The interim constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. It accords non-Muslims the freedom to practice their religion and bans discrimination based on religion. The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing Libya’s “social structure,” which were used to prohibit circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.” Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected in practice, particularly in areas of the country controlled by Salafist groups. The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) remained in office, but it did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the South and East. The GNA relied on armed groups to provide security and administer some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a heightened risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape than other migrants and refugees. In the West, the Tripoli-based Rada Special Deterrence Force (SDF), a GNA-aligned Salafist armed group integrated into the Ministry of Interior by GNA decree in May, was involved in several arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Some detainees reported they were tortured and abused. In February the SDF arrested a woman it accused of practicing sorcery. According to a Refugees International Field Report, an Ethiopian Christian woman said she and other Christians hid their crosses from police in the detention center where they were being held “because the Libyan police working in that place didn’t appreciate Christians.” According to the same report, a 26-year-old Christian refugee who was held in a detention center in central Tripoli said guards provided better treatment to migrants from majority-Muslim Morocco than others. Domestic human rights activists continued to report a restrictive environment, including efforts designed to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country. In Tripoli some militias associated with the GNA reportedly imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed un-Islamic. A draft constitution issued by the Libyan Constitutional Drafting Assembly in 2017, not yet passed by the House of Representatives and put to a referendum, would prohibit non-Muslims from serving in high offices of state.
The East operated under a separate, unrecognized governmental administration, with security provided by the “Libyan National Army” (LNA) and LNA-aligned Salafist armed groups. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in Benghazi, parts of Tripoli, and Derna, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. According to the Christian rights advocacy group Open Doors USA, Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings. Salafist and Islamist groups aligned with the GNA and the unrecognized government in the East took on law enforcement functions. U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), and ISIS continued to operate within the country. Human Rights Watch reported that on January 23, an unidentified armed group or groups detonated two car bombs in front of the Baya’at al-Radwan Mosque in Benghazi as worshippers were leaving after evening prayers, killing at least 34 males, including three children, and wounding more than 90 others. In December the Reuters news service reported local authorities said they had exhumed from a mass grave near Sirte the bodies of 34 Ethiopian Christians executed by ISIS in 2015.
According to international media, former Muslims faced intense social and economic pressure to renounce their faith to return to Islam. Sources also reported converts to other religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, were threatened with violence or dismissal from employment because of their beliefs. According to an atheist from Benghazi, he had to reaffirm publicly faith in Islam (which contradicted his private beliefs) due to threats against his person by coworkers and Salafist militia groups.
The U.S. Embassy to Libya continued to operate from Tunis, Tunisia. The U.S. government continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with the GNA, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other interlocutors. U.S. officials raised these issues in the context of confronting violent extremist groups such as ISIS, as well as condemning acts of physical mistreatment of religious minorities in detention; destruction of religious property; and calling for ending discrimination in the religious education curriculum, particularly discrimination against religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.7 million (July 2018 estimate). According to reports by the International Organization for Migration, 12 percent of the population (approximately 804,000 persons) are migrants. Sunni Muslims represent 97 percent of the population, and the remaining 3 percent includes Ibadi Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and Buddhists. Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims. Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that, according to the Libyan Tamazight Congress, an organization that advocates on behalf of the Amazigh community, Ibadi Muslims account for between 4.5 and 6 percent of the population. Nearly all non-Muslim residents in the country are foreigners.
Estimates of the number of Christians in the country vary. According to the Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List Country Profile (which covers 2018), there are 37,900 Christians in the country. In 2015 Open Doors USA estimated 150 to 180 of these were Libyan nationals who converted from Islam.
Foreign Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan African migrants and Filipino foreign workers, with smaller numbers of Egyptian migrants and a small number of other foreign residents of European nationality. According to Christian groups in Tripoli, most of the Egyptian Christians are Copts. Most sub-Saharan African and Filipino migrants are Catholic, and the Catholic diocese of Tripoli estimates its followers include 5,000 sub-Saharan and 3,000 Filipino individuals. Estimates on the numbers of other Christian groups vary. According to Open Doors USA, these include Anglicans, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and nondenominational Christians.
According to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, no Jewish individuals reside permanently in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution. It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws. Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs. The interim constitution also states “there shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights. Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law. The GNA remains bound by the constitutional declaration until a new constitution is passed by the House of Representatives and a public referendum held. The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict and provide a national legal framework for religious freedom.
There is no law providing for individuals’ right to choose or change their religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate their religious beliefs. There is no civil law explicitly prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion or prohibiting proselytization; however, the criminal code effectively prohibits missionary activities or conversion. It includes prohibitions against “instigating division” and insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, charges that carry a maximum sentence of death. The criminal code prohibits the circulation of publications that aim to “change the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental rules of the social structure,” which are used to criminalize the circulation of non-Islamic religious material.
The GNA and the East each have a Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The MEIAs administer mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms. Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools. Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students with no opt-out provisions.
Sharia governs family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under sharia, a Christian or Jewish woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal under sharia, and such marriages are not recognized, even when contracted abroad. The MEIA administers non-Muslim family law issues, although there is no separate legal framework governing non-Muslim family law. The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Due to the fact that religion, politics, and security are often closely linked in the country, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The internationally recognized GNA remained in office, but did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the East and South.
The United Nations Development Program reported the judicial system was functioning, albeit at different levels depending on the location of the courts within the country. Human Rights Watch, however, said key institutions, “most notably, law enforcement and the judiciary,” were dysfunctional or had stopped working in most parts of the country. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reported courts in the areas controlled by the GNA continued to sentence defendants to corporal punishment in accordance with its interpretation of sharia, including flogging for adultery and amputations for theft; however, according to UNSMIL, the government did not routinely carry out these punishments in practice.
According to international NGOs working in the country, a variety of groups – revolutionary brigades, tribal militias, and local strongmen – provided security in and around courts. The GNA incorporated several of these armed groups into the Ministry of Interior, but observers said the GNA’s control over these groups remained limited. Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in the harassment of Christians. The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups was limited to condemnations of acts of violence. For instance, in September, the GNA condemned clashes that broke out between armed groups in Tripoli that caused the displacement of thousands of non-Libyan migrants in the capital.
The SDF, while formally a counterterrorism force, also engaged in other functions including policing on moral and religious issues. According to human rights activists, SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Detainees reported torture and abuse at the hands of the SDF while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities. Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who said that in 2017, the SDF detained him at Mitiga Airport Prison facility in Tripoli for two weeks. The man said he was flogged twice a day during his detention.
According to media reports, on February 22, the SDF arrested a Moroccan woman, Ghizlane Soukane, in Tripoli, on charges of practicing sorcery and magic. There was no update on her whereabouts or the status of her case at year’s end.
The National Committee for Human Rights in Libya reported that in October, following the committee’s intervention, an Egyptian Coptic resident, Kirlus Hani Abdulmalik, was released from detention at the SDF-run Mitiga Airport Prison facility. Abdulmalik, a pharmacist, was detained since December 2016 without charge, reportedly because SDF forces believed it was illegal for Abdulmalik to practice medicine and provide treatments to Libyans because he was non-Muslim.
