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United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion.  It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals.  It states all persons are equal before the law, and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.  The law prohibits blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam.  An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions.  Local press reported in July that an Ajman court convicted “an Arab man” of blasphemy based on an offensive phone message and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment followed by deportation, and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).  In January a court sentenced a Dominican woman and her child’s Yemeni biological father to a suspended one-month jail term and deportation for violating the country’s interpretation of sharia by engaging in extramarital sex.  Police and courts also continued to enforce laws against sorcery.  According to media reports, in February the Federal Supreme Court upheld an 18-month jail term against “an Arab man” for charges of witchcraft, fraud, and trying to coerce sex from a woman.  The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting extremism.  The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide strict guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques and instructions on sermons to Shia mosques across all emirates except Dubai, where mosques were overseen by Dubai’s Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD).  In June the cabinet approved the formation of a Fatwa Council to oversee fatwa issuances, license muftis, provide training, and conduct research.  Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public.  Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered extremist.  Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families.  During the year, construction was underway on multiple houses of worship.  Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities.  The minister of tolerance hosted conferences and meetings with religious minority leaders throughout the year to promote interfaith tolerance both domestically and internationally.

According to non-Muslim religious communities, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with officially recognized houses of worship, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged.  Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however.  Anti-Semitic materials continued to be available for purchase at book fairs.  There were continued instances of anti-Semitic remarks on social media and news sites.

The Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities spoke at a conference in Abu Dhabi on Muslim minorities at the invitation of the Ministry of Tolerance.  In meetings with senior government counterparts, the Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. officials reviewed ways to promote respect among faith groups and freedom for minority groups to practice their religions in the country, as well as government initiatives to foster religious tolerance and counter extremist interpretations of Islam.  Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups present in the country.  As concrete demonstrations of the importance of interfaith dialogue, the embassy and consulate general hosted interfaith events to encourage and support religious freedom and tolerance, engaging with various religious communities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to press, in July the criminal court of Ajman sentenced “an Arab man” to seven years of imprisonment, deportation upon completion of jail time, and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) on blasphemy charges for an allegedly offensive voice mail that, according to media reports, contained offensive words and insulted God.

In January a court sentenced a Dominican woman and her child’s Yemeni biological father to a suspended one-month jail term and deportation for violating the country’s interpretation of sharia by engaging in extramarital sex.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws against sorcery.  In February the Federal Supreme Court upheld an 18-month jail term against someone identified in the press as “an Arab man” for charges of witchcraft, fraud, and trying to coerce sex from a woman.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.

Within prisons, the authorities required Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services.  In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy reported difficulties visiting Christian prisoners and raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians.  They reported that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain web sites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites.  The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including some with information on Judaism, Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.

In June the cabinet approved the formation of the UAE Fatwa Council, headed by President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah.  The cabinet tasked the council with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research in coordination with the Awqaf.  In a July statement to the official Emirates news agency, Sheikh bin Bayyah declared, “Unofficial and rogue fatwas are the first gateway to extremist ideologies, and now is the time to demolish the misuse of this platform and end the distortion of fatwas to serve terrorism, murder, and destruction, both in Muslim countries and among Muslim minorities in different countries of the world.”

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks.  According to the federal Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The federal Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the IACAD.  On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.”  It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday Islamic sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website.  The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf Friday sermon script closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons.  Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to follow Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons.  In June the Awqaf launched the first English-language Friday sermons in Ras Al Khaimah.  In September the Awqaf launched an initiative to translate Friday sermons for reading and listening into English and Urdu on its website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques.  All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens.  Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams, and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai, managed Shia affairs for all of the country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring preachers.  The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.  In May, acting on an initiative of Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emirate officials inaugurated the Imam Al Sadiq Center in Dubai for Shia religious and community activities.  The site is intended to hold 2,400 people.

The government did not appoint sheikhs for Shia mosques.  Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques.  The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in three languages (Arabic, English, and Urdu).  Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues.  Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa.  Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the phones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private, but not in public.  There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates other than Dubai.  The government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking or signing leases.  For example, the government required religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers.  Community sources indicated that the government permitted unregistered religious organizations to rent spaces at hotels in some circumstances.  The government permitted groups that chose not to register to practice in private homes, as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were reports of delays in obtaining permits to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds from the CDA, tasked with implementing a new oversight structure for civil institutions and nonprofits and with regulating non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate.  There were also reports of additional restrictions on holding some religious services in hotels, due to confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies, and last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications.  School applications also asked for family religious affiliation.  Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics.  According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings, or in private facilities or homes.  While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions, such as the annual Easter celebrations held on a beach.

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries.  There were cremation facilities and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community.  The Al Ain municipality in Abu Dhabi Emirate also ran a cremation facility.  Non-Muslim groups said the capacity in crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand.  The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits.  The government allowed people from all religious groups except Islam to use the cremation facilities.

In November the Abu Dhabi International Airport opened a multi-faith prayer room for use by the general public.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection.  The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community-safety reminders.

In spite of legal prohibitions on eating during daytime hours of Ramadan, in Dubai and several northern emirates, non-Muslims were exempt from these laws in hotels and most malls; non-Muslims could eat at some stand-alone restaurants and most hotels in Abu Dhabi as well.  In Dubai and several northern emirates, the emirate governments permitted most licensed restaurants to offer alcohol during Ramadan.

The government did not always enforce the law against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of religious materials imported into the country and occasionally confiscated some materials, such as books.  Additionally, sometimes customs authorities denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft.  Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, spells, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad.  The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to those it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting another religion over Islam.  The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation.  The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam.  The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

The Anti-Defamation League noted that despite the central government’s policy of promoting religious tolerance, the Dubai emirate sponsored three speakers with a history of anti-Semitic comments at an emirate-sponsored Ramadan event, a ceremony for the Dubai Holy Quran Award.  Omar Abdel Kafi, also spoke at the opening session of the May 2018 “Tolerance and Diversity of Cultures” conference in Abu Dhabi, held at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.  Another of the speakers identified in the report, Saleh al-Maghemsy, spoke at the April “Al-Quds – Location and Status” conference in Abu Dhabi, under the patronage of the Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis.  Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship had not kept up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population.  Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space.  In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic.  Media reports highlighted that holiday services often attract tens of thousands of worshippers to Dubai’s church compounds.  Some smaller congregations met in private locations, or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land.  Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property.  Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who make up the membership of most minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship.  For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name.  There were approximately 42 Christian churches, built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located.  Ajman and Umm Al Quwain were the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels.

There are two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai.  Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2020.  In January the minister of tolerance and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East inaugurated Saint Elias Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Abu Dhabi.  There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.  There were no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in a private villa in Dubai.  In December Bloomberg published an article about the Dubai Jewish community with the permission of its leaders, marking the first time the worship space had been publicly acknowledged.  Construction was underway on a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi; the projected completion date is not clear.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization.  Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

In Islamic court cases involving non-Muslim defendants, judges had the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties, and sources said the judges generally imposed civil penalties.

Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan often spoke publicly in support of free practice of religion, including during a February address to a delegation from the Catholic University of Paris.  The minister continued to host the International Institute of Tolerance, which sponsored the Dubai-based World Tolerance Summit in November, which featured messaging on respect for religious pluralism.

The government engaged with religious minorities frequently.  In January the minister of tolerance hosted senior Christian leaders from across the Gulf Cooperation Council at his palace in Abu Dhabi and discussed interfaith relations and their ability to worship in the UAE.  In January Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister and ruler of Dubai, hosted Aga Khan IV, imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, as part of the Aga Khan’s diamond jubilee tour as spiritual leader and to promote the Aga Khan Foundation.

In October Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces Mohammed bin Zayed and numerous other officials hosted a visiting evangelical Christian delegation from the United States to discuss promotion of tolerance and religious pluralism.

During the St. Anthony’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral’s Christmas celebration, Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan addressed the congregation and condemned the terrorist attack against the Church of Mar Mina in Cairo and affirmed the country’s commitment to religious tolerance and interfaith understanding.

In June Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with Pope Francis and other senior Vatican officials in Rome.  Local media reports noted that the discussions included promoting interfaith dialogue and increased bilateral cooperation.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions.  For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities.  Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside of their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

In Dubai, representatives of the CDA attended interfaith iftars and suhoors (predawn meals during Ramadan) hosted by several Christian congregations, the Sikh Gurudwara, and the Ismaili Center.  Dubai’s Al Manara Islamic Center hosted an interfaith iftar, and invited attendees to share their thoughts on the themes of tolerance and happiness.  The iftar was broadcast live on the center’s website.  Dubai’s grand mufti addressed the diverse group of minority religious leaders and diplomats in attendance.

In June 2018 Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited the Akshardham Hindu temple in New Delhi, India, as part of an official visit.

Prominent government figures and social media influencers routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays using various platforms.  For example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai, tweeted wishes for a happy Diwali and encouraged observers to use social media to share pictures of Diwali celebrations around the country.

United Kingdom

Executive Summary

In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church.  The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion.  The government updated the 2016 Hate Plan and committed to spending 1.5 million pounds ($1.92 million) on educational programs to challenge discriminatory beliefs.  The Home Office published an independent review of the application of sharia in England and Wales that included recommendations for legislative changes to bring the treatment of Muslim religious marriages into line with those of other faiths, an awareness campaign highlighting the benefits of civil registration for religious marriages, and a proposal for the government to regulate sharia councils.  The main political parties faced numerous accusations of religious bias.  Religious and civil society groups, the media, and others accused Conservative Party politicians, including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, of anti-Muslim sentiment, and a number of Labour Party politicians, including leader Jeremy Corbyn, faced repeated accusations of anti-Semitism.  The Scottish government launched an “Anti-Hate” campaign in an effort to erase sectarianism.  The government, a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) since 1998, adopted the IHRA’s full working definition of anti-Semitism.  In 2017 the London Assembly, Scottish government, and Welsh government also adopted the IHRA’s definition.  During the year, the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat Parties adopted the IHRA definition, but the Green Party’s ruling body decided against it.  The Scottish National Party (SNP) did not clarify whether it has adopted the definition.

The government reported similarly high numbers as the previous year in religiously motivated hate crimes and incidents in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Community Security Trust (CST), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) monitoring anti-Semitism, recorded 1,652 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, the highest it had ever recorded in a single year and an increase of 16 percent, compared with 1,414 incidents in 2017.  There were multiple incidents of violence, arson, threats, and vandalism against religious groups.  There were incidents of religiously motivated hate speech against Muslims, Jews, and Christians.  Such incidents included the assault on and threatening of a man because of his Muslim beliefs, an assault on two female Jewish protesters outside a political event, attacks and vandalism on Sikh temples and mosques, and a postal campaign encouraging members of the public to “Punish a Muslim.”  A number of interfaith initiatives were launched, including the “21 for 21” project, which attempts to identify leaders for the 21st century, seven each from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities.

U.S. embassy officials engaged with and sponsored speakers to visit religious groups.  The embassy recognized October 27 as International Religious Freedom Day on its social media channels, including tweets from the embassy’s account highlighting the International Religious Freedom Act, the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, and the statement of the U.S. Secretary of State on the importance of promoting religious freedom and defending vulnerable minorities.  On October 29, the Ambassador joined Home Secretary Sajid Javid, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and other religious and political leaders at a memorial at a North West London Jewish center for the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.  The Ambassador joined other speakers in calling for unity against religious hatred.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In the Autumn Budget, Chancellor Phillip Hammond announced 1.7 million pounds ($2.18 million) of new funding to support Holocaust education.  The money was earmarked for coordinating Holocaust survivors’ visits to schools and student visits to concentration camps.  The Treasury is designated to work with the Holocaust Education Trust to distribute the funds.  This funding is in addition to the 50 million pounds ($64.02 million) committed to support the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre and Holocaust Memorial, due to be built next to Parliament.

On October 16, the Home Office and the Department for Housing, Communities, and Local Government updated the government’s 2016 Hate Crime Plan.  The updated plan includes more than 1.5 million pounds ($1.92 million) of new funding for educational programs to challenge discriminatory beliefs among young persons.  The plan also extended the Places of Worship Security Funding Scheme from three to four years.  During the year, the scheme provided grants to nine churches, 22 mosques, two Hindu temples, and 12 Sikh gurdwaras.  Additional new measures include a Law Commission review into hate crime; a nationwide public awareness campaign; specialist training for police call handlers on how to support hate crime victims; an upgrade of the reporting website, True Vision; and roundtables hosted by government ministers on anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment.

On May 31, a committee led by Lord Bracadale (Alastair Campbell, former Scottish judge) provided to Scottish ministers the final report of the Independent Review of Hate Crime Legislation that was tasked in January 2017.  The report found adequate provisions under existing law for religion as a “protected characteristic.”

In September the Scottish government together with Police Scotland launched a “Letters from Scotland” advertising campaign to raise awareness of hate crimes and encourage persons to report them.  The Catholic Church criticized the Scottish government for not directly addressing sectarian hate crimes in the campaign.

The government continued to provide religious accommodation for employees when it considered such accommodation feasible.  Muslim employees of the prison service regularly took time off during their shifts to pray.  The prison service recognized the rights of prisoners to practice their faith while in custody.  The pastoral needs of prisoners were addressed, in part, through chaplains paid for by the Ministry of Justice, rather than religious groups.  All chaplains worked as part of a multifaith team, the size and breakdown of which was determined by the size of the prison and the religious composition of the prisoner population.  Prison service regulations stated that “chaplaincy provision must reflect the faith denomination requirements of the prison.”

The military generally provided adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith.  At year’s end, there were approximately 240 recruited chaplains in the armed forces, all of whom were Christian.  The armed forces also employed five civilian chaplains as full-time civil servants to care for their Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim recruits.  The Armed Forces Chaplaincy Policy Board was reviewing provision of chaplaincy for personnel of these religions and considering employing suitable chaplains in the reserve forces.

