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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. The government again sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. According to the Shia community, they saw no increase in ANDSF forces despite the plans; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Hindu and Sikh community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus, compared with 500-600 in 2018, fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries because of security threats and a perceived lack of government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts again did not grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.

ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 20 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 22 attacks in 2018 – causing 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured), compared with 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured) in 2018. All were attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including shooting or hanging any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. In August ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall in a predominately Shia neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons and wounding 143 others. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several deadly attacks on religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. On June 28 in Samangan Province, the Taliban detonated a remote-controlled IED inside a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers, wounding 14 civilians. On October 18, at least 62 civilians were killed and another 58 wounded, including children, following the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Deh Bala District of Nangarhar Province during Friday prayers. No organization claimed responsibility for the attack. According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reticent to reveal their identities to anyone. One Christian citizen described being disowned by his family after they learned he had converted to Christianity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were teased and harassed in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship privately, sometimes in nondescript places of worship, to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the community continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested police support, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. In August police arrested one protester. A special committee, promised by the Ulema Council in 2018 to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam, had not been established by year’s end.

U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of what religious freedom is and why it is important, as well on the need for acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. On August 27, a senior embassy official raised preparations for 10th of Muharram with Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, including minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days, and the Ambassador used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 120 Sikh and Hindu families totaling approximately 550 individuals, down from 700 in 2018 and 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are 35 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to Article 2 of the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

The penal code outlines provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. According to the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts of the Supreme Court, there were no cases filed during the year. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years. Article 817 of the penal code states, “A person who insults Islam using a computer system, program, or data, shall be imprisoned.”

Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$770). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.

While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood are punished according to Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females regarding marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts and subject to the same punishment.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime, according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels.

Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.

A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education (MOE) registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the MOE.

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion, as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the president and two vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office. No occasion to determine if this applies to non-Muslims has arisen since the constitution was adopted in 2004.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismaili Muslims.

MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. MOHRA has an office dedicated to assisting the faith practices of religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said promised government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, symbolic measures and the government had not implemented them. Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura. On August 27, Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi confirmed preparations were in place that involved integrating all the security forces. The minister stated he understood that ISIS-K posed a particular threat to the Shia community. According to the Shia community, the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Media reported the government arrested a group of three ISIS-K leaders just two days before the Shia community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. Although National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces told the press these arrests thwarted attacks during Ashura, they provided no evidence these leaders were plotting to target the Shia community, and ISIS-K did not claim it had planned attacks. For the second year in a row, there were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

As in the previous five years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.

The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages. The government set aside a number of Hajj slots for residents of each province, with the higher-population provinces receiving more slots, and with no sect-based discrimination in the distribution of slots. The government charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims continued to report they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country. MOHRA continued to estimate that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($150) from the government. Mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons, or khatibs, were paid a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($180) by MOHRA. MOHRA again estimated 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead by individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations. Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.

According to MOHRA, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were up to hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs, and because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to the ministry, there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. The government registered additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates.

Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks targeting Shia Muslims. On June 30, two Kabul University sharia law faculty members were arrested by the NDS for promoting Salafist religious ideology and actively recruiting university students for ISIS-K.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of unregistered madrassas available.

Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment, they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Sikhs and Hindus again reported their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish; High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili; Minister of Transportation Mohammad Hamid Tahmasi; Minister of Telecommunication Mohammad Fahim Hashimi; and Minister of Refugees and Returnees Hussain Alemi Balkhi. Shia leaders, however, continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and predominance in the country’s Shia population. Observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity.

A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, one as a presidential advisor, and one as a member of the Ministry of Transportation.

Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. Government officials said the ONSC approved, and the president signed, an interministerial strategy in mid-September; however, it was not widely publicized due to “sensitivities surrounding the issue.” According to the ONSC, it continued to work on an action plan for implementation of the policy, which was expected to be finalized before the end of the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the continued emigration of Sikh and Hindu residents.

According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Reportedly, the number of Christian missionaries in the country was estimated at 60, with 30 to 40 based in the capital.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable without what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.

Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Although Ahmadis had maintained an unmarked place of worship in past years, during the year the Ahmadis said they decided not to use it after neighbors informed police of its location. Ahmadis continued to report the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there were a peace deal with the Taliban.

Christian representatives again reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in previous years. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said the list of seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Kandahar, and Paktiya Provinces they submitted to MOHRA in 2016 remained unresolved at year’s end.

Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools were underequipped to teach students.

Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries, in addition to 500-600 who fled in 2018. Some Sikhs and Hindus reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam; in response, many noted that their communities’ residence in the country predated Islam.

Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. According to media, the Provincial Shia Ulema Council in Bamyan condemned the Bamyan Music Festival, and Shia religious leaders tried without success to stop it because the provincial governor and civil society supported the event. The Ulema also issued several statements against television programs, such as Afghan Music Star and Indian and Turkish series. In Herat, religious leaders threatened Tolo TV for recording the Afghan Music Star program in Herat, which caused the show to lower its public profile during filming.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Muslim cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.

Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.

NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with members of the president’s staff, ONSC, MOHRA, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, including informing the government of the conclusions of the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and the U.S. government’s recognition of August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities to understand their relationship with the government and their ability to practice their faith. The U.S. Secretary of State hosted two Afghans at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington on July 16-18, including one Shia victim of religious persecution whose brother, fiance, and future brother-in-law were killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing targeting a Shia shrine.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could encourage intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism and enhancing its relevance to promoting respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials as well as the visiting Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. On January 16, a senior embassy official hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion at the embassy to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. During the roundtable, the government representatives recognized the right of certain communities, including Sikhs and Hindus, to practice their faith short of proselytizing. The embassy reaffirmed U.S. government commitment to promoting religious freedom.

The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including MOHRA representatives, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent extremism related to religion and promote tolerance. On March 14, the embassy conducted a virtual discussion via the Lincoln Learning Centers with sharia law faculty at seven universities across the country on interpretation of Islam promoting tolerance in the negotiation and its importance for implementing a lasting peace agreement. The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent extremism related to religion, which included policies to foster intrafaith tolerance.

The embassy highlighted National Religious Freedom Day on July 16 and International Religious Freedom Day on October 27 through Twitter and Facebook posts. The Ambassador condemned the attacks on a mosque in Nangarhar Province and in front of a children’s madrassa in Laghman Province on October 18 and 16, respectively, through Twitter. On September 12, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

Albania

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has distinct agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, regarding recognition as one of the country’s main faith communities, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The VUSH reported, despite the State Committee on Religion’s written commitments to advocate for financial support from the government for evangelical Christian churches, the government did not allocate funds. Religious communities noted positively the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them and the work of the Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities. The government legalized 135 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, compared with 105 in 2018, and the status of 11 additional properties was under review. The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported that, through February, it rejected 150 claims for title. The law then required the ATP to send the remaining 410 pending cases to the court system. The Albanian Islamic Community (AIC) and the Bektashi community raised concerns about having to start over with their claims in the judicial system. VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi and the AIC reported problems defending title to certain properties. The AIC reported it had not received a permit, requested in early 2018, to build a new campus for Beder University, but Beder’s religious studies program received accreditation for another five years in November. The State Committee on Religion and the AIC reported the government did not recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The Council of Ministers still had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.

During antigovernment protests, religious leaders issued statements condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue. The Interreligious Council held several meetings domestically and internationally. The council signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Albanian Center for the Coordination against Violent Extremism in May to enhance cooperation on preventing violent extremism and monitoring school texts to highlight misleading statements about religion. On March 2, the AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term, a contest that attracted significant commentary from the media regarding the candidates, allegations of foreign influence, and concerns about the process. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, joined the AIC in 2006.

U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious groups buildings and other property confiscated during the communist era. Embassy officers also urged the government to recognize diplomas granted by foreign universities. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi communities, stressing the value of religious dialogue and harmony. Embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth. In August a visiting Department of State official met with faith community leaders, the Commissioner of the State Committee on Religion, and officials from the Ministry of Education to explore the relationship between religious harmony and efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalization.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional census question about religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, recognizes the equality of all religious communities, and articulates the state’s duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between the state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate in or be excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or be prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties and other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.

By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Religion, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.

The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.

The 2016 law that established the ATP imposed a three-year deadline for the agency to address claims by all claimants, including religious groups, for properties confiscated during the communist era. As of February, ATP’s jurisdiction in these cases ceased and the law requires the ATP to forward open cases to the court system for judicial review. Religious communities must take their cases to court for judicial review, as must all other claimants.

The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.

Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits instruction in the tenets of a specific religion, but not the teaching of the history of religion or comparative religions as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 114 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and VUSH communities operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. The AIC runs six madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built after the 1990s. The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that through September it legalized 135 religious buildings, including four Catholic churches, 71 mosques, 12 Orthodox churches, and 48 tekkes. There were some discrepancies between the figures reported by ALUIZNI and those of the religious communities. The AIC reported it obtained legalization papers for 245 legalized mosques out of 850 applications remaining. The Orthodox Church reported that during this year ALUIZNI considered 13 of its requests for objects in Tirana and legalized two of them.

The AIC expressed concern that ALUIZNI only gave it title to the buildings and not to the land. ALUIZNI reported that it compensated the AIC with 231.6 square meters (2,500 square feet) and the Bektashi community with 1,320.7 square meters (14,200 square feet) of new land in exchange for land illegally occupied by unpermitted construction. In addition, ALUIZNI issued titles for religious buildings constructed on government or third-party land. ALUIZNI also issued titles, thereby legalizing ownership, for 1,569.7 square meters (16,900 square feet) of land to the AIC, 1,303 square meters (14,000 square feet) of land to the Bektashi, and 227.7 square meters (2,450 square feet) of land to the Orthodox Church.

The ATP reported that it rejected 150 claims for title to land and compensation through February. The ATP typically rejected claims because material documents were missing from the claimant’s file or due to competing claims for the same property, over which the courts rather than the ATP have jurisdiction. The ATP ceded jurisdiction on the remaining 401 cases to the court system, as required by law. Religious communities brought court actions on 71 of those 401 cases. The AIC, Bektashi, and the Orthodox Church expressed concerns about court proceedings, which required them to begin their claims again in a new forum.

The AIC reported it had applied in early 2018 for a permit to build a campus for Beder University to save funds spent on renting the university’s current facilities, but the government has not issued the permit or explained the delay.

Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, one in Permet, and one in Elbasan, and the government legalized four tekkes and other Bektashi facilities in Elbasan. The Bektashi community reported it continued to have problems with local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, stating the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption. The Bektashi community expressed concerns that ALUIZNI had legalized nonreligious buildings on Bektashi property. The Ministry of Finance, according to the Bektashi community, did not reimburse it for the value-added tax paid for the 2016 construction of a multipurpose center at the World Bektashi Headquarters in Tirana, even though they said the law required the reimbursement. The Orthodox Church also raised concern about paying approximately 25 million leks ($31,000) in value-added tax as well as paying other taxes and fees, and stated those payments violated the agreement with the government.

The Bektashi community stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title to properties in Berdanesh and Ksamil. The community received a favorable ruling on title for the property in Berdanesh, while the claim for the Ksamil property remained in the court system at year’s end.

The VUSH reported it had asked the government in March 2017 for land to build a main church similar to the main cathedrals and mosques of other faith communities but had not received an answer.

The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering the property of one of its churches with the local registration office in Korca. The VUSH also stated the Tirana municipal government unlawfully issued a permit for construction of residential and commercial buildings on VUSH land.

Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a pilot project curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students, which started in 2016 but stalled. They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting and were never informed about the results of the piloting stage or the postpilot plans for the project.

The State Committee on Religion and the AIC expressed concern that the government continued not to recognize diplomas received from foreign institutions in theology and religious studies. The AIC reported the government in November accredited the religious studies program of the AIC’s Beder University, the only university in the country offering degrees in Islamic studies, for another five years.

VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes. The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position.

The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support was 109 million leks ($1.01 million), the same level since at least 2015. The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 29 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 23.6 percent. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.

The VUSH continued to state that, although the organization still was unable to obtain a formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, in 2018 the State Committee on Religion provided a written commitment to advocate for extending financial support to evangelical Christian churches. Although the committee submitted a request for financial support to the government in 2018, the VUSH reported it had not received any funds.

The five religious communities expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Religion’s engagement with them. The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets showed indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities, stating the government sent officials to attend iftars during election years but did not attend non-Islamic holy day ceremonies.

The Council of Ministers again did not finish adopting regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.

A State Committee on Religion census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and 40 centers. The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three. The Catholic Church has 16 foundations and NGOs, while the VUSH has 160.

In June the Office of the President and the Embassy of the Netherlands held an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Tirana that addressed interreligious harmony as a factor in social stability and policies for managing religious diversity. In his opening remarks, President Ilir Meta said that he was proud that his country was “based on the coexistence and harmony of religious communities.”

On November 18 and 19, the Office of the President held a regional conference on advancing religious freedom, following through on a commitment to hold a follow-on, regional event after the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During antigovernment protests in the spring and summer, religious leaders from all five groups issued statements jointly and separately condemning violence and calling for calm and dialogue.

On October 11, the Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, VUSH, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year, during which it established a section of the council focused on women and another on youth.

The AIC elected its new chairman, Bujar Spahiu, to a five-year term on March 2. Spahiu, the former deputy chair, earned a degree in theology from Al-Azhar University in Egypt and joined the AIC in 2006. He declared in his acceptance address his priority would be to preserve and strengthen interfaith harmony in the country. Observers and media deemed the election free and fair and Spahiu’s election as a victory for the continuation of the AIC’s moderate and cooperative approach to interfaith relations. The run-up to the election spurred speculation in the media that third countries sought to sway the outcome. Some members of the political opposition stated the government sought to manipulate the election. International representatives, including from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, observed the election.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

At the November regional conference on advancing religious freedom, the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom addressed the audience on religion as a means of reconciliation, gave interviews on the importance of religious freedom in Albania, and visited religious sites in the northern part of the country together with leaders of the country’s faith communities.

Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to religious sites. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim students and leaders from the AIC and Bektashi community; the Charge stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance during the event.

The embassy continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the potential appeal of violent religious extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Other embassy-sponsored programs in Cerrik and Peqin helped establish “schools as community centers,” which promoted tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement. The success of the program led to its expansion into six additional municipalities by the end of the year.

Argentina

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith. The constitution provides the government will grant the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion. Several religious groups expressed frustration that the government required them to register as both civil associations and religious groups in order to be eligible for tax-exempt status, receive visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities, noting that the Catholic Church was exempt from this requirement. The government continued its investigation into the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center and a subsequent cover-up, reiterating demands for Iranian cooperation in bringing the suspected perpetrators to justice. Legal action continued against Tucuman Province over the inclusion of religion in the province’s public school curriculum. Jewish organizations denounced the anti-Semitic commentary of former television journalist Santiago Cuneo, who was a candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province. Government officials sponsored and participated in interfaith events throughout the year, including an interfaith iftar, at which then-foreign minister Jorge Faurie emphasized the country’s prioritization of coexistence among religions.

On February 25, at least five individuals broke into the house of Grand Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich in Buenos Aires, beating him and causing injuries that resulted in his hospitalization for one week. The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) reported 834 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 404 reported complaints in 2017. The most commonly reported anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites, and DAIA stated the spike tracked with an increase in news stories about the Jewish community during the year, including an institutional crisis that led to the resignation of DAIA’s president. In October protesters opposed to the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion attempted to set fire to the Catholic cathedral in La Plata, according to local media. In July religious groups, including the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, Islam for Peace Institute, and the Orthodox Anglican Archbishopric, organized the National Table for Interreligious Coordination (MECIN). In March the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic (CIRA), AMIA, and the CEA held an event in Buenos Aires to celebrate and recognize the historic February 4 signing in Abu Dhabi of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” between Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar Mosque and Pope Francis.

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials, including within the Secretariat of Worship and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination. Embassy outreach efforts included regular meetings with government officials and religious and community leaders to discuss the status of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue; the status of the AMIA case; and ways to counter anti-Semitism. In August the Ambassador gave keynote remarks on countering online hate speech and discrimination based on religion at a conference in Tucuman Province. On July 15, the embassy cohosted with DAIA a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center. Eighteen other diplomatic missions participated in the event, and the Ambassador delivered remarks in remembrance of the victims, calling for justice, and underscoring the role of Hezbollah and Iran in the attack. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 45.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Religious demographic and statistical data from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), research centers, and religious leaders vary. According to a 2019 survey by Conicet, the country’s national research institute, 62.9 percent of the population is Catholic; 15.3 Protestant, including evangelical groups; 18.9 percent no religion, which includes agnostics; 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); 1.2 percent other, including Muslims and Jews; and 0.3 percent unknown. Other sources state Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ together total 3 percent of the population. According to AMIA, there are 220,000 Jews in the country, and the Islamic Center estimates the Muslim population at 800,000 to 1,000,000. Evangelical Christian communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing, but no reliable statistics are available. There is also a small number of Baha’is, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions in the country; however, no data are available on the size of these groups.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice freely one’s faith. It declares the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.

The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies. The law does not require the Catholic Church to register with the Secretariat of Worship in the MFA. Registration is not compulsory for other religious groups, but registered groups receive the same status and fiscal benefits as the Catholic Church, including tax-exempt status, visas for religious officials, and the ability to hold public activities. To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements. To access many of these benefits, religious groups must also register as a civil association through the General Inspectorate of Justice.

Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations. City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for events, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the Secretariat of Worship to receive a permit. Once registered, an organization must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, and the address of its headquarters.

The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law. Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution. Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.

Foreign officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country. The validity period of the visa varies depending on the purpose of the travel. Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of appropriate documents.

The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups. INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion. INADI is not authorized to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court. The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination. INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

At year’s end, the trial of former president and current Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner remained pending, following her 2017 indictment for concealment in relation to a 2013 memorandum of understanding she signed with Iran. Prosecutors stated that then-president Fernandez de Kirchner and several high-ranking officials sought to cover up Iranian involvement in the 1994 AMIA bombing that killed 85 persons. AMIA, DAIA, and organizations representing the victims’ families continued to call for justice and a full accounting of the circumstances surrounding the bombing and any attempts at a cover-up, stating that the truth remained unclear.

In an unrelated case, a court acquitted former president Carlos Menem in February of charges he had sought to derail investigations into the AMIA bombing while president, citing lack of evidence. AMIA and DAIA issued a joint communique stating they respected the verdict. An NGO representing many of the victims’ families, Memoria Activa (Active Memory), criticized the decision, stating the Menem government knew the attack would happen and did nothing to avoid it.

Judicial inquiries continued into the 2015 death of Alberto Nisman, the lead federal prosecutor investigating the AMIA bombing. On December 26, the newly appointed Minister of Security, Sabina Frederic, announced her intent to review a 2017 analysis by the National Gendarmerie that stated two assailants killed Nisman. The analysis contradicted expert Federal Police testimony made in 2017 that suggested Nisman had committed suicide. Investigators accused Frederic of using the power of the executive branch to meddle in judicial matters, while Nisman’s mother, Sara Garfunkel, requested the judiciary’s assistance in preventing the review.

In September at the UN General Assembly, then-president Mauricio Macri called for increased international pressure to compel Iran to cooperate in the investigation of the AMIA attack, as well as that of the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.

Representatives of several religious groups stated that a government requirement that religious groups register first with the Ministry of Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, stating that the Catholic Church faced no such requirement. The groups said these legal processes were required to request tax-exempt status, apply for visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities. Religious group representatives said religious groups deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.