On February 26, the Office of Islamic Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Misrata, a regional affiliate of the GNA’s MEIA, arrested Abdulaziz al-Siawi, a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council, for explicitly calling for terrorist operations in Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, in response to those governments’ anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies. Earlier in February a surreptitiously recorded video was released of a December 2017 Friday sermon al-Siawi delivered at the Mosque of Al-Sheikh Mohammad in Misrata in which he said “Let me say [clearly] that I want to call for terrorism.” On March 2, members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, together with members of the Council of Elders and Shura, which is headed by Ibrahim bin Ghashir, demonstrated at the courtyard of the Sheikh Amhamed Mosque against the decision of the GNA to prohibit al-Siawi from delivering sermons. Authorities subsequently released al-Siawi.
The GNA relied on armed groups to provide security and administer some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. According to the Refugees International Field Report published in April, a 23-year-old Ethiopian Christian woman identified as Sara said she and other Christians hid their crosses from police in the detention center where they were being held “because the Libyan police working in that place didn’t appreciate Christians.” In the same report, a 26-year-old Christian refugee from South Sudan identified as David, who was held in a detention center in central Tripoli, said guards provided better treatment to migrants from majority-Muslim Morocco than to others.
In September seven Christian migrants who, along with 173 others were repatriated to Nigeria on August 30, told Black Christian News Network One they had been detained in Osama Prison in Zawiya. One of the men said guards hung him in chains overnight and left him to die. In the morning they took his body to a shallow grave in the forest, but, upon discovering he was still alive, brought him back to the prison, and put him in solitary confinement. Authorities returned the men to Nigeria following the intervention of the International Organization for Migration.
The government permitted religious scholars to form organizations, issue fatwas, and provide advice to followers. The fatwas did not have legal weight but conveyed considerable social pressure, according to Libyan tribal and religious leaders. The GNA, however, did not exercise effective administrative control of mosques and supervision of clerics outside the limited areas under its control.
In Tripoli, according to civil society contacts, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias, such as the GNA-associated SDF and the Nawasi Brigade, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed “un-Islamic.” There continued to be no laws, however, imposing restrictions on dress.
In August the Ministry of Education issued a decree suspending admission to special religious schools, including the Religious Academy in Tajoura. During the suspension, the ministry conducted a review of the curriculum at these schools to ensure its interpretation of the Quran and Islamic hadith did not contain hateful or incendiary language toward other religions. Former Grand Mufti of Libya Al-Sadiq Abdulrahman al-Ghiryani and Salafist religious figures condemned the suspension, which remained in place at year’s end. The Ministry of Education worked with the U.S. embassy to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance. The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.
Government officials at airports throughout the country continued to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country without a male guardian, although there was no law or government regulation restricting such travel. NGOs with local staff reported women often had male relatives accompany them to the airport and carried written permission from their male guardians to enable them to leave the country.
According to human rights activists, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religious practice and political issues. The draft constitution would maintain sharia as “the source of legislation.” The draft constitution would also ban non-Muslims from key offices of state including the presidency, legislature, and prohibit non-Muslims from being appointed cabinet ministers.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
During the year, nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including Benghazi and parts of Tripoli. In Derna, prior to the LNA operations to take the city, there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards.
Multiple sources state Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings. Christian groups operating in the country identified the LNA-aligned Madkhali Salafist groups operating in Benghazi as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians. Academic studies and media describe the Madkhali movement as a form of very strict Salafism.
According to a Christian group operating in the country, Christian residents continued to report abuse at the hands of militant Muslim groups, including members of the former Libya Shield Force affiliated with the Libyan Dawn battalion, whose physical mistreatment of detainees included floggings, exposure to cold weather, and other abuses; they also reportedly threatened Christians with execution by beheading. Christian residents reported similar abuses by other groups, including the Benghazi Revolutionary Brigades (BRB), a jihadist Salafist militia coalition. Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who, in 2017, was repatriated to Egypt after the BRB kidnapped him and held him for 18 days. He was released after payment of a ransom.
Human Rights Watch reported that on January 23, an unidentified armed group or groups detonated two car bombs in front of the Baya’at al-Radwan Mosque in Benghazi as worshippers were leaving after evening prayers, killing at least 34 males, including three children, and wounding more than 90 other individuals. According to spokespersons for the two main hospitals for emergency and trauma services in Benghazi, the majority of victims were civilians.
In December Reuters news service reported local authorities said they had exhumed from a mass grave near Sirte the bodies of 34 Ethiopian Christians executed by ISIS. According to Reuters, in April 2015 a video posted on social media appeared to show ISIS members shooting and beheading the Christians, who were migrant workers.
Reuters also reported the government returned to Egypt the bodies of 20 Coptic Christians in May. Reuters reported that in January 2015 a video released online appeared to show ISIS members beheading the individuals, together with one Ghanaian Christian, on a beach near Sirte and burying them in a mass grave.
The Christian Science Monitor reported in January that the Madkhali movement grew more influential. The Christian Science Monitor said Madkhali units associated with LNA-affiliated groups functioned as informal police forces. The newspaper said in January members of the Madkhali movement patrolled the streets of Tripoli to stop crime and what they viewed as “vice” contrary to Islam and to disrupt ISIS cells and attacks.
The MEIA of the nonrecognized governmental administration in the East exercised its ability to issue fatwas. According to local human rights activists in Benghazi, followers of the Madkhali movement exercised influence over academic institutions, in addition to overt control of MEIA.
On November 12, Mousa Abdalsalam Taieb, Director of Cultural and Religious Conversion Affairs for MEIA in the East, issued a circular calling for takfir (a pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever [kafir] and no longer a Muslim) as the penalty for individuals who celebrated the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday; cooked a porridge traditionally prepared for this holiday; or engaged in ritual praise of Mohammed. Sources noted all of these practices were part of traditional Islamic practice in the country.
According to Human Rights Watch, the 2017 MEIA religious edict by the “eastern interim government” based in Tobruk remained in effect against Ibadi Muslims, accusing the group of deviance and following an infidel doctrine.
According to Libyan academic researchers, the General Administration for Criminal Investigation in Benghazi continued to conduct investigations of citizens for denigrating Islam and for converting others to Christianity, and proselytizing on social media.
According to human rights activists and political analysts, the MEIA in the East continued to provide texts for Friday services to imams, often including political and social messages. According to media reports, the LNA continued to appoint several imams with Salafist beliefs in areas of its control throughout the East.
U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations, including Ansar al-Sharia, AQIM, and ISIS, continued to operate within the country, although there were no reports during the year of explicitly religiously motivated attacks. Sources indicated Ansar al-Sharia maintained connections with extremists in other parts of the country, including AQIM. Following expulsion from Sirte in December 2016, ISIS was believed to be largely confined to nonpopulated areas outside of major cities, as well as to ungoverned regions in the South.
On June 28, the LNA took control of the eastern city of Derna from the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna (SCMD), an umbrella organization consisting of Salafist groups opposed to ISIS, including Ansar al-Sharia. According to human rights activists, when SCMD controlled Derna, it restricted the freedom of Sunni Muslims to worship or engage in what SCMD considered heterodox religious expression.