In February the Home Office published an independent review into the application of sharia in England and Wales.  The review, commissioned in October 2015 and launched in May 2016, provided three recommendations.  The independent review panel recommended amendments be made to the Marriage Act 1949 and the Matrimonial Act 1973.  These changes would “ensure that civil marriages are conducted before or at the same time as the Islamic marriages, in line with Christian and Jewish marriages in the eyes of the law.”  The review stated the closure of sharia councils was not a viable option.  Sharia councils are predominantly used by Muslim women seeking a religious divorce, in some cases because their religious marriages were never registered civilly, rendering civil divorce unavailable to them.  The report also recommended the introduction of awareness campaigns, educational programs, and other similar measures to “encourage communities to acknowledge women’s rights in civil law, especially in areas of marriage and divorce.”  The report also proposed the creation of a body that would set up the process for councils to regulate themselves.  This regulation would require sharia councils to accept and implement a code of practice established by the regulatory body.

The Home Office responded to the independent panel’s recommendations stating, “We will not be taking forward the review’s recommendation to regulate sharia councils.  Sharia law has no jurisdiction in the UK, and we would not facilitate or endorse regulation, which could present councils as an alternative to UK laws.”

As of January 2017 there were 6,814 state-funded faith-based schools in England.  Of these, 6,177 were primary schools (ages three through 11), representing 37 percent of all state-funded primary schools, and 637 secondary schools (ages 11 through 16), representing 19 percent of all state-funded secondary schools.  Church of England schools were the most common type among primary schools (26 percent); Roman Catholic schools were the most common at secondary level (9 percent).  Additionally, at the primary and secondary levels, there were 26 Methodist, two Greek Orthodox, one Quaker, one Seventh-day Adventist, one United Reform, 145 other Christian, 48 Jewish, 27 Muslim, 11 Sikh, and five Hindu state-funded schools.  There were 370 government-funded denominational schools in Scotland:  366 Catholic, three Episcopalian, and one Jewish.  The government classified schools with links to the Church of Scotland as nondenominational.

On the centenary of the legislation that brought Catholic schools into Scotland’s state education system, in June First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a 450 percent increase to 127,000 pounds ($163,000) in funding for a Catholic teaching program so that more individuals could acquire a Catholic Teaching Certificate allowing them to teach at a Catholic school.

The government continued to require schools to consider the needs of different religious groups when setting dress codes for students.  This included wearing or carrying specific religious artifacts, not cutting hair, dressing modestly, or covering the head.  Guidance from the Department of Education required schools to balance the rights of individual students against the best interests of the school community as a whole; it noted schools could be justified in restricting individuals’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs when necessary, for example, to promote cohesion and good order.

In April the Department of Education dropped plans to require providers of out-of-school education to register with local authorities, following a reported personal intervention by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The proposals, which aimed to safeguard children from the risk of extremism, would have subjected religious organizations to government regulations and inspections.  The plans would have affected Christian Sunday schools and Muslim madrassas.  Groups including the Evangelical Alliance, Christian Institute, and Christian Concern expressed their opposition to the proposals.  The Department of Education received approximately 18,000 responses during its three-month consultation period (November 2015-January 2016), many of which were from faith groups stating concern over the proposed regulation.

In January press reported that a North London coroner withdrew a special arrangement for the Jewish community in October 2017.  Under the arrangement in effect since January 2015, the remains of Jews who died at home in North London could be sent directly to a specified funeral home, rather than a public mortuary.  Coroner Mary Hassell stated that a North London synagogue and burial society had made one of her officers feel bullied and persecuted during a previous postmortem examination.  In response, Stamford Hill’s Adath Yisroel Synagogue and Burial Society said the policy was “unlawful” and called for Hassell’s removal.  Religious groups brought a legal challenge, and in April the High Court declared Hassell’s policy unlawful and ordered her to change it.  In July Hassell made a public apology and requested input from religious groups in crafting a new policy.

In Scotland, a law that criminalized religious hatred where it was connected to soccer matches was repealed on April 20.  New charges that would previously have been reported under that law would henceforth be reported as a different offense with a religious aggravation.  All ongoing charges under the former law were amended to reflect the change in statutes.

In August a Scottish judge blocked the deportation of a Malaysian Christian woman on religious grounds after she stated she had come to the country to flee Islamist persecution.  The presiding Judge Lady Clark held that the woman’s life would be in danger if she were to return to Malaysia.

In May the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) wrote an open letter to the chairman of the Conservative Party demanding an inquiry into “Islamophobia” within the party.  In the letter, the MCB asked the party to launch an independent inquiry, publish a list of incidents, institute an education program, and make a public commitment to stamp out bigotry.  The letter named Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Bob Blackman as “fostering Islamophobia.”  It listed examples of politicians who had “liked” or reposted anti-Muslim social media posts and pages or had ties to anti-Muslim and far-right groups.  In August a petition demanding an independent inquiry into “Islamophobia” in political parties reached more than 30,000 signatures in two days.  The petition asked the parliament to adopt the steps proposed by the MCB.

In June two Conservative councilors were suspended following allegations of anti-Muslim comments on social media.  Councilor Linda Freedman of Barnet in North London appeared to express support for the detention of Muslims on Twitter.  Councilor Ian Hibberd of Southampton posted derogatory comments under a photograph of a fellow councilor wearing Sikh religious dress.

In August former Foreign Secretary and Conservative MP Boris Johnson wrote an opinion piece in The Telegraph newspaper in which he compared fully veiled Muslim women to “letter boxes” and “bank robbers.”  Johnson faced criticism from a range of voices within his party, the opposition, and civil society.  Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May and the chairman of the Conservative Party, Brandon Lewis, both called on Johnson to apologize for his comments.  Labour Party Shadow Equalities Minister, MP Naz Shah, labeled the comments as “ugly and naked Islamophobia.”  The chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum accused Johnson of “pandering to the far right.”  In December an independent panel cleared Johnson of breaking the Conservative Party’s code of conduct.  The panel found that while his comments could be considered provocative, it would be “unwise to censor excessively,” adding that Conservative Party rules do not “override an individual’s right to freedom of expression.”

The Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, faced further allegations of anti- Semitism.  The CST recorded 148 incidents during the year that were examples of, or related to arguments over, alleged anti-Semitism within the Labour Party.  In April the Labour Party was internally investigating 90 cases of anti-Semitism among its members.  In April Corbyn wrote an article published in the London Evening Standard newspaper stating that the number of cases of anti-Semitism over the past three years represented less than 0.1 percent of Labour’s membership.  In response, BBC Reality Check calculated that from 2015 to 2018, there were more than 300 complaints regarding anti-Semitism in the party, approximately half of those leading to expulsions.  In March press reported that in 2012, Corbyn showed support for a mural depicting “Jewish bankers playing monopoly on the backs of the poor.”  In response, two major Jewish groups – the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews – wrote an open letter to the Labour Party and organized a demonstration in Parliament Square.  Corbyn later apologized, saying he did not properly look at the picture before arguing that the art should not be removed.  Labour MPs joined the British Jewish community in a 2,000-person protest against anti-Semitism within the party.

In April Labour expelled a party member for heckling a Jewish MP at the launch of an anti-Semitism report in 2016.  Former Labour Party member and activist Marc Wadsworth accused MP Ruth Smeeth of working “hand-in-hand” with the right-wing newspapers.  Wadsworth was expelled two years later by the party’s National Constitution Committee for breaching party rules.

In May former London Mayor Ken Livingstone announced his resignation from the Labour Party after being suspended by the party for two years over allegations of anti-Semitism.  The Labour Party first suspended Livingstone in 2016 after he said in a radio interview that Hitler had supported Zionism and announced in March that his suspension had been extended following another formal investigation over anti-Semitism.  He continued to dispute the allegations.

In July Labour MP Naz Shah was appointed Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities.  In 2016 Shah lost the party whip position and was barred from party activity for three months following comments on Facebook in which she appeared to liken Israeli policies to those of Hitler and suggested Israel should be moved to the United States.  In January 2017, following a meeting with the Bradford Board of Deputies, a leading Jewish organization, its president, Jonathan Arkush, supported her, saying, “[Shah] is one of the only people involved in Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis who has sought to make amends for her actions, and for this we commend her and now regard Naz as a sincere friend of our community.”

In December Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered an independent, global review of the persecution of Christians of all nationalities.  The Foreign Office review was to be led by Bishop of Truro Philip Mountstephen and was to make recommendations to the government to better support those under threat.  The review was due by April 21 (Easter) 2019.

The government, a member of the IHRA since 1998, adopted the full working definition of anti-Semitism in 2016, and the Crown Prosecution Service used it to assess potential prosecutions for anti-Semitic hate crimes.  In 2017 the London Assembly, Scottish government, and Welsh government also adopted the IHRA’s definition.  In July the Conservative Party adopted the IHRA definition and amended its code of conduct to include an interpretive annex on discrimination, which refers to the IHRA definition.  The Liberal Democrats Party adopted the definition in September.  The Guardian newspaper reported that the Green Party’s ruling body discussed adopting the definition as part of an internal review but decided against it.  The SNP did not clarify whether it had adopted the IHRA definition, but a spokesperson pointed out that the Scottish government, which is ruled by the SNP, adopted the definition in 2017.

Uruguay

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and affirms the state does not support any particular religion.  Legal statutes prohibit discrimination based on religion.  The government launched an interagency, computer-based system to monitor and report on issues of discrimination, including discrimination based on religion.  A judge sentenced four individuals to probation for aggravated violence and hate crimes after they were convicted of physically and psychologically attacking a colleague on religious and racial grounds.  Two Jewish travelers were denied entry into a hostel.  The government condemned the act, referred the case to the interagency antidiscrimination committee, opened an investigation, and closed the hostel.  Some government officials made public statements and wore clothing disparaging the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  In November media reported that Minister of Education Maria Julia Munoz called evangelical Protestant churches “the plague that grows” in a WhatsApp group.  The government’s official commitment to secularism at times generated controversy between religious groups and political leaders.  Religious organizations welcomed opportunities for dialogue with the government on religious freedom.  The installation of religious monuments in public places continued to generate tensions.  The government approved two cemetery sites for the Islamic community.  The government supported several events commemorating the Holocaust, including one held in the parliament and through a nationally broadcast message.

On November 22-24, evangelical Protestant leaders attended the Regional South American Congress for Life and Family in Punta del Este.  According to media reports, on November 23, a church in Montevideo supporting the congress was vandalized with what the church said were satanic symbols and pro-LGBTI signs as well as paintings saying “no to the fascist congress.”  Media also reported that on March 8, protesters vandalized a church, stating their disagreement regarding the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and birth control.  Unidentified individuals vandalized a plaza in Cerro Largo Department with painted swastikas.  Civil society and the government responded quickly to condemn the acts.  Jewish leaders reported acts of anti-Semitism, including verbal harassment and aggressive behavior.  Representatives of some minority religious groups stated that society’s lack of knowledge and understanding of their religious beliefs sometimes led to acts of intolerance and discrimination.  Religious representatives reported continued activity in the press and in social media disparaging their religious beliefs and practices.  Such activity included a Catholic leader’s comments in a magazine that Afro-Umbandists characterized as disparaging their religious beliefs.  Religious coalitions continued to promote interfaith dialogue, understanding, and coexistence in the country.

U.S. embassy officials maintained contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Honorary Commission against Racism, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination (CHRXD), and the National Human Rights Institute (INDDHH) to discuss issues regarding religious freedom and discrimination.  Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, several other minority religious groups, and members of the Board for Interfaith Dialogue to discuss areas of interfaith collaboration and hear concerns on faith-related issues, including acts of vandalism related to religion, tensions between the government and religious organizations, and challenges to religious freedom and tolerance.  The embassy used social media to highlight the importance of respect for religious diversity and tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The CHRXD report covering incidents of discrimination during the year included one complaint relating to freedom of conscience and religion; in 2017 there was also one complaint.  The INDDHH reported two incidents of discrimination on religious grounds in its 2017 report; there was one complaint the previous year.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs managed the System for the Monitoring of Recommendations, an interagency, computer-based tool to monitor and report on human rights issues, including discrimination based on religion.

A judge sentenced four gasoline station employees working in Montevideo to four to six months of probation for physically and psychologically attacking a colleague with learning disabilities in June on religious and racial grounds.  The individuals physically beat the victim while his hands were tied and at one point positioned him in a crucifixion pose.  Capturing the event on video, his attackers mocked his religion, sang religious songs to him, and stuck tape to his forehead in the form of a cross.  His attackers also said “this is how we treat black people in Uruguay.”  Civil society organizations criticized the sentence as being too lenient for the crime.  The four individuals were fired and charged with aggravated violence and hate crimes after they confessed in an abbreviated trial under the country’s new accusatory system.  The station owner filed the complaint after he saw viral footage of the attack on social media.

In January media reported the owner of a youth hostel denied two young Jewish travelers from Israel entry into his hostel in Barra de Valizas, Rocha Department.  The hostel owner said they were “not welcome in his home” because he was “opposed to the political situation” in Israel.  The Central Israeli Committee of Uruguay immediately issued a statement condemning the incident as an anti-Semitic act and calling for sanctions.  The Ministry of Tourism issued a statement saying the incident contravened the country’s reputation as a country open to receiving individuals from around the world and referred the report to the interagency antidiscrimination committee.  The committee acknowledged the case as a discriminatory act.  A legislator filed a report with the Prosecutor General’s Office branch in Rocha Department to open an investigation.  The governor of Rocha said the hostel was issued a demolition notice since it was not registered and did not have the proper authorizations.  The Prosecutor General’s Office said the incident was an isolated case and was due to the tourists’ national origin, not their religion.  The Central Israeli Committee, however, responded that it was a case of discrimination based on both nationality and religion.

Government officials made several public statements and wore attire that some Catholic leaders considered to be disparaging of their beliefs and of the practices of the Catholic Church.  In July a local government official in Montevideo tweeted a message to promote the use of protection against HIV/AIDS, saying, “Fewer rosaries on the ovaries and more sexual and reproductive health, seriously.”  Catholic Church members expressed alarm about the official’s tweet and expressed their concerns on social media.  Local government authorities requested the official retract the tweet and offer a public apology, which the official did.  In September State Health Administration Services Director Pablo Cabrera participated in the government’s annual Diversity March wearing a Catholic cardinal’s traditional attire in what some participants said was a mockery of religion.  The Catholic Church, the President’s Human Rights Office, and several opposition legislators condemned the behavior.