According to the plaintiffs, there was no progress in the 2018 case filed by a group of parents in Tucuman Province opposing the inclusion of religion in the province’s public school curriculum. The parents cited a 2017 Supreme Court decision that incorporation of religious education in public schools in Salta Province was unconstitutional. In August local media reported on a new case of religious teaching in a school in Formosa Province in which the school director invited a group of nuns to speak to a class during school hours without permission from the regional ministry of education or from the parents of the children. Parents said the nuns proselytized by teaching the children to pray and distributing rosaries and pamphlets. Formosa’s education minister later stated the school’s director made an error and could face disciplinary action.

Numerous religious and prolife groups, including evangelical Christian churches, expressed concern over the case of a doctor arrested for refusing to perform an abortion. In October a court in Rio Negro Province gave Leandro Rodriguez a suspended sentence of one year and two months for misconduct and prohibited him from practicing medicine for two years and four months, after he did not perform a legally permitted abortion for a woman who had been raped. In 2017 Rodriguez treated a woman suffering from severe pain and an infection after taking misoprostol, an abortion-inducing drug in her fifth month of pregnancy. Rodriguez treated the infection and halted the abortion. Three months later, the woman delivered the baby and offered it for adoption. Rodriguez’s legal team said he had halted the abortion on medical grounds and the patient had agreed to continue the pregnancy and give the baby for adoption; however, some religious groups, including local evangelical churches, said the case set a precedent against abortion-related conscientious objection.

At the end of its term in December, the Macri administration sent a new draft religious freedom bill to congress for its consideration. First proposed in 2017, the draft bill would have eliminated the requirement that non-Catholic religious groups register with the government to receive the same benefits accorded to the Catholic Church. An earlier draft of the bill allowed for conscientious objection on the basis of religion, but drafters did not include that provision in the new bill. Separately, the outgoing congress approved a draft bill in November that would declare November 25 the National Day of Religious Freedom and Conscience. The bill continued under senate review through year’s end.

Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following the December 2018 agreement between the government and the CEA, representing the Catholic Church, which delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church. CEA leaders reported progress on the matter during plenary sessions held in November. Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from 130 million pesos ($2.2 million) in 2018 to 126 million pesos ($2.1 million) during the year.

Throughout the year, Jewish organizations denounced the anti-Semitic commentary of former television journalist Cuneo, who was a candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province in elections held in October. Among other incidents cited by the organizations, in a July 2 televised interview Cuneo promoted conspiracy theories about a purported Jewish plot to take over Patagonia. He also repeated claims, first made in 2018, that then-president Macri had staffed the national intelligence agency with Mossad agents.

Many Jewish groups said they continued to view relations with the Macri administration as positive and productive. They said collaboration was positive, particularly in light of what they characterized as the administration’s commitment to resolve the Nisman killing and to pursue justice in its investigations of the 1994 AMIA attack and the 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy.

Secretary of Worship Alfredo Miguel Abriani, the human rights secretary, the Buenos Aires director general for religious affairs, and other government representatives continued to host and attend religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, rabbinical ordinations, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Adha, and Eid al-Fitr celebrations, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches.

In May the MFA organized an interfaith iftar; both then-foreign minister Faurie and then-secretary of worship Abriani delivered remarks underscoring the importance of tolerance and coexistence, as well as the government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom.

On August 21, the City of Buenos Aires organized a lunch to promote interfaith collaboration. Approximately 50 religious leaders attended. Buenos Aires Chief of Government Horacio Rodriguez Larreta pledged to continue “generating spaces for engagement and exchange” and affirmed his desire to create a city that would be ever-increasingly open and inclusive.

On September 15, the City of Buenos Aires organized an interreligious festival to promote dialogue. More than 70 faith communities participated with stands showcasing their respective identities and activities.

In September INADI reported it organized a youth parliament with local students. Playing the role of legislators, the students debated the topics of conscientious objection, mandatory religious education, and religious discrimination. By a vote of 69 to one, with one abstention, they approved a law on “freedom of religion without discrimination,” promoting religious diversity in education, health, and the workplace.

In May DAIA held a Holocaust memorial ceremony at the Kirchner Cultural Center in downtown Buenos Aires. Then-minister of culture, science, and technology Alejandro Finocchiaro delivered remarks alongside Jewish community leaders and a Holocaust survivor, underscoring the value of life and of “rebellion,” adding, “glory and eternal memory for all who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto and around the world.” Then-president Macri did not attend the ceremony but recorded a video for it after touring the building earlier in the day.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

DAIA reported 834 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 404 reported complaints in 2017, a 107 percent increase. The report noted that 30 percent of the incidents occurred in May 2018, when DAIA faced a very public institutional crisis that led to the resignation of its president. The most commonly reported anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites and social media, which made up 88 percent of the reported acts. Included among these were xenophobic and nationalistic commentaries, as well as the propagation of conspiracy theories and references to Jewish individuals as avaricious or exploitative. Other recorded acts included graffiti, verbal slurs, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries.

Between April and June, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) conducted a survey to update the understanding of attitudes and opinions toward Jews in 18 countries around the world. In November the ADL released the results of the survey for each country, detailing the scope of anti-Semitic views among the country’s residents. The survey cited 11 stereotypical statements about Jews and asked respondents whether they agreed with them. The proportion agreeing that various statements were “probably true” was as follows: 57 percent that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Argentina; 53 percent that Jews have too much power in the business world; 60 percent that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust; 36 percent that Jews do not care what happens to anyone but their own kind; 28 percent that Jews think they are better than others; and 35 percent that other persons hate Jews because of the way they behave. According to the survey, 30 percent of the population harbored anti-Semitic views – compared with 24 percent in 2015 – which it stated represented the percentage of persons who agreed that the majority of the 11 statements were “probably true.”

On October 13, protesters associated with the 34th National Women’s Meeting and others attempted to set fire to the Catholic cathedral in La Plata, according to local media. Some protesters also threw stones at police and churchgoers. According to local media, the cathedral suffered minor damage because of the protest. Some protesters carried signs accusing the church of covering up sexual abuse. On April 29, hundreds of individuals delivered a new abortion bill to congress. On May 28, abortion activists led peaceful protests outside the congress, proposing the new abortion bill go before the legislature. In 2018 the senate rejected the previous abortion bill.

In February nine gravestones in a Jewish cemetery were vandalized by unidentified individuals in San Luis City. The cemetery’s security cameras were vandalized and broken shortly before the incident. The attackers climbed the wall, destroyed marble headstones, bronze plates, and other objects. On September 29, individuals destroyed a large section of the wall at La Tablada, the country’s largest Jewish cemetery, located near Buenos Aires. They also damaged several tombs and stole bronze plaques. Then-secretary for human rights Claudio Avruj denounced the vandalism; he expressed his sadness and indignation, stating the events took place just hours before the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.

According to local media, individuals broke into the Saint Thomas Aquinas Institute in San Luis, San Luis Province, in early October, leaving behind anti-Catholic graffiti, including “Murderous Church,” “Pedophile Priests,” and “God Does Not Exist.” School authorities reported the individuals destroyed images and paintings of the Virgin Mary, as well as student artwork.

Interreligious groups such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, and indigenous religious groups, and the Argentine Council for Religious Freedom continued to work on increasing opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges. The committee published frequent newspaper articles and held events to include a prayer for Syria and an annual blanket drive for families in need.

In July several religious groups organized MECIN at the senate in Buenos Aires. Participating groups included the Argentine Episcopal Conference, Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, Islam for Peace Institute, and Orthodox Anglican Archbishopric. MECIN representatives said they would seek to strengthen the country’s social fabric through dialogue.

In March CIRA, AMIA, and the CEA held an event in Buenos Aires to celebrate and recognize the historic February 4 signing in Abu Dhabi of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” between Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar Mosque and Pope Francis. The declaration, an updated version of a similar document signed in 2005 by then-archbishop Jorge Bergoglio and his peers in the interreligious community, affirmed the commitment of all involved not to permit religious conflicts from other parts of the world to affect the fraternity among religious communities in the country.

In June the Institute for Interfaith Dialogue organized an iftar during Ramadan, hosting members of the Muslim community and the Jewish Bet El congregation. Religious and community leaders including the president of the Episcopal Conference of Argentina, the president of AMIA, and the City of Buenos Aires’ director for religious affairs attended.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with government representatives, including within the Secretariat of Worship, the MFA’s human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and interfaith cooperation. In meetings with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials discussed tolerance, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination. In meetings with the Secretariat of Worship, embassy officials emphasized the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and discussed the status of the AMIA case and ways to counter anti-Semitism.

Embassy outreach included regular meetings with religious and community leaders, including members of interreligious organizations. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed the status of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, as well as the conditions; the status of the AMIA case; and ways to counter anti-Semitism and promote religious tolerance. Embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs focused on social work and community service, including Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and evangelical Christian leaders, and discussed promoting respect for religious diversity as well as faith-based responses to poverty, drug addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, and malnutrition.

On July 15, the embassy cohosted with DAIA a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center. The event was held at the Ambassador’s residence, and 18 fellow diplomatic missions participated in the event. The Ambassador delivered remarks in remembrance of the victims, calling for justice and underscoring the role of Hezbollah and Iran in the attack.

Embassy officials regularly attended conferences, observances, and commemorations organized by religious groups and NGOs, including DAIA, AMIA, Latin American Jewish Congress, and the CEA. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media, including conveying condolences on the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing.

Armenia

Executive Summary

The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. According to the Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child With A Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The 2018 dismissal of a police officer for being a member of a religious organization triggered a Constitutional Court review of the laws prohibiting police officers’ membership in religious organizations. There were reports the government arbitrarily enforced the law, targeting police officers affiliated with minority religious groups. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke about the importance of freedom of religion and established a working group to review AAC-government relations, the public-school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, and other issues. Some AAC representatives objected to the review, describing the process as a threat to Armenian national identity. In September, built with private funds on private land, the world’s largest Yezidi temple opened in Aknalich Village, Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan spoke at the inauguration, stating, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people.” Some Yezidis interviewed at the celebration said the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction.

Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were again societal incidents of verbal harassment towards the group’s members, to which authorities responded promptly and appropriately. There were 16 reported instances of verbal harassment, compared with 12 in 2018. In November an AAC priest published an article on an AAC website, where he discussed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” He stated, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.” Societal and family pressure also remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than Armenian Orthodox.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to discuss the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation – bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government. In September the Ambassador, with national and local government officials, celebrated the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes in Meghri, Syunik Region. The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to convey messages in support of religious tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies as Armenian Orthodox. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, including Armenian Evangelical Church adherents, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are also followers of the Church of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Baha’is, Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and pagans, who are adherents to a pre-Christian faith. According to an International Republican Institute (IRI) poll released in 2018, 94 percent of the country’s population identifies as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent Catholic (includes all rites), 3 percent other, and 1 percent none. A May IRI poll listed 94 percent of the population as Armenian Orthodox, 4 percent other, and 1 percent none, with no mention of Catholic affiliation. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 to 1,000 Jews in the country.

According to the country’s 2011 census, there are more than 35,000 Yezidis, with some more recent estimates suggesting approximately 50,000. Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats. Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health, and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes the “exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church” as the national church in the “spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred. It allows conscientious objectors to military service to perform alternative civilian service.

The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion. The law prohibits religious organizations with spiritual centers located outside the country from receiving funding from those foreign centers; however, there is no mechanism to enforce the law. The law also prohibits religious organizations from funding or being funded by political parties.

The law does not categorize or regulate the residence status of foreign religious volunteers.

By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.

To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.” It also must be “free from materialism and [be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities, including Assyrians, Kurds, Russians, and Yezidis, among others. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.

The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($420) to detention for up to two months.

The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of state and local governments.

The law prohibits police and employees of the NSS, the service for mandatory enforcement of court rulings, penitentiary service, and rescue service from being a member of a religious organization; however, the law does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization. The law prohibits members of police, military, and NSS, as well as prosecutors, customs officials, diplomats, and other national, community, and civil servants, from using their official positions for the benefit of “religious associations” or from preaching in support of them. The law also prohibits police, prosecutors, and other state and civil servants from conducting other religious activities while performing official duties. While the law defines a “religious organization” as an association of citizens established for professing a common faith as well as for fulfilling other religious needs, it provides no definition for “religious associations.” A military service member may not establish a religious association. If a member of the military is a member of a religious association, the member does not have the right to preach to other service personnel during military service.

The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice. A joint Ministry of Defense-AAC agreement allows only AAC clergy to serve as military chaplains.

The law allows the AAC free access and the right to station representatives in, hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.

The law mandates public education be secular and states, “Religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law. While adding a history of the Armenian Church (HAC) course in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course becomes mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.

The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of their teachers. While the Church may nominate candidates to teach the course, HAC teachers are state employees. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities, but not within the premises of state educational institutions.

The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on the religious views of employees.

The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months, or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.

The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred calling for violence through public statements, mass media, or using one’s public position, and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($420 to $1,100) to prison terms of between three and six years.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

During the year, Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the Baha’i community, continued to face charges of facilitating illegal migration to the country by advising Iranians wishing to settle in Armenia. He was arrested and charged in 2017 and held under pretrial detention for eight months before the trial court judge released him on bail in July 2018. Local NGOs and human rights lawyers shared concerns about the surveillance of Baha’i community members preceding Manasyan’s arrest, which they believed was approved in violation of the law because it violated lawyer-client privilege. In April the Baha’i community filed a countersuit against the NSS with the Court of Appeals, stating the NSS illegally used wiretaps to surveil a Baha’i community member and the community’s office and used the information gathered as the basis to charge Manasyan. According to the documents provided to the Baha’i community, the surveillance authorizations were approved based on the assertion that Manasyan was the head of a “religious-sectarian” organization and was “soul-hunting,” but no charges were proffered on these grounds.

Most public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11. There were anecdotal reports that at least one public school in Yerevan and two public schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course.

Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While schools with an all-Yezidi student body were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended schools with a mixed student body were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections. According to the December Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child with a Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia prepared by local NGOs, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced a number of challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The report identified schools, and HAC classes in particular, as the main setting where the right of minority children to freedom of religion was frequently abused. According to the report, in addition to obliging children of religious minorities to learn about and discuss religious beliefs other than their own, the class often included religious practices such as group prayer, Bible reading, the presence of church clergy in the classroom, school trips to religious sites, and participation in religious celebrations and ceremonies. The report identified widespread discriminatory attitudes as another obstacle to the realization of freedom of religion for minority children, including the usage of “Yezidi” as an insult. According to the report, Yezidi children tended to conceal their identity from teachers and classmates to avoid discrimination. This behavior occurred most often in schools in Yerevan and other locations where Yezidis are a small minority.

Several non-AAC religious groups again said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and making the signs of the cross, reportedly occurring during those classes, and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. The Ministry of Education again stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda. According to various minority religious groups, the personality of the teacher was the crucial factor in the treatment of minority children in class. Christian groups reported no egregious cases of classroom discrimination. Cases that Christian groups considered as minor, such as perceived unfavorable treatment of a student by a teacher because of the student’s religion, were resolved between parents and schools, according to those groups. Most religious organizations said classroom discrimination was likely more common in the regions outside Yerevan where they said tolerance for religious diversity was less common.

NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC continued to publicly voice concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity. There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites. According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year (September-May), AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in less than 1 percent of all schools. According to official information provided to the Eurasia Partnership Foundation (EPF), AAC priests taught the HAC course in six schools, four public and two private.

According to media reports, the government’s plans to review the HAC curriculum and possibly replace it with a broader History of Religions class spurred heated debate, with more traditional groups describing the plans as an attack on Armenian identity and stating the course was needed to stop the spread of “sects.” On November 4, Prime Minister Pashinyan in a live Facebook broadcast discussed the issue of the HAC course, questioning the separate teaching of AAC and general Armenian history classes. In an interview with RFE/RL Armenia, AAC Chancellor Bishop Arshak Khachatryan said the position of the AAC had not changed and that in the Church’s opinion HAC should remain a separate course. In the same media report, historian Vahram Tokmajyan said the ongoing discussions around the HAC were a “fake agenda,” since before any substantive changes could be made to the school curriculum, new official educational objectives had to be adopted, a lengthy process expected to last until 2021-2022. Some observers said the discussion of the HAC course was being used by government opponents to manipulate public opinion.

According to the EPF, the following phenomena connected with the HAC course raised concerns: performing religious rituals or elements of religious rituals during classes; preaching and sowing hatred against religious organizations other than the AAC; equating religious and national identity; sowing intolerance toward other opinions; and hindering creative and critical thinking. According to some minority religious groups, a similar intolerance of religious groups other than the AAC, including slurs insulting minority religions, also occurred in universities.

Based on a Ministry of Education program launched in 2012, school administrations continued to have the option to include an additional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four. During the new school year, 74 schools followed this option, the same number as the previous year.

According to the government, as in 2018, no religious groups other than the AAC requested to visit a military unit. The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.

According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, to satisfy the spiritual needs of detainees and convicts, AAC clergymen regularly visited penitentiaries, organized baptisms, offered liturgies, and celebrated holidays. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited penitentiaries seven, four, and 17 times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year for spiritual conversations with convicts.

On March 12, Epress.am, an independent online news outlet focused on human rights, published an article entitled “The Army Converts Atheists.” The article reprinted a copy of a questionnaire, initially posted by a Facebook user and reportedly distributed in military commissariats to be completed by future conscripts. One of the questions was: “Religious affiliation: if you belong to or are affiliated with any religious sect, belief, faction, or organization. You must also indicate since which year, as well as which of your family members belong to this or another belief. If not, fill in as a follower of the Armenian Apostolic Church.” The government did not respond directly to the news item but stated the Ministry of Defense did not organize discussions or seek information on the religious affiliations of conscripts.

On February 19, the Center for Religion and Law filed a lawsuit on behalf of a teacher in Yelpin Village in Vayots Dzor Region against her school administration, requesting the 2017 decision reducing her classes be rescinded, the number of classes she taught restored, she be paid back wages, and the fact she was subjected to discrimination on religious grounds be acknowledged. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the teacher had become a subject of discrimination based on her religion after the parents of students had accused the teacher of belonging to a “sect” because she was a member of an evangelical Christian church. The parents initially stopped allowing their children to attend her classes, stating they feared she might indoctrinate them. The acting principal temporarily restored the teachers’ hours despite community pressure, including the threat that he would not be elected principal on a permanent basis unless the teacher was removed. As of early December, the teacher continued to teach at the school, and the acting principal had managed to convince the parents to send their children to her class.

According to the Center for Religion and Law, in October 2018, the national chief of police dismissed longtime police officer, Edgar Karapetyan, on the grounds he was attending an evangelical Christian church and, according to police, was a member of a religious organization, although it was not customary for religious groups to maintain membership records. According to local observers, the same legal restrictions were not enforced for AAC members. The Center for Religion and Law appealed the dismissal to the Administrative Court and requested Karapetyan be reinstated, paid back wages, and that the court acknowledge he had been subjected to discrimination on religious grounds. The Administrative Court suspended the hearings and appealed to the Constitutional Court to determine if the relevant provisions of the law on police service complied with the constitution. On September 13, the Constitutional Court accepted the appeal. The court did not rule on the case by year’s end.

There were reports from other minority religious groups that their members were discriminated against in seeking public employment. Some individuals employed by public offices or law enforcement said they were afraid to make their religious affiliation known at the workplace or attend church services because they feared losing their jobs if they did so.

Even though there was no mechanism for enforcement of the legal provision prohibiting funding of religious organizations by spiritual centers located outside the country, several religious organizations said they adhered to the ban and restricted their operations because they did not want to violate the law.

At year’s end, 129 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program, compared with 123 in 2018. The alternative service appointments included positions in various hospitals; local utility companies; park maintenance services; and facilities such as boarding schools, eldercare facilities, and orphanages. According to government sources, Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only individuals participating in these programs, and none chose to serve in the alternative military service (military service that does not involve combat duty or the carrying, keeping, maintaining, or using of arms).