In October Ali al-Subaiy, a former Libya Islamic Fighting Group member and an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Representatives seat for the Hayy al-Andalus Neighborhood of Tripoli, gave an interview on the Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Channel 9 television station. Al-Subaiy called Jews “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for “offensive jihad” against Jews and Christians. In September al-Subaiy said in an interview on the same channel that “history informs us that [the Jews] are treacherous and deceitful.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Multiple sources, including international media, and the Arab Organization for Human Rights – Libya (AOHRL) continued to report a restrictive social environment for religious freedom throughout the country. This included intense social and economic pressure on former Muslims to return to Islam. NGOs and a UN agency stated Salafist interpretations of sharia increasingly contributed to this restrictive environment. Religious minorities said converts to other religions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious persons, were threatened with violence or dismissal from employment because of their beliefs or lack of belief. An atheist from Benghazi said he faced discrimination and had to publicly reaffirm faith in Islam (which contradicted his private beliefs) due to threats against his person by coworkers and Salafist militia groups.
Sources said Christians who converted from Islam practiced their faith in semi-secrecy. Open Doors USA stated Christian citizens who were former Muslims faced violence and intense pressure from their families and communities to renounce their faith. Christians said they felt pressure to refrain from missionary activities because of security threats and social pressure from the local community. Catholic authorities also stated Christian migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were more likely to experience discrimination or extortion than Muslims from the same region.
Christian communities continued to exist in Tripoli, where Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches operated for foreigners. Christian communities were also present in Misrata, al-Baida, Benghazi, Tubruq, Sebha, Ghat, Ubari, and Murzuq, among other cities. In some cases, such as in Benghazi, Catholic communities continued to worship in places other than church buildings after ISIS destroyed church properties there in 2015. The Catholic cathedral in Benghazi remained damaged and inaccessible after fighting occurred in 2013-15.
According to Human Rights Watch, in late 2017 unidentified individuals attacked two historic Sufi mosques in Tripoli. Unidentified individuals set fire to the Sufi mosque, Zawiyat Sheikha Radiya, causing extensive damage, and destroyed the Sidi Abu Gharara Mosque. There were no reported arrests related to the attacks by year’s end.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Following the U.S. embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations in July 2014, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. The U.S. government discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders, particularly in the context of confronting violent extremist groups such as ISIS. Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including the National Commission for Human Rights in Libya and the AOHRL, to address religious freedom issues. The U.S. government also condemned acts of physical mistreatment of religious minorities in detention and destruction of religious property. The U.S. embassy partnered with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance.
According to the Moroccan constitution, Islam is the religion of the state, and the state guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly. The constitution also says the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.” The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. It also prohibits political parties founded on religion and political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. Moroccan law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religion were Jews. Local Christian and Shia leaders reported the government detained and questioned some Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians and Shias. Christian and Shia Muslim citizens also stated their fear of government and societal harassment led to their decision to practice their faiths discreetly. According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack. On April 3, a group calling itself the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize rights for Christian citizens such as freedom to worship, celebrate civil marriages, establish and operate cemeteries, use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school. In May human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two citizens who had converted to Christianity the necessary documents to register to marry because of their religious beliefs. Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches. Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests. The authorities continued to introduce new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify and monitor imams (morchidines) and female Muslim spiritual guides (morchidates) who have accounts on social media to ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. On June 14, Minister of State for Human Rights Mustafa Ramid stated in an interview that “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion. On June 19, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens on national television, but he said throughout history, Morocco has allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religious affairs freely. In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez from September 10 to 12, where King Mohammed VI delivered remarks underscoring the tradition of coexistence in Morocco between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.
According to the Assabah newspaper, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador received death threats, which the government investigated and reported were unfounded allegations. According to media reports, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts, Christian citizens face pressure from non-Christian family and friends to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith. They also reported the government did not respond to complaints about frequent societal harassment. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm. According to an interview with TelQuel magazine, however, Baha’i citizens reported they did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan. Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.
The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, members of religious minority and majority communities, religious leaders, activists, and civil society groups, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.3 million (July 2018 estimate) and more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, according to U.S. government estimates. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.
According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca. Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens. Moroccan Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north. In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 600. Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.
Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and several thousand Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked there for generations but do not hold Moroccan citizenship. There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier. There are an estimated 3000 foreign-residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca. Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, with full sovereignty, and Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his religious affairs. The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society. According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam.
The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches. Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($21,000).
The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith, and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52). It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense. Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law. The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause on occasion to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.
By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52). The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52). Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.
The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate five percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.
Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country. A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters. Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts. Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of the relevant aspects of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam. Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children. Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.
Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some foreign Christian churches). The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters in order to conduct financial transactions, hold bank accounts, rent property, and address the government in the name of the group. An individual representative of a religious group neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, and/or petitions to the government. The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters. The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution. The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”
Many foreign-resident Christian churches are registered as associations. The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status. The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively. The Protestant and Catholic Churches, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government.
By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence. Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of teaching Sunni Islam or of not including religious instruction within the school’s curriculum. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.
According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation. If the king or parliament decline to ratify a decision of the Ulema, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The government at times reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs. According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack. In May and June human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two Christian converts the necessary documentation to register to marry because of their religious beliefs. The couple hosted a small symbolic wedding ceremony in a human rights organization’s headquarters in Rabat in June, but the couple stated they feared being accused of fornication, which is punishable under the penal code, because they did not have a government-issued marriage certificate. According to activists and members of the religious minority community, authorities also detained and questioned several Shia Muslims for hours about their religious beliefs and about members of their religious community. According to activists, during these instances, police did not document the detention and, according to media reports, denied such events transpired.
According to press reports, a group called the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the CNDH on April 3 to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize a series of rights for Christian citizens including freedom of worship, celebration of civil marriages, establishment and operation of cemeteries, being able to use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school, as well as the legal normalization of Christian churches. CNDH informed the group that CNDH welcomed official complaints where violations of human rights occurred. CNDH was not aware of a government response to the petition.
Press also reported that on November 22, the Court of Appeals in Taza upheld a Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a defendant who was acquitted of “shaking the faith of a Muslim,” a crime under the penal code, after he reportedly handed a book explaining the Bible to another individual. The appeals court ruling mentioned the ICCPR, which guarantees “the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.”
Nonregistered religious groups reported receiving varying treatment by authorities; however, during the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting these groups from practicing their religion in private. A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.
According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal in past years to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious ceremonies. There were no known Shia mosques. Shia representatives reported they had not attempted to register during the year.
According to representatives of the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms, on May 3 government authorities refused to accept the application for registration of their association under the determination the association aimed to undermine Islam.
A Christian group applied to register as an association in December 2018; it was awaiting a response from MOI at year’s end.
The government allowed the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended their churches, and they did not encourage them to do so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing. According to some reports from activists, authorities at times pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith by informing the converts’ friends, relatives, and employers of the individuals’ conversion. According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities made phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities. Foreigners attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches.