Media reported in November Minister of Education Maria Julia Munoz called evangelical Protestant churches “the plague that grows” in a WhatsApp group.  Deputy of the National Party Alvaro Dastugue denounced Munoz for having a “xenophobic and discriminatory position.”  A member of the evangelical Protestant bench of parliament said he would ask President Vazquez to remove the minister.

In June the government officially declared March 19 as the date to annually commemorate secularism in the country, in accordance with a parliamentary law passed in 2017.  Parliament said celebrating secularism was an element of the country’s identity, embedded in the constitution and contributing to religious tolerance in society.  Differing interpretations of the term “secularism” continued to lead to disagreements on the state’s role in enforcing the country’s secularism laws.  In October an opposition party criticized Governor of Salto Department Andres Lima for receiving a blessing from an evangelical Protestant pastor in his office; his own party also criticized him.  One legislator said that “Uruguay should not allow any religion to invade official government offices” and that Governor Lima should be held accountable for his lack of respect for the country’s policy on secularism.  Some members of Catholic and evangelical Protestant groups said government stances on sex education, gender, and abortion threatened their freedom of speech and the right to practice their religion.

Religious organizations said they welcomed opportunities for direct dialogue with the government on religious freedom; however, they reported there were few or no formal channels of communication with the government to raise concerns or discuss initiatives related to religious freedom.  Religious leaders noted that the national government did not actively convene an interfaith dialogue, but some local government officials supported interfaith events through in-kind donations, financial contributions, or participation in events.  Minority religious groups such as Baha’is, Muslims, Anglicans, Methodists, and the Church of Jesus Christ reported no cases of government-based discrimination or intolerance.  They continued, however, to state the government demonstrated more interest in other religious groups, particularly Christian and Jewish groups.

According to press reports, decisions on the installation of religious monuments in public places continued to generate tensions between religious authorities and the government, as well as among different political parties.  In October opposition council members of the Cerro Largo Department opposed the governor’s installation of a Bible monument, because they stated it violated secularism and did not go through the proper channels of approval.  During the year, local governments allowed the public placement of other statues and monuments of a religious nature.  By year’s end, the government had not yet made a decision on how to dispose of an 800-pound bronze Nazi eagle and swastika from a German World War II cruiser scuttled in Montevideo harbor following the 1939 Battle of the River Plate.

In May the government approved a request from the Muslim community to provide a space encompassing 360 square feet to accommodate 20 Islamic graves in the public North Cemetery in Montevideo.  In June the Canelones Department government agreed to establish the country’s first Islamic cemetery next to the public Soca Cemetery, with a total area of 27,000 square feet.

The government organized workshops throughout the year to raise awareness of societal discrimination and promote tolerance, including related to religion.  In March to mark the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the INDDHH expressed its commitment to implement programs and training to eradicate discriminatory practices in society and promote respect for human rights including freedom of religion.  During Diversity Month in September, the government committed to strengthening antidiscrimination public policies and promoting tolerance.  The government organized a week of workshops to raise awareness on all forms of societal discrimination and promote tolerance.  A portion of the event was specifically dedicated to democracy, secularism, and human rights.  As part of Diversity Month, the government premiered a film titled Faith in Resistance, which documented religion during the 1973-85 dictatorship era in the country.  The film was produced with support from the government and civil society organizations.

As in previous years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported activities to commemorate the Holocaust.  Parliament organized a special session in January to honor Holocaust victims.  Also in January the government issued a nationally broadcast message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The “Shoah Project,” an online educational tool on the Holocaust, had its annual contest during the year for high school students to raise awareness of Holocaust resistance fighters and of the continuing need to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.

Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion.  In May the parliament approved a religious freedom “roadmap” to implement all twelve of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed.  It simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 17 recognized religious groups.  Through presidential pardons, the government released 185 prisoners convicted on religious extremism charges.  In September the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Parpiev for diverging from his government-approved sermon.  For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, run by a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, near Tashkent.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported a significant drop in police harassment of their members:  114 cases compared with 240 in 2017.  According to multiple sources, until late in the year, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, detain participating individuals, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.  Courts continued to sentence detained individuals to fines and prison; however, for the first time, higher courts overturned some of these sentences.  Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution.  Authorities fined members of some groups, including unregistered Jehovah’s Witnesses, for engaging in collective worship and other religious activities.  The Ministry of Education issued a new dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs, in schools.  Media reported authorities ordered more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs or face expulsion.  Police detained and fined nine bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques.  According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education instructed educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers.  Human rights activists said police continued to check the identities of worshippers and blocked entrance to most mosques for anyone under 18 years old.  According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government banned a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley and surveilled Catholic masses.  Media reported the government intentionally blocked access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private persons continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly among the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion.  Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including government pressure to repudiate their new faith and on their family members to convince them to do so.  Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, and Baptists, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.  Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials.

Senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, met with government officials and recommended tangible steps the government could take to improve religious freedom.  Steps raised included releasing individuals detained for engaging in peaceful religious activities; relaxing requirements for registering faith-based organizations so they may all operate legally and not be subject to fines or raids; allowing members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship; removing restrictions on the importation and use of electronic and hardcopy religious literature; and providing protection for public discourse on religion.  Embassy officials urged the government to include religious prisoners of conscience in its annual amnesty and routinely met with religious groups and civil society regarding religious freedom and tolerance.

On November 28, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.  Uzbekistan had been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006-2017 and moved to a Special Watch List after the Secretary determined the government had made substantial progress in improving respect for religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to the report issued in February by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed, who visited the country in October 2017, freedom of religion or belief was subject to excessive government regulations that prioritized security over freedom.  The rapporteur stated the government continued to constrain the rights of its citizens to freely speak of, publicly profess, or share their religion, faith, or belief with others in defiance of its own laws and international obligations.  He said the various criminal code provisions addressing extremism captured a wide range of activities and could restrict activities protected under international law.  He also said the government imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.  The special rapporteur provided a list of 12 recommendations, which included revising the 1998 Law on Religion, simplifying registration procedures, and allowing religious education for children.

In May the parliament approved the “Roadmap to ensure freedom of religion or belief” in an effort to implement all 12 recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur Shaheed.  The roadmap also included the mechanisms needed for their implementation, suggested deadlines for these actions, responsible agencies, and the expected results.  In May and September the government reduced the fee for registration of religions organizations from 100 to 20 times the minimum monthly wage (from 18,430,000 to 3,686,000 som – $2,200 to $440); reduced organizational reporting requirements from four times per year to once; and adopted the practice of suspending a religious organization’s activity only at the organization’s discretion or by a court decision.  The government established a consultative body – the Council of Faiths under the Religious Affairs Committee – including representation from the Committee on Religious Affairs and providing a platform for 16 participating religious groups registered in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, to develop recommendations on religious freedom for the committee.

According to the government, 1,503 persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities, or those belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations, were serving sentences in the country’s detention facilities.  President Shavkat Mirziyoyev pardoned 185 individuals who had been previously convicted of membership in movements the government labeled extremist, compared with 399 in 2017.  NGO representatives stated they could not independently verify the numbers of such individuals who remained in detention.

Civil society groups expressed concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad.  NGO representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or of participating in underground Islamic activity.

On September 19, the government issued a presidential decree creating a procedure for citizens to apply for release of criminal liability for joining terrorist, extremist or other banned organizations.  In accordance with the decree, citizens would be exempted from criminal liability if they had not undergone military training, did not participate in terrorism financing, or distributed information promoting terrorism.  The decree established the Republican Interdepartmental Commission to review cases.

Media reported authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, and arrested several individuals based on their participation in such gatherings.  Religious groups and human rights activists reported armed law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered groups and detain their members.  Courts continued to sentence members of minority religious groups to administrative detention following searches, at times without valid search warrants, of homes and offices.

During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 114 episodes of “hostile acts” by authorities against their members, affecting 233 persons, ranging from interrogations to physical abuse in police detention and threats of physical violence against family members, to home raids, unlawful searches and seizures of personal property, and employment discrimination.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 240 episodes of such acts affecting 480 persons in 2017.

According to unregistered evangelical Baptist Congregation representatives, in August the city court in Chust, Namangan Region, sentenced Pastor Alisher and his assistant Abror to 10 days of administrative detention.  Judge Bokhodir Kazakov found them and six women guilty of “illegal religious activity” for gathering at Alisher’s home.  Authorities fined the women one million som ($120) each and confiscated their mobile phones.

According to human rights groups, in August and September police and secret police officers detained up to nine bloggers in at least five regions of the country.  The bloggers had discussed a range of religious and other themes, including calls for women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques.  Courts assessed fines and jail terms of up to two weeks.  One of the Tashkent-based bloggers, Adham Olimov (also known as Musannif Adham), was fined and jailed for 15 days.  According to independent local news agencies, the bloggers were released on September 6-11.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists website and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)’s Uzbek Service, blogger Ziyodilla Kabirov (also known as Ziyovuddin Rahim) was sentenced to 10 days’ administrative arrest and fined 184,300 som ($22).  Blogger Otabek Usamov, who wrote commentaries for the religious website Azon.uz, was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative arrest.

According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, on July 17, a Fergana court overturned a district court decision giving Muslim scholar and human rights activist Musajon Bobojonov a three-year suspended prison term on charges of disseminating “extremist material” and using religion to disturb public order.  According to RFE/RL, Bobojonov heads the Ezgulik (Compassion) human right group’s branch in the eastern city of Andijon.

In February two Muslim sisters, Zulhumor and Mehrinisso Hamdamova, were released after spending more than eight years in prison.  Authorities arrested them in 2009 for holding unauthorized religious meetings.  In a closed trial in 2010, the Kashkadarya Regional Criminal Court sentenced the sisters to between six and one-half and seven years in prison.  Authorities convicted both sisters under sections of the criminal code regarding attempting to change the constitutional order, holding materials threating public security and public order, and participation in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other banned organizations.

According to Forum 18, in March Zuboyd Mirzorakhimov, a Tajik citizen, was released after serving most of a five-year sentence for possessing an electronic copy of the Quran and Islamic sermons on his mobile phone while transiting through Tashkent.  A court convicted Mirzorakhimov in 2013 under the section of the criminal code covering smuggling material to “propagandize religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism.”

According to Forum 18, on January 8, in the Parkent District of Tashkent Region, a court fined Yevgeni Kupayev, his wife Natalya Kupayeva, and seven other Jehovah’s Witnesses 1,843,000 som ($220) for distributing religious literature on the street.  According to Forum 18, on February 25, police officers in Parkent District, led by Senior Lieutenant Khozhiyev, arrested Kupayev and Natalya Kupayeva, along with Aliya Sadikova and Elmira Davletshina, at a bus stop when they were returning home from sharing their religious beliefs with persons in the village of Karakalpak.  They were all released immediately after questioning.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses told Forum 18 that police physically forced them into a patrol car and took them to the police station, where police questioned them and a male officer conducted a body search of all four individuals, including the three women.  Sadikova and Davletshina were not charged.  On March 14, prosecutors opened a criminal case against Kupayev and Kupayeva for “illegal manufacture, storage, import or distribution [of] religious materials.”  On November 9, a Tashkent court ordered their telephones confiscated and fined Kupayev and Kupayeva 10 times the monthly minimum wage each, – 1,843,000 som ($220).

In January Jehovah’s Witnesses Dilbar Odinayeva and Turabek Asadov were summoned to the Samarkand police station and interrogated.  A police officer threatened them and demanded they convert to Islam, according to congregation sources.  Authorities subsequently released them without charges.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Radjabbanu Khodzhayeva reported that mahalla representatives and four police officers in Bukhara came to her home.  They questioned her about her beliefs and demanded she start reading the Quran.

In February Jehovah’s Witness Iroda Razikovna reported that Tashkent police searched her home and interrogated her.  Police demanded she write an explanation of her beliefs and reason for leaving Islam.

Law enforcement officers raided meetings and detained participants of unregistered religious groups and social gatherings where participants discussed religious issues.  According to multiple sources, police continued to raid unregistered religious group meetings, conduct legal and illegal searches, and seize outlawed religious materials from private residences.  One raid was reported following the government’s announcement in December it would halt raids on religious groups.

According to the 2018 Jehovah’s Witnesses Country Report, on March 28, police in the village of Uzinavo in Karshi District interrupted a peaceful religious meeting of six Witnesses in a private home.  The officers conducted what the Witnesses said was an unlawful search of the house and seized a Bible and other religious literature in the Uzbek language.  Police interrogated the group at the police station until 1:30 a.m.  According to the report, police ignored requests for medical assistance from two of the women who suffered from high blood pressure.  Police released the accused after questioning and did not pursue criminal charges.

According to Forum 18 news service, on November 25, 40 plainclothes officials, including members of the National Guard, the State Security Service secret police, the MOJ, and Yashnobod District police, raided Baptist Sunday worship services in the Yashnobod District of Tashkent.  The congregation was part of the unregistered Baptist Council of Churches.  Officials searched the building and confiscated approximately 7,800 items of literature and DVDs.  Forum 18 reported police took 14 individuals, including a 14-year-old boy, to the Yashnobod police station and made them wait outside in the cold while officials tried to force them to sign statements admitting to participating in “an unauthorized meeting.”  When they refused, police interrogated them for nine and a half hours.  According to Forum 18, police recorded names, addresses, workplaces, and other personal details of all the individuals present at the service and on November 27 came to the home of one of the participants for a “passport check.”  Authorities later released all individuals without charges and returned the confiscated literature.

Forum 18 reported that on November 23, police raided the home of Sharofat Allamova in Urgench where she, her two daughters, and four friends, including the pastor of her church Ahmadjon Nazarov, were having dinner.  Police searched the home without a warrant and confiscated a New Testament.  According to Forum 18, police filmed everyone present and recorded their personal details and addresses.  On November 24, Captain Mukhammad Rakhimov, head of the Urgench Police Struggle with Extremism and Terrorism Department, brought one of the dinner participants to the mahalla committee and tried to pressure her to accuse the host and the pastor of holding “unauthorized religious meetings” by threatening to take away her two children.  According to Forum 18, when the woman refused to sign a statement about what one officer called “illegal Christian Wahhabi activity,” police brought her mother-in-law to the station and ordered her to beat the daughter-in-law until she signed.  Forum 18 also stated police tried to pressure Nazarov to sign a statement but he refused.