On January 29, Prime Minister Pashinyan established by decree a working group on government-AAC relations. The prime minister’s chief of staff led the working group, which included deputy ministers of justice, defense, education, and other ministries and agencies, as well as five representatives of the AAC, including Chancellor of the AAC Bishop Khachatryan. Prime Minister Pashinyan and Catholicos of All Armenians Garegin II co-chaired the group’s first meeting on May 3. The prime minister noted AAC’s unique role in the preservation of national identity and stated that the working group would review relations between the state and Church and discuss issues such as taxation and the mandatory teaching of the HAC course in schools.

On May 24, Prime Minister Pashinyan participated in an EPC regional conference held in Yerevan entitled “Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Armenia, Georgia, and Beyond.” The prime minister emphasized the government’s commitment to religious freedom. In his welcoming speech he stated, “Freedom of religion, freedom to believe in God is first of all the freedom of an individual to believe in himself.”

During Foreign Minister Zohrab Mnatsakanyan’s participation in the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington D.C in July, he stated, “Armenia became a safe haven for a number of vulnerable religious minorities, particularly Yezidis and Assyrians. Today Yezidis are the strongest minority group in Armenia, and we are very proud that the biggest temple of this ancient people very soon will open in their Armenian homeland.”

On September 29, the world’s largest Yezidi temple, Quba Mere Diwane, opened in the small village of Aknalich in Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Mirzoyan said at the opening, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people. The children of the Yezidi people have been standing beside their Armenian brothers at many fatal and heroic moments.” Many Yezidis interviewed at the celebration stated the opening of the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction. A private venture maintained by the family that funded its construction, and sited on private land, the temple attracted tourists during the year in addition to serving as a site for Yezidi funerals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to observers, extremely offensive anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. The use of offensive slurs was particularly prevalent in posts on Facebook by anonymous antigovernment individuals targeting the Jewish leader of an international foundation. Some posts commented on a “Turkish-Masonic-Jewish” conspiracy aimed against the Armenian people.

On November 26, an AAC priest published an article entitled “Sects” on the website of one of the churches of the Araratian Pontifical Diocese, where he discussed several religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” According to the priest, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.”

A minority religious group reported that an AAC priest, who in September 2018 blamed the “evangelical sect” for the country’s loss of statehood in the past and accused it of working with the country’s historic enemy, the Turks, continued to enter public schools during the year. The priest urged students not to attend Sunday schools organized by evangelical Christian churches, even though the AAC had reportedly advised him not to provide such advice.

According to media analysts, private individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the former government ousted in 2018 continued to use religious issues to denounce the government. According to media and religious freedom experts, those individuals used various websites, controversial blogs, local troll factories, false Facebook groups, and false stories to propagate the idea that the revolution was carried out by minority religious groups or “sects” (commonly considered any group other than the AAC).

The NSS continued its 2018 criminal case on charges of incitement of religious hatred against the creators of a 2018 Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and the prime minister’s Civil Contract party. According to Word of Life representatives, the Facebook page posted a photograph of the senior pastor of the Church and included an article with anti-Armenian and anti-AAC statements, causing a public uproar against the Church. On April 8, the prosecution charged Iranian-Armenian dual citizen Armen Abi in this case; the investigation continued through year’s end.

There is one Shia mosque, located in Yerevan, serving all Islamic groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. The Ambassador and other embassy officials raised reported discrimination against minority religious groups, including religious education in schools. Embassy officials monitored the trial of the Baha’i charged and facing prosecution on what the group stated were religious grounds.

The Ambassador regularly met with representatives of the government, political parties, social groups, and religious minorities to discuss problems of discrimination faced by religious minorities, foster a dialogue between the government and the religious groups, and explore cooperative solutions to those problems. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government to discuss issues of concern and foster a dialogue among the groups.

On September 17, the Ambassador and national and local government officials marked the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project in Meghri, Syunik Region. Launched in 2016, the project involved the preservation of the most critically endangered parts of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes, painted in the unique Persian-Armenian style.

The Ambassador met with leaders of the AAC and engaged them on the importance of supporting the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions.

Embassy officials attended conferences and discussions on nondiscrimination, national religious minorities, and religious tolerance regularly hosted by the EPF, including a regional conference held in Yerevan titled, “Contemporary Issues of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Armenia, Georgia, and Beyond.” Embassy officials participated in the EPF Annual Media Award jury and February 26 ceremony to support religious tolerance in media.

In October embassy officials visited an Assyrian village in Armavir Region and in December the new Yezidi temple in Aknalich Village. They held regular meetings with representatives of the AAC and religious and ethnic minorities, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as meeting with individual Muslims. In these meetings, embassy officials and religious group representatives discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, including minority religious group concerns. They also met with civil society groups to discuss concerns about the HAC course taught in public schools, as well as the importance of respect for religious freedom in the country.

The embassy used social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to send messages supporting religious diversity and tolerance.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity;” or hinder secular education. Local courts sentenced 57 of the 77 individuals detained after the July 2018 attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, and subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities said those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Human rights defenders considered 48 of these individuals to be political prisoners at year’s end; they also reported that in court hearings throughout the year, these individuals testified that police and other officials tortured them to coerce false confessions. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. Leaders of the political opposition party Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Services officials in Gobustan Prison. Human rights defenders said they considered these and other incarcerated Muslim Unity Movement members to be political prisoners. Estimates of the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 45 to 55 at the end of the year. Authorities briefly detained, fined, or warned individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. The government’s requirements for legal registration were unachievable for communities with less than 50 members. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials. According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. A senior government official stated in May while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment. The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism, including the November 14-15 Baku Summit of World Religious Leaders.

Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, groups viewed as “nontraditional” were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers urged government officials to investigate allegations of serious physical abuse – including alleged torture – of those individuals detained after July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja, and engaged the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of traditional and nontraditional religious groups and civil society in and outside the capital to discuss the situation for religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials met with representatives of various religious groups in Baku and in the regions to discuss religious freedom in the country. Officials had consultations with theologians and civil society representatives and urged the government to implement the constitutionally provided alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.

The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.

To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.

By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradicts the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter and other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.

The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism,” referring to other criminal, administrative, and civil provisions of the law in prescribing punishments. The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as excluding any criticism of one’s religious beliefs by those outside of the same religious group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature, or setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions, and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms from 15 years to life.

The law also specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.

The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

An administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 ($2900) to 7,000 manat ($4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 ($4,100) to 9,000 manat ($5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses. There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education. If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.

The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist actions; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to the legislature. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in positions of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.

The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism,” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.

The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The Ganja and Lankaran Courts of Grave Crimes sentenced 57 individuals from the 77 persons detained after the July 2018 attack on the then mayor of the city of Ganja and subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. Security forces took 77 individuals into custody and killed five during operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government account of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed did not resist arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku, in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. Civil society activists and human rights defenders said they considered the vast majority of the verdicts as politically motivated.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were 17 incidents between September 2018 and August 2019 in Baku and eight other cities or towns. One follower said two police officers forcibly took a Jehovah’s Witness in Khachmaz to the police station in February. International religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that in February a State Committee official asked the Jehovah’s Witness why he was talking about the Bible and not the Quran. Officers reportedly seized his religious literature, threatened to have him fined, held him for 12 hours without food or water, mocked his beliefs, forced him to write two statements, and then freed him. The Forum 18 report said one police officer threatened to beat him during his detention.

In January former member of parliament Rahim Akhundov stated publicly he had been forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department of the Azerbaijani Parliament due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal unless he chose to resign voluntarily; he said the reason was fabricated. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home and informed parliamentary leadership that he had held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.

In February Muslim Unity Movement leaders Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Service officials in Gobustan prison. Authorities partially responded to their complaints, but the prisoners reported ongoing issues.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mixed religious and political ideology. Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat. Human rights defenders and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity similar to previous years. According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year ranged from 45 to 55, compared with 68 in 2018.

On January 30, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade on charges of drug possession. The Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Nuruzade to seven years in prison in March 2018, but activists stated the charges were fabricated to punish him for publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On June 12, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity members Ebulfez Bunyadov and Elkhan Isgandarov, convicted in 2018 on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism, and sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively. On July 10, the Nizami District Court ordered Bunyadov’s release on medical grounds.

On February 18, the Baku Court of Appeals ordered the release of Telman Shiraliyev with time served. The Khazar District Court had extended Shiraliyev’s prison term for an additional five months and 18 days for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell, a charge human rights defenders said was fabricated to prevent his imminent release at the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government had not implemented alternative military service for conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution. In April the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. In October Mehdiyev and Abilov filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

On October 17, the ECHR ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country who conscientiously objected to military service should not be criminally convicted. The ruling consolidated four applications to the Court lodged between 2008 and 2015. The applications involved five Witnesses: Mushfig Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Farid Mammadov, Fakhraddin Mirzayev, and Kamran Mirzayev. Each had been convicted and had served a prison term for their refusal to perform military service. The Court found since the Witnesses’ conscientious objection to military service was based on “sincere religious convictions,” the country’s actions against them violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered “nontraditional” by the government reported authorities at times subjected them to harassment and fines for conducting religious activities. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported their inability to obtain legal registration. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders reported that their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities discreet. The government said the inability to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members, and no administrative action was taken against unregistered religious communities.

According to a report from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in April a police officer went to the home of Jehovah’s Witness Gulnaz Nasirova in Lankaran and forcibly escorted her to the police station for interrogation. Police officers reportedly insulted her, threatened to send her to a mental hospital, questioned her about her beliefs and fellow believers, and demanded she provide her family members’ personal data. One officer made a vague threat that he would harm her children, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was detained for five hours before being released.

Religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration, particularly the to have a minimum of 50 members to apply for registration. For instance, Baptists communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration.

The government continued to allocate funds to religious groups. Experts said the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.

On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 government prohibition on the publication of theologian Elshad Miri’s book Things Not Existing in Islam. The SCWRA said it prohibited the book because its enumeration of ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage, could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country.

The SCWRA reported during the year, it prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239. By comparison, in 2018 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 1,704, and the publication of 26 books out of 192.

On May 6, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider his appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community. It was Shabanov’s second time appealing to the Constitutional Court; his first appeal was similarly dismissed in January 2018. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.

On April 4, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses Eldar Aliyev, Maryam Aliyeva, Elchin Bakirov, and Bahruz Kerimov in a civil case against the Mingechevir police department. The plaintiffs sought compensation of 500 manat each for the 2016 police raid on a prayer meeting in Mingachevir that they stated violated their religious freedom. On June 23, according to Forum 18, three police officers in Mingachevir tried to search the home of a Jehovah’s Witness where other Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered. They took the names of those present, but when they tried to search the home without a warrant the homeowner refused to allow it. The officers left, saying they would return with a warrant, but did not.

On June 4, the Shirvan Court of Appeals upheld the April 16 verdict of the Sabirabad District Court that fined husband and wife Safqan Mammadov and Gulnar Mammadova 1,500 ($880) manat for holding an illegal religious gathering for minors in their home. The Baptist couple stated they held a secular New Year’s celebration for community children in their home, and that police interrupted the event and characterized it as a Christian meeting by a non-registered group, which would make it illegal.

Following the December 2018 police dispersal of a prayer meeting of Christians Samir Ismayilov, Ismat Azizov, and Jalil Rahimli, the Sheki District Court fined them 1,500 ($880) manat each in separate hearings December 19, 2018 and January 3 for violating an administrative code that prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies”.

On March 3, the SCWRA registered the Baku community of the Fire Christian Church. On July 11, the SCWRA registered the Baku Christian communities of Star in the East and Evangelical Christian Baptist Church.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 34 religious communities, of which 31 were Muslim and three Christian, compared to 90 religious communities registered in 2018, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian. The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 941, of which 35 were non-Muslim: 24 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.

A March 16 presidential pardon that released a number of individuals considered political prisoners by human rights defenders included at least 16 religious activists, including 11 individuals arrested after a large police operation that targeted members of the Muslim Unity Movement in November 2015.

The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status were prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request, an authority the SCWRA said it could employ when necessary. Jehovah’s Witness and other communities have benefited from these letters.

According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. Aynur Veyselova, a senior advisor at the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, stated in May that while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment.

On May 24, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1,1800,00 ) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, compared with one million manat ($590,000 in 2018) and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews (250,000 manat – $147,000 in 2018). The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,000) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku (100,000 manat – $59,000 in 2018) and 100,000 manat ($59,000) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to “traditional” minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust. For example, one Baptist leader stated common citizens, as well as police and local government officials, did not understand or trust his community.

Sevda Kamilova, a linguist, stated she interviewed with several international companies, but each time was asked if she would be willing to remove her headscarf while working.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate the release of those they believed wrongly convicted of wrongdoing related to the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed for the implementation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution, and met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues with the registration process for religious groups and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. For example, the Ambassador called on the country to continue promoting religious tolerance in a November 20 meeting with the CMB Head Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with the leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including challenges in registration, raids and subsequent fines against nontraditional groups for holding “unauthorized” religious meetings, and the prohibition of publication of books deemed sensitive by the government.

On May 30, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for a community of internally displaced persons who benefited from U.S.-sponsored programs. Representatives of SCWRA, the CMB, the State Committee for Affairs of Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons and others also attended the event. The Ambassador’s remarks highlighted the importance of religious tolerance as a key element of religious freedom.

Bahamas

Executive Summary

The constitution states freedom of religion is a fundamental right; individuals may practice freely the religion of their choice or practice no religion at all. The law prohibits discrimination based on religion. The practice of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean belief system with some similarities to Voodoo, is illegal. Violators may face a sentence of three months in prison; however, according to Royal Bahamas Police Force officials, this law is inconsistently enforced. Rastafarians said the government continued to discriminate against them because of their dreadlocks and their religious use of marijuana. A preliminary report by the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana, leaked to media in December, included a recommendation to grant Rastafarians the right to use marijuana for religious purposes. The government continued to meet regularly with the Bahamas Christian Council (BCC), comprising religious leaders from a wide spectrum of Christian denominations, to discuss societal, political, and economic issues.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

U.S. embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, the president of the BCC, and representatives of the Muslim, Rastafarian, and Jewish communities to discuss religious freedom, including the importance of governmental and societal tolerance for religious diversity.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 335,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, more than 90 percent of the population professes a religion. Of those, 70 percent is Protestant (includes Baptist 35 percent, Anglican 14 percent, Pentecostal 9 percent, Seventh-day Adventist 4 percent, Methodist 4 percent, Church of God 2 percent, and Brethren 2 percent). Twelve percent is Roman Catholic. Other Christians are 13 percent, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Orthodox Christians, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the census, 5 percent is listed as other, having no religion, or unspecified. Other religious groups include Jews, Baha’is, Rastafarians, Muslims, Black Hebrew Israelites, Hindus, and followers of Obeah, practiced by a small number of citizens and some resident Haitians.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, including the freedom to practice one’s religion. It forbids infringement on an individual’s freedom to choose or change one’s religion and prohibits discrimination based on belief. Parliament may limit religious practices in the interest of defense, public safety, health, public order, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others; there were no such actions reported during the year. The constitution refers to “an abiding respect for Christian values” in its preamble; however, there is no state-established religious body or official religion.

The practice of Obeah, an Afro-Caribbean belief system with some similarities to Voodoo, is illegal. Those caught practicing it or attempting to intimidate, steal, inflict disease, or restore a person’s health through the practice of Obeah may face a sentence of three months in prison. According to Royal Bahamas Police Force officials, this law is inconsistently enforced. The publication and sale of any book, writing, or representation deemed blasphemous is punishable by up to two years in prison; however, opinions on religious issues “expressed in good faith and in decent language” are not subject to prosecution under the law. This law is traditionally unenforced.

The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must legally incorporate to purchase land. There are no legal provisions to encourage or discourage the formation of religious communities, which have the same taxation requirements as profitmaking companies if they incorporate. To incorporate, religious groups follow the regulations applicable to nonprofit entities, requiring the “undertaking” of the religious organization to be “without pecuniary gain” and to maintain a building for gathering. In accordance with value-added tax (VAT) legislation, religious organizations seeking VAT exemptions must register with the Ministry of Financial Services, Trade and Industry, and Immigration and apply on a case-by-case basis for exemptions.

The law prohibits marijuana use, including for religious rituals.

Religion is a recognized academic subject at government schools and is included in mandatory standardized achievement and certificate tests. Religion classes in government-supported schools focus on the study of Christian philosophy, Biblical texts, and, to a lesser extent, comparative and non-Christian religions. Religious groups may establish private schools. The constitution states no one shall be compelled to participate in religious instruction or observances of a religion other than his or her own. It allows students, or their guardians in the case of minors, to decline to participate in religious education and observance in private schools. Vaccinations are required to attend school. Home schooling is permitted and is regulated by the Ministry of Education.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

A preliminary report by the Bahamas National Commission on Marijuana, leaked to media in December, included a recommendation to grant Rastafarians the right to use marijuana for religious purposes. A representative from the Rastafarian community participated in the commission. Prime Minister Hubert Minnis, whose party had a strong legislative majority, was an outspoken advocate of reforming marijuana laws. Parliament took no legal action on the recommendation by year’s end.

During the year, Rastafarians said police continued to arrest them for possessing small quantities of marijuana used in ceremonial rituals and said prison authorities cut the dreadlocks of Rastafarian prisoners. In June a group of Rastafarians, citing articles of the constitution that provide for freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination, filed a writ in the Supreme Court seeking damages from – and the expungement from their records of – marijuana-related convictions.

In what observers termed was an effort to engage religious communities, whose members frequently commented on government social and economic policies, the government met regularly with the BCC to discuss societal, political, and economic issues. Additionally, the government engaged with the Muslim community to develop opportunities for non-Muslim students to learn about Islam by having students visit the Jamaa Ahlus mosque to speak with local Muslim leaders. A leader of the Jewish community praised the government for its general openness and solidarity, citing as an example the government’s support in allowing a nine-foot menorah to be displayed in downtown Nassau during Hanukkah.

The government continued to include Christian prayer in all significant official events. It was common for government officials and members of parliament to quote religious teachings during speeches, and senior government officials in their official capacities occasionally addressed assemblies during formal religious services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, the president of the BCC, representatives from the Muslim, Rastafarian, and Jewish communities, and civil society leaders to discuss religious freedom, including the importance of governmental and societal tolerance for religious diversity.

Barbados

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion, and prohibit discrimination based on religious belief. The government does not require religious groups to register and grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. Rastafarians expressed frustration with the government’s proposed Medicinal Cannabis Industry Bill, stating it did not address prohibition of marijuana use in their religious rituals, and called on the government to engage in meaningful dialogue on the broader decriminalization and legalization of cannabis. In November Attorney General Dale Marshall announced he had received cabinet approval to draft a bill permitting Rastafarians to use cannabis “for the purpose of their religion.” Some Muslims said they continued to object to a government policy requiring women to remove the hijab for identification photographs, including for passports, while noting progress in their talks with the government to revise the policy and find a mutually agreeable solution.

Rastafarians continued to report some social discrimination, specifically for their dreadlocks and particularly in hiring practices; however, they stated societal attitudes regarding Rastafarianism continued to improve.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom with government ministries and offices at all levels. Embassy officials engaged with the Ministries of Education, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and People Empowerment to discuss the cannabis legalization movement and its significance for the Rastafarian community. Embassy officials also engaged civil society and religious groups, including the Muslim and Rastafarian communities, on religious expression and societal or governmental discrimination based on religion or belief.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 294,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, approximately 76 percent of the population is Christian, including Anglicans (23.9 percent of the total population), Pentecostals (19.5 percent), Seventh-day Adventists (5.9 percent), Methodists (4.2 percent), Roman Catholics (3.8 percent), Wesleyans (3.4 percent), Nazarenes (3.2 percent), and the Church of God (2.4 percent). Religious groups with 2 percent or less of the population each include Baptists, Moravians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other religious groups, together constituting less than 3 percent of the population, include Muslims, Jews, Rastafarians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha’is. Approximately 21 percent of respondents do not identify a religious affiliation. The Barbados Muslim Association states there are 3,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom of individuals to change their religion, and prohibition of discrimination based on creed. A law criminalizing “blasphemous libel” is not enforced.

