim residents who opposed the allocation of land to the church.
Leaders of different religious groups reported generally good relations with one another and participated in numerous interfaith discussions and initiatives. The OSCE continued to coordinate some activities among religious groups, including meetings with municipal mayors, to discuss issues such as access to graveyards and permits to build religious buildings.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy representatives met frequently with government officials, including the president, speaker and members of parliament, and prime minister, to urge passage of legislation to allow for the registration of religious institutions and to support full implementation of the law on SPZs. Embassy officials urged increased dialogue between ethnic Albanian members of the government and civil society with SOC members. The embassy urged government officials to resolve the land dispute involving St. Nicolas Chapel in the Holy Archangels Monastery in Prizren and the government’s lack of rent payments owed to the SOC for the ACA’s use of the property in Pristina. The embassy discussed the property issues of other religious groups with government officials on numerous occasions and urged officials to settle the issues based on law.
Embassy officials regularly discussed religious tolerance with leaders of the SOC, as well as with the Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, Tarikat, Bektashi, and Jewish communities. The U.S. Ambassador hosted a local ecumenical iftar in Gjilan/Gnjilane, during which he discussed the importance of countering violent extremism, SOC property disputes, providing cemetery space for all communities, and the importance of religious freedom in the country, including the draft law on religious freedom. Embassy officials met with BIK imams to discuss efforts to promote tolerance and counter violent extremism and discussed draft laws on religious freedom and cultural heritage with religious leaders. Embassy officials met with the religious leaders on multiple occasions to discuss their human rights and legal concerns.
The embassy cofunded the International Interfaith Conference 2016, held June 1-2 in Pristina, which focused on the role of women in interfaith dialogue and countering violent extremism. Nobel Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi and Tawakkol Karman participated at the conference, which included 300 participants and religious leaders from 50 countries.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief. It is a crime to engage in public speech inciting religious hatred. In August Freedom Party (PVV) leader and opposition parliamentarian Geert Wilders presented an election platform for the March 2017 parliamentary elections calling for the “de-Islamization” of the country. The government required asylum seekers, many of whom were Muslim, to sign a statement of participation in civic integration before receiving a residence permit. It required imams from Islamic countries to complete an integration course before practicing. Government ministers continued to issue statements condemning anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents and updated the national action plan to counter anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments. The government established a working group to discuss security at Islamic institutions. Local governments provided security to all Jewish institutions and, upon request, to Islamic institutions.
There were reports of violence, threats, discrimination, verbal abuse, and vandalism against Muslims and Jews. In 2015, the most recent year for which data were available, police registered 439 anti-Muslim incidents – twice the number of the previous year – including assault, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism, and local antidiscrimination boards recorded 240 incidents, a 45 percent increase. Police registered 428 complaints of discrimination against Jews in 2015, higher than the 358 in 2014. The Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported 126 anti-Semitic incidents in 2015, lower than the 171 in 2014, but “still higher than normal,” according to CIDI. Incidents included five cases of physical violence, harassment, and vandalism. There were 16 cases in schools, the highest such number in a decade. Groups said most occurrences went unreported. NGOs conducted programs to counter prejudice against Jews and Muslims.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials emphasized to government officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, parliamentarians, and police in formal meetings and informal conversations, support for refugees of all faiths, the importance of integration for newcomers, and the value of interfaith dialogue. The U.S. embassy and the consulate general in Amsterdam met with different faith communities and civil society activists and pursued public outreach to youth, academics, and women to increase interfaith understanding and tolerance. The Ambassador discussed religious freedom and discrimination against Muslims with Muslim refugees and the embassy continued to work with groups combating discrimination, including the Anne Frank House.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 17 million (July 2016 estimate).
In a 2014 survey by government bureau Statistics Netherlands, 49 percent of the population declared no church affiliation, 24 percent self-identified as Roman Catholic, 7 percent as Reformed, 6 percent as Calvinist, 3 percent as other Protestant denominations, 5 percent as Muslim, and 6 percent as “other,” including Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist.
Most Muslims live in urban areas and are of Turkish, Moroccan, or Surinamese background. The Muslim population also includes immigrants and asylum seekers from other countries including Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute, a research institute, and the Council of Europe estimate the Jewish population at approximately 30,000. A 2008 report of the Scientific Council for Government Policy identified a Hindu population of between 100,000 and 215,000, of whom approximately 85 percent are of Surinamese descent and 10 percent of Indian descent. The Buddhist community has approximately 17,000 members, according to a 2007 report by the governmental Netherlands Institute for Social Research, the latest estimate available.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and provides for the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief, individually or in community with others, without affecting their responsibilities under the law. The constitution allows the government to restrict the exercise of religious beliefs outside of buildings or enclosed spaces to protect health, for traffic safety, or to prevent disorder.