According to media reports, on June 20, the Collective for Democracy and Liberties cancelled a long-planned seminar on individual rights, including “sexual rights” and religious freedom, immediately before it was scheduled to begin. A statement from the Ministry of Justice explained the Ministry of Interior had informed the seminar organizers they lacked the appropriate registration to hold the event. Assabah reported the Head of Government Saadeddin El Othmani, Minister of State for Human Rights Ramid, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar, and Secretary-General of the Party of Progress and Socialism Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah withdrew from participating in the seminar after cabinet and party members were reportedly ordered not to participate in any meetings encouraging sectarianism. According to a Telquel article, Minister Aujjar said that after reviewing the agenda for the seminar, he cancelled his participation because “speaking about individual liberties does not bother [him], but it is a difficult question to assume politically.”
In an interview on June 14, Minister Ramid stated “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion. On June 19, Minister Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens, but said throughout history Morocco had allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religions freely. The Moroccan Christians Coordinating Group issued statements rejecting Minister Aujjar’s denial that they, whose numbers they maintained exceed those of Morocco’s recognized Jewish population, exist.
According to a human rights association, on November 26, it hosted a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities. During the event, leaders of human rights organizations said they were beginning to follow the issue more closely; however, limited information was available and official data on Moroccan religious minorities was not available.
The ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa imposed in 2017 remained in effect. The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban. The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use. Authorities, however, continued not to allow police and army personnel in uniform to wear a hijab.
The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious sphere and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 1852 morchidines and 804 morchidates in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country. The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning. It continued to provide government-required, one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year. It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country. The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.
According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere with the topics the religious leaders chose to address during sermons; however, religious leaders were required to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher when they operated in the country.
The MEIA monitored Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and ensure teaching followed approved doctrine. The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism. Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.
The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.
The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. Its policy remained to control the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist. According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify morchidines and morchidates with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus social media to monitor and ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.
MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. In October the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca began the construction of a community center with approval from government authorities. The government also gave the Anglican Church approval to renovate and expand the church upon completion of its community center.
The government permitted the display and sale of bibles in French, English, and Spanish. A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in university religion courses. Authorities confiscated bibles they believed were intended for use in proselytizing.
During the year, the government organized four national and regional training sessions on instruction based on “values” and “respect for religious principles.” The government also introduced 13 new textbooks on the subjects of religion and legal sciences at the primary, junior and high school levels following a review by the MEIA and the Ministry of Education to remove extremist or intolerant references and promote moderation and tolerance. As of year’s end, the government was also drafting an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” Modifications to textbooks continued through the end of the year.
Jewish and Christian citizens stated elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.
The government continued to disseminate information about Islam over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Sixth) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.
According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam. For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports. The Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated. It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered. The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations. The government occasionally prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials.
The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance. Since 2012, an estimated 170 Jewish cemeteries across 40 provinces have been restored. According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues.
The Prison Administration (DGAPR) said it authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.
Two adoul (notaries), typically religious men, are needed to perform marriages. In January the School of Islamic Thought and Testimonies convinced the Supreme Scientific Council to amend the law so the king could permit women to become adoul.
During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the heads of the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in Moroccan society.
In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the USHMM, to facilitate the sharing of documentation on Jewish history in Morocco. The delegation met with country’s leaders to discuss continuing collaboration between the museum and the country’s National Archives to promote religious tolerance and awareness.
On September 10-12, the government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez in collaboration with the International Organization of La Francophonie. According to media reports, at the conference King Mohammed VI delivered remarks describing the tradition of coexistence in the country between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.
On September 26, Head of Government El Othmani delivered a message from the king at a UN roundtable table on “The Power of Education in Preventing Racism and Discrimination: The Case of Anti-Semitism” in New York on the margins of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly. The message highlighted the country’s preservation of its synagogues and noted the importance of “shedding light not only on humanity’s glorious moments, but also its darkest hours.” It stated, “Anti-Semitism is the antithesis of freedom of expression. It implies a denial of the other and is an admission of failure, inadequacy and an inability to coexist.”
In November the Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the Essaouira-Mogador Association, opened the Bayt Al Dakyra (House of Memory), a research center built from the remains of an old synagogue in Essaouira. On December 11-12, UNESCO and the Aladdin Project in partnership with Mohammed V University, a public university in Rabat, hosted an international conference in Marrakech titled, “The Importance of History Teaching in Education: The Case of the Holocaust and Great Tragedies of History and 75 Years after the Holocaust, Honoring the Righteous in the Muslim World.” The organizers paid tribute to the “Muslim Righteous” from Morocco and other countries that helped Jews during the Second World War and discussed the importance of education for highlighting the different phases and experiences of coexistence in the region. Public officials from Mohammed V University, the Ministry of Education, the Archives of Morocco, and other public institutions participated in the conference.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some activists in minority religious communities reported the government did not respond to complaints about societal harassment. According to a report in Assabah, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador reported facing intimidation, including one death threat. The MOI investigated the claims and reported they were unfounded.
Representatives of minority religious groups, especially Christian, Shia Muslim, and Baha’i citizens, said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religious rituals were Jews.
There were reports from the media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends. Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.
Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but they feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm. According to an interview with TelQuel, however, some Baha’i citizens did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan.
Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.
Jewish citizens said they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations. On November 13-18, the Moroccan Community Abroad Council and the Israelite Community of Morocco Council cohosted a conference on Moroccan Judaism. The public conference convened primarily Moroccan-born Jews residing in Canada, France, and Israel, with the leadership of the local Jewish community and Moroccan civil society groups.
Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses, as well as with the army and police, if they wore a hijab or other head covering. When women who wore a hijab did obtain employment with the police, army, and in some private businesses, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours.
In December interfaith academics and an unregistered religious freedom organization coordinated a seminar on religious minorities and interfaith dialogue between Islamic schools of thought in Marrakech.
Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering superior education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. government officials met with government officials, including from MOI and MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities. Embassy and consulate general officials met members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country. The embassy also fostered and supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance.
In October embassy officials attended one of a series of public seminars on the Holocaust and of the historical legacy of Moroccan Jews, hosted at a university in Rabat. The USHMM and Mimouna, its local Islamic NGO partner, developed the curriculum they presented at the seminar. In November embassy officials also attended the conference on Moroccan Judaism cohosted by the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad and the Council of the Israelite Communities of Morocco. On November 26, an embassy official attended a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities. On December 14, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a lunch for representatives of the Jewish community to discuss recent developments related to religious freedom and the preservation of the country’s Jewish history.