The government does not require religious groups to register. To obtain duty-free import privileges and tax benefits, however, the government requires religious groups to register with the Corporate Affairs and Intellectual Property Office. A religious group must file the relevant customs and tax forms, along with a resolution passed by the majority of its board of trustees expressly authorizing the application, plus the group’s related statutory declaration.

The constitution grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. The government provides subsidies or financial assistance to some of these schools to help cover the cost of students who could not find space in a public school. The public school curriculum includes religious “values education” as part of the historic association of schools with Christian missionaries who founded many of the schools. At the primary school level, the focus is on nondenominational Christianity. At the secondary school level, all major religions are included. The constitution protects students from mandatory religious instruction, ceremony, or observance without personal consent or, if younger than age 21, consent of parents or guardians.

By law, vaccinations are required for all school-age children attending both public and private schools as well as those who are homeschooled. The vaccination program is administered through the Ministry of Health, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education. Homeschooled children must be registered with the Ministry of Education.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Rastafarians expressed objections to the government’s proposed Medicinal Cannabis Industry Bill, introduced in August, which would legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, while remaining silent on whether other personal use, including for religious rituals, would remain prohibited.

In September Adrian Forde, a member of the Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on the Medicinal Cannabis Industry Bill, stated the committee would begin discussions on the use of marijuana for sacramental purposes. In November Attorney General Dale Marshall announced he had received cabinet approval to draft a bill permitting Rastafarians to use cannabis “for the purpose of their religion.”

In August the Ministry of Agriculture pledged to set aside 60 acres for Rastafarians to grow medicinal cannabis. Some Rastafarians objected to language in the draft bill because it would bar anyone with a prior drug conviction from obtaining a license to participate in the industry. Rastafarian Priest Ras Ian said many community members, including himself, had prior possession convictions and were concerned that the current language in the bill would effectively block many Rastafarians from participating in the nascent medical cannabis industry.

Rastafarians continued to state the requirement for vaccinations for all children to enroll in all schools and for homeschooling violated Rastafarian religious beliefs.

In August Rastafarian representatives praised the minister of creative economy, culture, and sports, who issued a public statement calling on all citizens to “embrace” Rastafarians as equal members of society.

Representatives from the Barbados Muslim Association continued to state their objection to a government policy requiring women to remove all head coverings for identification photographs, including for passports. The association met with the government to discuss the issue and said the continuing talks were positive and could yield a change in the policy.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Rastafarians again reported societal discrimination, particularly in hiring practices. Rastafarian sources, however, also said they believed public opinion of their community was improving. African Heritage Foundation founder Paul Rock commented that Rastafarians had previously experienced societal discrimination for a dietary lifestyle that was now widely adopted by vegans.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials raised freedom of religious expression discrimination issues at all levels. Embassy officials engaged with the Ministries of Education, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and People Empowerment to discuss the cannabis legalization movement and its significance for the Rastafarian community.

Embassy officials engaged leaders and members of civil society and religious groups, including the Muslim and Rastafarian communities, regarding the importance of religious expression and concerns regarding societal or governmental discrimination based on religion or belief. The embassy used Facebook to promote messages on the importance of religious freedom and respect for religious diversity across the Eastern Caribbean, including a “Voices of Religious Freedom” video posted in August.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief. The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.” The law restricts religious speech promoting enmity among religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction by the government. Churches that applied for registration continued to await approval from the government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO). As a result, there were only two registered non-Buddhist religious groups in the country, while registered Buddhist groups increased from 110 to 125. Hindu leaders cited continued support for the construction of Hindu temples, including a major project in the capital. NGOs reported that unregistered religious groups continued to be able to worship in private, but were unable to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. A representative of the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) said the legal framework providing government patronage and protection of Buddhism worked against other faiths, including Christianity and Hinduism. International Christian NGO Open Doors continued to list the country on its World Watch List, stating the government was intent on maintaining a strong national identity and unity by suppressing outside influences, including Christianity. Pastors cited their most significant challenge to be acquiring permanent Christian burial plots. According to Open Doors, the government has not officially recognized any churches, which led the organization to conclude that Christians in the country “are technically worshipping illegally.” Open Doors in its 2020 World Watch List reported, “No Christian congregation has ever been allowed to build a church structure,” and, “All Christian fellowship remains underground.” The India-based Hindu religious organization Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the Hindu advocacy group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said that the minority Hindu community faced discrimination. The RSS itself said that it was not aware of any problems facing Hindus in the country, and commented that relations between Hindus and Buddhists were good. Leaders from the Hindu Dharmic Samudai, one of eight religious organizations on the board of the Commission for Religious Organizations, said Hindus and Buddhists enjoyed close ties. The organization cited strong official support for Hindu religious practice, including royal support for the construction of Hindu temples and participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals.

NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and rated persecution of Christians to be “very high.” Open Doors also reported in its World Watch List 2020 report, “For [Christian] converts, family members are by far the strongest sources of persecution.” According to Open Doors, Christian students were forced to participate in Buddhist rituals and Christian farmers were excluded from communal planting and harvesting.

The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with the country or a diplomatic presence there. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of both government and nongovernment figures on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 774,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2010 report by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows either the Drukpa Kagyu or the Nyingma school of Buddhism. Hindus make up approximately 22 percent of the total population and reside mostly in southern areas.

According to the Pew Research Center and the Open Doors World Watch List, estimates of the size of the Christian community range from 8,000 to 30,000. Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south. Although traditional Bon practices are often combined with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition, according to scholars. The Sharchop ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to scholars.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs said that as of October, there were approximately 60,000 Indian nationals living in the country, who work in the construction sector, as well as between 8,000 and 10,000 temporary workers in the country on a daily basis. While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.” The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and bans discrimination based on faith. The constitution says the king must be Buddhist and requires the king to be the “protector of all religions.”

The constitution states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.” The penal code criminalizes “coercion or inducement to convert” as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Neither “coercion” nor “inducement to convert” are defined in law or regulation.

The law prohibits oral or written communication “promoting enmity among religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.

The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” among religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment.

The law requires religious groups to register with the CRO. To register, a religious group must submit an application demonstrating its leaders are citizens and disclosing their educational background and financial assets. The law also specifies the organizational structure, bylaws, and procedural rules registered religious organizations must follow. It prohibits religious organizations from “violating the spiritual heritage” of the country and requires them to protect and promote it. The law also states no religious organization shall do anything to impair the sovereignty, security, unity, or territorial integrity of the country. It mandates that the CRO certify that religious groups applying for registration meet the specified requirements.

Registered religious groups may raise funds for religious activities and are exempt from taxes. Registered groups require permission from local government authorities to hold public meetings outside of their registered facilities and must seek permission from the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs to invite foreign speakers or receive foreign funds.

Unregistered religious groups may not organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature. Penalties for unregistered organizations performing these activities range from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense. Unregistered religious groups may hold private worship services in homes. The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally. The CRO has the authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading, and whether it has raised funds illegally. Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.

The law states the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities. The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the prime minister, currently the Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs. A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the king’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board. The Director of Culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves as an ex-officio secretary. Heads of Buddhist religious bodies and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya occupy the remaining seats. The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”

The constitution states the king shall appoint the chief abbot of the central monastic body on the advice of the five masters of the monastic body. Those individuals and a civil servant administrative secretary make up the Commission for Monastic Affairs, which manages issues related to Buddhist doctrine. The constitution says the state will provide funds and “facilities” to the central monastic body.

The law permits the government to “avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses for public assembly, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and imposing curfews. The government may apply these measures to groups and organizations of all kinds, including religious groups.

Government approval is required to construct religious buildings. By law, all buildings, including religious structures, must adhere to traditional architectural standards. The CRO determines conformity with these standards.

The constitution states religious institutions have the responsibility to ensure religion remains separate from the state. It states, “Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.” The law prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity. Ordained members of the clergy of any religion may not engage in political activities, including running for office and voting.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

An ADF representative said the legal framework providing government patronage and protection to Buddhism worked against other faiths, including Christianity and Hinduism. Open Doors continued to list the country on its World Watch List, stating the government was intent on maintaining a strong national identity and unity by suppressing outside influences, including Christianity.

According to Open Doors, the government has not officially recognized any churches, which, according to the NGO, means that Christians “are technically worshipping illegally.” Open Doors in its 2020 World Watch List reported, “No Christian congregation has ever been allowed to build a church structure…All Christian fellowship remains underground.” The government has not offered any explanation, public or private, to these groups for its refusal to register them.

There are two Hindu groups among 125 registered religious organizations.

According to Open Doors, one house church was forced to close and cease meetings after receiving warnings and threats from authorities. Authorities held two pastors for questioning.

Open Doors cited reports by Bhutanese Christians that they often faced difficulties in obtaining “non-objection certificates” from local authorities that were required for loan and employment applications, property registration, and the renewal of identification cards.

The India-based Hindu organization VHP, an affiliate of the RSS, said that thousands of Hindu women who had immigrated to the country after marriage to residents were not granted citizenship, and that Hindu citizens are denied job opportunities in the civil services. VHP said that the government prohibited the publication of Hindu religious calendars and establishment of religious congregations. A spokesman for the RSS said that the organization was not aware of any problems facing Hindus, and that relations between Hindus and Buddhists were good. Leaders from the Bhutan-based Hindu Dharmic Samudai said Hindus and Buddhists enjoyed close ties, and they cited the king’s personal support for the construction of Hindu temples and his participation in Hindu religious ceremonies and festivals. Hindu leaders said Hinduism enjoyed strong official support in the country, where Hindus and Buddhists were viewed “like two branches of one tree.”

Christian pastors cited their most significant challenge as acquiring permanent Christian burial plots. Pastors noted that Christians had less access to radio and television broadcasts and fewer officially endorsed public celebrations than the Hindu community. They also said the Christian community believed that ambiguities in religious affairs laws could be used to penalize the celebration of Christian religious services.

The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines, as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries.

NGOs reported that compulsory Buddhist daily prayer sessions in schools continued, and that children of Christian families faced discrimination from teachers and sometimes were denied access to schools.

Courts and some other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries. Some religious groups stated government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals. According to an NGO, there was continued pressure on non-Buddhists in civil service positions to participate in Buddhist rites and contribute to festivals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs reported continuing societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices. Open Doors said Christians faced discrimination in their personal and professional lives and described persecution of Christians as “very high.” According to the Open Doors World Watch List 2020, “For [Christian] converts, family members are by far the strongest sources of persecution.” According to Open Doors, Christian students were forced to participate in morning and evening Buddhist rituals and in one instance, cleaning Buddhist shrines. The NGO also reported that Christian farmers were usually excluded from communal planting and harvesting, a rural tradition by which several farmers share the workload and offer mutual assistance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States does not have a diplomatic presence in the country and does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with the government. During periodic visits, officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi engaged with a wide range of government and nongovernment figures on issues relating to freedom of religious practice and the treatment of religious minorities.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Executive Summary

The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the Presidency and one of two houses of parliament and certain other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups – predominantly SOC-member Serbs, predominantly Roman Catholic Croats, and predominantly Muslim Bosniaks. The human rights ministry issued new regulations allowing reporting of religious freedom abuses directly to the ministry, which is then charged with working with relevant authorities to correct the abuses. Religious groups in areas where they were a local minority reported continued government discrimination regarding denial of permits for construction or repair of religious properties, and in education, employment, and provision of social services. The Presidency again failed to approve an agreement that would provide religious accommodations to Muslim workers. In a report covering 2018, the Islamic Community (IC) said a school threatened to punish Muslim students if they did not make up classes missed during a religious holiday. The same report said the military served Muslim soldiers pork over a two-month period. The Interreligious Council (IRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) comprising representatives of the country’s four major religious communities, again reported authorities moved unacceptably slowly to investigate and prosecute religiously motivated crimes. In September Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly Dino Konakovic said in an interview he did not mind that a local elementary school continued to be named for a World War II-era Ustasha anti-Semite who glorified Hitler.

The IRC registered 10 reported acts of vandalism against religious sites and one case of verbal abuse against an Orthodox priest during the year and said the actual number of incidents was likely much higher. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported receiving reports in 2018 of 17 incidents of bias against Muslims, 10 against Christians, and two against Jews. The one incident of violence reported by the OSCE mission in the country involved an assault and verbal insults against a Serb man during an Orthodox Christian holiday. Anti-Islamic incidents included shots being fired at a mosque, theft, and vandalism against mosques involving pig entrails, broken windows, or graffiti. In the two anti-Semitic incidents, vandals painted graffiti, including swastikas, on Jewish housing. The IRC continued to promote interfaith dialogue through conferences and projects with local governments.

U.S. embassy representatives emphasized to government officials the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment for religious minorities. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge these groups to improve interreligious dialogue to help develop a peaceful and stable society. The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and to fund some of its interfaith activities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population, Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent, Roman Catholics 15 percent, and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.

There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion.

The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.

The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It guarantees equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion and prohibits any incitement to religious hatred or intolerance. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.

A national law on religion guarantees freedom of conscience and grants legal status to churches and religious communities. To acquire official status as recognized religious communities, religious groups must register. Unregistered religious groups may assemble to practice their religion, but they have no legal status and may not represent themselves as a religious community. Registration grants numerous rights to religious communities that are not available to those who do not register, including the rights to conduct collaborative actions such as do charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees (MHRR) is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.

According to state law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Other requirements for registration include the development of a statute defining the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application, and a group may appeal a negative decision to the BiH Council of Ministers. There are no reports the ministry had denied any registration applications by religious communities. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction. The law also stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.”

The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.

A concordat between the BiH government and the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including to establish educational and charitable institutions, carry out religious education in public or private schools, and officially recognize Catholic holidays. The commission for implementation of the concordat comprises five members from the government and five from the Holy See. A similar agreement exists between the BiH government and the SOC, but the parties have not established a commission for implementation of the concordat.

The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.

All three BiH administrative units have hate crimes regulated within their criminal codes. The provisions in these codes regulate hate crimes as every criminal act committed because of the race, skin color, religious belief, national or ethnic origin, language, disability, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity of the victim. Criminal codes also stipulate that this motivation is to be taken as an aggravating circumstance of any criminal act unless the code itself stipulates harsher punishments for qualified forms of criminal acts.

The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to assume responsibility for teaching religious studies in public and private preschools, primary, and secondary schools, and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers. These individuals are employees of the schools where they teach, but they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.

The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions.

In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course or students may take a course in ethics. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools may attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week or take a course in ethics. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS that do not have Croat majorities, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. In September the RS Ministry of Education introduced elective religious education in secondary schools.

The BiH constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion.

The BiH constitution reserves all positions in the House of Peoples (one of two houses of parliament) and apportions other government offices to members of the three major ethnic groups according to quotas. Members of religious minorities are constitutionally ineligible to hold a seat in the House of Peoples. The three-member presidency must consist of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb.

A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based specifically on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In April the MHRR issued new instructions on the implementation of the law on religious freedom and position of churches and religious communities. In addition to provisions dealing with cooperation with churches and religious communities and autonomy for churches and religious communities, the instructions contain a measure that allows churches, religious communities, and groups or individuals the right to report abuses of their right to religious freedom directly to the MHRR. The MHRR is then charged with requesting respective state, entity, cantonal, or municipal authorities to undertake legally prescribed measures to prevent such violations of the law.

Officials publicly acknowledged the need to address a 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of religious and other minorities, including Jews, to run for president and the parliament’s upper house but took no action during the year. According to the ECHR ruling, observers said, by apportioning government positions and seats in the parliament only among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the constitution discriminated against minority groups.

According to IC officials, the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency again blocked from its agenda for approval an agreement, reached in 2015, between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers, as well as one-time travel to Mecca for the Hajj. The IC officials stated the agreement remained blocked because the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency believed it would grant Muslims more rights than those granted to the Catholic and SOC communities.

In March the Commission for Freedom of Religion of the Riyasat – the highest religious and administrative body of the IC – issued its 2018 Reported Cases of Violations of the Right to Freedom of Religion of Muslims in the country. The commission said it received six complaints, involving government and nongovernment entities. One was from the IC in Janja in the RS, saying Mesa Selimovic School officials violated the rights of approximately 500 Bosniak school children by threatening to sanction the students unless they made up school days they missed during the Eid al-Fitr holiday. In another case, the IC complained that schools in the country did not have prayer rooms.

Local NGOs continued to state that government authorities have not annulled the 2015 decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) prohibiting employees of judicial institutions from wearing any form of “religious insignia” at work, including headscarves. However, there were no instances of the HJPC applying these instructions during the year.

According to officials of religious groups in a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits to build new, or repair existing, religious properties. Drvar municipal authorities continued to refuse to allocate land for the construction of a new Catholic church, saying the construction was not foreseen by urban plans drawn up in 1980. In June the Livno Canton Ministry of Construction, Space Planning, and Environment ordered Drvar Municipality to issue a location permit to the Catholic Church in Drvar for the construction of a pastoral and charity center on property owned by the Catholic Church. This overturned Drvar Municipality’s initial rejection of the Church’s request. At year’s end, however, Drvar Municipality had declined to implement this decision, even though the deadline for implementation was June 5, 2019.

On October 1, the ECHR ruled that the government of BiH must remove a Serbian Orthodox church illegally built on plaintiff Fata Orlovic’s property in Bratunac. The court ruled the church construction in 1998 was illegal and ordered authorities to ensure its removal within three months, return the land to Orlovic, and pay 5,000 euros ($5,600) to Orlovic and 2,000 euros ($2,200) to her relatives in damages. The SOC constructed the church after Orlovic and her family were expelled from their home during the 1992-95 conflict. The ECHR ruled that authorities had failed to comply with previous decisions by the Commission for Real Property Claims of Displaced Persons and Refugees in 1999 and the Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons of the RS in 2001 ordering that Orlovic be granted full restitution of her land, the seizure of which resulted in a violation of the right to property.

Leaders of the four traditional religious communities in BiH continued to say the country’s ongoing lack of any institution responsible for the rights of religious communities hindered efforts on the part of religious communities to resolve the issue of restitution for property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965. In November Jakob Finci, the president of the country’s Jewish Community, said the country was the only one in the region that had done nothing to resolve the restitution problem. He said the lack of resolution posed a burden on religious communities, as disputed properties could be an important and much-needed source of revenue for them.

According to local NGOs such as Vasa Prava, the government again failed to implement legal provisions regarding the religious education of returnee children, particularly in segregated school systems, often at the behest of senior government officials seeking to obstruct the process. Parents of more than 500 Bosniak children, who returned to their prewar homes in several RS communities, continued to boycott public schools for a seventh year, choosing instead to send their children to alternative schools organized on the premises of the IC’s administrative buildings and supported by the Federation Ministry of Education.

Academic and NGO representatives reported continued social pressure on students from communities throughout the country to attend instruction in their respective religions. A mother in Banja Luka told media that her daughter did not want to stop attending religious education classes because she did not want to feel excluded or different from the other students.

According to Bosniak Muslim, Croat Catholic, and Serb Orthodox religious communities, authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services. They said refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Bosniak returnees complained that schools in the RS celebrated Saint Sava Day as an official holiday for their schools; Bosniaks said they considered this discriminatory, since Saint Sava is an Orthodox saint.

Leaders of religious minority communities and local NGOs, particularly in Canton 10 in the western part of the Federation and several municipalities in eastern RS, continued to say authorities again failed to provide government services and protections to minorities, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. Local NGOs reported government authorities discriminated against minority Serb Orthodox communities in the Canton 10 municipalities of Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo, and Glamoc, particularly by denying children access to education in their mother tongue (including using the Cyrillic alphabet) or to classes covering the history and literature of their national group and employment in public companies.