The law makes it a crime to engage in public speech that incites religious hatred, and provides a penalty of imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to 8,100 euros ($8,500), or both. In order to qualify as hate speech, the statements must be directed at a group of people; the law does not consider statements targeted at a philosophy or religion, such as “Islam” as opposed to “Muslims,” as criminal hate speech.
The law permits employees to refuse to work on Sundays for religious reasons, but employers may deny employees such an exception depending on the nature of the work, such as employment in the health sector. Members of religious communities for whom the Sabbath is not Sunday may request similar exemptions.
The law does not require religious groups to register with the government, but the government recognizes religious groups and grants them exemptions from all taxes, including income, value added, and property taxes, if the tax authorities determine they meet specific criteria. Under the tax law, institutions must be “of a philosophical or religious nature,” contribute to the general welfare of society, and be non-profit and non-violent to qualify for tax exemptions.
A number of federal government institutions, including the Council of State and the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), are responsible for reviewing complaints of religious discrimination. The NIHR is also charged with providing advice to the government on issues involving religious discrimination.
Local governments appoint antidiscrimination boards that work independently under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. These local boards provide information on how to register and report complaints and mediate disputes to the interior ministry, including those pertaining to discrimination based on religion. Acceptance of mediation decisions by parties involved in disputes is voluntary.
The government provides funding to religious schools, other religious educational institutions, and religious healthcare facilities. To qualify for funding, institutions have to meet government educational standards as well as minimum class size and healthcare requirements. The constitution stipulates standards required of religious or ideology-based (termed “special”) schools, financed either in part or fully by the government, are regulated by law with due regard for the freedom of these schools to provide education according to their religion or ideology.
The constitution stipulates public education shall pay due respect to the individual’s religion or belief, and the law permits religious education in public schools. All schools are obligated to familiarize students with various spiritual movements in society regardless of the religious affiliation of the school. Religion-based schools are free to shape religious education, as long as the education inspectorate sees that such education does not incite criminal offenses.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The NIHR and municipal antidiscrimination boards continued to address individual complaints, such as the denial of internships to female Muslim students because they refused to remove their headscarves. The rulings generally held that any restriction on wearing headscarves should be limited and based on security or other carefully delineated grounds pertaining to the nature of the work. In practice, headscarves were permitted almost everywhere, including in schools.
On November 29, the lower house of parliament approved legislation proposed by the cabinet in 2015 that would ban face covering clothing, including burqas, in certain public places where it said identification was essential, including in government buildings, schools, hospitals, and on public transportation. The proposed legislation generated considerable societal debate. Muslim organizations, for example, SPIOR, the umbrella organization of Islamic organizations in the Rotterdam region, said the legislation would stigmatize Muslims, and targeted only approximately100 to 150 persons in the country who wear the burqa. Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigrant populist Freedom Party (PVV), argued for a burqa ban in all public spaces. Other political parties who voted in favor of the ban viewed it as part of integration efforts. These parties argued that an open society requires open communication, unhindered by a burqa. Religious freedom was not part of the debate. The senate had not voted on the legislation at year’s end.
On March 9, the Amsterdam Court of Appeals acquitted a man of hate speech after he used offensive language about Muslims in a television interview. The court found he had made his inflammatory statements in the context of a political debate, where such statements might offend, shock, or disturb, and therefore did not rise to the level of insulting a religion.
On January 5, the prosecutor’s office fined a police instructor 350 euros ($370) for a Facebook post in which he wrote: “I hate Muslims, period. I have had it with Muslims. I hope that they will quickly all die a slow death. Death to Islam.” The prosecutor considered the latter comment about Islam permissible under the law because it criticized a religion rather than its followers.
Parliament passed a motion in December 2015 calling on the cabinet to consider banning Salafist organizations because the country’s security services reportedly considered them a “breeding ground for jihadism.” In February the cabinet rejected the ban after debating eight non-binding resolutions related to the practice of Salafism in the country, including a proposal to limit the exemption of religious groups against criminal prosecution, and a call to ban foreign financing of Salafist mosques. One resolution, sponsored by Ahmed Marcouch, a member of the Labor Party, again called upon the government to investigate the possibility of banning all Salafist organizations. Marcouch stated in his resolution “it is not about religious freedom because Salafism is an anti-democratic and intolerant ideology, not a religion, and its proponents believe in their supremacy over others.” The government repeatedly ruled out a ban on Salafism, stating it would violate freedom of religion, and was considering, at year’s end, ways of improving transparency of foreign funding for all religious organizations.