The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam. The constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Laws require that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles and prohibit them from encouraging violence, hatred, intolerance, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that police used arrests, house searches, and travel restrictions to target Salafists and others, some of whom, according to the NGOs, were profiled as terrorists based on their appearance or religious beliefs. According to an October report by Amnesty International (AI), the government imposed restrictions on both travel within the country and abroad “on the basis of perceived religious beliefs or practices …” One Christian citizen said he was detained and later released by police after displaying books pertaining to Christian theology at a book fair. The newly-elected mayor of Tunis suburb El Kram, citing constitutional provisions identifying Islam as the state religion, told media his municipality would not validate marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, as required following the 2017 repeal of the 1973 ban on such marriages. Then Minister of Local Affairs Riadh Mouakher said he would sanction the mayor if he failed to uphold the law. Civil society groups reported anecdotal evidence this was not the only mayor to refuse to sign marriage contracts between Muslim women and non-Muslim men or between two Christian citizens. In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status. In August the Baha’i community received information that a court had denied the community’s court case pertaining to its petition to be a registered association; the Baha’is planned to appeal the court’s decision. Christian citizens stated the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly as they pertain to the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. Unlike the Baha’is, however, the country’s local Christian community did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status. On June 12, the presidentially-appointed Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality recommended changes to the law that included inheritance equality between genders with the option to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs; equality among men and women in marriage and parenting; cancellation of government circulars that continued to be used to justify closing cafes during Ramadan; and a prohibition on the degradation of another’s religion, including criminalization of “all contempt of others’ religions with the aim to incite violence and hatred.” On November 28, President Beji Caid Essebsi submitted a draft law to parliament revising the 1956 Personal Status Code to allow inheritance equality, but leaving the option for families to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs if they choose.
The Association of Free Thinkers, which was established in 2017 to promote secularism in the country, organized a demonstration in late May in downtown Tunis demanding the right to drink and eat in public spaces during Ramadan periods of fasting. The demonstration took place without incident. Two men, however, had earlier attacked the president of the association, Hatem Limam, outside a Tunis bar in late February, and three individuals attacked Limam in his Tunis office on June 2. On January 10, during country-wide protests of social conditions, attackers threw Molotov cocktails at two synagogues in Djerba in an apparent attempt to set fire to the buildings. Police and the fire department responded to put out the fires before significant damage was done. Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.
The Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), the Presidency, and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights (MRCB) and encouraged continued tolerance of religious minorities. Embassy officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques, threats to converts from Islam to other faiths, and the status of the Baha’i Faith in the country. Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. In May the Ambassador and other embassy officers participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, where they discussed religious pluralism and the safety of the Jewish community with Jewish leaders and civil society. Embassy officials attended a January seminar organized by the MRA in conjunction with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and coexistence to the country’s democracy and efforts to counter religiously-motivated violent extremism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.5 million (July 2018 estimate), of which approximately 99 percent is Sunni Muslim. Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, and nonbelievers constitute less than 1 percent of the population. There are approximately 7,000 Christians who are citizens, according to the Christian community, most of whom are Anglicans or other Protestants. The MRA estimates there are approximately 30,000 Christians residing in the country, most of whom are foreigners, and of whom 80 percent are Roman Catholic. Catholic officials estimate their church membership at fewer than 5,000, widely dispersed throughout the country. The remaining Christian population is composed of Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jewish community numbers approximately 1,400, according to the MRA. One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and in the neighboring town of Zarzis. There is a small Baha’i community, but no reliable information on its numbers is available.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam is the country’s religion but the constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and requires the president to be Muslim. The constitution guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices. The constitution also states that mosques and houses of worship should be free from “partisan instrumentalization.” It obligates the state to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance, protect holy sites, and prevent takfir (Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims). The law requires that all religious services be celebrated within houses of worship or other nonpublic settings. These restrictions extend to public advertisement of religious services. The constitution lists reasons for potential restrictions on the rights and freedoms it guarantees, including protecting the rights of others, requirements of national defense, and public order, morality, or health.
The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.”
There is no legal prohibition of proselytism, but the law criminalizes forced conversions.
Religious groups may form and register associations under the law to establish a bank account and conduct financial activities such as charity work and receive favorable tax treatment, including tax-free donations from government-approved associations, provided the association does not purport to represent all believers of a religious group or use the name of a religious group. To establish an association, a religious group must submit a registered letter to the Prime Minister’s Office stating the purposes of the association; copies of the national identity cards of its founders, who must be citizens; and two copies of the articles of association signed by the association’s founders or their representatives. The articles of association must contain the official name of the association in Arabic and any foreign language, if appropriate; its address; a statement of its objectives; membership criteria; membership fees; and a statement of organizational structure, including identification of the decision-making body for the association. The law requires that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles. The law prohibits associations from engaging in for-profit activities, providing material support to individual political candidates, or adopting bylaws or taking actions to incite violence or promote hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Once established, such an association may receive tax-exempt income from organizations, including foreign organizations that have a prior agreement with the government.
Once the association receives the return receipt from the Prime Minister’s Office, it has seven days to submit an announcement of the name, purpose, and objectives of the association to the government press. The government press has 15 days to publish the announcement in the government gazette, which marks the association’s official registration. In the event the government does not return a registered receipt within 30 days, an association may proceed to submit its documents for publication and obtain registration. A foreign association may establish a branch in the country, but the government may also reject its registration request if the government finds the principles or objectives of the foreign association contravene the law.
Violations of the provisions of the law related to associations are punishable first by a warning of up to 30 days from the secretary general of the government, then by a court order suspending the association’s activities for up to 30 days if the violations persist. If the association is still in violation of the law, the secretary general may then appeal to the court for dissolution of the association. Under the law, associations have the right to appeal court decisions.
Registered associations have the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, to publish reports and leaflets, to own real estate, and to engage in “all types of civil activities.”
A 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See grants official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. The concordat allows the Church to function in the country and provides state recognition of the Catholic Church, although it restricts religious activities and services to the physical confines of authorized churches and prohibits construction of new churches and the ringing of church bells. A limited number of Catholic schools and charities may operate under the concordat, but their financial activities are conducted through registration as an association, and their affiliation with the Church is not publicized.
The law states the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The grand mufti, appointed by the president, is charged with declaring religious holidays, issuing certificates of conversion to Islam, attending to citizens’ inquiries, representing the country at international religious conferences, providing opinions on school curricula, and studying and writing about Islam. The MRA suggests themes for Friday sermons but does not regulate their content. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.
By law, new mosques may be constructed provided they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations. The MRA pays for construction of mosques, although private, and foreign donors also are able to contribute to construction costs. Mosques become government property upon completion, after which the government must maintain them.
It is mandatory for students in public schools to attend courses on the principles of Islam approximately one hour per week. Non-Muslim students generally attended these courses but could seek an exemption. The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity, according to the Ministry of Education. Religious groups may operate private schools.
Provisions of law addressing marriage, divorce, and other personal status issues are largely based on principles of civil law, combined with elements of sharia. Laws of inheritance are principally based on requirements in sharia, but there are some provisions that allow for exceptions as outlined in the Code of Personal Status.
The law does not list religion as a prohibited basis for political parties, but prohibits political parties from using religion to call for violence or discrimination.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to an October report by Amnesty International (AI), “They Never Tell Me Why,” the government imposed restrictions on domestic travel or bans on travelling abroad for some of its citizens, due to security concerns. According to the AI report, in some cases, “authorities appear to have targeted individuals … on the basis of their perceived religious beliefs or practices, physical appearance, such as having a beard and wearing religious clothing….” The media also reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab.
The 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See effectively limits the Catholic Church’s interactions with citizens, and Christian citizens said there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to advertise publicly about the Church’s activities or theology. One Christian citizen reported police detained him for displaying books pertaining to Christian theology at a book fair. He was released without charge, but authorities cited Article 1 of the constitution, which states that the country’s religion is Islam, as the justification for shutting down his book stall.