Religious leaders again said local authorities throughout the country continued to discriminate when it came to providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement officials treated these cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. For example, following an incident on July 24 when a group of five persons threw stones at the Rijecanska Mosque in Zvornik, the IRC said the police report stated the material damage to the mosque was negligible and did not treat the case as a hate crime.

According to the IRC’s 2018 annual report published in May, police identified only 34 percent of perpetrators of religiously motivated crimes in 2018, compared with 45 percent in 2017. Because religion and ethnicity often are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many actions as solely based on religious identity.

In the report, the IRC said authorities moved unacceptably slowly in investigating and prosecuting crimes, taking an average of five to seven years to conclude cases reported as crimes. According to the IRC, of 219 incidents against religious sites or personnel it registered since 2010, police had identified suspects in 75 cases and prosecuted only 23. During the year, the IRC said authorities had identified only two suspects in the extant cases and initiated no new prosecutions. In addition, the IRC stated authorities continued their practice of not categorizing these attacks as hate crimes. The IRC said again that the failure of authorities to pursue many cases reflected ignorance about hate crimes and a desire to deflect criticism of religious intolerance.

The IC’s commission also said the armed forces failed to provide Muslim members with halal food and served them dried processed meals containing pork during a two-month period in 2018. The commission’s report said the Sarajevo Veterinary Institute confirmed the failure to provide halal food.

The Sarajevo Canton Assembly again failed to implement its 2018 decision to change the name of an elementary school and street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad named after Mustafa Busuladzic. Busuladzic was a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. Both school and street retained the Busuladzic name. On September 16, Dino Konakovic, Speaker of the Sarajevo Canton Assembly, said in an interview that he did not mind that the Dobrosevici School continued to be named for Busuladzic.

According to representatives of the Catholic Church, the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See did not meet during the year and had not met since June 2016 due to a perceived lack of government interest and also because the government had still not formed a new Council of Ministers after the October 2018 general elections. According to the Catholic Church, the government had not implemented earlier agreements reached by the commission, including legislation on observing religious holidays.

The agreement between the government and the SOC also remained unimplemented; neither the SOC nor the government had nominated members to the implementing commission by year’s end.

International and local NGOs, academics, and government agencies said each of the country’s major political parties continued to align with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership: the largest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the largest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In the case of verbal abuse against a religious official recorded by the IRC, an Orthodox priest from the Church of Saint Basil of Ostrog in Blagaj, near Mostar, said in August a Muslim man threatened him via social media. According to the Srpska Times, the man also posted on social media that Orthodox Serbs could worship at the church “unless Muslims get harassed; after that, they may wonder whether to come there again. Muslims get harassed in Gacko [in the RS], and you want to come here without problems? It will not do.”

The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the OSCE reported receiving reports in 2018 of 17 cases of bias against Muslims (two involving threats, the rest incidents against property), 10 against Christians (one involving violence, the rest incidents against property), and two against Jews (both involving incidents against property). The one incident of violence reported by the OSCE mission in the country involved an assault and verbal insults against a Serb man during an Orthodox Christian holiday. The man sustained injuries. Anti-Islamic incidents included shots being fired at a mosque, theft, and vandalism against mosques involving pig entrails, broken windows, or graffiti. In the two anti-Semitic incidents, vandals painted graffiti, including swastikas, on Jewish housing.

In early April after several attacks were reported to the IRC in a relatively short period of time, it issued a public statement strongly condemning the incidents and expressing particular concern over the misuse of religious symbols. The IRC reported that it had raised awareness among local religious communities and IRC chapters on the importance of condemning religiously motivated attacks, and as a result, the local religious communities proactively took it upon themselves to condemn these types of attacks when they occurred.

In December 2018 unknown persons broke into the Catholic Church of Saint Mother Teresa in Vogosca near Sarajevo and damaged furniture. The local chapter of the IRC condemned the incident. At year’s end, authorities had not identified any suspects.

In one of the three cases against SOC sites reported to the IRC, in July individuals broke into an Orthodox church in the village of Donje Vukovsko in the Kupres Municipality, broke the windows, and destroyed furniture.

In June a man destroyed four tombstones at an Islamic cemetery in Kazanbasca in Zvornik. Two weeks later, Zvornik police identified a suspect and submitted a criminal report to the district prosecutor’s office in Bijeljina, with charges of desecration of graves or a criminal act against a deceased person; the investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

The Council of Muftis of the IC continued efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease what they described as “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. The IC reported 21 active para-jamaats during the year, the same number as in 2018 and down from 64 in 2016.

The IRC continued to sponsor projects aimed at increasing interfaith dialogue involving women and youth. In February the IRC organized a two-day conference in Sarajevo on strengthening interreligious dialogue at the local level in the country. During the conference, members and activists from the IRC’s 15 local chapters, among whom were religious officials from various cities, presented their activities and projects. Eight local chapters signed memoranda of cooperation with their respective municipalities, and some municipalities began providing financial support to local chapters for their activities, including some interfaith events designed to increase youth participation. One such activity involved organizing joint visits to Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox places of worship by mixed groups of youth from all four religions.

In November, according to a report in Reuters, Sarajevo’s Islamic and Jewish communities celebrated the bicentennial of an uprising by Sarajevo Muslims to rescue a dozen Jews from an Ottoman governor’s jail and impending execution. The event was marked by an exhibition and conference describing the episode and marking 500 years of what it described as peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the city, as well as among Jews, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. BiH’s Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic said, “Bosnian Muslims and Jews are one body,” adding, “…We are renewing our pledge that we will remain good neighbors who will watch over each other as we did in the past.” As part of the commemoration, the tombstone of a Jewish historian who recorded the uprising, Mose Rafael Attias, was renovated in the city’s Jewish cemetery.

Media reported that on May 4, the Aladza Mosque reopened as a working mosque in Foca in the eastern part of the country, following a five-year reconstruction effort led by international and local donors. Several thousand persons from throughout the country attended the event, which the IC described as its biggest event of the year. In 1992, Serb forces destroyed the mosque, originally built in 1549 and on the country’s cultural heritage list and the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, the Ministry of Security, and other ministries and underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law for religious minorities.

Embassy officials had numerous meetings with the Catholic, Islamic, Jewish, and Orthodox communities and community leaders. The Ambassador had individual meetings with the leaders of the traditional religious communities, and embassy officials attended events hosted by the religious communities to commemorate religious holidays. At these events, which included events hosted by the religious communities as well as meetings hosted by the embassy, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity and urged the religious communities to continue efforts to foster reconciliation and condemn intolerance and hate speech. The embassy reinforced its messages of support following these events and meetings on its various social media platforms; these postings on Twitter and Facebook included calls for tolerance and the importance of interreligious dialogue in BiH.

The embassy helped to create and has continued supporting the first-ever joint master’s degree program among the three theological faculties and between two entities of BiH. The Interreligious Studies and Peacebuilding Master’s program is implemented jointly by the Catholic Theological Faculty, Faculty of Islamic Studies (University of Sarajevo), and Orthodox Theological Faculty (University of East Sarajevo) and is administered by a joint council. It was created in collaboration with the embassy and a visiting Fulbright specialist in 2018. Two cohorts of approximately 25 students had entered the course as of year’s end.

The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and supported its activities by providing funding. Cooperation included the IRC’s participation in activities such as visits to the locations of atrocities, round tables on reconciliation, IRC involvement in Open Doors events, where youth visit houses of worship other than their own, and participation in the PRO Future program, which is designed to promote interreligious dialogue in BIH.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with IRC leadership in November to discuss ways in which the embassy and government could help the IRC and individual religious communities resolve their differences. The IRC continued to participate in U.S. government-funded programs designed to help overcome ethnic and religious divisions through dialogue among the country’s religious groups. In February, under the auspices of a U.S. government-funded program, the IRC organized a roundtable in Bugojno that served as the initial meeting to form a network of women believers from Bugojno Municipality as part of the larger Network of Women Believers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an interfaith network of women that meets to discuss various issues. By having women of all religious backgrounds come together, the network is able to highlight similarities that the women share rather than differences.

The Ambassador spoke at the reopening ceremony of the historic Aladza Mosque in Foca on May 4. In his remarks, he noted that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina must work together to ensure that all peoples and all faiths have a rightful place not only in Foca but throughout the country. The embassy contributed approximately $128,000 to finance several phases of reconstruction and restoration of the mosque as a cultural landmark.

Fiji

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. It also mandates the separation of religion and state. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation, and laws make inciting hatred or “disaffection” against any religious group a criminal offense. Religious groups must register with the government. An appeal by the prosecution following the 2018 acquittal of the senior management of a leading newspaper on charges related to publishing a letter to the editor that the government characterized as antagonistic toward the country’s Muslim community remained pending.

There were two acts of vandalism against religious sites in September, one at a Hindu temple and the other at a Muslim mosque. In the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attack, religious groups, political groups, and civil society representatives spoke out forcefully against religious intolerance.

U.S. embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with senior government officials. Embassy officials also met with religious leaders to promote religious tolerance, with the aim of encouraging and maintaining an active interfaith dialogue. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar to promote religious tolerance for members of the Muslim community and other religious leaders. The embassy used social media to highlight U.S. support of religious diversity in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 931,000 (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2007 census, 64.5 percent of the population is Christian, 27.9 percent Hindu, and 6.3 percent Muslim. Protestants make up 45 percent of the population, of which 34.6 percent is Methodist, 5.7 percent Assembly of God, 3.9 percent Seventh-day Adventist, and 0.8 percent Anglican. Roman Catholics make up 9.1 percent of the population, and other Christian groups 10.4 percent. There are small communities of Baha’is, Sikhs, and Jews.

Religious affiliation runs largely along ethnic lines. According to the 2007 census, most iTaukei (indigenous Fijian) citizens, who constitute 57 percent of the population, are Christian. The majority of the country’s traditional chiefs belong to the Methodist Church, which remains influential among indigenous people, particularly in rural areas where 49 percent of the population lives. Most Indian Fijians, who account for 37 percent of the total population, are Hindu, while an estimated 20 percent are Muslim and 6 percent Christian. Approximately 60 percent of the small Chinese community is Christian. The small community of mixed European and Fijian ancestry is predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes a secular state and protects freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. The government may limit these rights by law to protect the freedoms of others, or for reasons of public safety, order, morality, health, or nuisance. The constitution also mandates separation of religion and state. Citizens have the right, either individually or collectively, in public and private, to manifest their religion or beliefs in worship, observance, practice, or teaching. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation, and laws make inciting hatred or “disaffection” against religious groups a criminal offense. The constitution provides that individuals may not assert religious belief as a reason for disobeying the law. The constitution places limits on proselytizing on government premises and at government functions. Sacrilege is outlawed and is defined as committing any crime within a place of worship after breaking and entering or before exiting with force, or intentionally committing any act of disrespect in a place of worship. Penalties may include up to 14 years imprisonment.

By law, religious groups must register with the government through trustees who may then hold land or property for the groups. To register, religious bodies must submit applications to the registrar of titles office. Applications must include names and identification of the trustees, signed by the head of the religious body to be registered, a copy of the constitution of the proposed religious body, land title documents for the land used by the religious body, and a registration fee of 2.30 Fiji dollars ($1). Registered religious bodies may receive an exemption from taxes after approval from the national tax agency, on the condition they operate in a nonprofit and noncompetitive capacity. By law, religious bodies that hold land or property must register their houses of worship, including their land, and show proof of title. There is no mention in the law of religious organizations that do not hold land.

Permits are required for any public meeting on public property organized by religious groups, outside of regular religious services and houses of worship.

There is no required religious instruction under the law. Private or religious groups sometimes own or manage school properties, but the Ministry of Education administers and regulates the curriculum. The law allows religious groups the right to establish, maintain, and manage places of education, whether or not they receive financial assistance from the state, provided the institution maintains educational standards prescribed by law. The law permits noncompulsory religious instruction in all schools, enabling schools owned and operated by various religious denominations but receiving government support to offer religious instruction. Schools may incorporate religious elements, such as class prayer, as long as they do not force teachers to participate, and students may be excused if their parents request it. The government provides funding and education assistance to public schools, including schools owned and operated by religious organizations, on a per pupil basis. Some schools maintain their religious and/or ethnic origin, but they remain open to all students. According to the law, the government ensures free tuition for primary and secondary schools.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In July the appellate court reviewed an appeal brought by the prosecution in the case of the senior management of the Fiji Times newspaper who were found not guilty in 2018 of charges related to publishing a letter to the editor that the government characterized as antagonistic toward the country’s Muslim community. The prosecution appealed the decision, and a decision on the appeal remained pending at year’s end.

Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, other cabinet ministers, and members of parliament continued to emphasize religious tolerance during public addresses at home and overseas. After the March attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, the prime minister called on Fijians to “pledge to condemn those making racist and hateful statements, whether online or in person” adding that “…people must do something, have the courage to call (them) out, and counter (their) hatred with vision” and that Fijians must “be the voice of love and change.” Government officials stated the country is a multifaith nation with religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution and must unite to defend the rights of citizens to practice their religion.

According to media reports, the Fiji Police Force investigated individuals on social media who were alleged to be posting messages of animosity to “incite further hatred against the Muslim community” after the attacks.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In September a man broke into and stole items from a Hindu temple in Suva. Police charged the man with one count of sacrilege for the offense. Also in September a mosque in Nausori, outside Suva, was vandalized; after the incident, the Fiji Muslim League sent out an advisory to its affiliates to take precautionary measures. Authorities made no arrests.

Media reported that Akuila Petero, an iTaukei man who had converted to Islam living in Nasaibitu Village, faced opposition when he began to build a home and place of worship for himself and other local iTaukei Muslims. Petero stated that in March a truck transporting materials for the building was stopped and that he and two other Muslims were assaulted as they were constructing the building. Local police said they were monitoring the situation.

Following the March attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which three Muslims of Fijian descent died, religious groups, political groups, and civil society representatives spoke out to condemn the act and to encourage tolerance and respect. Catholic Archbishop Peter Loy Chong said, “Fiji is home to about 62,000 Muslims. The Roman Catholic Church shares her sympathy, condolence, and prayers to Fiji Muslim families in Fiji and New Zealand who lost loved ones in the Christchurch shooting.” The Pacific Conference of Churches expressed messages of solidarity and love for the Muslim community at an interfaith vigil organized by the Fiji Muslim League. Leader of the Opposition Sitiveni Rabuka also condemned the attack and called on authorities to work together to prevent further violence.

In October some Catholic parishes commemorated Diwali at a special Mass they stated was to show respect to Hindus.

The Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as well as Hindu and Muslim groups operated numerous schools, including secondary schools, which were eligible for government subsidies based on the size of the student population.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with government officials.

Embassy officers met with local religious leaders with the aim of encouraging and maintaining an active interfaith dialogue. Embassy officers met with Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious leaders to discuss the importance of respect for religious freedom as a universal human right.

On May 29, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar to promote religious tolerance for members of the Muslim community and other religious leaders.

The embassy used social media to promote religious pluralism and tolerance, such as posts highlighting diverse religious traditions in the country.

Finland

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. In March the Supreme Court allowed the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country, to appeal its countrywide ban. The group remained banned while it made its appeal. The Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) instructed the Finnish Association of Museums to prepare a formal study of the state of Holocaust-era art provenance research in its collections. Parliament repealed the military service exemption which had applied only to Jehovah’s Witnesses. A Finns Party politician publicly compared Muslim asylum seekers to invasive species. Jehovah’s Witnesses said the government continued to refuse most applications from Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum for religious persecution.

Police reported 155 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2018, compared with 235 such incidents in the previous year, but did not specify how many were motivated solely by religion. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 35 complaints of religious discrimination in 2018, compared with 55 in the previous year. The NRM continued to post anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements online and demonstrated with the anti-immigrant group Soldiers of Odin. There were several demonstrations by neo-Nazi or nativist groups. In November, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht (the 1938 pogrom against Jews in Germany), a group handed out flyers and waved flags bearing symbols resembling the Nazi swastika at a demonstration in Helsinki, and anti-Semitic stickers were posted around the city. Muslim groups reported a shortage of funds needed to establish houses of worship to match their growing population. A report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) said hate crimes and intolerant speech in public discourse, principally against Muslims and asylum seekers (many of whom belong to religious minorities), had increased in recent years. The report also cited frequent use of anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet and hate speech by extremist groups, especially neo-Nazis. Vandals targeted Jewish property, including the Israeli embassy and a Shia mosque in Helsinki.

U.S. embassy staff met with government ministries to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, the provenance of Holocaust-era art, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum. Embassy staff discussed with the Jewish and Muslim communities their concerns about the law restricting animal slaughter, government discouragement of male circumcision, and a rise in religiously motivated harassment. They also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minorities, and interfaith networks.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to Finnish government statistics from December 2018, which count only registered members of registered congregations, approximately 69.8 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent (approximately 16,000 individuals) officially belong to Islamic congregations, and 26.3 percent do not identify as belonging to any religious group. The census combines the other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and members of the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.7 percent of the population.

Multiple sources indicate the Muslim population has grown rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants. Muslim religious leaders estimate the number of Muslims rose to 100,000 in 2018, of which approximately 80 percent is Sunni and 20 percent Shia. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated 2.7 percent of the population, or approximately 150,000 persons, were Muslim. According to a survey by the MEC, the Muslim population numbered approximately 65,000 in 2016. According to the Islamic Society of Finland, discrepancies among these sources and between them and official government statistics may occur because only a minority of Muslims register with registered Islamic societies. Apart from Tatars, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia, North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.” It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community. It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion. The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes “blaspheming against God,” publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment of up to six months. Authorities have rarely applied the law, most recently in 2009. The constitution cites the ELC, the only religious group it mentions, stating that “provisions on the organization and administration [of the ELC] are laid down in the Church Act.”

The law prohibits religious discrimination and prescribes a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law and investigating individual cases of discrimination and having the power to issue fines in noncriminal cases. The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling and promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities. The ombudsman may also refer cases to the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal (NDET), which also enforces fines issued by the ombudsman, or assist plaintiffs seeking compensation in court. Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the NDET, which may issue binding decisions that may be appealed to the courts, or through the district court system. Litigants may appeal the decisions of the NDET and the district courts to the higher Administrative Court. Neither the ombudsman nor the NDET has the authority to investigate individual cases of religious discrimination involving employment. Such cases fall under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Authority.

Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government. To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community. To register as a religious community, a group must have at least 20 members, the public practice of religion as its purpose, and a set of rules to guide its activities. A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims. A religious group may also acquire legal status by registering as an association with a nonprofit purpose that is not contrary to law or proper behavior. Registered religious groups and nonprofit associations are generally exempt from taxes. According to the MEC, there are approximately 130 registered religious communities, most of which have multiple congregations. Persons may belong to more than one religious community.

All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Finnish Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments. Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, now set at between 1 to 2 percent of a member’s income. Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership. Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person. Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.

Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church are eligible to apply for state funds in lieu of the church tax. In addition to receiving the church tax, the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church may also apply for state funds. The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements, including ELC and Orthodox congregations, may apply to receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.

The law requires the ELC to maintain public cemeteries using its general allocation from state funds and church tax and to account for monies used for this purpose. Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries. All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy. The law authorizes the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Population Register Center. State registrars do this for other persons.

Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12 years of age. The parents of a child between the ages of 12 and 17 must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate religious affiliation.

All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion. All students must take courses either in ethics or in religious studies, with the choice left up to the student. Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community. Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics. Students aged 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or ethics. If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates. The national and municipal governments fund private, including religiously based, schools. These schools do not charge tuition and do not practice selective admission based on students’ religion.

Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and general instruction in ethics. Teachers of religion must have state-mandated training for religious instruction. The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community. The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.

The government allows conscientious objectors to choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service. In February parliament repealed the exemption from conscription for Jehovah’s Witnesses, meaning that members of the organization need to perform military or alternative civilian service or face imprisonment. Conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service. Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.