Government ministers frequently spoke out against anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and general discrimination in speeches. On November 2, Justice and Security Minister Ard van der Steur stated, “Persons in the Netherlands must be free to exercise their religious beliefs. Violence against Muslims and mosques is unacceptable. The police and prosecutor’s office must take firm action.” On March 1, Dutch First Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans stated on Facebook, “The Netherlands must remain a country where people can profess their religion and conviction in freedom and without fear. Nobody should be afraid to be openly who he is…Muslim, Jew, Christian, nonbeliever or whatever.” Commenting on the rise of anti-Muslim incidents, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Muslim, stated May 25, “The debate on the excesses of Islam and Muslims in relation to terrorism has become a license to offend and discriminate against people. That’s unacceptable.” In September Minister of Education Jet Bussemaker spoke out against religious discrimination in awarding vocational internships. The minister launched programs for vocational students and teachers in the country’s five largest cities to train them to recognize discrimination, including religious discrimination.
On August 25, PVV leader and opposition parliamentarian Geert Wilders presented an election platform for the March 2017 parliamentary elections calling for the “de-Islamization” of the country through refusing all asylum seekers and immigrants from Islamic countries, prohibiting headscarves in public, closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Quran, and prohibiting any Islamic expression that violated public order.
In December a court convicted Wilders of inciting discrimination and insulting a racial group following remarks he made about Moroccans at a rally in 2014, but did not prescribe any punishment. The court acquitted Wilders of inciting hatred.
The government used newspaper advertisements, internet outreach, and public service announcements to encourage victims to report discrimination, including on religious grounds. On September 2, Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations Ronald Plasterk launched a new national campaign “to knock down” discrimination, including religious discrimination. The campaign included posters, television commercials, and outreach activities by well-known personalities.
The government updated its national action plan to counter discrimination, which included specific measures to counter anti-Semitism, including efforts to stimulate dialogue between key figures in the Jewish and Muslim communities and to promote debate among Muslim youth to advance diversity and tolerance. The government signed agreements with major social media organizations such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to counter discrimination on the internet by addressing or removing discriminatory language. The government consulted stakeholders, including the Royal Netherlands Soccer Association (KNVB), local authorities, police officials, the prosecutor’s office, and soccer clubs, to counter discrimination and anti-Semitic chanting and salutes during soccer matches. Participants agreed on measures to prosecute offenders or ban them from stadiums.
Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher and Security and Justice Minister Van der Steur met with key figures from the Jewish and Muslim communities on March 15 to discuss the increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents. They discussed how to build bridges between these communities and best ways to counter these trends. In February Asscher said he had stopped reacting on social media to spiteful comments made against him because of his Jewish background.
The national government placed high-level attention on mosque security. It established a special working group to discuss security questions, which included representatives of the Muslim community, the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security (NTCV), the police, and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment.
Local governments continued to provide all Jewish institutions with security, and to provide security to Muslim institutions at their request. Local governments based their security on a threat-and-risk analysis.
The government commissioned research into the causes and trigger factors of Muslim discrimination among youth in order to determine how to design policies to address such behavior. Results were expected in early 2017.
The government required asylum seekers to sign a statement of participation in civic integration in order to obtain a residence permit. The statement informed immigrants of their rights and obligations and of fundamental values, including freedom of religion.
According to CIDI, Jewish community leaders stated there was insufficient coverage of the Holocaust in the school curriculum.
In September King Willem-Alexander advocated freedom of religion and belief during his speech opening the parliamentary year.
The government continued to require imams and other spiritual leaders recruited in Islamic countries to complete an integration course before practicing. This requirement did not apply to Turkish nationals, including approximately 140 imams appointed by that country’s religious affairs directorate, the Diyanet, in accordance with an association agreement between the European Union and Turkey.