According to Forum 18, on September 30, police in Tashkent raided a group of 40 Protestants meeting at a private home for a meal and Bible study.  Without a search warrant, police detained the group and confiscated Bibles and other literature, including DVDs and CDs, the group had purchased legally from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Forum 18 said police applied “psychological pressure” to the group; one woman and a five-year-old girl were subsequently hospitalized.

According to local congregation members, in July in Urgench, police officers detained seven Christian teenagers who were decorating greeting cards.  Ten security officials entered the apartment of the leader of a local evangelical Christian community, Akhmed Nazarov, where Nazarov’s wife, Elena, and the teenagers were the only individuals present.  Police confiscated a calendar with popular proverbs, six greeting cards, a notebook that contained Christian music, another notebook with Uzbek-language quotes from the Bible, and two pieces of paper with handwritten scripture.  Authorities charged Nazarov with holding an unauthorized religious meeting and destroyed all the confiscated materials.  In the entire Khorezm Region, where Urgench is located, according to Nazarov, there was one registered Protestant religious organization, commonly known as “the Korean Church.”  Nazarov told Fergananews.ru that he collected the necessary number of signatures for registration, but an employee of the regional department of the Ministry of Justice told him, “Uzbeks will not be registered.”

In April in Chimbay City, Karakalpakstan Region, local police raided an all-Christian birthday party, according to congregation members.  Police took the participants to the local police station and charged them with holding an “illegal religious meeting.”  Police released them early the next morning.  On July 13, a local judge found all the individuals who had been present except the minors guilty of engaging in illegal religious activity.  The judge sentenced all the women to pay penalties of 1,254,000 to 1,672,000 som ($150 to $200) each, and the owner of the house to pay 8,360,000 som ($1,000).  The 11 men involved were sentenced to five to seven days of administrative detention.  Later, the Superior Court of Karakalpakstan vacated the fines and returned all confiscated possessions.

The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations.  Groups the government labeled “extremist” were unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecutions.  The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.

According to human rights activists and religious community representatives, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (Muftiate, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the country).  The sources said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services.  The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.

In September the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan dismissed Imam Fazliddin Parpiev from his position at Tashkent’s Omina Mosque after Parpiev posted a video appeal to the president asking him to allow more religious freedom, including lifting the country’s ban on women’s Islamic headscarves and on men’s beards.  In his Friday sermon, Parpiev also addressed the right to mosque attendance and religious education for youth.  While the state-backed Muslim Board of Uzbekistan did not specifically mention the reasons for dismissing Parpiev, the imam told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service that shortly prior to his dismissal, an official of the state’s religious affairs department had told him that “You shouldn’t have deviated from the script” – an apparent reference to his questioning state policy on Islam.  The dismissal letter, signed by four top officials of the Muslim Board, said the board’s ethics commission made the decision to terminate Parpiev’s contract.  Parpiev subsequently left the country, according to media reports.

The government stated it did not review mahalla committee decisions and activities related to religious freedom, including local registration decisions, but reports continued to state that there was ongoing coordination.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the new registration rules adopted in May and September contained many of the same obstacles to registration for all groups as the 1998 law.  According to the CRA, by year’s end the country had 2,260 registered religious organizations representing six different faiths.  Muslim religious groups operated 2,052 Sunni mosques, four Shia mosques, 15 scientific centers, and 12 educational institutes.  According to the CRA, the total number of mosques reached 2,056, compared with 2,043 in 2017, and the highest number since 1998.  The 177 non-Muslim groups include 36 Orthodox churches, five Catholic churches, 50 Pentecostal churches, 22 Baptist churches, nine Adventist churches, three New Apostol churches, two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple.  There was also a registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, despite continued efforts to engage with the government, they had no success in registering new congregations, despite their growing numbers.  At year’s end, they had only one registered site, on the outskirts of Tashkent, which they stated did not adequately meet their needs.

Many religious group representatives reported they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, which included the need for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration, and application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality.  Their inability to register left them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.

In October Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed to mahalla committees in Fergana and Karshi for permission to open a Kingdom Hall, one of the first steps of a multistep process in receiving government registration.  In Fergana, the mahalla committee categorically refused the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ request, responding “the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dangerous to young persons because of their radical views…have violated the law among Christians…[and are] forbidden in many countries.”  In Karshi, the mahalla committee noted in its rejection that there were already two registered Christian churches (a Korean Evangelical Church and Russian Orthodox Church) in the city and recommended the Jehovah’s Witnesses use those church facilities for their services.

As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities.  Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance the government would approve their registration application.  Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members.  In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.

Churches that previously attempted to register reportedly remained unregistered.  These included the Bethany Baptist Church, Life Water Church, Tashkent Presbyterian Church, Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, Uyushma Church, and Anapa Church in Tashkent; the Pentecostal church in Chirchik; Emmanuel Church and Mir (Peace) Church, United Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Nukus, Karakalpakstan; Hushkhabar Church in Gulistan; Association of Independent Churches and Union Evangelical Church in Urgench; Pentecostal Church in Andijan; and a Seventh-day Adventist church, Greater Grace Christian Church, Central Protestant Church, Miral Protestant Church, Samarkand Presbyterian Church, Our Brotherhood Church, and a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Samarkand.  Catholic congregations in Navoi and Angren remained unable to register their churches after 12 years of unsuccessful attempts.

In April Jehovah’s Witness Fazliddin Tukhtayev reported visiting the Shekhonchi mahalla committee in Bukhara to seek the committee’s approval to register a Kingdom Hall.  Tukhtayev provided a presentation kit about Jehovah’s Witnesses to the committee to explain the mission of the organization and its activities.  Following the presentation, mahalla council officials filed an official complaint with police.  Subsequently, Tukhtayev was charged with production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials, and fined 1,722,400 som ($210).

For the first time in eight years, the government registered a church, Svet Miru, a Presbyterian religious community in Chirchick, approximately 50 kilometers north of Tashkent.  The government offered to register a central office for the Jewish community, but members declined the offer, citing lack of funds and community interest to sustain a central office.

According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques.  The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions, and were not assigned registered imams.

Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to have particular difficulties conducting religious activities in Karakalpakstan in the northwest part of the country because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status there.  There was only one registered church, a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, in all of Karakalpakstan, which has a population of approximately two million persons.

Despite the Jewish community’s efforts to obtain recognition for additional rabbis, the MOJ accredited only one rabbi, a Bukharian, in 2014, and none since.  The Ashkenazi Jewish community continued to lack a rabbi.  Members of the Jewish community said the lack of rabbis limited faith practices, religious interest, and growth of the community.  Jews continued to be concerned about the future of their congregations as the current generation of adherents either emigrated or died.

Representatives of minority religious groups stated the government continued to prohibit peaceful gatherings for worship and other religious activities in communities where a registered house of worship did not exist and imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.

In some cases, Christians remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them vulnerable to police harassment and abuse since such gatherings remained illegal.

Authorities continued to fine representatives of registered religious groups, or representatives of groups that had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities, including fining members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for congregating in a place other than their sole registered house of worship in Tashkent Region.

In July authorities fined Tashkent resident Yulduz Baltaeva 10,334,400 som ($1,200), for carrying out illegal religious activity.  Baltaeva accompanied three deaf adult men to Chirchik, the location of the only registered Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregation in the country, for a religious convention.  Because the CRA did not approve the convention, the CRA determined that Baltaeva’s attendance and her assistance to others to attend constituted illegal religious activity.

Media reported security services continued to film participants at Friday prayer services at local mosques.  Parishioners at Catholic masses also reported surveillance and said authorities continued to prohibit a summer camp for children in the Fergana Valley, citing security threats.  Other communities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported surveillance of their facilities.

In September Tashkent District’s department head of public education sent a letter to schools to prevent schoolchildren from attending Friday prayers and instructed that additional school events should be planned for Fridays, according to RFE/RL’s Ozodlik Uzbek Service.  According to the report, Muslims said police had begun cordoning mosque entrances and performing identity checks on youth, as well as prohibiting admission to anyone younger than 18.  Media reported police broadly implemented these measures in the Fergana Valley, Bukhara, and Samarkand.

On October 17, human rights activist Shukhrat Ganiyev told Forum 18 that police and the State Security Service in Bukhara openly monitored individuals who went to mosques, especially during Friday prayers.  According to Ganiyev, authorities paid particular attention to young men and boys under the age of 18.  Ganiyev stated that after they were identified, police would visit their parents’ homes to pressure them into stopping their children from attending mosques.  Ganiyev told Forum 18 that he knew of approximately 50 such cases involving men and boys from July to October.  Ganiyev said officials in Bukhara Region put less pressure on Muslim young men attending mosques during the year than in 2017.

Mahalla committees and imams continued to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion.  Muftiate authorities stated they and mahalla committee members regularly made home visits in the mahalla’s district to check on what they characterized as a family’s spiritual needs.

The government stated most prisons continued to set aside special areas for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible.  Family members of prisoners said, and UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed also stated during his October 2017 visit to the maximum security Jaslyk Prison, that prison authorities did not allow prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion, including reading the Quran or praying privately.  According to Shaheed, authorities did not permit inmates to pray five times a day and refused to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast.  These restrictions remained in place at year’s end.

The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for Muslims to participate in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses.  As in 2017, the government allowed 7,200 Hajj pilgrims, approximately a third of the country’s allotment allowed by Saudi Arabia.  Religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons over 40 years old.  Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the State Security Services, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims.  According to human rights groups in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it remained exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery.  A commission established in 2017 continued to review participation eligibility.  New regulations require that pilgrims apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats.  The CRA uses the khokimiyats’ lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah.  During the year, the government allowed 18,000 pilgrims to travel for the Umrah, compared with 10,000 in 2017.  Beginning in September, the government removed all restrictions on the number of Muslim pilgrims who wish to travel for Umrah.

Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Baha’i community stated children were able to attend community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents, such as Sunday school.  Eyewitnesses continued to report large numbers of children in attendance at both places of worship.

Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles.  The government reported that 1,000 Qurans were made available for hotels.  Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and Qiblas, which indicate the direction of Mecca.  All airports and train stations had small prayer rooms on their premises.

According to civil society observers, authorities allowed Muslims for the second year in a row to celebrate Ramadan openly and the number of public iftars was greater than in the previous year.

The government sponsored multi-stage Quranic recitation competitions among men and women followed by Hadith (a collection of Islamic traditions containing sayings of Muhammad) competitions.

In September the minister of education issued a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools.  The government expressly forbade religious symbols of all types, such as skullcaps and crosses.  The policy continued the ban on students wearing hijab.  In September, at the beginning of the school year, authorities forced more than 100 girls at the Tashkent International Islamic Academy to remove their hijabs under threat of expulsion, according to the BBC Uzbek service.

According to some Muslims, the ban on teaching religious principles in private resulted in the government detaining and fining members of religious communities for “illegally teaching one’s religion to another.”  They said the ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faiths with each other or to exchange ideas on matters of religion.  Some Muslims said religious discussions were considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or teaching religious principles in private.

The CRA continued to prohibit and penalize religious groups in possession of religious literature uncensored by the CRA.  Officials continued to search homes, offices, and spaces belonging to members of minority religious groups, at times without valid search warrants, and courts sentenced members of such groups to administrative detention or fines, including for possession of Bibles.  The government continued to limit access to certain Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission.  It also continued to arrest individuals in possession of literature deemed by the government to be “extremist.”

The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority.  According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in second hand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.

According to a Jehovah’s Witness, a number of government entities, including the Ministry of Interior, NSS, Customs Service, and local police, continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature and the equipment used to produce it.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 26 in Jizzakh, Director of the Counter Terrorism and Extremism Department Bobur Boymurodov interrogated Jehovah’s Witness Muborak Abdurakhmanova about possessing and sharing religious content.  Officials seized her mobile phone, found e-copies of religious literature and videos, and initiated administrative charges against her.  According to the report, on May 31, police officers separately detained and interrogated three Jehovah’s witnesses:  Dilyafruz Sheralyeva, Nasiba Umarova, and Sarvinov Esonkilieva.  Police inspected their mobile phones and pressured them to write statements admitting to communicating with Abdurakhmanova about religious content.  On June 3, police interrogated Jamshid Umatov and told him to provide a statement admitting that he had received religious content from Abdurakhmanova through his mobile phone.  On June 4, police also interrogated Jamshid’s sister, Dilnavoz Umatova, and told her to provide a statement.

According to congregation members, in April and May authorities raided Jehovah’s Witnesses worship meetings in private homes in Samarkand and Fergana, and twice raided a home in Karshi.  Authorities also raided Jehovah’s Witnesses homes for religious literature in Urgench and in the Yangiyul District of Tashkent Region.  After the Yangiyul search, a court fined two members of the local community 921,500 som ($110) under an article in the administrative code that prohibits production, storage, importation, and distribution of religious materials.

Forum 18 reported that on July 17, a Tashkent court upheld Gayrat Ziyakhojayev’s June 12 conviction for sharing texts that the lower court said contained “a threat to public security and public order,” even though he downloaded the texts from an Uzbek website that was not banned.  The court ordered his phone and computer destroyed.  Ziyakhojayev was immediately released.  According to BBC journalists, the court summoned him again prior to year’s end.

According to congregation members, in July an administrative judge in the Uchkuduk district court of Navoi Region fined Baptists Igor Zherebyatnikov and Iskhok Urazov for possessing various Christian materials, including three Bibles, one copy of “Bible Stories,” and one copy of “Stories from the Holy Scripture.”  The judge ordered the materials destroyed.

According to congregation members, in October approximately 20 officers of the Bostanlyk District police in Tashkent Region raided a group of 40 Protestants, including members of an ethnic Korean church and other Protestant churches, meeting at a Protestant center in Kyzl-Su.  Police searched the center and confiscated numerous items of church property, including a laptop computer, guitar, overhead projector, loudspeaker, three microphones, three electric kettles, music stands, a writing board, and two Christian books.  Police provided no formal record of the confiscations.