Fathi Laayouni, the mayor of Tunis suburb El Kram, sparked a debate when he told media on August 16 that his municipality would not validate marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, as required following the September 2017 repeal of the 1973 ban on such marriages. In justifying his position, Laayouni cited Articles 1 and 6 of the constitution stipulating that the state religion is Islam and that the government is the guardian of religion. His statement received a strong rebuke from then Minister of Local Affairs Riadh Mouakher, who promised “sanctions” against Laayouni, adding the mayor had an obligation to uphold the law. Civil society groups reported anecdotal evidence that Laayouni was not the only mayor to refuse performing marriage services between Muslims and non-Muslims. Anecdotal evidence provided by members of the Christian community suggested that some mayors’ offices refused to marry two Christian citizens.
In August the Baha’i community received information through its lawyer that the First Instance Court of Tunis had denied the community’s court case pertaining to its petition to be a registered association. As of December the court had not provided a written judgement outlining the legal grounds for its refusal; the Baha’is stated they planned to appeal the court’s decision. Baha’is also stated it was not possible to establish houses of worship or conduct some religious activities while they lacked official recognition. In early 2017, the Baha’i community submitted a formal request to the Ministry of Interior for permission for a dedicated cemetery. Without a dedicated cemetery, Baha’is have had to hide their religious affiliation to use cemeteries reserved for adherents of other recognized faiths. As of the end of the year, the ministry had not responded to the Baha’i community’s request.
Members of the Baha’i community said there was increased government interest in learning about the Baha’i Faith. They expressed concern, however, about discrimination by individual security force personnel. During the year they said that police officers in different cities interrogated members of the community about their religious practices and beliefs in the course of routine security checks. Although the individuals were all released from police custody without charge, community members said they believed the individuals faced increased and undue scrutiny due to their faith.
The government publicly urged imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. Since 2015, the MRA has conducted regular training sessions for imams on how to disseminate these messages. According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations and chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques. In the run-up to May 6 municipal council elections, in keeping with national law, the Ministry of Local Affairs issued a public statement stating it had reminded imams and other religious leaders not to make political statements inside of mosques prior to the elections.
Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate freely and provided security for their services. The government, however, restricted public religious services or processions outside the churches. Christian citizens reported the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly regarding the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery for Christian citizens. The local Christian community did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year. There are existing Christian cemeteries for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Citizens reported they generally did not request this permission due what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse. Church leaders stated that while there did not appear to be organized discrimination against Christians, there were also few protections. If an individual police officer or administrative official treated a member of the Christian community poorly, church leaders said authorities were slow to investigate these abuses or to provide redress in cases of wrongdoing.
Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis, but did not maintain those located in other cities, including Sousse and El Kef.
The Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities issued a statement on August 18, condemning the refusal by the management of El Mornaguia prison in Mornaguia, southwest of Tunis, to apply an authorization granted by an investigating judge for a Jewish prisoner to receive kosher meals. According to members of the Jewish community, however, once the prison was made aware of the prisoner’s family’s request to bring kosher meals more frequently than the three days normally allowed by the prison to accept meals from family members, the prison accommodated this request.
Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmed Adhoum hosted two conferences on religious tolerance and coexistence, the first in Tabarka on January 30-February 1 and the second held in connection with the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage in Djerba May 3-4. During the conferences, Adhoum, the minister of tourism, and the minister of cultural affairs emphasized that peace and religious tolerance were essential to countering terrorism. On May 31, then Minister for Human Rights, Constitutional Bodies, and Civil Society Mehdi Ben Gharbia hosted an interfaith iftar with the grand mufti, grand rabbi, and archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church.
On June 12, the presidentially-appointed Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality published a report that presented a series of recommended changes to the country’s laws that would align them with the 2014 constitution and international human rights laws and treaties to which the country is a signatory. The committee’s recommendations included decriminalization of homosexuality; allowing inheritance equality between genders; equality between men and women in marriage and parenting; cancellation of government circulars that continue to be used to justify closing cafes during Ramadan; and a prohibition on the degradation of another’s religion, including a criminalization of “all contempt of others’ religions with the aim to incite violence and hatred.” In addition, the report stated that discrimination in all of its forms violated existing provisions of the constitution and international laws. The report recommended changes to legislation to prohibit discrimination based on religion and belief. Legislation based on the report’s recommendations was introduced in parliament in October and remained pending at the end of the year.
On August 13, in his annual Tunisian Women’s Day address, President Caid Essebsi announced plans to present a draft law to parliament revising the 1956 Personal Status Code to allow inheritance equality, but leaving the option for families to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs if they chose. During his speech, he said there was a moral and legal imperative to work for this change using an approach that is based on the country’s constitution, not religious texts.
During an April 9-19 visit, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed examined the extent to which the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and belief was being respected, protected, and promoted. In his preliminary findings, he concluded the government had a strong commitment to equality and freedom of religion or belief but identified several legal provisions, legislative gaps, and deficits in the rule of law that could undermine the protection of religion or belief, such as the use of public morality laws to enforce religious tenets.
Authorities again provided a heightened level of security for the annual Lag B’Omer festival held at the El-Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba in May, including security cameras and personnel around the synagogue.
In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either type of school full-time. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On May 23, the Association of Free Thinkers, which was established in 2017 to promote secularism in the country, organized a demonstration in downtown Tunis demanding the right to drink and eat in public spaces during Ramadan periods of fasting. The demonstration took place without incident. In late February a member of the Free Thinkers reported on Facebook that two men stabbed and assaulted association president Hatem Limam in Tunis. Limam reported to media a second attack on June 2 in which three individuals physically assaulted him after forcing their way into his office in. Limam filed a complaint at the local police station following the second attack, and police arrested three men and charged one. According to a March press report, the Free Thinker who reported the February attack stated members of the association had been previously attacked and that he had received death threats. The Italian wire service ANSA reported on October 30 that some members of the Free Thinkers were threatened and attacked by Islamic extremists.
On January 10, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at two synagogues in Djerba in an apparent attempt to set fire to the buildings. Police and the fire department responded before significant damage was done. Members of the Jewish community said the perpetrators were known to them and the individuals were subsequently arrested. They were released from prison after having served a sentence of several months. Some Jewish community leaders in Djerba said they considered the attack to be the work of opportunists taking advantage of violent riots, including other arson attacks around the country, over economic conditions. According to a report by the German network Deutsche Welle, others in the Jewish community attributed the attack to criminals acting on the orders of a radical extremist movement. Some media reported that leading up to the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage, calls for inciting violence against Jews in Tunisia were published on social media networks. One post reportedly included: “We must drive the Jews out of Tunisia and set fire to the synagogue in Djerba.”
Simon Slama, the only Jewish candidate for office in the May municipal elections, was on the electoral list for the Nahda Party in the Monastir Governorate, although he ultimately was not elected to the municipal council. On September 7, the municipality of Sousse named three of its streets after Jewish citizens in order to honor their work within the city. Social media commentators praised the city’s recognition of the contributions made by the country’s Jewish community. On November 5, Prime Minister Yousef Chahed appointed Rene Trebelsi as Minister of Tourism during a partial government reshuffle, making him the third Jewish minister in the country’s history (after two others in 1955 and 1957). Parliament confirmed the appointment on November 12.