The government sponsored leadership courses with the intention of facilitating imam training in the Dutch language without foreign interference.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of violence, threats, discrimination, verbal abuse, and vandalism against Muslims and Jews. Agencies collecting data on such incidents stated many occurrences were never reported. The police and various monitoring bodies, including anti-discrimination boards, reported a sharp increase of incidents of discrimination against Muslims after terrorist attacks in Europe in 2015. In 2015, the most recent year for which figures were available, the police registered 439 incidents, including of violence, harassment, and verbal abuse, against Muslims, compared to 206 in 2014, and the antidiscrimination boards registered 240 incidents, compared with 165 in 2014. SPIOR registered 231 reports of incidents of violence and discrimination in the Rotterdam area between January 2015 and March 2016. Over the same period, Rotterdam police only received reports of 41 incidents against Muslims. The Complaints Bureau for Discrimination on the Internet (MDI), an NGO, recorded 330 expressions against Muslims on the internet in 2015, compared to 219 in 2014, while the government’s internet discrimination hotline (MIND) recorded 142 expressions against Muslims in 2015, compared to 20 in 2014.
The police registered 428 complaints of discrimination against Jews in 2015, compared to 358 in 2014. CIDI, which tracked anti-Semitic incidents, except for those occurring online, reported 126 incidents in 2015 compared with 171 in 2014, but qualified the 2015 figure as “still higher than the normal level in a year without military intervention in Israel.” There were five incidents of physical violence, which CIDI said was relatively high, and fewer incidents of harassment in the street and through email. In one incident, a non-Jewish woman married to a Moroccan Jew was confronted by the parents of her daughter’s classmates at school over her relationship. A man grabbed the woman by the throat, called her a “Jew’s whore,” and threatened to shoot her. There were 18 incidents of vandalism. CIDI also reported 16 incidents at schools, the highest number of such incidents it recorded in a decade. There were twice as many incidents (10) of anti-Semitic chanting during soccer matches than in 2014. According to CIDI, those who were recognizable as Jewish because of dress or outward appearance, for instance wearing a yarmulke, were sometimes targets of direct confrontations.
MDI received 142 reports of online expressions of anti-Semitism and/or Holocaust denial in 2015, compared to 328 in 2014; and MIND received 46, compared to 31 in 2014.
In their annual report on racism, anti-Semitism, and extreme violence in the country in 2015, the Verwey Jonker Institute and Anne Frank Foundation reported 57 incidents of anti-Semitism, compared to 76 in 2014, and 424 incidents of anti-Semitic shouting, compared to 710 in 2014. Incidents of anti-Semitism included 18 incidents of insults, 12 cases of threats, two cases of bullying, and five cases of physical abuse. In one incident, three boys threw a brick at two men on the way to a synagogue; the brick missed its target. In another, a man yelled at a Jewish man in an elevator of an apartment building, leading to a fight.
On April 29, half a dozen men assaulted a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf on a tram in Rotterdam. The perpetrators poured beer over her and tore off her headscarf. SPIOR Director Marianne Vorthoren said women and children were often victims of anti-Muslim discrimination. She also said that the physical and verbal abuse often went unreported due to fear of retaliation from the perpetrators. She added that bystanders rarely intervened or reported incidents to the police, leaving perpetrators free to engage in harassment without fear of consequences.
Christians complained about intimidation by Muslims in asylum centers. According to managers of refugee centers, there were instances of scuffles or fights between individual refugees, often of different religions, but there were no riots or incidents of mass violence.
In April Ynetnews, an Israeli news site, reported an upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents in the country. The article quoted the country’s Chief Rabbi, Benjamin Jacobs, as saying, “People are debating removing the mezuzahs from their doorposts, since they identify them as Jews.”
The Ministry of Education commissioned a report on discrimination in education, which commented extensively on deep-rooted anti-Semitism in classrooms in certain schools with a high percentage of migrant Muslim students and how teachers felt helpless combatting these sometimes violent sentiments. The report cited one Amsterdam high school teacher, who recalled an incident in which a female student of Moroccan descent stood up and pronounced, “If I had a Kalashnikov [automatic rifle], I’d gun down all the Jews.”
Platform Integration & Society (KIS), an NGO, reported March 21 that girls wearing headscarves had more difficulty finding an internship required for college graduation than other students.
In June a man sustained anti-Semitic verbal abuse from several motorists after hanging his son’s schoolbag from the pole of an Israeli flag in celebration of his son’s high school graduation. Passers-by yelled “rotten Jews,” “we’re going to get you, cancer Zionists,” and “rotten Zionists.”
On June 13, a court convicted a man of hate speech and sentenced him to two weeks in prison for posting signs with swastikas on his windows reading “Turks go away” and “Gas Jews.”