According to Forum 18, police fined persons suspected of storing authorized versions of the Bible, purchased from government stores, and confiscated them.  Forum 18 stated that on November 19, police in Pap, in eastern Namangan Region, raided a group of Protestants meeting for a meal and Bible reading in a private home.  Police confiscated Bibles, booklets, and DVDs and CDs containing Christian films, songs and sermons.  Forum 18 reported all of the confiscated literature had been purchased from the state-registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.  Police arrested the eight individuals and took them to Pap Police Station, where police questioned them until 3 a.m. the next morning.  The report stated police forced most of the Protestants to sign statements admitting guilt and said they might prosecute them for illegal possession of religious literature.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses online news service JW.org, between March and November the Supreme Court reversed four lower court decisions that resulted in fines for possessing Bible-based literature and electronic versions of the Bible.  According to the web site, the court of the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan also reversed a lower court decision finding an individual guilty of possessing religious material and imposing a fine.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on May 2, police in Samarkand raided a private home where seven Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting.  Police inspected the personal belongings of all those present and confiscated an Uzbek-language book of Proverbs from one person and a mobile phone containing electronic religious publications from another.  On May 22, a court found the two Witnesses liable under an article in the administrative code and fined each of them 861,200 som ($100).

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 24, police in Samarkand raided a private home where nine Witnesses had gathered for a religious meeting and seized a phone that contained electronic copies of Jehovah’s Witnesses literature.

The CRA continued to block the importation of both Christian and Islamic literature.

According to worshippers, authorities continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature in the Uzbek and Russian languages imported legally or produced in country, as well as religious items such as prayer beads or incense.

Members of registered minority religious communities reported authorities continued to seize religious literature for alleged customs violations.

The government continued to block access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian- and Islam-related news sites, and to websites run by Forum 18.

The government continued to allow the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA:  the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.

Christian groups stated they needed more than the single authorized version of the Bible in Uzbek to practice their faith.  Religious leaders said they continued to lack access to other important religious materials and texts to explain the teachings and tenets of their faiths in the Uzbek language.

According to Muslim representatives, some official imams said they could not teach Islam to children because the government forbade all religious education not controlled by the state.  In 2017 the government approved fee-based courses on the Arabic language and Quranic studies for the public, but in June it limited participation to adults.

According to the television channel Uzbekistan 24, during the first half of the year, the staff of the State Security Service uncovered 116 illegal Islamic educational institutions (hujras).  Uzbekistan 24 reported that for calendar year 2017, the comparable number uncovered was 33 hujras.  Authorities raided and closed each establishment.  In the summer, the government released a film on what it said were the dangers of underground mosques that featured a number of organized underground hujras.  According to media reports, in Andijan Region, Nosirbek Turgunov created a religious school in the basement of his house where boys 5-6 years of age studied religion.  According to the film, Turgunov locked pupils in a cramped room, deprived them of food, and applied corporal punishment.  According to the film, an investigation revealed Turgunov had had no formal study of theology.  He said his knowledge of Islam came from his parents.

The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites.  No Islamic religious institutions in the country could receive private funding because of a government prohibition.  In April a presidential decree established the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan.  The academy’s stated goals were to provide the country’s religious educational institutions (universities and madrassahs) with highly trained teachers and mentors, improve the research and professional skills of scholars, educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith and kalam (Islamic doctrine), and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach.

The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.

At a July 25 event in Washington, D.C., Minister of Justice Ruslanbek Davletov stated the country’s “new religious policy fully acknowledges the adherence to the international standards and treaties,” but that under these treaties “religious rights are not absolute…  when it comes to public security, public order, or moral of the rights, and of the other citizens[.]”  He said religious missionary work and proselytism would continue to be banned under the new laws being created under the road map because such activities could lead to “disagreements in society” that threatened religious peace and could incite hatred among religions in his country.  At a December event in Washington, Uzbek Ambassador to the United States Javlon Vakhabov said there were “some difficulties with the implementation of our [religion] laws, especially at the regional and local level, but they are all reduced to a few incidents and are not systematic in nature.”  Vakhabov also stated Uzbekistan had committed to ceasing raids on unregistered religious organizations as well as simplifying registration procedures.

State-controlled and -influenced media continued to accuse missionaries of posing a danger to society and sowing civil discord.

In the March 29 edition of progovernment newspaper Khordik Plus, an article entitled, “Oh, miserable people … Religion is worship, not a crime!” the author said, “What about the various missionary societies?  We have not forgotten how many young people unable to distinguish between the white and the black, were fraudulently lured by them.”

An article in the June 9 edition of Khordik Plus described police officers searching the house of Anna Mologina (a Jehovah’s Witness) and her mother, Svetlana Mologina (not a Jehovah’s Witness).  Police officers seized printed literature, and authorities opened a criminal case.  The article stated that any illegal missionary activity in Uzbekistan was subject to penalty.

The March 29 edition of Khordik Plus noted that Jehovah’s Witness Matyakubova Zamira, “propagandizes” among her fellow believers.  That article stated that there would be consequences for missionary activity.

The online Russian news magazine Sputnik reported in a July 26 article entitled, “The Minister of Justice helps in ensuring interreligious peace in the country,” that Minister Davletov said missionary activity and proselytizing would lead to a comparison of religions and to social tensions and controversies.  The minister also stated, “Many foreign visiting experts say that we should remove this ban.  But this is a matter of principle for us.”

RFE/RL reported the government banned a “flash-mob protest” set for September 5 in Tashkent at which the singer known as Young Zapik had planned to debut his song “Beautiful Girl in Hijab.”  Young Zapik subsequently released the song on social media.

In October the government rescinded an order issued in March to demolish a Buddhist temple in Tashkent, the only active Buddhist temple in Central Asia and the country’s only legal place of worship for the small, mostly Korean, Buddhist community.  City authorities earmarked the temple, a tourist destination and point of interest for visiting religious officials, including the chief Buddhist monks of Burma and Thailand, for demolition to widen a city road.  The government’s reversal came after members of the Buddhist community registered a protest on the president’s virtual portal and with local area diplomats and journalists.

At year’s end, there were three public Islamic universities in the country:  the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Tashkent Islamic University, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara.  According to official figures, 593 persons were studying at Islamic universities (509 in Tashkent and 84 in Bukhara).

Vanuatu

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religion or traditional belief.  The preamble to the constitution refers to traditional Christian values, but there is no state religion.  On penalty of a fine, the law requires religious groups to register; however, the government did not enforce this requirement.  In October during a visit to Jerusalem, the prime minister said Vanuatu was a Christian country.  The Vanuatu Christian Council (VCC) received a 10 million vatu ($89,500) annual grant from the government.  The VCC said it would use the funds to strengthen the capacity of the VCC to support member churches and provide training.

The VCC reportedly continued to believe the government should revisit the freedom of religion clause in the constitution to prohibit the establishment of non-Christian faiths in the country, although it did not make any public statements supporting this proposal as in 2016.  In February the VCC chairman spoke out against a decision from the University of the South Pacific’s main campus in Fiji to ban Christian fellowship programs on the university campus, stating he would oppose a similar ban on the Vanuatu campus.  The VCC called on the government to ban the import of goods and materials “detrimental to both spiritual and physical health and life of Christians in Vanuatu.”

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country.  On periodic visits to the country, officials from the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea discussed religious freedom with representatives of the government.  Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom with the VCC and smaller religious organizations, and posted about religious freedom on social media.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In October during an official visit to Jerusalem, the prime minister stated that “as a Christian country,” Vanuatu was considering the possibility of recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.  In January the minister of internal affairs told media it was important for families to uphold Christian values for a better Vanuatu.

The government interacted with religious groups through the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the VCC, the latter composed of the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, Presbyterian Church, Church of Christ, and the Apostolic Church, with the Seventh-day Adventist and Assemblies of God Churches having observer status.  The VCC chairman and secretary general of the VCC were members of the Constitutional Review Committee established by the parliament in 2016.  The committee considered amending the constitution to call for “respect for Christian principles and traditional Melanesian values” and “faith in God” more broadly.  The VCC supported these amendments to make the country officially Christian; however, the amendments were not among those the committee proposed and parliament did not consider them.

In January the Ministry of Health signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Seventh-day Adventist Church to cooperate in the delivery of health services.  Five other Churches – the Presbyterian Church, Anglican Church, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ – already had similar arrangements.

The VCC received a 10 million vatu ($89,500) annual grant from the government.  The VCC said it would use the funds to strengthen the capacity of the VCC to support member churches and provide training.

Government oaths of office customarily were taken on the Bible.

Ceremonial prayers at national events were organized through the VCC.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or public order.  Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant leaders stated President Nicolas Maduro used a 2017 antihate law to persecute clergy who espoused views challenging his policies or highlighting the country’s humanitarian crisis.  Several religious organizations described continued difficulties with government bureaucracy when seeking to register, requesting approval for new internal statutes, or applying for religious visas for foreign clergy.  Representatives of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV) and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said the government retaliated against their clergy and other members for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis.  Catholic Church leaders reported President Maduro ordered criminal investigations of two bishops for violating the antihate law after they delivered homilies highlighting hunger and government corruption.  CEV representatives reported that a woman, characterized by media as a government sympathizer, attacked Father Miguel Acevedo during Mass in Caracas.  According to a local reporter, the woman interrupted Acevedo’s homily, shouted insults at him, and then rushed toward him in an attempt to hit him.  Representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) said criticism of Israel in government-owned or -affiliated media continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages.  They said government-owned or -associated media and government supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust, citing media reports of President Maduro’s comparing migrant Venezuelans to Jews persecuted by Hitler.

CAIV representatives said many citizens and government officials continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and placed U.S. interests above those of the country, which made them concerned their community could become targets of anti-Semitic acts.  On June 6, after the United States announced it would to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, pro-Palestinian groups accompanied by progovernment representatives protested the decision.  Media interviewed protesters in Caracas who proclaimed they repudiated Zionism and supported the Palestinian cause.  Some members of the Jewish community cited this protest as an example of the use of anti-Zionist rhetoric to avoid overt anti-Semitic messages.

Government officials again did not respond to U.S. embassy requests for meetings on religious freedom and related issues.  The embassy maintained close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities.  Embassy representatives and these groups discussed government registration procedures and delays; harassment by progovernment and armed civilian gangs; the media environment; and anti-Semitism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

CEV and other Catholic Church leaders and ECV representatives said the government continued to retaliate against church leaders and clergy members who made statements critical of the government, including by imposing arbitrary registration requirements, threatening and detaining clergy, and denying religious visas to foreign visiting clergy.

CEV representatives reported a woman, characterized by media as a government sympathizer, had attacked Father Miguel Acevedo during a Mass on February 2 at Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria parish in Caracas.  According to witnesses, the woman interrupted Acevedo’s homily, shouted insults at Acevedo, and then rushed toward him in an attempt to hit him.  Church personnel disrupted her attack.

Catholic Church leaders said President Maduro ordered criminal investigations of two bishops for violating the 2017 antihate law after they delivered homilies highlighting hunger and government corruption.  Bishop Victor Hugo Basabe of San Felipe, Yaracuy State, which is associated with the Barquisimeto Archdiocese in Lara State, asked during his January 14 homily that the “Divine shepherdess free Venezuela of the curse of political corruption that has led to moral, economic, and social ruin.”  During the homily, Basabe referred to the country’s crisis, stating, “Thousands of Venezuelans rummage through garbage searching for scraps to satisfy their hunger.”  In a separate homily the same day, Archbishop of Barquisimeto Antonio Lopez Castillo urged the “Divine shepherdess to free us from hunger; free us from corruption.”  In his State of the Union speech the following day, President Maduro called for the attorney general to investigate Bishop Basabe and Archbishop Lopez Castillo for instigating “hate with the intent to generate confrontation, violence, death, exclusion, and persecution.”

Lopez Castillo reported to news media that on January 19, Bolivarian National Intelligence Service officials detained him after Mass, then released him after an interview and threatened that if he persisted in speaking against the Maduro government, they would charge him with violating the antihate law.  On January 16, the CEV issued a statement denouncing the investigation order against Lopez Castillo and Basabe.  The CEV said the antihate law, promulgated by the ANC, was “conceived to criminalize all that upsets the government and its views.”  Neither Basabe nor Lopez Castillo was charged.  While CEV leaders reported Lopez Castillo had received no further threats, on October 9, progovernment Lara State legislators declared Basabe “persona non grata,” which then Governor Carmen Melendez endorsed.  Legislators and Governor Melendez cited Basabe’s January 14 homily as the reason.  CEV leaders said Basabe remained in his position as apostolic administrator and no new threats occurred after he was declared persona non grata.

On February 19, the MOI summoned Father Acevedo and Bishop Tulio Luis Ramirez Padilla, Auxiliary Bishop of Caracas, to appear before the court for “inciting hate” during their Mass in Caracas on February 2.  Media reported that according to some of the parishioners, who had interceded on behalf of Acevedo and Ramirez, both were “treated” well and released with a warning.

Catholic leaders said Maria Albarran, a Zulia State government official, brought charges against Father Santiago Dominguez for “instigating hate” during a February 2 Mass over which he presided at the Church of La Consolacion in Maracaibo State.  Albarran stated in media interviews she was offended by Dominguez’ comparison of Venezuelans who left the country to lepers.  CEV leaders reported the government took no further action against Dominguez.

A CEV representative stated the government still had not fulfilled an 18-year-old agreement between the CEV and the state allowing catechists to teach Christian and sacramental values (in preparation for First Communion) in public schools.  The same CEV representative said the government had removed catechism from the classroom and at times threatened to sanction principals of schools that attempted to teach it.  The CEV representative said government representatives denied his petition to establish catechism courses in a local public school, violating the CEV agreement permitting schools to teach catechism upon a parent’s request.  He stated the government’s decision violated freedom of religion for parents whose children could not receive catechism locally when there was no available transportation to distant schools where catechism was available.