The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be stunned and killed simultaneously in cases of religious practice.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In March the Supreme Court granted the NRM the right to appeal to the Supreme Court the 2018 Turku Court of Appeals ruling which upheld the 2017 nationwide ban of the organization for distributing anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim materials and engaging in hate speech. The NRM continued to demonstrate in public despite the Supreme Court’s order that it refrain from all activities while the appeal remained pending. In May the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) opened a criminal investigation into NRM members for allegedly violating the ban on activities by publishing anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim articles on their website.

In August the National Police Board, which supervises police operations across the country, stated it had received multiple questions from members of parliament (MPs) suggesting the redirection of resources from the investigation of hate speech and hate crimes would be beneficial. Among the critics was Finns Party leader Jussi Halla-aho, who said during the Finns Party’s summer summit in August that police personnel were needed for “real criminal investigations” and not to “stalk people on social media.”

At year’s end, parliament had not voted on an amendment to the Church Act, which governs the practices of the ELC. Parliament took up the bill in September 2018 after the General Synod of the ELC approved it but did not enact the bill during that year. The amended Church Act has the stated intent of clarifying and facilitating administration, enhancing church autonomy, and facilitating internal decision making in the ELC. The amended act would devolve back to the Church certain responsibilities that previously required parliamentary approval.

In June the MEC instructed the Finnish Association of Museums to prepare a formal study of the state of Holocaust-era art provenance research in their collections. According to the MEC, the move was intended to address the lack of Holocaust-era art provenance research in order to better meet the requirements for the implementation of the Terezin Declaration. At year’s end, the study was ongoing, and only the Finnish National Gallery had publicly listed works of art with significant provenance gaps acquired during 1939-1945. Holocaust-era art provenance research is also scheduled as a topic at the country’s National Art Museum Conference to be held in 2020.

In February an independent investigation by the National Archives concluded “it was very likely” Finnish volunteers in the Waffen SS participated in killing Jews, other civilians, and prisoners of war during World War II. State Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office Paula Lehtomaki said it was necessary “to investigate the questions that emerge and conduct complementary research on difficult historical events…. We share the responsibility for ensuring that such atrocities will never be repeated.” The prime minister’s office funded the investigation in 2018 in response to a request from the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In September Mikko Karna, a Center Party MP, advocated legislation prohibiting nonmedical male circumcision during parliamentary talks on the criminalization of female circumcision. Karna cited guidelines published by the Finnish Medical Association, which discouraged the procedure. He argued that all cases of cosmetic or religious male circumcision should be criminalized, citing medical research showing the percentage of routine procedures that unintentionally inflict serious harm on patients.

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public health-care funding for such procedures. In its guidelines, which were recommendations rather than requirements per prior Supreme Court rulings, the ministry stated only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent. Members of the Muslim and Jewish communities continued to express disagreement with the guidelines. The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice did not renew her 2018 request to the MSAH asking it to establish legally binding regulations on nonmedical circumcision.

After the government of Prime Minister Juha Sipila resigned in March, parliament dismissed without a vote a proposed animal welfare law it had been debating since 2018. The bill would have required prior stunning of animals before slaughter in all cases, eliminating the existing exemption allowing simultaneous stunning and killing in cases of religious slaughter. By year’s end, the new parliament had not taken the bill up again. Jewish community leaders also criticized the restrictions in the existing law, which they said hindered their community’s ability to slaughter animals in a religiously approved manner and caused them to import kosher meat at higher prices.

NGOs working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre and Amnesty, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment by other migrants held within the same center.

While the government did not release detailed reports on asylum applicants categorized by religion, immigration officials and representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia applying for asylum on the grounds of religious persecution remained high. Jehovah’s Witness representatives said the government denied most of the asylum claims, stating that only Church officials and not regular members were under threat of persecution in Russia. Immigration officials said membership in the Church did not in and of itself guarantee asylum.

According to a senior military officer, the military maintained a zero-tolerance policy regarding hate speech and hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents. Unit commanders initiated investigations of reported incidents. If the commander judged the infraction to be minor, he or she administered a formal reprimand or other punishment. For more serious offenses, the commander reported the investigation up the chain of command, and military authorities might refer the case to civilian courts. The officer also said that the military accommodated, per regulation, religious dietary needs and fasting requirements, and afforded religious leave and prayer time to all personnel.

Police reported 63 cases of refusal to perform compulsory military or civilian service, but very few of these cases involved Jehovah’s Witnesses according to representatives of the Jehovah’s Witness organization. Police did not indicate how many refusals were religiously motivated.

In September Ombudsman for Nondiscrimination Kirsi Pimia recommended public swimming pools permit Muslim women to wear burkinis. Pimia said there were cases of burkini-wearing women being turned away from public swimming pools. She added that banning burkinis could amount to discrimination based on religion and gender.

In August Finns Party leader Halla-aho stated during a parliamentary group meeting the party did not intend to let authorities press charges against Finns Party MP Juha Maenpaa for ethnic agitation or disturbance of religious peace. During a June session of parliament, Maenpaa equated asylum seekers from Muslim majority countries with alien or invasive species. In August police started a preliminary investigation into Maenpaa’s remarks. In September Center Party Speaker of Parliament Matti Vanhanen stated it was inappropriate for an MP to comment on a legal case in advance if there were a possibility parliament would judge the case. According to the constitution, if the prosecutor sought to prosecute Maenpaa, a five-sixths majority of parliament would have to agree to revoke his parliamentary immunity.

In August media reported a recently elected MP, Hussein al-Taee of the Social Democratic Party, had in 2014 and possibly as late as 2016, made anti-Semitic comments online, including comparing Israel to ISIS. According to The Jerusalem Post newspaper, parliament reversed its decision to suspend al-Taee after he apologized for his remarks. The newspaper quoted an official with the Simon Wiesenthal Center as stating al-Taee was “obviously an anti-Semite” and wondering how he could be a member in good standing of any social democratic party. By year’s end, neither the Social Democratic Party nor parliament had taken any disciplinary action against al-Taee.

The government allocated 114 million euros ($128.09 million) to the ELC and 2.54 million euros ($2.85 million) to the Finnish Orthodox Church. The MEC allotted a total of 524,000 euros ($589,000) to all other registered religious organizations. All the allocations were unchanged from 2018. The MEC additionally made a one-time grant to the Jewish Community of Helsinki of 300,000 euros ($337,000) for security of the Helsinki Synagogue and community center.

The MEC awarded a total of 80,000 euros ($89,900) to promote interfaith dialogue, the same amount as in 2018. The same two organizations as in the previous year split the funding: the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions (CORE Forum), which is composed of representatives from the largest religious denominations, and Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

A CORE Forum survey published in March of hate crimes between 2014 and 2018 reported 18 percent of incidents were religiously motivated. The most common targets of these crimes were members of the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite the ban against it, the NRM continued to operate a website and make statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims and participated in demonstrations, according to press reports. The website contained articles denying the Holocaust, stating that Jewish leaders treat “white people as Muslim terrorists,” and labeling Muslim women and children of ISIS fighters as even more dangerous than their husbands and fathers. According to authorities, the NRM also established a closer relationship with the nativist Soldiers of Odin, and members of both groups often participated in each other’s demonstrations. Superintendent of the National Police Board Timo Kilpelainen told the media the increased cooperation could be due to the ongoing judicial process surrounding NRM’s ban. At the start of the judicial process, the Soldiers of Odin had offered their support to the NRM. According to media reports, the NRM also created two additional associations, Finnish Aid and Unity of the People, so its members could become integrated with those groups should the ban become permanent.

On November 9, a self-styled national socialist group called Towards Freedom! organized a demonstration in Helsinki. According to Tommi Kotonen, a Jyvaskyla University researcher, NRM activists were likely behind the group. The demonstration coincided with the anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany in 1938. Protesters at the demonstration handed out fliers and waved flags bearing symbols resembling the Nazi swastika. According to a report on the website of national broadcaster Yle, police were investigating whether NRM had violated its ban by operating under the Towards Freedom! name. During the evening, according to the same report, unknown individuals placed yellow Star of David stickers with the word “Jude” (“Jew”) at sites around the city, including near a synagogue and the Israeli embassy.

According to media reports, in August the anti-immigrant Nationalist Alliance organized a memorial march in Turku, which included participation by the NRM, to commemorate the victims of a 2017 stabbing by a Moroccan asylum seeker. Approximately 250 persons joined the march. Finns Party MP Vilhelm Junnila spoke at the event, calling on the city to commemorate the victims by illuminating the Kirjastosilta Bridge in the colors of the national flag every August 18. Approximately 500 persons participated in a counterdemonstration titled “Turku Without Nazis.”

Muslim groups, such as the Islamic Congregation of Finland, continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population, but said they were hindered by insufficient funds to purchase property, given that most Muslims did not belong to congregations registered with the government. Except for a handful of purpose-built mosques, most mosques were in converted commercial spaces. In August Yle reported the Mikkeli Islamic Cultural Association, an unregistered group with approximately 30 members, was in the process of establishing a mosque in the town of Mikkeli, but authorities prohibited it from using the building it selected until the town issued a different building permit and the group had made required fire safety improvements. The building was under renovation at year’s end.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 35 complaints of religious discrimination in 2018 – 4 percent of total discrimination complaints – compared with 55 complaints in 2017. In one instance the report cited, a district court fined a shop owner, ruling the owner had discriminated against woman wearing a niqab by refusing her service.

In September ECRI published a report on racism and intolerance in the country that stated hate crimes had increased in recent years, especially against Muslims and refugees (many of whom are Muslim). It added that intolerant speech in public discourse was increasing and principally directed against the Muslim community and asylum seekers (many of whom belong to religious minorities). It stated some members of the Finns Party made anti-Muslim statements in public. According to the report, anti-Semitic rhetoric on the internet was “commonplace” and certain extremist groups, especially neo-Nazis such as the national branch of the NRM, “engage[d] in the systematic use of hate speech.” It also stated Nazi swastikas had become more visible in public spaces. The report called on the government to set up a comprehensive data collection system for hate crimes and hate speech.

In May the European Commission carried out a study in each EU member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 29 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Finland, while 67 percent said it was rare; 75 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 86 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 81 percent said they would be with an atheist, 82 percent with a Jew, 80 percent with a Buddhist, and 76 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 90 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 83 percent if atheist, 81 percent if Jewish, 77 percent if Buddhist, and 66 percent if Muslim.

In January the European Commission published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 76 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in Finland, and 49 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 19 percent; on the internet, 25 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 12 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 15 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 13 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 12 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 9 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 12 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 14 percent.

The website Magneettimedia continued to post anti-Semitic content. In August it published an article stating that “not Islamic but Zionist terrorism” was behind the 2017 Turku “terrorist attack,” and that, “Israel and its associated Zionists have set their sights on the confrontation between the Christian world and the Islamic world.” Major companies and consumer brands in the country continued to boycott the chain of department stores owned by the former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, due to his anti-Semitic views; no new companies or brands announced they would join the boycott.

Yle and other media reported that in March unknown persons spray-painted anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim expletives on the outside wall of a Shia mosque, one of the largest in the country, in the eastern Helsinki district of Mellunmaki on two consecutive mornings. The chair of the Resalat Islamic Society said such vandalism occurred sporadically and that the websites of the society were sometimes hacked. He added that staff at the society had received death threats. Helsinki police were investigating the case at year’s end.

According to the Israeli embassy, in July security camera footage showed an individual kicking in the embassy’s reinforced glass front door and gesturing at the Israeli flag in a derogatory manner, including with Nazi salutes. The entrance of the building housing the embassy also was defaced with stickers glorifying Adolf Hitler. The Israeli Ambassador characterized the incident as part of an escalation of acts of vandalism targeting Jewish property over a period of more than one year. Prior incidents included anti-Semitic graffiti targeting both the embassy and the Jewish community center in Helsinki. The Israeli Ambassador expressed frustration over the lack of an effective police or government response to the attacks.

In May a man approached Petri Sarvamaa, a European Parliament MP campaigning for reelection, on the street, called him a derogatory slur for a Jewish person, and threatened him.

Representatives of religious groups attended ceremonies hosted in their counterparts’ houses of worship. Finn Church Aid (FCA), associated with the ELC, again hosted an interreligious iftar, bringing together representatives from the major religious denominations in the capital region, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and municipal governments.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy staff met with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Foreign Affairs to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in asylum adjudication, and regulations covering kosher slaughter of animals. The embassy encouraged government officials to take steps to ensure that, pursuant to the Terezin Declaration, Holocaust survivors and their heirs received just compensation for assets seized by Nazi Germany, including by improving art provenance research in museums in the country.

Embassy staff met with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and lay activists from these communities, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy staff and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities discussed these communities’ shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, religiously motivated crimes, proposed legislation that would prohibit forms of religious animal slaughter, and continued issues with establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with representatives from different Muslim congregations and met regularly with NGOs such as Core Forum and FCA. Embassy staff discussed with Jehovah’s Witness community representatives changes to the military service exemption and the high rate of denial of asylum applications for religious persecution by Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia.

The embassy observed the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Violence Based on Religion or Belief through a Twitter message, and retweeting the Secretary of State’s press statement, “International Commitment to Protect Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.” The embassy also recognized the work of interfaith organizations in promoting religious tolerance by hosting an iftar and hosting a CORE Forum board meeting at the embassy. A senior embassy official delivered remarks promoting interfaith cooperation at both events.

Embassy staff met with prominent activists in the country’s Uighur community to discuss, among other topics, China’s harassment of Uighur activists within Finland and elsewhere.

Indonesia

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and, as noted in the constitution, to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” Individuals continued to be detained and received prison sentences of up to five years for violations of blasphemy laws. One man was detained for reading the Quran disrespectfully in an online video. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including one Buddhist man who accepted caning in lieu of imprisonment. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as local regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. In August authorities took action against two Pentecostal churches, revoking a permit for one and stopping worship activities for another. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office continued to use a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against groups with what the government considered unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. Religious groups outside the six government-recognized religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, the latter widely interpreted by the government and society to mean Sunni Islam), again reported problems with identifying their religion on their national identification cards (KTPs), although a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allows for such a listing. Adherents of indigenous faiths cannot enter their specific names, however, because there are too many. Various jurisdictions agreed to use a common term, i.e., “Faith in One God.” Three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that could list “Faith in One God” as the faith category, but the practice was not widely implemented. There were again instances in which local governments and police acceded to the demands of groups, such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front, Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, called “intolerant groups” in media, to close houses of worship for permit violations or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. President Joko Widodo included six non-Muslims in his cabinet appointments announced on October 23, the same as during his previous administration.

Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media. In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the May 2018 suicide bomber attack on three churches. Local Islamic youth groups in coordination with police provided extra security outside Surabaya churches in conjunction with the anniversary. In March unknown individuals vandalized Jewish graves in Jakarta, and in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.

The Ambassador and U.S. embassy and consulate officials advocated for religious freedom with the government, including at the highest levels. Embassy and consulate officials engaged government officials on specific issues, including actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the importance of tolerance and rule of law, and the application of sharia to non-Muslims. Embassy and consulate officials also engaged civil society and religious leaders about tolerance and pluralism and spoke out publicly against discrimination and violence against minority religious communities. The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – endorsed by both governments and comprising religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts from both countries – met with the Ambassador to discuss religious freedom issues. The embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach to promote the message of respect for diversity and religious tolerance through events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 264.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, Gafatar, and other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.

The Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni. An estimated one to three million Muslims are Shia. Many smaller Muslim groups exist; estimates put the total number of Ahmadi Muslims at 200,000 to 400,000.

Many religious groups incorporate elements of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, making it difficult to disaggregate the exact number of followers. An estimated 20 million people, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as aliran kepercayaan. There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago.

The Sikh population is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, with approximately 5,000 in Medan and the rest in Jakarta. There are very small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, Jayapura, and elsewhere, with the total number of Jews estimated at 200. The Baha’i Faith and Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) communities report thousands of members, but independent estimates are not available. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists states it has more than 1,700 members.

The province of Bali is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the right to practice the religion of one’s choice and specifies that freedom of religion is a human right that may not be limited. The constitution states, “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God,” but it guarantees all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief, saying the right to have a religion is a human right that shall not be discriminated against.

The constitution also says the state is based on the belief in one God, and the state is obliged to guarantee the freedom of worship. It states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy, as noted in the constitution, “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society. The law restricts citizens from exercising these rights in a way that impinges on the rights of others, oversteps common moral standards and religious values, or jeopardizes security or public order.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) extends official recognition to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The government maintains a long-standing practice of recognizing Sunni Islam as the official version of Islam of local Muslims, although the constitution has no such stipulation.

The blasphemy articles in the criminal code prohibit deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six officially recognized religions or have the intent of preventing an individual from adhering to an official religion. These articles also stipulate that in any case of defamation of the six officially recognized religions, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the MORA, and the Attorney General’s Office must first warn the individual in question before bringing a defamation charge. The articles also forbid the dissemination of information designed to spread hatred or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Individuals may be subject to prosecution for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements under either of these provisions or under the laws against defamation and may face a maximum prison sentence of five years. A separate law forbids the electronic dissemination of the same types of information, with violations carrying a maximum four-year sentence.

The government defines a religion as having a prophet, holy book, and deity, as well as international recognition. The government deems the six officially recognized religions meet these requirements. Organizations representing one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law are not required to obtain a legal charter if they are established under a notary act and obtain approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Religious organizations other than the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law must obtain a legal charter as a civil society organization from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MORA before granting legal status to religious organizations. The law requires all civil society organizations to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God, justice, unity, democracy, and social justice, and they are prohibited from committing blasphemous acts or spreading religious hatred. By law, all religious groups must officially register with the government. Registration requirements for religious organizations include: (a) organizations may not contradict Pancasila and the constitution; (b) they must be voluntary, social, independent, nonprofit, and democratic; and (c) they must have a notarized articles of association (bylaws) and a specifically defined purpose. The organization then registers with the MORA. After MORA approval, the organization is announced publicly through the state gazette. Violations of the law may result in a loss of legal status, dissolution of the organization, and arrest of members under the blasphemy articles of the criminal code or other applicable laws. Indigenous religious groups must register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as aliran kepercayaan to obtain official, legal status.

A joint ministerial decree bans both proselytizing by the Ahmadi Muslim community and vigilantism against the group. Violations of the Ahmadi proselytizing ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy. According to the criminal code, vigilantism carries a maximum five and one-half-year prison sentence.

A joint ministerial decree bans proselytizing and other activities by the Fajar Nusantara Movement, known as Gafatar. Violations of the ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy.

There is no joint ministerial decree that bans proselytizing by other groups. The Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a quasi-governmental Muslim organization, however, has issued fatwas that ban proselytizing by so called deviant groups such as Inkar al-Sunnah, Ahmadiyya, Islam Jama’ah, the Lia Eden Community, and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah.

The government requires all officially registered religious groups to comply with directives from the MORA and other ministries on issues such as construction of houses of worship, foreign aid to domestic religious institutions, and propagation of religion.

A joint ministerial decree between the MORA and the MOHA states that religious groups may not hold services in private residences, and those seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are responsible for implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the city or district level and comprise religious leaders from the six official groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

The law requires religious instruction in public schools. Students have the right to request religious instruction in any one of the six official religions, but teachers are not always available to teach the requested religion classes. Under the law, individuals may not opt out of religious education requirements. In practice, however, students of minority religious groups are often allowed to opt out and attend study hall instead.

Under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a separatist conflict, Aceh Province has unique authority to implement sharia regulations. The law allows for provincial implementation and regulation of sharia and extends the jurisdiction of religious courts to economic transactions and criminal cases. The Aceh government states sharia in Aceh only applies to Muslim residents of the province, although nonresident Muslims and adherents to other faiths may accept sharia in lieu of punishment under the criminal code.

Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize consensual same-sex activity, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 1 p.m. Sharia regulations prohibit female Muslim residents of Aceh from wearing tight pants in public, and they must wear headscarves. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and caning. There are regulations intended to limit the amount of force that authorities may exert during a caning.

Many local governments outside of Aceh have enacted regulations based on religious considerations; most of these are in majority Muslim areas. Many of these regulations relate to matters such as religious education and only apply to a specific religious group. Some religiously inspired local regulations in effect apply to all citizens. For instance, some local regulations require restaurants to close during Ramadan fasting hours, ban alcohol, or mandate the collection of zakat (Islamic alms). Other local regulations forbid or limit the religious activities of religious minorities, especially Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

The marriage law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it contains an article stipulating that parties must perform the marriage ceremony according to the rituals of a religion shared by both the bride and groom.

The law requires the leader of an aliran kepercayaan group to demonstrate group members live in at least three regencies, which are administrative designations one level below a province, before the leader may officiate legally at a wedding. This constraint effectively bars believers of some smaller groups without such geographic presence from receiving official marriage services from a member of their faith, although groups may aid each other and facilitate marriages by a group with a similar faith tradition and rituals.

A joint ministerial decree requires domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the MORA to receive funding from overseas donors and forbids dissemination of religious literature and pamphlets to members of other religious groups as well as going door-to-door for the purposes of converting others. Most religious groups may, however, proselytize in their own places of worship, except for some groups such as the Ahmadi Muslims.

Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the MORA to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, despite a 2018 ban on public canings announced by Aceh’s governor. Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose punishment under sharia or civil court procedures, but Muslim residents of Aceh must receive punishment under sharia. According to media reports and human rights activists, several non-Muslim residents of Aceh chose punishment under sharia, reportedly due to the expediency of punishment and the risk of prolonged and expensive trials and possible lengthy prison sentences.

In August authorities in Aceh caned a Buddhist man and his Muslim girlfriend 27 times after the couple spent time in a Banda Aceh hotel room. According to a local reporter, the man accepted sharia punishment as an alternative to a prison sentence. He was the third Buddhist and eighth non-Muslim to choose punishment under sharia law since its introduction in 2014. Authorities also caned four unmarried Muslim couples between eight and 33 times each for extramarital sex, and they caned two unmarried couples 100 times each in the northern Aceh city of Lhokseumawe after they were found guilty of premarital sex, while a third man received 160 lashes for having sex with a minor.

In March the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Meliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman, who in 2018 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for blasphemy. The accusation came after she privately asked a local mosque caretaker’s daughter that the mosque lower its loudspeaker volume. Vice President Jusuf Kalla and some senior members of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, said her remarks should not be considered blasphemy. In May she was released on parole after serving the mandatory two-thirds of her prison term.

In April the Special Criminal Police of Bangka Belitung investigated and detained Daud Rafles, a resident of Sekar Biru Village, Bangka Island, for blasphemy. Village residents identified Rafles in a viral video in which he allegedly read the Quran disrespectfully.

In June, according to Human Rights Watch, authorities arrested a Catholic woman, Suzethe Margaret, and charged her with blasphemy after taking a dog into a mosque. Witnesses stated she was looking for her husband and accused individuals at the mosque of converting him to Islam to marry another woman. She allegedly kicked a mosque guard when asked to leave. Doctors stated the woman needed psychiatric treatment and did not understand what she did. Reports stated the woman faced up to five years in prison if convicted. At year’s end, prosecutors recommended the court sentence the woman to eight months in prison.

In April the Mayor of Malang, East Java, issued a circular urging non-Muslims not to “eat, drink, or smoke” in public places during Ramadan because it could hurt the feelings of fasting Muslims. The circular was posted on Malang’s municipal government twitter account.

In April the press reported that a Catholic family was forced to leave Karet Village in Bantul, Yogyakarta, after staying one night in a house the family rented; local residents protested the family’s presence and filed a report with Bantul regency officials. According to media reports, some villagers from Karet argued that under district law all newcomers must be Muslim. After mediation, the village chief and Bantul Regency government officials told the family they could stay in the village; press reports, however, stated the family chose to leave.

In March church leaders from the Christian church Gereja Bethel Indonesia in South Birobuli, Central Sulawesi, closed their place of worship due to objections from the local community. Media reported that church leaders, the head of the FKUB, local officials, and police met to discuss the fate of the church and that the church failed to receive approval from at least 60 members of the local community, as required by MORA regulation. Police told media that the land where the church was located was in dispute and the church did not have a building permit.

According to The Jakarta Christian Post, in August authorities revoked a recently issued permit for a Pentecostal church in Yogyakarta after protests and threats from Muslims in the area. The district chief stated he revoked the permit because the church did not meet requirements established by a ministerial decree regulating houses of worship, saying “a house of worship cannot be a home at the same time.”

In August according to media reports, the Indragiri Hilir District Civil Service Police Unit (Satpol PP) stopped worship activities at the Indonesian Pentecostal church Efata Church in Sari Agung Hamlet, Indragiri Hilir Regency, Riau. Worship activities had been proceeding there for five years. The head of Satpol PP said officials had to stop worship activities because they occurred at the pastor’s house and not in a house of worship. According to officials, the decision to stop services was made after the district government consulted with district leaders and the district FKUB, which included Christian representatives from Tembilahan, the district capital. A legal aid organization said the Sari Agung Hamlet pastor leading the congregation was not consulted during the process and therefore chose to continue to conduct religious services at a nearby tent. Local authorities identified an alternate worship site nine miles away from the pastor’s residence, but the congregation rejected this location due to its inaccessibility.

In September the regional secretary of Makassar Municipality in South Sulawesi released a government circular that stated, “Be wary of and not be influenced by Shia ideology and teachings.” The letter, issued on the day Ashura was observed, also asked persons to prevent dissemination of Shiism, calling it “deviant teaching.” Media reported the circular was based on an “illegal” circular issued by the South Sulawesi government in 2017. Dozens of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists in Makassar issued a statement a week later criticizing the circular and demanding that the provincial and municipal governments stop issuing what they termed intolerant circulars and prevent intolerant actions in the community.

In September the Regent of Gowa, South Sulawesi, issued a decree disbanding Tarekat Taj Al-Khalwaty Syech Yusuf, a Sufi religious group with 10,000 followers across Gowa and Takalar Regencies. The decision followed a 2016 heresy fatwa issued by the Gowa branch of MUI against the group. MUI Gowa reported the group and its leaders to the police for blasphemy and defamation against MUI Gowa and money laundering. In November Gowa police arrested the group’s leader, Puang Lalang, on charges of financial fraud, embezzlement, and blasphemy for charging followers up to 50,000 Indonesian rupiah ($4) for membership. MUI also issued heresy fatwas against the group in Sinjai Regency and Takalar Regency, South Sulawesi.

In September the speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly disallowed a non-Muslim female member from reading a prayer at the legislature’s final session on September 27, which would have marked the first time a non-Muslim woman read the closing prayers.

The government continued to support a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against individuals and groups with what the government considers unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office launched the app in December 2018 with the expressed goal of streamlining the heresy and blasphemy reporting system. Various human rights organizations continued to criticize the app, saying it could undermine religious tolerance and freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, the app identifies several religious groups and their leaders (including Ahmadi, Shia, and Gafatar), describes their “deviant teachings,” and provides their local office addresses.

The MORA maintained its authority at both the national and local level to conduct the “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. In several West Java regencies, local governments continued efforts to force or encourage conversion of Ahmadi Muslims with a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. According to the local Ahmadiyya community in Tasikmalaya and Banjar, local MORA offices obliged Ahmadis to sign forms stating they denounced Ahmadiyya teachings. This practice began in 2014.

According to religious groups and NGOs, government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedom and committing other acts of intimidation, such as damaging or destroying houses of worship and homes. These groups included the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council. For example, the FPI’s registration as a religious organization expired in June. Sources stated the FPI is known for violence against minority religious groups and forcing the shutdown of bars and entertainment establishments it deems immoral. In May an online petition was created demanding the MOHA not renew the FPI’s permit. As of year’s end, the MOHA did not indicate that it would renew the permit, despite the MORA endorsing the renewal of the permit in December, and the group had no legal status.

In March Setara Institute reported there were 202 cases of religious freedom abuses in 2018 (72 cases committed by government and the rest by society), compared with 151 cases in 2017. Abuses cited included discrimination, intolerance, and prohibitions on wearing hijabs in public school.

In September civil society organization The Wahid Foundation reported 276 cases of religious persecution in 2018, as defined by the foundation, including 130 from government-related institutions. The foundation recorded 265 cases in 2017, including 95 from government-related institutions. The foundation’s reported abuses included the issuance of sharia-based local regulations and prohibitions on building houses of worship.

In June the Pemalang police chief in Central Java conducted tolerance training for his police unit by having police officers and the public clean houses of worship of different faiths. In September NGO Madania conducted tolerance training called “Peace Initiative” for religious teachers.

In November FPI members intimidated the non-Muslim Regent of West Bangka, Bangka Belitung, to prevent his celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in his official residence.

More than 500 Shia Muslims from Madura remained displaced on the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, after communal violence forced them from their homes in 2012. In Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, 131 Ahmadi Muslims remained internally displaced in cramped apartments after a mob expelled them from their Lombok village in 2006.

Human rights organizations criticized a proposed bill, withdrawn after widespread protests, that would have revised the criminal code and expanded the 1965 blasphemy law. The bill proposed increasing the enumeration of “the elements of crime” to include items such as defaming religious artifacts. A coalition of local civil society organizations said the law would discriminate against non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, local religious minorities, as well as women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.

Across the country, minority religious groups, including Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority areas, continued to state the official requirement for a specific number of supporters to build or renovate a house of worship served as a barrier to construction. In May a group of Hindus wanted to build a temple in Bekasi, West Java. Persons in the surrounding area rejected the project by saying the number of Hindus in the neighborhood was too low.

Local governments did not issue permits even when the worshippers obtained the requisite numbers if opponents of the construction pressured neighbors not to approve. In many cases, a few vocal opponents from the local majority religious affiliation were reportedly sufficient to stop construction approvals. State-recognized religious leaders in government-supported interfaith forums reportedly found ways to block aliran kepercayaan believers from constructing places of worship, largely through stringent permit requirements. Aliran kepercayaan adherents said they were fearful of atheism accusations if they were to contest this treatment in court. Christian leaders reported that local officials indefinitely delayed permit approval for requests to build new churches because these officials feared construction would incite protests. Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians said they also faced problems when seeking approval to move to temporary facilities while a primary place of worship underwent renovation.

Local governments, police, and religious organizations reportedly tried to close religious minority groups’ houses of worship for permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had a proper permit. In July the Regent of Bantul, Yogyakarta, removed the building permit from a Pentecostal church in Sedayu, Bantul, following protests and pressure by the local community.

Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of a house of worship and often faced protest from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when authorities issued permits, they closed or forced construction to halt on some houses of worship after facing legal challenges and public protests. Protestant and Catholic churches also reported that “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money to continue operating without a permit. Some houses of worship established before the joint ministerial decree on house of worship construction came into effect reportedly were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops.

In August local residents stopped the construction project of an Indonesian Baptist church in Tlogosari Wetan, Semarang, Central Java. They argued that the building permit owned by the group had expired, and they subsequently blocked access to the project site where the church was being built. The Semarang administration subsequently decided to review the building permit. Semarang Mayor Hendrar Prihadi said the church construction would be halted until he verified the permit’s validity.

Church leaders in Jambi said they had been trying to obtain appropriate building permits from the city administration to build places of worship since 2003, but city authorities had not granted these due to opposition from community authorities. The head of the Jambi Municipal Civil Service Police Unit said three churches were shut down in 2018 because they violated regional regulations and did not have proper building permits. At year’s end, the three churches remained closed. In 2018 an activist created a petition online urging the government to reopen these churches. As of December, approximately 3,900 people had signed the petition.

Construction was completed on the Santa Clara Catholic Church in Bekasi, West Java. The congregation had waited more than 15 years for the approval of its construction permit before receiving it in 2015, and “intolerant groups” regularly targeted the construction site for protests. The church was formally opened by the Bekasi mayor on August 17.

Aliran kepercayaan followers continued to say teachers pressured them to send their children to a religious education class of one of the six officially recognized religions. Minority religious groups not among the six recognized religions said schools often allowed their children to spend religious education time in study hall, but school officials required parents to sign documents stating their children received religious education. Ahmadi Muslim students reported religion classes for Islam focused only on Sunni teachings.

In November media reported that a public school expelled two Jehovah’s Witness students after they declined to recite the national anthem, salute the national flag, and attend religious classes, citing their beliefs. The decision to expel the students was made in coordination with the local MORA branch, the Batam Education Authority, police, and the military. Following objections filed by a law firm representing the expelled students, the provincial Board of Education in Batam eventually ordered the cancelation of the expulsion letters. The two students returned to school after almost two months.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs, individuals continued to report difficulties accessing government services if they did so. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members, including those following indigenous beliefs, reportedly chose to identify as a member of an officially recognized religion close to their beliefs or reflecting the locally dominant religion. According to researchers, this practice obscured the real number of adherents to any particular religious group in government statistics. Following a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling, citizens were allowed to select indigenous faiths as an option on their KTPs. In 2018 MORA officials said they were planning on implementing this law in order to identify indigenous faiths on KTPs. Early in the year, three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that allowed the faith category “Faith in One God” in South Sulawesi, Bandung, and Cirebon (West Java).

NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to remove the religion field from KTPs. Religious minorities reported they sometimes faced discrimination after others saw their religious affiliation on their KTPs. Members of the Jewish community said they felt uncomfortable stating their religion in public and often chose to state they were Christians or Muslims depending on the dominant religion where they lived, due to concern that local communities did not understand their religion.

Men and women of different religions who sought to marry reportedly had difficulties finding a religious official willing to perform a wedding ceremony. Some couples of different religions selected the same religion on their KTPs in order to marry legally.

Minority Muslim groups, including Ahmadis, Shia, and Gafatar, also continued to report resistance when they applied for KTPs as Muslims, effectively denying them access to public services if they could not secure KTPs.

Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. For example, the Mayor of Solo was Catholic. After beginning a second term in October, President Widodo’s new 34-member cabinet included six members of minority faiths, the same as during his previous administration.

Foreign religious workers from many religious groups continued to state they found it relatively easy to obtain visas, and some groups reported little government interference with their religious activities.

Police provided special protection to some Catholic churches in major cities during Sunday services and Christian holidays. Police also provided special protection to Buddhist and Hindu temples during religious celebrations.

According to the law, a marriage is legitimate if it has been performed according to the laws of the respective religions and beliefs of the parties concerned. Nevertheless, interreligious marriage was difficult unless the groom or bride was willing to be married according to the religious rituals of only one of the two religions. Many individuals who performed interreligious marriage preferred to go abroad for the marriage.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to an Ahmadiyya leader in Bandung, West Java, “intolerant groups” continued to use MUI fatwas to justify actions against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, even though the fatwas lacked legal standing. For example, in January a group of individuals disbanded a book discussion organized by Ahmadiyya in Bandung, West Java, saying the book promoted Ahmadiyya messages.

Individuals affiliated at the local level with MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects. In July 12 anti-Ahmadiyya groups protested against an Ahmadiyya annual event in Gowa, South Sulawesi, held by members to discuss their annual strategy. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media.

Throughout the year there were disputes between religious groups in the predominantly Christian province of Papua. Some religious leaders stated that many disputes between ethnic Papuans and migrants to Papua were based on ethnicity, economic competition, and political grievances rather than religion. In July a group called the Moral Guard Alliance Makassar forced the closure of two food stalls that sold pork at a shopping mall in Makassar. The organization’s leader told media the mall management closed the stalls in response to an alliance letter asking the mall to prohibit nonhalal food items. Mall management said it would try to find a more suitable location for the stalls. The two food stalls opened in January, and the mall management stated the stalls put up signs warning visitors that they sold nonhalal food.

In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the anniversary of the May 2018 suicide bomber attack on three churches. Local Islamic youth groups in coordination with police provided extra security outside Surabaya churches in conjunction with the anniversary. Christian leaders in Surabaya said they were encouraged by sympathy and support shown toward the affected Christians by the local Muslim community.

In August Ustadz Abdul Somad, a Muslim cleric from Riau, was reported to district police for blasphemy when a video recorded three years earlier had gone viral. In the video, Somad said a Christian cross contained a kafir (infidel) genie (demon) in response to a question from a worshipper. Members of Horas Bangso Batak (a North Sumatra ethnic-based organization that is mostly Christian) filed a complaint with the district police in Metrojaya, Jakarta. Members of Brigade Meo, a Christian-based organization in East Nusa Tenggara, also reported him to the local police. At year’s end, the case remained under police investigation.

In March German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that several Jewish graves in a public cemetery in Jakarta were desecrated.

In October the inaugural report on anti-Semitism by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed found that “over 57 percent of teachers and lecturers and 53.74 percent of students in Indonesia agreed with a survey statement claiming that ‘Jews are the enemies of Islam.’” Additionally, the report stated that local Jewish community leaders reported it was common for the public to equate all Jews with Israel.

According to AsiaNews, in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.

MUI supported a Christian funeral service taking place in front of a mosque in Jakarta in September.

Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. In November Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and Grand Imam of Istiqlal Mosque Nasaruddin Umar stated that religious tolerance would be an increasing focus in the country’s education.

The largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups in many instances. For example, in February Haedar Nashir, Muhammadiyah chairman, called on all citizens to demonstrate tolerance and to live in peace with other religious communities. Said Aqil Siradj, Nahdlatul Ulama chairman, stated in August that tolerance was an important element of a proper attitude and a good personality.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy in Jakarta, the consulate general in Surabaya, and the consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on specific religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities; closures of places of worship; access for foreign religious organizations; convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion; the undue influence of “intolerant groups” and the importance of the rule of law; the application of sharia to non-Muslims; the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance; the equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion; and promotion of tolerance in international forums. Specifically, the embassy met with legislators and other government officials to advocate against the expansion of blasphemy provisions in a bill to amend the criminal code.

The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism, a civil-society-led entity endorsed by both governments, includes a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders from both countries established to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The Ambassador engaged its leadership to discuss ways to augment the council’s activity on issues affecting the country’s religious communities. In particular, the Ambassador urged council members to engage in activities with U.S. members and to use the council as a vehicle for joint collaboration between the two countries to combat violent extremism and promote religious freedom.

During Ramadan, the embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach throughout the country to highlight religious tolerance. The Ambassador promoted religious freedom and tolerance during his appearance on two of the country’s highest-rated television shows. A social media campaign used embassy-produced Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr videos to promote interfaith tolerance within the country.

The embassy’s annual “Ramadan in the U.S.” campaign promoted democratic values including tolerance, volunteerism, and strength in diversity. As part of the campaign, 4,000 high school and university students heard directly from U.S. government-sponsored exchange program former participants about their firsthand experiences of religious tolerance and diversity during their time in the United States. By highlighting the experiences of Muslim travelers and Muslim communities in the United States, the campaign celebrated interfaith tolerance.

In March embassy officials met with Muslim and Christian leaders, as well as with members of the local FKUB, in Jayapura, Papua, to discuss efforts to resolve disputes between religious groups in the province.

In April the Ambassador met with prominent Muslim leaders in Padang, hosted an iftar in an Islamic boarding school for women in Padang Panjang in West Sumatra, and discussed tolerance and religious freedom.

In October the consulate in Medan invited Muslim scholars from the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Cleric Coordination Body and Muslim academics from the North Sumatra Islamic State University De-Radicalization Research Center for dialogue on Islamic issues with visiting Washington-based officials.

The Ambassador met periodically with leaders of the country’s two largest Muslim organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, to discuss religious tolerance and pluralism and to further develop areas of cooperation.