According to media reports, some atheists reported receiving family and societal pressure to return to Islam or conceal their atheism, including, for instance, by fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from criticizing Islam. Some converts to Christianity reported strong family and societal rejection, and some of them were reportedly beaten and forced to leave their homes on account of their beliefs. Some members of the Christian community said that citizens who attended church services faced pressure from family members and others in their neighborhood not to attend.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials, including in the MRA, the Presidency, and the MRCB to discuss issues concerning religious freedom. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, the difficulties facing citizens of the Baha’i Faith and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, legislative reform, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths. Embassy officials attended and spoke at the January conference hosted by the MRA on the subject of interfaith coexistence. On May 1-4, a delegation from the embassy, including the Ambassador, participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba. During the visit, the delegation met with Jewish leaders and members of civil society and reaffirmed support for religious diversity and tolerance.
The embassy maintained frequent contact with leaders of religious groups throughout the country to discuss the impact of the security situation on religious groups and the freedom of religious minorities to worship without restrictions from the government or threats from the community. Through a microscholarship program, the embassy engaged with youth in discussions on religious diversity and tolerance. The embassy hosted a former participant of a U.S. exchange program to engage youth, women’s groups, and civil society representatives in discussions about her experience researching televangelism in the United States. The embassy supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance and to counter violent extremism, including informal youth-led conversation groups to discuss issues of religious tolerance and alternatives to violence; a program working with scout troops to learn how to recognize and combat signs of religious radicalization; and several research programs aimed at identifying and countering religious radicalization and violent extremism, especially in youth.
The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that broke out in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. While the president, vice president, and foreign minister remained in exile in Saudi Arabia, the remainder of the cabinet moved to Aden in October. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory. Although causes for the war were complex, sectarian violence accompanied the civil conflict, which observers described as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”
In January the Houthi-controlled National Security Bureau (NSB) sentenced to death Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i, on charges of espionage. He had been imprisoned since 2013, accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel. He remained in prison awaiting execution at year’s end. According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), in October armed soldiers in Sana’a arrested Baha’i spokesperson Abdullah Al-Olofi and detained him at an undisclosed location for three days. According to the BIC, in September a Houthi-controlled court in Sana’a charged more than 20 Baha’is with apostasy and espionage. A group of UN independent experts reported that authorities arrested 24 individuals in the incident, at least 22 of whom are Baha’is. Amnesty International reported the charges could possibly result in death sentences. The five UN experts said charges “must be dropped and discriminatory practices based on religion outlawed” and added, “We reiterate our call to the de facto authorities in Sanaa to put an immediate stop on the persecution of Baha’is.” According to the BIC, as of October there were six Baha’is in prison in the country for practicing their faith. During a speech in March, Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi called on his followers to defend their country from the Baha’is, who he described as infidels. According to media reports, Houthi authorities modified the University of Sana’a student and faculty identification cards to include the Houthi flag and slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Houthi Cultural Supervisor Yahya Abu Awadah introduced a mandatory course into the university curriculum called “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Course material included the glorification of Hezbollah and condemnation of Zionism. Sectarian polarization stimulated by the war with the Zaydi Houthis attracted recruits to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). United Arab Emirates (UAE) government forces aligned with local tribal fighters forced AQAP out of Mukalla during the year. While in control of the city, AQAP institutionalized and enforced its interpretation of sharia. It continued to have an operational presence in Wadi Belharith and Azzan in Shabwah, Wadi Obaidah in Ma’rib, Radda’a city in Bayda’, and Lawdar, Wadi and Mudiyah in Abyan. The estimated number of AQAP operatives inside the country was between 6,000 and 7,000. On January 23, Khaled Batarfi, a senior AQAP leader, recorded a video calling for knife and vehicle attacks against Jews in response to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
According to media reports, as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years. Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print. Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing U.S. government concern about the treatment of the Baha’i population in the country and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is. On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit, based in Saudi Arabia, posted a statement cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen. On November 28, the Secretary of State designated the Houthis as an “Entity of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.6 million (July 2018 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), belonging either to the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or the Zaydi order of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population to be Sunni and 35 percent Shia. There is an indeterminate number of Twelver Shia (residing mainly in the north), Ismailis, and Sufis. Jews, Baha’is, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population. Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans.
Ismailis include both the al-Makarem and Bohra communities. Following the outbreak of the conflict, many Bohras fled the country for India.
Due to the continuing political instability and violence in the country, the once sizable population of Indian nationals continued to decrease. There is no firm estimate of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism residing in the country; according to one source, the population of Indian nationals numbers fewer than 3000.
The Jewish community is the only indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group. Reports estimate approximately 50 Jews remain, concentrated in Sana’a and Raydah.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.
Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.
The constitution states the president must be Muslim (“practices his Islamic duties”); however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.
The criminal code states “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are absolved from the death penalty.
Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” to be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.
The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims. The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion, and prescribes up to five years if the ridiculed religion is Islam.
There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.
By law, the government must authorize construction of new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.
Public schools must provide instruction in Islam but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education. Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum; however, instructional materials indicate that schools in Houthi controlled areas are teaching Zaydi principles.
The Houthis and officials residing in Houthi-controlled areas representing the largest secular political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), jointly established the Supreme Political Council (SPC) in July 2016. The SPC is a 10-member entity organized to establish and determine a governing structure for Yemen under the Houthi-led regime in Sana’a. The government and the international community have deemed the SPC unconstitutional and illegitimate.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The cabinet, with the exception of President Hadi, Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who remained in Saudi Arabia, returned to Aden under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed in late October. The government, however, did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country.
Although causes for the war are complex, sectarian violence has accompanied the civil conflict. Since March 2015, the government has engaged in a military conflict with Ansar Allah (Houthis). After the Houthis established control over Sana’a in September 2014, and expanded their control over significant portions of the country, senior government officials fled to Saudi Arabia, where they requested assistance from Saudi Arabia and other regional states. As noted by the BBC, “Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring [President] Hadi’s government.” The BBC report later described the conflict as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi-led coalition airstrikes damaged places of worship and religious institutions and caused casualties at religious gatherings, according to the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and media.
Prior to the outbreak of the current military conflict, the government permitted the use of Hindu temples in Aden and Sana’a as well as existing church buildings for religious services of other denominations. Due to the conflict, information on the use of these religious sites was not available during the year.
The government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in some private schools, although the government said it was aware of the forced introduction of Zaydi Shia teaching into the curriculum of schools within Houthi-controlled areas. Some Muslim citizens attended private schools that did not teach Islam. Most non-Muslim students were foreigners and attended private schools. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, schools were open for only a few hours a day in many areas and over 2,000 were closed because of damage or because displaced persons or armed groups had occupied them.
According to media reports, the Houthis continued to exert control over the parliament in Sana’a, and despite the flight of many parliamentarians, continued to enact their legislative agenda. Terrorist groups AQAP and ISIS, as well as other militias and separatist groups, continued to contribute to the violence.