The ECV said the DJR imposed arbitrary registration requirements on religious groups.  According to the ECV, after several years delay, the MOI approved the ECV’s new registration in March; however, the MOI restricted the number of ECV board members to five, despite previously permitting 15.  ECV leaders said this restriction violated its “freedom to associate,” because the ECV, a network of approximately 1,300 evangelical Protestant churches, needed to assign 15 board members to oversee its 1,300 churches and 650 pastors.  ECV leaders said the limit on board members would leave it vulnerable should the government nullify church statutes made by its nonregistered board members.

According to the ECV, the government retaliated against its organization because it opposed some government policies, including the antihate law, which the ECV leader said repressed religious expression and led to self-censorship.  ECV leaders stated the government denied religious visas to visiting clergy after it held a July 24 church assembly in the city of Valencia.  They said that during the event, a progovernment individual monitoring the assembly approached the pastor of the church in Valencia and said he would report him to government security officials for instigating hate and violating the antihate law.  An ECV representative later stated the government had denied the ECV a religious visa for a pastor planning to travel to the country to lead a national conference.  Regarding the ECV’s distribution of food to needy parishioners, an ECV representative said National Police agents regularly confiscated a portion of food boxes, stating the food was “contraband” and the ECV was selling it for profit.  The ECV representative said a private NGO had donated the food boxes, which ECV personnel would then distribute to needy parishioners.  Clergy said they felt intimidated and frequently were required to give the police agents a portion of the food boxes as a “commission” in exchange for allowing clergy to distribute the remainder.

Jewish leaders stated that to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, government and some progovernment media continued to replace the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.”  During his September 9 television broadcast, ANC President Diosdado Cabello stated that former Mayor of El Hatillo David Smolansky was leading a political project to impose a “Zionist Venezuela” in response to Smolansky’s designation to lead an OAS working group on the migratory crisis in Venezuela.  Cabello categorized Smolansky as a “violent Zionist.”

In September President Maduro compared the situation of migrant Venezuelans to that of “Hitler’s persecution of Jews, resulting in the death of six million Jews.”  Media widely reported that during a September 18 press conference in China, Maduro stated there was an “inquisition campaign” against Venezuelans by “oligarchic media” from Colombia, Panama, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Peru, which he likened to Hitler’s persecution of Jews.  He went on to say, “The oligarch media in those countries launched an inquisition campaign that I compare to, excuse me if someone is bothered by my comparison, I compare it to the persecution campaign against the Jewish people that Hitler initiated that ended with six million dead Jews.”  Maduro continued, stating, “Many of the things said against Venezuela and Venezuelans in those countries are similar to what was said of the Jews, the Venezuelans are guilty of this, this, this and Venezuelans are guilty of everything.”

CAIV representatives stated the government supported anti-Semitic media.  In February progovernment television outlet Venezolana de Television (VTV) broadcast an interview with Walter Martinez, a political analyst.  During the interview, Martinez said media companies, including Warner Music, CNN, and HBO Ole, whose artists call to “Free Venezuela,” are manipulated by Zionism.  Martinez said, “Judaism has been hijacked by Zionism.”  CAIV representatives said this incident was typical of the government’s anti-Semitic leanings.

On February 2, Roberto Hernandez Montoya, moderator of government-owned VTV television and the Radio Nacional de Venezuela radio program, retweeted, “Capriles is a Zionist agent menial slave of the Empire, who is nothing more than a political corpse who belongs in the [expletive]-hole of history and never shall a repulsive idiot like him (that did military service in Israel) be elected as president of the Bolivarian people.”  A prominent Venezuelan opposition politician and practicing Catholic of Jewish ancestry, Henrique Capriles was a presidential candidate in 2012 and 2013.

CAIV’s president stated that CAIV leadership made a concerted effort to maintain communication with the government to avoid escalating tensions.  He said Delcy Rodriguez, the country’s vice president, had cooperated with requests to import kosher products essential to Jewish religious practices.

Vietnam

Executive Summary

The constitution states that all people have freedom of belief and religion.  The law provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity.  The 2016 Law on Belief and Religion, which came into effect in January, maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups but shortens the time for recognition at the national or provincial level from 23 to five years.  It also specifies the right of recognized religious organizations to have legal personality.  Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment – including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and property seizure or destruction – and denials or no response to requests for registration and/or other permissions.  For example, six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists were imprisoned in February on charges of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties.”  There continued to be reports of severe harassment of religious adherents by authorities in the Central Highlands, specifically members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, and in the Northwest Highlands for H’mong Christians and Catholics, as well as for Catholic and Protestant groups in Nghe An Province.  Religious group adherents reported local or provincial authorities committed the majority of harassment incidents.  Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were reportedly able to practice their beliefs with less government interference, although some recognized groups reported more difficulty gathering together in certain provinces, including the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) (ECVN) in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Ha Giang, and Hoa Binh Provinces.  Others seeking to officially register their groups, including the United Presbyterian Church and the Vietnam Baptist Convention, also reported increased difficulty gathering in some provinces.  Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities.  The government registered two religious communities, the Vietnam Full Gospel Denomination and the Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church, during the year.  Registration is the second step in the three-step process towards recognition and does not convey legal status.  For the first time since 1998, United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV) leader Thich Quang Do took up residence in a UBCV-affiliated pagoda.  The government also allowed renowned Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh to return to the country.  Hanh resided at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue at year’s end, and adherents reported no difficulties visiting him.  Hanh also received diplomats and senior government leaders.

There were several reports of registered Cao Dai adherents preventing adherents of the unsanctioned Cao Dai from performing certain religious rituals.  There continued to be some incidents of harassment of Catholics by the progovernment Red Flag Association, although the group reportedly dissolved itself in March.

The Ambassador and senior embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely, including the independent UBCV, Protestant and Catholic house churches, and independent and “pure” Hoa Hao and Cao Dai groups.  They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration.  The Ambassador, Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and senior embassy officers advocated for religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Central Highlands.  The Ambassador and officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country.  The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the chairman of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs in Washington, D.C. in July and raised concerns about implementation of the new law, the status of religious believers detained or imprisoned, and the situation of ethnic religious minority groups.  The Ambassador at Large and a senior official from the Bureau of Democracy Human Rights and Labor raised issues of religious freedom during the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue in Washington in May.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On February 9, a court in An Giang Province sentenced six independent Hoa Hao Buddhists – Bui Van Trung, Bui Van Tham, Nguyen Hoang Nam, Le Thi Hong Hanh, Le Thi Hen, and Bui Thi Bich Tuyen – to two to six years in prison on charges of “resisting persons in the performance of their official duties.”  Bui Van Trung was additionally charged with “causing public disorder.”  Le Thi Hen’s sentence was later suspended due to health concerns, and authorities had not yet forced Bui Thi Bich Tuyen to report to prison.  According to the indictment by the People’s Procuracy of An Phu District in November 2017, the defendants “disturbed the public order and impacted the safety and order of the traffic, causing a traffic jam on national route 91C by hindering, obstructing, pushing, and screaming to provoke and denounce transportation police.”  According to Radio Free Asia, the basis of the charges against Trung was that in April 2017 family members and friends attempted to hold an unregistered death anniversary commemoration in Trung’s home prayer hall.

On April 5, a court in Hanoi sentenced independent Hoa Hao follower and religious freedom and human rights activist Nguyen Bac Truyen and Protestant Pastor Nguyen Trung Ton to 11 years and 12 years in prison, respectively, for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the administration.”  Both had been associated with a group called the Brotherhood for Democracy and were tried with several other prominent human rights activists.  Truyen ran the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Friendship Association and, among other activities, advocated for the rights of independent and unregistered Hoa Hao followers.  Ton was a long-time advocate for human rights and religious freedom.  He had been a member of Interfaith Council in Ho Chi Minh City, a group composed predominately of representatives of unregistered religions.

The family members of Ma Seo Sung, a H’mong Protestant man who died in police custody in 2017, were forced by local authorities to leave their homes during the year after repeated harassment, including threats of arrest, from local authorities in Buon Ma Thuot, Dak Lak Province, after they publicized details of Ma Seo Sung’s death, according to individuals close to the family.  The family said commune police arrested Ma Seo Sung in 2017 under suspicion of “searching for a new Christian homeland.”

On April 12, a court in Thai Nguyen Province sentenced four Falun Gong practitioners to a total of nine years’ imprisonment for theft.  According to independent media, local authorities confiscated their assets (including drums, loudspeakers, and drumsticks) when they practiced spiritual exercises in a park.  Subsequently, the four practitioners reportedly came to the authorities’ office and took back their assets without consent.

Many independent and unsanctioned religious leaders who participated in the 2018 Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference in Thailand reported they faced harassment upon their return to Vietnam, including Chang A Do, a local leader and member of the Evangelical Church of Vietnam who was harassed and threatened with arrest in October by Communist Party representatives from the central and local governments, and by police and plainclothes individuals in Doan Ket Village, Dak Ngo Commune, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province, according to a nongovernmental organization (NGO).  Government officials also prevented several from leaving the country to attend the event.

On October 3 and 4, commune and district police in Krong Pac District, Dak Lak Province, convened a public denunciation of Ksor Sun, Pastor Y Nuen Ayun, and Y Jon Ayun, all members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, according to an NGO.  Police accused the individuals of going against the government and the Communist Party of Vietnam.  Police reportedly said these individuals should be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, and if they wanted to remain in the community, they must leave the Church of Christ.

In June staff working for the warden of Gia Trung Prison, Mang Yang District, Gia Lai Province, beat Pastor A Dao of the Evangelical Church of Christ, who advocated for religious freedom for his fellow church members in the Central Highlands, according to an NGO report.

Members of various ethnic minority groups in the Central Highlands collectively known as Montagnards stated government officials continued to assault, monitor, interrogate, arbitrarily arrest, and discriminate against them, in part because of their religious practices.  Officials stated that “Degar” Christians incited violent separatism by ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands from 2001 through 2008.  State-run media published articles cautioning individuals that Degar Protestantism aimed to undertake antigovernment activities.

In some cases, Montagnards stated ongoing social and religious persecution drove them to flee to Cambodia and Thailand, where some sought asylum.  Several such asylum seekers in Thailand reported local-level (communal) Vietnamese authorities continued to harass them remotely, through social media and by harassing, intimidating, and in some cases threatening and physically assaulting family members back home.

In Song Ngoc Catholic parish, Vinh Diocese, Nghe An Province, there were multiple incidents of plainclothes individuals harassing parishioners and priests, assaulting parishioners, and damaging church property and the property of parishioners, according to Catholic representatives and NGOs.

In April plainclothes individuals assaulted parishioners of Dong Kieu parish at Dien My Commune, Nghe An Province, according to Catholic representatives and NGOs.

On December 25, police from Nan San Commune, Si Ma Cai District, Lao Cai Province in the Northwest Highlands, reportedly stopped a Christmas celebration of the H’mong Gospel Missionary Church and assaulted adherent Hang Seo Pao for holding an unsanctioned gathering.  Church members said they had applied to local authorities for permission to hold the gathering but were denied.

Throughout the year, local authorities in Trung Lap Ha Commune, Cu Chi District, Ho Chi Minh City, told members of the UBCV Lien Tri home pagoda to stop praying and to remove all banners and UBCV Buddhist flags.  The authorities said persons attending the ceremony could continue to gather but could not give offerings, pray, or administer rituals, as their location was unregistered.  According to one adherent, in August and September plainclothes police surveilled the pagoda and prevented monks from leaving.

A senior pastor of an unregistered Protestant church reported that local authorities did not allow his organization to organize summer camps for children in the Central Highlands and Northern Highlands and asked some members not to worship in Quang Ngai, Ninh Thuan, Dak Lak, and Dak Nong Provinces.

Members of the military were not permitted to read the Bible or practice religious rites at any time while on active duty; they had to take personal leave to conduct such activities, religious freedom experts reported.  The Association for the Protection of Freedom of Religion reportedly sent a petition to the government in 2015 requesting soldiers be allowed to attend church while on duty; however, the association still had yet to receive a response.  There were no clear regulations for religious expression in the military, with individual unit commanders having significant discretion, experts reported.

Authorities continued to deny some prisoners and detainees the right to religious practice.  Officers at the Nam Ha detention facility, Phu Ly District, Ha Nam Province, continued to refuse to allow a priest to visit Catholic prisoner Ho Duc Hoa, according to Hoa’s family.  Prison authorities stated this was due to the lack of appropriate facilities inside the prison for the priest to perform services.  Other prisoners continued to report they were allowed to read the Bible or other religious materials and practice their beliefs while incarcerated.  According to an NGO, independent Hoa Hao adherent Bui Van Trung was able to have a censored version of the Hoa Hao scripture in prison.

Registered Protestant, Buddhist, and Cao Dai leaders reportedly did not face the same difficulties as independent or unregistered Protestant, Buddhist, and Cao Dai leaders.  Media carried reports of registered religious groups celebrating festivals without impediment.

On December 18, Joseph Vu Van Thien was installed as the new Archbishop of Hanoi at a ceremony attended by Catholic leaders from Vietnam and the Vatican and by members of the diplomatic corps.  The prime minister also received a high-level Vatican delegation on December 18.

On September 24, local and central authorities permitted a Cao Dai festival commemorating the Holy Goddess Mother to be held at the Cao Dai Holy See.  The festival drew the participation of hundreds of thousands of adherents and pilgrims, including foreign religious representatives, foreign diplomats, and international academia.  Senior officials of Tay Ninh Province and the CRA also attended the festival.

The government stated it continued to monitor the activities of certain religious groups because of their political activism and invoked national security and solidarity provisions in the constitution and penal code to override laws and regulations providing for religious freedom.  For example, the government impeded some religious gatherings and blocked attempts by religious groups to proselytize certain ethnic groups in border regions deemed sensitive, including the Central Highlands, Northwest Highlands, and certain Mekong Delta provinces.

Government treatment of foreigners seeking to worship or proselytize varied in practice from locality to locality.  Foreigners were generally able to meet and conduct services.  Municipal officials allowed multiple foreign religious congregations to meet.  Some foreign religious congregations said they could conduct charitable activities with tacit, but not official, permission.