In May CIDI filed complaints with the police against soccer fans chanting “My father is with the commandos and my mother with the SS. Together they burn Jews because Jews burn the best.” The police responded that they were “looking into” the incident.
Other anti-Semitic incidents took place over email, social media, and other online venues. For example, there were reports a Jewish man tweeting about developments in Turkey received messages such as “Hey, Jew, the best thing that ever happened to you is that Hitler, the best man, has existed.” In another case, a Jewish teacher reportedly received an online message from students calling her “Cancer Jew.”
Professor Ineke van der Valk of the University of Amsterdam, researcher of anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination, stated mosques often did not report incidents in order to avoid publicity or increased attention. She recorded 18 incidents against mosques in the first two months of 2016, including vandalism, attempted arson, threatening letters, and the hanging of pigs’ heads.
On February 27, individuals threw Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Enschede, causing a minor fire. Authorities arrested five men and tried and convicted them on October 27 of attempted arson with terrorist intent. The court sentenced the men to four years’ imprisonment, of which one year was suspended.
In January a pig’s head was found outside of the Turkish Hakyol mosque in Mijdrecht.
In February, 10 mosques received threatening letters containing swastikas and texts with messages such as, “You will soon receive important visitors, pigs,” and “Islam is the devil’s religion.”
Individuals left dead pigs and pigs’ heads at refugee centers, where many refugees were Muslim. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. In January the police removed two dead pigs from a proposed center for 500 refugees in the Brabant village of Heesch. Signs nearby read “the people say no to the AZC (asylum center) and 500 is too many.” In February media reported two dead pigs were found at a potential site for a refugee center in the city of Ede. A day earlier in Ede, PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West), a European nationalist group founded in Germany, had protested against an inflow of refugees into the city. During the protest, PEGIDA’s leader in the country, Edwin Wagensveld, was arrested for refusing to remove a hat shaped like a pig.
On August 15, slogans were spray-painted on an elementary school building and on twenty houses in the town of Voorburg, including “ISIS” and “Kill all Jews.”
CIDI continued to conduct programs to counter prejudice against Jews and other minorities in schools. CIDI again invited 25 teachers to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem for a seminar on Holocaust education. CIDI led workshops for the police and prosecutors at the police academy to help them recognize anti-Semitism.
The Liberal Jewish Community of Amsterdam continued to reach out to youth in the Get to Know Your Neighbors project, which invited students into its synagogue to introduce them to a temple and explain Jewish practices.
Multiple groups continued to organize initiatives to bring Muslims and Jews together. For example, the Salaam-Shalom NGO in Amsterdam and the “Mo&Moos” initiative (short for Mohammed and Moshe) brought together young Muslim and Jewish professionals in Amsterdam to encourage leadership on interfaith issues. In Rotterdam SPIOR organized similar activities. The INS Platform, an NGO, created a website where citizens could meet “ordinary” Muslims in an effort to overcome prejudice.
Jewish groups welcomed the Protestant Church’s official condemnation in April of anti-Jewish statements made by Martin Luther 500 years earlier.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy emphasized in conversations with government officials, including the mayor of Rotterdam, the national police, parliamentarians, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of the Amsterdam City Council, and the president of the national platform on dealing with youth crime, the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy and the consulate general in Amsterdam highlighted the need for religious tolerance and interfaith understanding in outreach to youth, academics, and women.
The Ambassador met with Muslim refugees and visited several refugee centers to discuss religious freedom, discrimination against Muslims and integration issues, and made efforts to bring communities closer together. The consul general in Amsterdam hosted a Thanksgiving service where city government officials, civil society activists, and leaders in various faith communities discussed interfaith tolerance and dialogue. The embassy continued to work with groups active in anti-discrimination work in the country, including the Anne Frank House. The embassy continued to connect the Anne Frank House with individuals in several Muslim countries to facilitate exchange programs teaching the book The Diary of Anne Frank and religious tolerance.
Representatives from the embassy and consulate general met with a wide range of religious leaders, including the Liberal Jewish Community and Muslim community throughout the year to highlight U.S. support for religious freedom. They attended iftars led by local political parties and the national police during Ramadan, and a seder organized by the Liberal Jewish Community. These iftars and seders included discussions with Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders about their perceptions of religious freedom within the country and issues of religious discrimination and possible solutions, including efforts to learn more about others who practice different faiths. The meetings included representatives from different religious groups within the three faiths. Embassy staff frequently met with mosques and SPIOR to discuss diversity, faith, integration, and violent extremism.