According to press reporting, UAE forces aligned with tribal fighters forced AQAP out of Mukalla during the year. While in control of the city, AQAP institutionalized and enforced its version of sharia. It continued to maintain an operational presence in Wadi Belharith and Azzan in Shabwah, Wadi Obaidah in Ma’rib, Radda’a city in Bayda’, and Lawdar, Wadi, and Mudiyah in Abyan. Against the backdrop of a security vacuum and a lack of public services in many areas, AQAP sponsored and participated in public activities, seeking to build a reputation for humanitarianism and governance. According to press reporting and outside experts, it avoided being aggressive or confrontational with tribes, biding its time to gain more recruits, explore new sources of funds, and prepare new young leaders. Its total strength inside Yemen was estimated at between 6,000 and 7,000.
According to a report submitted to the UN Security Council, Al-Qaida leadership maintained a strong structure in the Arabian Peninsula, especially inside Yemen, where the organization continued to plan and orchestrate terrorist attacks in the wider region and beyond. The leadership of the Al-Qaida core recognized the country as a venue for guerrilla-style attacks and a hub for regional operations. Sources stated that the lack of a strong central government in the country provided a fertile environment for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to establish itself. Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama Bin Laden, issued a statement in March, citing the role of AQAP, threatening Saudi Arabia, and calling on the people of the Arabian Peninsula to revolt.
The BBC reported Houthi violations against Yemeni civilians. Citing a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, BBC journalists reported the Houthis carried out violent acts of torture against Yemeni civilians, who were “beaten with iron rods, whipped, shackled to walls, caned on their feet and threatened with rape.” There have also been numerous reports of Houthi shelling of cities such as Taiz and Hudaydah, killing scores of innocent civilians.
According to local eyewitnesses and international media reports, Houthi forces destroyed over 750 places of worship in Yemen, including in large population centers such as Taiz and Aden.
According to HRW, on January 2, Houthi authorities sentenced Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara to death on charges he was communicating with the Baha’i administrative headquarters in Haifa, Israel. Haydara, a Baha’i community member imprisoned by the NSB since 2013 and accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel, remained in detention. Baha’i representatives said he was held in poor conditions with limited access to medical care or family visits and he had been tortured. He remained in prison awaiting execution at year’s end. The BIC reported the judge also called for the dissolution of all Baha’i assemblies. On October 11, according to the BIC, armed soldiers in Sana’a arrested Baha’i spokesperson Abdullah Al-Olofi on his way to the market. They blindfolded him and took him to an undisclosed location before releasing him three days later.
On September 15, according to the BIC, the Houthis charged more than 20 Baha’is with apostasy and espionage during a court hearing in Sana’a. The authorities did not inform the Baha’is or their lawyers of the court hearing, which began with only the judge, prosecutor, and other court officials in attendance. In a subsequent court hearing on September 29, the judge requested the prosecutor publish the names of the accused in a newspaper and ordered their properties frozen until the court reached a verdict. According to the BIC, there were six Baha’is in prison in the country for practicing their faith as of October, including Haydara. Amnesty International reported the charges could possibly result in death sentences. Referring to the same incident, a group of UN independent experts reported authorities arrested 24 individuals, at least 22 of whom were Baha’is. The five UN experts said the charges “must be dropped and discriminatory practices based on religion outlawed,” adding, “We reiterate our call to the de facto authorities in Sanaa to put an immediate stop on the persecution of Baha’is….”
During a televised speech on March 23, Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi called on his followers to defend their country from the Baha’is, whom he described as infidels and “satanic” and alleged were at war against Islam. According to the BIC, following the speech, several news sites and religious authorities reiterated his comments about the Baha’is, and the Ministry of Information and government universities held seminars, conferences, and workshops on how to respond to the war of doctrine waged by the Baha’is.
The UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen concluded the Houthis had “committed acts that may amount to war crimes, including cruel treatment and torture [and] outrages upon personal dignity.” The experts documented the Houthis detaining students, human rights defenders, journalists, perceived political opponents, and members of the Baha’i community.
The Houthis have detained one member of the community since 2015, charging him with smuggling cultural heritage out of Yemen and spying for Israel.
Prior to the outbreak of the military conflict, Christian community representatives reported increased scrutiny by Houthis, leading them to be more discreet, although they continued to wear religious attire identifying them as members of the community.
In northern areas traditionally under Houthi control, there were reports of continued Houthi efforts to impose their religious customs on non-Zaydi residents, including banning music and requiring women to wear full veils.
According to media reports, the Houthis modified the University of Sana’a student and faculty identification cards to include the Houthi flag and slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Reports indicated Houthis had changed the curriculum at universities in the areas they control to impose their political and religious beliefs. Houthi Cultural Supervisor Yahya Abu Awadah introduced a mandatory course into the university curriculum called “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Course material includes the glorification of Hezbollah, and condemnation of Zionism.
On January 23, Khaled Batarfi, a senior AQAP leader, recorded a video calling for knife and vehicle attacks against Jews in response to the U.S. government decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Saudi-owned media network Al-Arabiya reported approximately 25,000 Yemeni pilgrims made the Hajj in August 2018. Of these, approximately 7,000 came from Houthi controlled areas. Minister of Religious Affairs Dr. Ahmed Attiyah reported Yemeni pilgrims were able to cross the Saudi border only at the Al-Wadiha border crossing. Attiyah rejected Houthi claims the Saudis were politicizing the Hajj, and said that Yemeni pilgrims could reach Mecca easily. According to regional press, Houthis imposed fees on pilgrims for the Hajj and shut down Hajj travel agencies that refused to comply. As of June Houthis shut down 28 Hajj agencies in Sana’a. They also reportedly confiscated passports, preventing some Yemenis from crossing the border into Saudi Arabia.
According to media reports, Houthis turned a mosque in al-Jeraiba village in al-Duraihimi district into a fortified military position, expelling the imam and the residents of the village.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Media reports indicated that as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years.
Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print.
Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.
Ismaili Muslims continued to complain about discrimination. The outbreak of the conflict hindered the ability of Indian Ismailis to perform pilgrimages to sites of religious significance within the country.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Because of the deteriorating security situation in Sana’a, the Department of State suspended embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a on February 11, 2015, and resumed operations as the Yemen Affairs Unit, initially from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia until it moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in September 2018. In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. Yemeni government officials routinely stressed they upheld these principles, and criticized the Houthis for persecuting religious minorities.
On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing the U.S. government’s concern about the Baha’i population of Yemen and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is, stating, “The Houthis have targeted the Baha’i community in inflammatory speech along with a wave of detentions, ‘court summons,’ and punishment without a fair or transparent legal process. These actions over the past year indicate a persistent pattern of mistreatment of Baha’is in Yemen. These actions appear to be an effort to pressure Yemeni Baha’is to recant their faith.”
On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit posted a statement that it signed on behalf of the United States and that was cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen, stating, “We join others in calling on the Houthis to immediately release all Baha’is in their custody. Respect for religious freedom is an essential building block for peace and prosperity in Yemen.”
On November 28, the Secretary of State designated the Houthis as an “Entity of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.