State-run media and progovernment websites sometimes equated particular Christian denominations and other religious groups with separatist movements, blaming them for political, economic, and social problems, particularly in remote areas in the Northwest and Central Highlands where there was a high concentration of ethnic minorities.  Progovernment websites repeatedly accused these groups of being “cover” for or “tools” of “hostile forces to act against the state,” “disrupt the great solidarity” or “destroy the [Vietnamese] culture” and warned the public not to be “fooled.”  Many progovernment websites and blogs criticized various religious groups and believers who were critical of the authorities or engaged in any activities that the authorities deemed sensitive, including protests against China, the cybersecurity law, land confiscation, or various social and economic issues.  Groups attracting the most vociferous criticism on these sites included priests and Catholics in the central part of the country, particularly in Nghe An Province, Falun Gong practitioners, and Protestants in the Central Highlands.

Catholic priests in the central part of the country continued to help organize a series of demonstrations calling for stronger environmental protection.  Many Catholic churches in these provinces held demonstrations in June to protest draft laws on special administrative economic zones and a new restrictive cybersecurity law.  Priests continued to assist parishioners in filing complaints and lawsuits against the government for financial compensation for losses suffered in the aftermath of a 2016 industrial disaster in the region.  State-run media and progovernment blogs continued to publish material defaming priests who assisted activists and victims of the 2016 Formosa incident in which a steel mill discharged toxic waste into the sea, leading to a massive fish kill in the central part of the country.  Priests who helped victims were reportedly pressured by authorities to leave their parishes.  In February the Bishop of Vinh Diocese transferred Father Dang Huu Nam, who had served in Phu Yen Parish near the steel mill for three years.  State-run media quoted the bishop as saying he was not pressured to make this decision.

Progovernment blogs published multiple articles criticizing Catholic priests and parishioners who were vocal in their opposition to the government on a variety of issues, including a cybersecurity law that human rights groups and others said could lead to violations of freedom of expression and other human rights, accusing them of receiving money from and “colluding with hostile forces with the purpose of inciting public disorder and acting against the Communist Party and State.”

In August police and local authorities in Hue surrounded the local UBCV temple and reportedly harassed, intimidated, and intercepted members of the Buddhist Youth Movement as they organized the movement’s annual summer camp.

Multiple Buddhist clergy of the recognized Vietnam Buddhist Sangha who supported land rights activists or were outspoken about suspected corruption within the organization reported local authorities continued to harass them and members of their pagodas, including in Bac Giang Province and in Hanoi.  They said harassment included intimidation of monks and nuns, expulsion by force of clergy from their buildings, suspected plainclothes police breaking into religious buildings, the destruction of pagoda property, and theft of cash donations from villagers.  Central government authorities agreed to allow at least one of these individuals, a Sangha nun, to return to her pagoda if she ceased petitioning the government.

In November UBCV Supreme Patriarch Thich Quang Do stated he left the government-sanctioned Thanh Minh Monastery in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City, of his own accord to travel to his home province to bless a pagoda for his family.  Do subsequently returned to Ho Chi Minh City and took up residence in the UBCV-affiliated Tu Hieu Pagoda, the first time he had been able to live in a UBCV pagoda since 1998.  Earlier reports, primarily on social media, said Do’s superior monk, Thich Thanh Minh, had been pressured by authorities and asked Do to leave because his presence caused political and economic problems for the monastery.

Other UBCV leaders stated the government continued to monitor their activities and restrict their movements, although they were able to meet with some foreign diplomats, visit other UBCV members, and maintain contact with associates overseas.  General Secretary Le Cong Cau of the UBCV reported local police closely watched him and prevented him from traveling outside Hue.

Throughout the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported harassment by authorities in numerous provinces and cities, including Cao Bang, Lang Son, Son La, Nghe An, Hue, Lam Dong, Dong Thap, Ca Mau, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Quang Ngai, Hue, and Hanoi.  Harassment included local authorities asking them to leave the parks where practitioners had gathered and other public spaces, where individuals were blaring loud music and throwing items such as fermented fish sauce on practitioners.

State media reported authorities at different levels in the Northwest Highlands, including Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, Bac Can, and Thai Nguyen Provinces, continued to state the Duong Van Minh religious group was a threat to national security, political stability, and social order.  Authorities said eliminating membership in the group was a priority.  During the year, authorities in Cao Bang, Tuyen Quang, and Bac Can collectively reportedly destroyed 38 structures used to store funerary objects used by the Duong Van Minh group and burned the funerary objects inside.  Authorities in these provinces and Thai Nguyen also reportedly encouraged schoolchildren not to follow the Duong Van Minh religion.

Throughout the year, there were numerous reports of harassment of H’mong Protestants in the Northwest and Central Highlands.  Local officials in several provinces in the Central Highlands, including Doan Ket Village, Dak Ngo Commune, Tuy Duc District, Dak Nong Province, denied household registration, which is necessary for all Vietnamese citizens, to approximately 700 H’mong Christian individuals who had migrated there in recent years, according to an NGO and H’mong Protestant sources.  As a result, many of their children were unable to go to school.

Some registered and unregistered Protestant groups continued to report local authorities, particularly in the Central Highlands, pressured newer congregations to affiliate with older, well-established congregations.  Pastors said this practice was widespread in ethnic minority villages in Gia Lai and Kon Tum Provinces.  Authorities reportedly also pressured smaller Southern Evangelical Church of Vietnam (SECV) congregations, some with as many as 100 followers, to combine into larger groups of up to 1,500 in order to be registered.  Church leaders again stated such requests were unreasonable, saying many of the congregations were composed of a variety of ethnic minority groups with different languages and incongruent worship practices.  Mountainous terrain and lack of infrastructure in the rural highlands prevented other SECV churches from sustaining the required minimum number of followers necessary to qualify for local registration.

Religious leaders expressed mixed views on the new Law on Belief and Religion.  Some religious groups and experts continued to state the new law was a step forward in certain areas for religious freedom, including the reduced registration/recognition time and granting legal personality to religious groups.  Some religious groups and experts expressed concern that a more precise legal approach and registration process could make the operations of religious groups – including registration of meeting points and clergy, expansion, and proselytization – more difficult.  Religious leaders and experts continued to emphasize that the two implementing decrees, one still in draft form, and actual implementation of the law, particularly at the local level, would be critical, and expressed frustration at the uneven implementation to date.

The government organized multiple conferences and training sessions on the new law throughout the year at the local, provincial, and national levels, including a public presentation in May for Hanoi-based diplomats and government implementers.  Religious leaders in remote areas of An Giang Province stated they had received training on the new law and that it had been translated into local languages.  Religious leaders continued to note existing laws and regulations on education, health, publishing, and construction were restrictive toward religious groups and would need to be revised to allow religious groups greater freedom to conduct such activities in practice.

Religious leaders and academics said the new law continued to enshrine in the country’s legal framework significant restrictions and bureaucratic controls over religious activity.  Many religious leaders expressed concern the law continued to give significant discretion to the government regarding approving or denying various types of applications.  Some observers continued to say the new law was not in place to protect religious freedom but rather to serve and cater to the rules of the Communist Party.  Groups also stated the law should allow religious organizations to conduct activities without the need for government approvals.

Registered and unregistered religious groups continued to state government agencies sometimes did not respond to registration applications or approval requests for religious activities within the stipulated time period, if at all, and often did not specify reasons for refusals.  Some groups reported they successfully appealed local decisions to higher-level authorities through informal channels.  Several religious leaders reported authorities sometimes asked for bribes to facilitate approvals.  Authorities attributed the delays and denials to the failure of applicants to complete forms correctly or provide complete information.  Religious groups said the process to register groups or notify activities in new locations was particularly difficult.

Churches affiliated with the ECVN had difficulty registering with local authorities in Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, and Hoa Binh Provinces.  The ECVN stated that more than 1,000 affiliates and a total of 500 of its meeting points were recognized, although there were many more it wished to register.  Church leaders said that local authorities permitted individuals to gather without incident at unregistered meeting points in numerous provinces.  Numbers were not available for the south.

Local authorities continued to cite general security concerns, such as political destabilization or potential conflict between followers of established ethnic or traditional religious beliefs and newly introduced Christian beliefs, as reasons to deny approval.

According to many Catholic bishops, parishes in remote areas or with majority ethnic minority populations continued to face difficulty registering with provincial authorities, uneven and inconsistent enforcement of national laws, and a lack of accountability on the part of provincial authorities.  Catholic leaders again stated the most problematic regions were in the Central Highlands (Gia Lai, Dak Lak, Dak Nong, Kon Tum, and Lam Dong Provinces), and the Northwest Highlands, including Hoa Binh, Son La, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Lao Cai, and Yen Bai.

Hoa Binh authorities continued to deny Luong Son parish’s application to become a parish-affiliate of Hoa Binh Diocese and did not respond to a similar request from Vu Ban parish, Catholic representatives reported.  Authorities said the Long Son application was not complete and Vu Ban was a new parish, which the Church continued to dispute, according to Catholic authorities.

Some Buddhist, Protestant, and Cao Dai groups chose not to affiliate with any government-recognized or government-registered religious organizations, nor did they seek their own registration or recognition.  Unregistered Buddhist, Cao Dai, and Christian religious groups, including members of the Interfaith Council, continued to regularly report some provincial authorities used local registration laws as a pretext to pressure, intimidate, threaten, extort, harass, and assault them, and discouraged their members’ participation in the groups.

On November 9, plainclothes police in Lam Dong reportedly set fire to a storage room at the coffee plantation of Hua Phi, an unregistered Cao Dai master, the day after he met with foreign diplomats in Ho Chi Minh City.  The storage room was completely destroyed, but no casualties were reported.

On September 11, the CRA granted a “certificate of registration for religious activities” to Vietnam Full Gospel Denomination at a ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City.  On December 14, the CRA granted a “certificate of registration for religious activities” to the Vietnam United Gospel Outreach Church, also in Ho Chi Minh City.

The ECVN and the unregistered Vietnam Baptist Convention both reported increased difficulty gathering in well-established meeting points during the year, including in Bac Giang and Thanh Hoa Provinces.  In their rejections of applications and disruptions of religious services, local authorities noted that they viewed prior gatherings as illegal and explained the meeting points had not fulfilled requirements for organizing and conducting religious gatherings.  For example, they had “no legal representatives who coordinate with the authorities in exercising the state management of religious activities in line with the law” or failed “to meet order and safety requirements.”

Throughout the year, independent Hoa Hao followers and activists reported local authorities, police, and suspected plainclothes police in several provinces, including An Giang, Vinh Long, and Dong Thap, and in Can Tho City established checkpoints to monitor and prevent them from travelling to the unregistered Quang Minh Pagoda, to participate in a major religious commemoration.  Local authorities reportedly said the government would not allow Hoa Hao followers to commemorate anniversaries related to the life of Prophet Huynh Phu So.

On April 18, public security officials in Ko M’Leo Hamlet, Hoa Thang Commune, Buon Ma Thuot City, Dak Lak Province, came to a house church of the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ, interrogated adherents about their religious activities, and told them not to worship in a group or teach the Bible because the church was not registered, according to an NGO.  On April 27, public security officials in Ea Yong A Hamlet, Ea Yong Commune, Krong Pac District, Dak Lak Province, reportedly “invited” a churchgoer to the ward official’s office for interrogation on his religious activities and the unregistered Evangelical Church of Christ.  The officials forbade him to worship at home, attend services of the Evangelical Church of Christ, or attend other unregistered Protestant churches.  During May and June public security officials in Tot Bioch Village, Chu Se Town, Gia Lai Province, and in Buon Ho Town, Dak Lak Province, monitored suspected evangelical Christians, interrogated them about their religious activities, and told them to recant their faith, according to an NGO.

Leaders and members of unregistered congregations reported police harassment, such as being detained for questioning, undergoing increased surveillance, and having their cell phones and Bibles confiscated.  There were reports of severe harassment in Dak Lak, Kon Tum, Gia Lai, Binh Phuoc, Tra Vinh, and Phu Yen Provinces, among others.

In Muong Khuong District, Lao Cai Province, local authorities continued to prevent Catholic priests from conducting services in certain areas.  A priest stated that authorities targeted him and his parishioners on July 31 after they visited parishioners in Cao Son and La Pan Tan Village at unregistered meeting points.  Before the visit, the priest said he filed a registration request with the local authorities but received no response.

Although the law prohibits publishing of all materials, including religious materials, without government approval, in practice some private, unlicensed publishing houses continued to unofficially print and distribute religious texts without active government interference.  Other licensed publishers printed books on religion.  Publishers had permission to print the Bible in Vietnamese and a number of other languages, including Chinese, Ede, Jarai, Banar, M’nong, H’mong, C’ho, and English.  Other published texts included, but were not limited to, works pertaining to ancestor worship, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Cao Dai.

On March 2, authorities permitted a showing of the film “Walk With Me,” a documentary on the doctrine of Zen Buddhism master Thich Nhat Hanh.  The film was reportedly shown in more than 60 theaters throughout the country.

Some Protestant church leaders, Montagnards, and followers of Duong Van Minh stated that local authorities seized their land or property partly due to their religious beliefs or that they received less compensation for seized land than others not affiliated with these groups.  Provincial authorities routinely dispersed religious gatherings and directed officials to organize public renunciations of Degar Christianity or other “unauthorized Christian beliefs” among ethnic minority communities.

In July 2017, the Thua-Thien Hue Provincial People’s Committee met representatives of the Thien An Monastery and Catholic Archdiocese of Hue to try to resolve a nearly 20-year-old land dispute related to the Thien An Monastery.  At the end of the year, the dispute remained unresolved; both sides stated they welcomed the opportunity for dialogue.

During the year, Venerable Thich Khong Tanh and monks from the Lien Tri Pagoda, which district authorities in Ho Chi Minh City demolished in 2016, were still living at dispersed locations throughout the city.  Tanh reported local authorities refused to offer any site to rebuild the pagoda other than the one previously offered in the Cat Lai area of Ho Chi Minh City, which Tanh said he found inappropriate.

On November 9 in Da Nang City, Son Tra District authorities in Da Nang City demolished the unregistered An Cu house pagoda, affiliated with the UBCV, after three years of land-use negotiations failed.

Relocation discussions between authorities and leaders of the Dong Men Thanh Gia (Lovers of the Holy Cross) Thu Thiem Catholic Convent and Thu Thiem Catholic Church continued at year’s end.

On September 19, the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Natural Resources and Environment announced the city had granted land-use certificates to more than 800 religious entities consisting of a total area of more than 200 hectares (500 acres).  The city reportedly aimed to issue land-use certificates to all local religious groups by the end of 2019.  Local authorities granted the Kon Tum Archdiocese a land-use certificate during the year.

The government continued to restrict the number of students permitted to enroll in Catholic and Protestant seminaries.  The churches’ leadership said the numbers allowed were inadequate to meet demand.  ECVN leaders said 23 students graduated from their Bible school in the last five years.  The government continued to permit them to recruit new students every two years.

On December 17 in Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnam Seventh-day Adventist Church organized the opening ceremony of its first domestic Christian Bible College.

Authorities permitted Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Baha’i, and Buddhist groups to provide religious education to adherents in their own facilities, and religious leaders noted increased enrollment in recent years.  Students continued to participate in training sessions on fundamental Buddhist philosophy organized at pagodas nationwide during summer holidays.

Some religious leaders faced travel restrictions, and leaders and followers of certain religious groups faced restrictions on movement by government authorities.  On May 14, border guards in Bo Y Border Gate, Kon Tum Province, prohibited Catholic Redemptorist Father Dinh Huu Thoai from exiting the country without providing justification for his travel.

In January, February, and May, independent Cao Dai follower Hua Phi reported local authorities did not allow him to leave Lam Dong Province for travel to Ho Chi Minh City for medical treatment.  He said he was allowed to seek treatment later in the year.

During the year, authorities lifted travel restrictions on certain religious leaders.  Authorities again permitted Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to visit Danang and Hue, his second annual visit after a decade outside the country.  Hanh resided at Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue at year’s end, and adherents reported no difficulties visiting him.

Protestant and Catholic groups continued to report that legal restrictions and lack of legal clarity on operating faith-based medical and educational facilities made them wary of attempting to open hospitals or parochial schools, despite government statements welcoming religious groups to expand participation in health, education, and charitable activities.  Catholic representatives said the government refused to return hospitals, clinics, and schools seized from the Catholic Church in past decades, although Catholic leaders noted modest progress with local authorities in land disputes around the country.  The majority of educational facilities owned and run by religious groups continued to be kindergartens and preschools.

In several cases, local authorities permitted religious organizations to operate social services and to gather for training.  For example, in Hanoi and surrounding areas, city officials continued to allow Protestant house churches to operate drug rehabilitation centers, and a church affiliated with the Full Gospel Church in Quoc Oai, a district of Hanoi, noted progress in dealing with local authorities and expanding drug treatment operations following authorities’ acceptance of the Full Gospel Church’s Registration of Religious Operation.  The registration had eased the affiliated church’s operations in areas outside Quoc Oai as well, according to the church leader.

Most representatives of religious groups continued to report adherence to a registered religious group generally did not seriously disadvantage individuals in nongovernmental civil, economic, and secular life, but that adherence to an unregistered group was more disadvantageous.  Practitioners of various registered religions served in local and provincial government positions and were represented in the National Assembly.  Many nationally recognized religious organizations, such as the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, as well as other clergy and religious followers, were members of the Vietnam Fatherland Front, an umbrella group for government-affiliated organizations under the guidance of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).  High-ranking government officials sent greetings and visited churches during Christmas and Easter and attended Vesak activities commemorating the birth of the Buddha.  The official resumes of the top three CPV leaders stated they followed no religion.

While Catholics and Protestants could serve in the enlisted ranks (including during temporary mandatory military service), commissioned officers were not permitted to be religious believers.  Religious adherents continued to be customarily excluded through the military recruitment process.

Yemen

Executive Summary

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 II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

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.

Zambia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the country a Christian nation; the constitution also prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, belief, and religion.  Prominent religious groups continued to state the government should not be involved in religious affairs, such as organizing national prayer days.  On October 18, the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs (MNGRA) coordinated the fourth National Day of Prayer and Fasting.  Various religious groups raised concerns over the government-managed event, stating it blurred the line between church and state.  The government continued to introduce administrative measures to regulate religious affairs that religious groups said were excessively bureaucratic.  New procedures included a requirement that clergy practicing in the country must have attended a “recognized and reputable” theology school, but the government provided no specific definition or list of acceptable schools.  Religious groups must also belong to a larger religious grouping, locally known as a “mother body.”  To accommodate this requirement, the MNGRA sought to recognize additional church mother bodies to encompass the variety of Christian and other religious groups. Some religious groups remained opposed to the process, as they felt that government was forcing them to align their faith to a particular mother body.  Religious leaders stated the clearance procedures for foreign visitors coming to conduct religious activities remained arduous.  They also criticized public statements by government officials that they said were detrimental to promoting religious tolerance.  For example, in September Minister of National Guidance and Religious Affairs Godfridah Sumaili told the media that inviting Hindus and Muslims to join in the MNGRA-hosted National Day of Prayer event would cause “confusion.”

Incidents of mob attacks and killings of individuals suspected of practicing witchcraft continued throughout the country.  Victims were often elderly persons reportedly associated with witchcraft.  For example, in August a 59-year-old man from Copperbelt Province’s Masaiti District was killed by a mob on suspicion of practicing witchcraft.  Leaders of religious organizations continued to hold regular meetings to promote mutual understanding of and joint advocacy on religious issues.  Among these were joint approaches in favor of restricting government involvement in oversight of worship and religious practice.

U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, met with government officials to discuss topics related to religious freedom such as enforcement of registration laws and the regulation of new and existing religious groups.  Embassy representatives also met with religious leaders to discuss issues of religious freedom, interfaith relations, and the role of religious groups in the national dialogue process designed to reduce tensions following the disputed results of the 2016 general election.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Catholic and Protestant church mother bodies, along with leaders of numerous minority religious groups, continued to oppose the existence of the MNGRA and what they said was its unclear mandate, stating it was not the role of politicians to guide religious groups.  There were no new legislative actions during the year that specified the ministry’s role and responsibilities.

According to religious groups, administrative regulations and requirements continued to impede the process of obtaining a permit to hold a religious gathering.  These requirements included obtaining a recommendation letter from the mother body and clearance from the MNGRA and Ministry of Home Affairs.

Minority religious groups with no representative mother body stated they continued to have difficulty complying with regulations instituted by the MNGRA requiring all religious groups to associate with a mother body.  While minority groups generally welcomed the idea of having their own umbrella groups, some said they felt pressured to identify themselves with larger groups whose faith may not align well with theirs.  The ministry held consultative meetings with a range of Christian and other minority religious groups on this issue during the year.

Other subjects discussed in the ministry’s consultations with religious groups included the commemoration of the constitutional amendment establishing Zambia as a Christian nation, the National Day of Prayer, the ministry’s strategic plan, and legislation to support ministry policies such as the self-regulatory framework.

For any foreign clergy entering the country, religious groups needed to provide proof of legal registration as a religious group, a recommendation letter from their aligned umbrella body, and clearance from clergy in the country of origin.  This documentation was presented to the Ministry of Home Affairs, Immigration Department, and the MNGRA.  Religious leaders stated the clearance procedures remained laborious and bureaucratic and posed a challenge to some activities of the religious groups.

Religious leaders reported feeling pressure to minimize commentary on political topics or face discrimination from politicians with different views.  Religious groups said some clergy members practiced self-censorship of comments on governance issues.  According to religious leaders, clergy members who expressed dissenting views on governance or human rights faced the possibility of being labeled as “aligned” with the political opposition.

On October 18, the government sponsored and organized the fourth National Day of Prayer and Fasting under the theme “Facing the Future as a Reconciled, United, and Prosperous Nation under God’s Guidance.”  Some churches and political opposition leaders did not take part in the event, which they stated was politically driven by the ruling party.  The day was declared a national holiday, and businesses were encouraged to allow employees to attend prayer events.  During the event, authorities banned liquor sales until 6 p.m.; sales are normally legal at 10 a.m.  Some institutions, including government ministries, conducted roll calls of their employees at government-sponsored events, a practice criticized by opposition political parties and some civil servants.

Prominent religious groups continued to state the government should not be involved in religious affairs, such as organizing the national prayer days and building a proposed Interdenominational House of Prayer, which remained incomplete.  The Council of Churches in Zambia, Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, and other religious groups continued to state that building an Interdenominational House of Prayer should not be government driven.

In early November three key church mother bodies – the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops, Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia, and Council of Churches in Zambia – agreed to chair a national dialogue process, co-organized by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue (ZCID); the churches became involved due to their standing in society and the perception that they were nonpartisan actors.  Sources stated that the process sought to reduce tensions that simmered since the contested 2016 elections and to prepare the country for peaceful national elections in 2021.  Negotiations between the church mother bodies and ZCID on the structure and content of the dialogue process were ongoing at year’s end.

Some minority religious groups said that public statements by government officials during the year were detrimental to the promotion of religious tolerance.  In September Minister of National Guidance and Religious Affairs Godfridah Sumaili declared that inviting Hindus and Muslims to join the MNGRA-hosted National Day of Prayer event would cause “confusion,” adding, “It’s an arrangement that we want to worship God in the way that we are accustomed to.”  A Muslim group reported a significant decline in the number of non-Muslim participants in events commemorating Islamic holidays during the year, which they attributed to statements such as that made by Sumaili and other government leaders.

Religious groups noted groups – mainly “cadres” (groups of political supporters, often paid by a political party) – encroached on church-owned land.  For instance, a religious group said that in February political supporters of the ruling party trespassed on church-owned land in Chongwe District in an attempt to take ownership.  According to the religious group reporting the incident, the cadres accused the group of practicing “Satanism” and incited the community to support the land encroachment.  Law enforcement officials were investigating the matter at year’s end.

Zimbabwe

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to practice, propagate, and give expression to one’s religion, in public or in private and alone or with others.  Religious and civil society groups reported the government occasionally monitored public events, prayer rallies, church congregations, and religiously affiliated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) perceived to be critical of the government.  Christian aid organizations and local NGOs focused on memorializing victims of the 1980s Gukurahundi mass killings said security officials monitored their activities with increased frequency in the lead-up to the July general elections.  In June Pastor Evan Mawarire of His Generation Church filed a $65,000 lawsuit against the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) for unlawful arrest and detention at the height of his 2017 antigovernment protests.  In May a magistrate acquitted Pastor Patrick Mugadza of insulting persons of a certain race or religion after an October 2017 Constitutional Court ruling stated Mugadza “insulted the Christian religion.”  In April the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe banned all radio and state-run television stations from programs advertising prophets and traditional healing.  Multiple church organizations released letters appealing for tolerance, national unity, peace, reconciliation, healing, and stability while calling on the government to uphold the constitution and protect citizens’ political rights prior to and following the July elections.

As in previous years, some groups criticized Christian groups with indigenous beliefs, particularly the apostolic community, for encouraging child marriage and prohibiting immunizations.

The embassy raised freedom of speech and human rights with government officials.  Embassy representatives met with religious leaders and faith-based organizations to discuss the role of faith communities in mitigating violence in advance of and promoting peace and unity following the July election.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Civil society organizations reported the government used security laws to monitor public events and prayer rallies of religious groups, but there were no reports of specific incidents or disruptions.  In June Pastor Evan Mawarire of His Generation Church filed a $65,000 lawsuit against the ZRP for unlawful arrest and detention at the height of his 2017 antigovernment protests.  In 2017, ZRP officers arrested Mawarire during a prayer meeting he led with University of Zimbabwe students; however, in September 2017, a magistrate judge acquitted him of charges of intending to promote public violence and disorderly conduct.

In May a magistrate judge acquitted Pastor Patrick Mugadza of insulting persons of a certain race or religion, finding the state failed to prove the case against him beyond a reasonable doubt.  In January 2017, police arrested Mugadza, the leader of the Remnant Pentecostal Church, after he prophesized that then-President Mugabe would die in October of that year.  In October 2017, the Constitutional Court dismissed Mugadza’s application to stop his prosecution for making the prophecy, stating Mugadza “insulted the Christian religion.”

Christian aid organizations and local NGOs focused on memorializing victims of the 1980s Gukurahundi mass killings of mainly Ndebele civilians said security officials monitored their activities with increased frequency in the lead-up to the July general elections, particularly in areas considered strongholds of the political opposition.

In August NGO Ibhetshu LikaZulu Secretary General Mbolu Fuzwayo reported receiving anonymous threatening telephone calls for publicly condemning the government forces’ 1980s Gukurahundi mass killings.  Ibhetshu LikaZulu is an NGO advocacy and protection group in Matabeleland South that organizes memorial and prayer services to commemorate the victims.  Security forces did not interfere with Ibhetshu LikaZulu activities.

Religious activities and events remained free from POSA restrictions, but the government continued to categorize as political some public gatherings, including religious gatherings such as prayer vigils and memorial services, perceived to be critical of the ruling party.  Multiple church organizations, including the Churches Convergence on Peace, Zimbabwe Council of Churches, and Catholic Bishops’ Conference, released letters appealing for tolerance, national unity, peace, reconciliation, healing, and stability while calling on the government to uphold the constitution and protect citizens’ political rights prior to and following the July elections.

Most official state and school gatherings and functions included nondenominational Christian prayers, as did political party gatherings.  In courts and when government officials entered office, individuals often swore on the Bible.

In January media reported the government was considering revising the national pledge to make it applicable to every citizen, rather than limiting it to schools.  The pledge begins with “Almighty God in whose hands our future lies, I salute the national flag, I commit to honesty and dignity of hard work.”  Some educators objected to the pledge, saying it was actually a prayer, and some Christian groups objected saying they feared the government intended to replace the Lord’s Prayer in schools with the national pledge.

In April the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe banned all radio and state-run television stations from programs advertising prophets and traditional healing.  Authorities said the ban was a response to increases in fraud, such as Pastor Tito Watts, whom authorities arrested for selling tickets to heaven.  Government officials stated the constitution protected freedom of worship, but the regulatory authority retained the right to protect believers from abuse.  Media reports stated some church leaders welcomed the ban because false prophets sometimes use their status to rape or defraud congregants.

Churches reported working with Zimbabwe Prison and Correctional Services to help improve living conditions in prison facilities.

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