The embassy implemented several professional exchange programs designed to foster and encourage religious tolerance. These included sponsoring a visit to the United States by eight influential imams (including the senior-most religious leader of the country and the imam of the largest mosque in Southeast Asia) to examine religious pluralism and promote tolerance. Other groups of civil society leaders, university officials, and the head of madrassah teacher training at the MORA attended programs focused on promoting pluralism and tolerance across religious divides and advancing interfaith relations.

The embassy created a new exchange program to expose emerging leaders within Islamic organizations to religious pluralism in the United States, in order to increase religious tolerance in Indonesia by showing how religious tolerance in the United States benefits the entire society.

The embassy sponsored four university students to participate in a Department of State-funded religious freedom program at Temple University. The embassy also sponsored the participation of five individuals in a program, which included a forum on “Tolerance and Coexistence” in November. During the forum, experts discussed topics such as “Interfaith Relations and Global Peace in the Digital Age” and “Making Sense of the New Information Space to Combat Divisions and Polarization.”

The embassy promoted participation in a parliamentary exchange program on religious tolerance and combating online hate speech. The program seeks to enhance the ability of members of parliament to utilize best legislative practices to combat hate speech and protect vulnerable groups against discrimination.

Embassy officials met regularly with counterparts from other embassies to discuss support for the freedom of religion and belief and to exchange information on areas of concern, programs being implemented, and possible areas of cooperation.

Ireland

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion. It references Jesus Christ and God and stipulates the state shall respect religion. On December 21, President Michael Higgins signed a law entering into force in January 2020 which ends the prohibition on blasphemy after it was eliminated from the constitution following a 2018 referendum. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, the government barred “national” (publicly funded, primary) Catholic schools from making admission decisions based on students’ religion; other national religious schools could continue to do so if they are oversubscribed. The national police announced in April it would allow male Sikh and female Muslim members of the force to wear, respectively, turbans and hijabs on the job. There were reports some school authorities in national Catholic schools gave preferential treatment to students for participating in religious activities and told parents that, contrary to law, their children could not opt out of religion classes. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to urge the government to adopt hate crime legislation, including for religiously motivated crimes, and improve monitoring of such incidents. In October the government launched a public consultation on hate speech as part of a planned update of the criminal law prohibiting incitement to hatred. In October police introduced a working hate crime definition that included religiously motivated crime. In December the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) cited a high level of hate crime in the country, including against women wearing headscarves in public, and called on the government to make a “clear time-bound commitment” to reform its legal framework on hate crime. President Higgins and other senior government officials participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration.

In May media reported two separate attacks on Muslim men in Limerick during Ramadan in which a total of three men were beaten and hospitalized. Media reported in August teenagers pushed a Muslim girl to the ground and forcibly removed her hijab in Dublin. A group in Dublin worked to establish a network of safe spaces in the city for Muslim women encountering harassment. The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), an independent statutory body, reported from January to June it received 15 complaints of employment discrimination based on religion. A European Commission (EC) survey on perceptions of discrimination published in September found 42 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country. In January another EC survey reported that 69 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in the country. In July a mosque was vandalized in Galway. In August Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson wrote an open letter to imams and other Muslim leaders in the city, expressing sorrow and solidarity with victims of attacks in the country targeting Muslims.

U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Education and Skills, and the police. Embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs to discuss their concerns over religious tolerance, secularism, and religion in the national school system.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2016 census (the most recent) indicates the population is approximately 78 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Church of Ireland (Anglican), 1 percent Muslim, 1 percent Orthodox Christian (including Greek, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox), 1 percent unspecified Christian, and 2 percent other religions, while 10 percent stated no religious affiliation, and 3 percent did not specify their religion. There are small numbers of Presbyterians, Hindus, Apostolic Pentecostals, Pentecostals, and Jews. The census estimates the Jewish population to be 2,500. The number of Christians and Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, Muslims and Hindus from South Asia, and Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe continues to grow, especially in larger urban areas. NGOs such as Atheist Ireland and the Humanists Association of Ireland said the census overestimates religious affiliation by asking, “What is your religion?” which they said was a leading question.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the free profession and practice of religion, subject to public order and morality. The constitution references “the Most Holy Trinity” and “our divine Lord, Jesus Christ,” and stipulates the state shall hold the name of God in reverence and honor and respect religion. The constitution requires the president, judges, and members of the council of state to swear a religious oath, which begins with a reference to “Almighty God.” It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and guarantees not to endow any religion.

The constitution stipulates every religious denomination has the right to manage its own affairs, own and acquire property, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes. It prohibits the diversion of property of any religious denomination except for necessary works of public utility and upon payment of compensation. The constitution states legislation providing for government aid to schools shall not discriminate among schools under the management of different religious denominations nor affect the right of a child to attend any school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.

The constitution was amended in November 2018 to remove blasphemy as an offense following an October 2018 referendum approving the change. On December 21, President Higgins signed legislation entering into force on January 17, 2020 to revoke the law making blasphemy a crime. The constitution had been amended in November 2018 to remove blasphemy as an offense following an October 2018 referendum. Until its repeal, the law defined blasphemy as uttering or publishing language “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion,” when the intent and result are “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.” Violations were punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($28,100), but the government had last prosecuted blasphemy in 1855.

The law forbids incitement to hatred based on religion, among other categories, and carries a maximum penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 25,400 euros ($28,500). The law does not address or define hate crimes other than incitement.

There is no legal requirement for religious groups to register with the government, nor is there any formal mechanism for government recognition of a religious group. Religious groups may apply to the Office of the Revenue Commissioners (the tax authority) as a charity to receive tax exemptions, and the groups must operate exclusively for charitable purposes, which under the law may include “the advancement of religion.” The law requires all charitable organizations carrying out activities in the country to register with and provide certain information relating to their organization to the Charities Regulator, a government-appointed independent authority. The regulator maintains a public register of charitable organizations and ensures their compliance with the law. Organizations must apply their income and property solely toward the promotion of their main charitable object, as set out in their governing instruments (such as constitution, memorandum and articles of association, deed of trust, or rules).

Under the law, individual medical professionals are able to opt out of participating in certain legal procedures, such as abortion, on conscience grounds; however, institutions may not refuse to perform such procedures.

Under the constitution, the Department of Education and Skills provides funding to privately owned and managed primary schools – most of which are affiliated with religious groups, particularly the Catholic Church – referred to as national or just primary schools. Most children receive their elementary-level education at these privately-owned schools. The government pays most of the building and administrative costs, teachers’ salaries, and a set amount per pupil.

Ninety percent of all national schools are Catholic, 6 percent Church of Ireland, 2 percent multidenominational, 1 percent other religious groups, and 1 percent not religiously affiliated. Patrons, who are usually members of the religious groups and affiliated with religious organizations with which the school is associated, manage the schools themselves or appoint a board of management to do so. Patrons often provide land for schools and contribute to building and administrative costs.

According to legislation enacted in 2018 that became effective with the 2019-2020 school year, Catholic national schools are no longer allowed to discriminate on religious grounds when making admissions decisions. National schools under the patronage of other religious groups may continue to discriminate in admissions on religious grounds in order to preserve, according to the law, their distinct religious identities, but only in schools which are oversubscribed. The law prohibits discrimination in admissions based on religious beliefs in secondary schools.

In funding schools, the constitution stipulates the state shall have due regard “for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.” The government permits, but does not require, religious instruction, faith-based classes, or general religion classes in national schools. Although religious instruction is part of the curriculum of most schools, parents may exempt their children from such instruction. Religious schools teach about their religion, while multidenominational schools generally teach about religion in a broader context. Students may opt out and sit in a classroom where religious instruction is not being conducted. The Catholic Church certifies teachers of religion classes in Catholic schools.

Approximately half of secondary schools are religiously affiliated. The government funds religiously affiliated secondary schools.

Vocational schools are state run and nonreligious.

The WRC hears cases of reported workplace discrimination, including claims based on religion. The WRC may refer cases for mediation, investigate these cases, or decide the case itself. If the adjudication officer finds there has been discrimination, he or she can order compensation for the effects of discrimination and/or corrective action. Litigants may appeal WRC decisions in the courts.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) is an independent public body accountable to parliament, whose stated purpose is to protect and promote human rights and equality and to build a culture of respect for human rights, including religious freedom. The commission works at the policy level to review the effectiveness of human rights and equality law, as well as public policy and practice. It also works with communities, including religious and other civil society groups to monitor and report on the public’s experience of human rights, religious freedom, and equality.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In April the police announced Commissioner Drew Harris had decided the force would allow Sikh members to wear turbans and Muslim women members to wear the hijab while on the job. The Muslim Sisters of Eire said they wished to “acknowledge and celebrate the decision” and the Immigrant Council of Ireland tweeted it was “encouraging news.” The police representative association called it “a useful measure.”

Atheist Ireland, the main secularist advocacy group in the country, said Catholic charities engaged in political activities, but government authorities overlooked their actions.

School patrons, generally affiliated with religious denominations, continued to define the ethos of schools and to determine the development and implementation of the religious education curriculum in primary schools. Curricula varied by school and could include teaching about the patron’s religion, the religious history of the country, or an overview of world religions. Atheist Ireland criticized the government for primarily delivering moral formation through religion and not offering students moral education outside of religion classes.

Atheist Ireland and the media reported incidents of school authorities giving preferential treatment, such as homework exemptions, to students in national Catholic schools that engaged in activities such as singing in religious choirs or preforming altar services in church. According to media reports, in September the Yellow Furze National School (Catholic) in County Meath had a policy of allowing children who attended religious ceremonies to skip their homework. School authorities said they were “rewarding positive behavior” by issuing church-going children a “homework pass.” The school said students were still free to opt out of religious events but would not be “rewarded” for it.

In September The Irish Times newspaper reported Atheist Ireland said it was aware of dozens of cases where school authorities told parents religion was a core subject from which their children could not opt out. According to the article, one mother had twice requested in writing that a school exempt her child from religion classes. The woman said school officials told her verbally that religion was compulsory and the child could leave the premises during religion classes or go to another school.

The government continued to encourage patrons to open more schools with nonreligious or multidenominational patronage. Seventeen new multidenominational national schools opened during the year as part of the government’s plan, announced in 2018, to encourage the establishment of 42 nonreligious or multidenominational national schools in 2019-22. The Department of Education and Skills said it would poll parents for their preferences among a list of potential patrons in regions where the department perceived a need for new schools, and encourage the preferred patrons to sponsor the new schools. The department said it expected in most cases parents would express a preference for nonreligious or multidenominational patronage. On November 19, the department issued an invitation for patronage applications for four new primary schools scheduled to open in September 2020.

In November Atheist Ireland, the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Ireland made a joint submission to CERD, arguing the government was moving too slowly in establishing new nondenominational schools and divesting existing schools from religious bodies. The submission argued, “The state should stop ceding control of almost all schools to private patron bodies, the vast majority of which have a self-interested religious prejudice while providing an essentially public service.” CERD recommended the government monitor school admissions, to encourage diversity and tolerance of other faiths and beliefs in the education system, and incidents of discrimination on the basis of belief.

There were no reports of complaints by parents or others about the law forbidding Catholic national schools from taking students’ religion into account when making admissions decisions, while allowing other national schools to continue to do so. In rural areas, parents said finding non-Catholic national schools was especially difficult.

Catholic religious orders remained affiliated with 20 of the country’s 45 hospitals.

In May the media reported Minister of Justice and Equality Charles Flanagan invoked for the first time a 20-year-old immigration power to bar a U.S. preacher from entering the country “in the interest of public policy,” following an online petition signed by 14,000 individuals calling for the government to ban his visit. According to the petitioners and some media reports, the preacher, the founder of an independent Christian group, had made anti-Semitic statements, including Holocaust denial, and denounced homosexuality and Hinduism.

In February a commission established by Minister for Health Simon Harris issued a report on the role and status of voluntary organizations providing health and personal social services. The report said the state was legally entitled to attach reasonable conditions to any funding it provided and was free to refrain from funding organizations that refused to provide certain lawful services, such as abortion or prescriptions for contraceptives. The report also said health services run by religious organizations should be “cognizant of the impact of decor” (e.g., religious symbols, icons, or the presence of chapels) on patients and “strive to ensure their personal preferences in this regard are met to the greatest extent possible.” Media reported Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in an interview the report was not a recommendation to force hospitals to remove religious symbols from public areas, but it was “a message to charities and voluntary bodies that do run hospitals and schools just to have regard to these things.” The prime minister said he wanted to see more diversity in religious symbols in publicly funded healthcare institutions, to reflect that many patients were not Roman Catholic. Harris stated the findings required “further deliberation.” The government had not taken action on the report by year’s end.

In June the WRC found the National Transport Authority (NTA) had not discriminated against John Hamill, a member of the Congregationalist Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Pastafarians), whom The Irish Times described as “a prominent atheist,” when it denied him free travel to a park to attend a ceremony of his group in 2018, while providing free travel to Catholics attending a papal mass at the same park on that day. According to media, Pastafarians were meeting to celebrate their non-Catholicism and discuss the benefits of not being Catholic. The man had requested the transit benefit in advance. NTA responded via letter that it was not able to provide free travel to the event, stating, “The primary reason for making travel free for those attending the papal Mass is crowd safety at the main boarding locations.” The Irish Times reported the WRC found the man’s complaint, despite its satirical tone, raised a serious point and was not “frivolous, vexations, or misconceived,” but determined it failed on procedural grounds.

Several state agencies, including IHREC, WRC, and the police’s National Diversity and Integration Unit (GNDIU) continued to enforce equality legislation and work on behalf of minority religious groups. These agencies helped to organize community events to educate the public on interfaith issues. In September the Dublin City Interfaith Forum, which received state and European Investment Fund funding, and the Dublin City Council organized a free festival involving up to 15 different faith communities, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. According to GNDIU representatives, GNDIU’s liaison officers continued to engage regularly with immigrant minority religious groups to inform them of police services and educate them on their rights. In October the police launched its 2019-21 Diversity and Integration Strategy, with the stated aim of protecting all minorities and diverse groups (including religious groups) in society. The strategy focused on improving the identification, reporting, investigation, and prosecution of hate crimes. It introduced a working definition of hate crime for the police; emphasized human rights as a foundation for providing policing services; and initiated diversity, integration, and hate crime training within the police.

Although there were no laws addressing hate crimes, in October the police introduced a working hate crime definition as part of its diversity and integration strategy, with the goal of ensuring a uniform response to dealing with reported incidents. The strategy defined a hate crime as: “Any criminal offense which is perceived by the victim or any other person to, in whole or in part, be motivated by hostility or prejudice, based on actual or perceived age, disability, race, color, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender.” The police’s official website further clarified that “[r]eligion includes ‘non-believers.’” According to a report in August by The Irish Times, in August the government’s Central Statistics Office stated it had seen “no objective proof” the police had addressed the concerns the office had cited in 2018, when it estimated the police underestimated hate crimes by at least 27 percent.

NGOs, including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), Immigrant Council of Ireland, Anti-Racism Network Ireland, National Steering Group Against Hate Crime, and European Network Against Racism Ireland (ENAR-I), as well as IHREC again advocated better monitoring of hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents, legislation against hate crimes and more stringent laws against hate speech, and action to ensure authorities took prejudice into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing criminals.

In October Justice and Equality Minister Flanagan and Minister of State for Equality, Immigration, and Integration David Stanton launched a seven-week consultation of the public’s views as the government prepared to update the criminal law prohibiting incitement to hatred. Several NGOs, including ICCL and ENAR-I, said the consultation resulted in part from their efforts.

In a review in December, CERD said the level of hate crimes in the country was high, “in particular against women wearing headscarves in public,” and criticized the government for failing to reform its legal framework on hate crime. CERD called for a “clear time-bound commitment” to make the necessary changes in law. CERD also praised NGO Holocaust Education Trust Ireland and its efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

On January 27, President Higgins, Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney, Minister for Justice and Equality Flanagan, and other senior government officials participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration. In his remarks, the president paid tribute to Holocaust survivors and said the world needed to “work together to ensure that hatred and inhumanity is not allowed to once again spread its dark shadow across Europe and the world.” The NGO Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, in association with the Department of Justice and Equality, Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration, and Dublin City Council, organized the event, which included readings, survivors’ remembrances, and music, as well as the lighting of six candles symbolizing the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May media reported two separate attacks on Muslim men in Limerick during Ramadan. In one attack, three individuals punched and kicked two Muslim men walking towards a mosque. Both were hospitalized. Separately, a man approached a Muslim who was walking towards a mosque and hit him in the face. Two other men joined in beating the Muslim man, who was hospitalized. Police were investigating both assaults.

In August online footage showed teenagers pushing a 14-year-old girl to the ground and forcibly removing her hijab in Dublin. Police said they were investigating but had no evidence the incident was religiously motivated. Minister of Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan condemned the assault. Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland told The Irish Sun newspaper the incident was “an attack on this girl’s religious identity.” Selim said he did not think anti-Muslim sentiment was on the rise, but called for hate crime legislation to protect the increasingly multicultural and multifaith nature of society.

In February the WRC found that a print company had discriminated against a gay man by refusing to print invitations for his civil partnership ceremony in 2015 on the grounds of his sexual orientation and ordered it to pay the man 2,500 euros ($2,800). In a statement issued after the WRC ruling, the print company said, “We are not against people who choose to practice homosexuality, but as Bible-believing Christians, we cannot in good conscience go along with printing invitations for same-sex unions.”

The WRC reported that from January to June it received 15 complaints of employment discrimination based on religion.

In May the EC carried out a study in each European Union (EU) member state on perceptions of discrimination and published the results in September. According to the findings, 42 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Ireland, while 52 percent said it was rare; 92 percent would be comfortable with having a person of a different religion than the majority of the population occupy the highest elected political position in the country. In addition, 98 percent said they would be comfortable working closely with a Christian, and 96 percent said they would be with an atheist, 95 percent with a Jew, 93 percent with a Buddhist, and 91 percent with a Muslim. Asked how they would feel if their child were in a “love relationship” with an individual belonging to various groups, 96 percent said they would be comfortable if the partner were Christian, 89 percent if atheist, 88 percent if Jewish, 84 percent if Buddhist, and 80 percent if Muslim.

In January the EC published a Special Eurobarometer survey of perceptions of anti-Semitism based on interviews it conducted in December 2018 in each EU member state. According to the survey, 69 percent of residents believed anti-Semitism was not a problem in Ireland, and 53 percent believed it had stayed the same over the previous five years. The percentage who believed that anti-Semitism was a problem in nine different categories was as follows: Holocaust denial, 21 percent; on the internet, 29 percent; anti-Semitic graffiti or vandalism, 18 percent; expression of hostility or threats against Jews in public places, 20 percent; desecration of Jewish cemeteries, 18 percent; physical attacks against Jews, 18 percent; anti-Semitism in schools and universities, 19 percent; anti-Semitism in political life, 20 percent; and anti-Semitism in the media, 23 percent.

In a survey of residents of the country IHREC published in October 2018, 7 percent of respondents said they believed members “of a certain religion” (the question did not identify any religious groups) were those most likely to have their human rights infringed or experience discrimination.

In October CNN reported that in July unknown individuals vandalized the Ahmadiyya Maryam Mosque in Galway, breaking windows, wrecking an office, and destroying the mosque’s video security system. The mosque’s imam, Ibrahim Noonan, said that prior to the incident, he had received an anonymous phone call warning him that individuals planned to attack the mosque and harm him. Following the break-in, a police spokesperson told CNN that police were “investigating a burglary.” Noonan stated that, since nothing was stolen, treating the incident as a burglary was insulting to the Muslim community. He added that the vandalism was targeted and premeditated. Mahmoud Rashid, President of Galway’s Ahmadiyya Muslim community, told CNN there was a wider anti-Muslim current in society and that the narrative was applied to Muslims and other migrant groups.

The same CNN report cited another incident during the summer in which a senior lecturer on contemporary Islam at University College Cork said he received a voice mail calling him a “scumbag and terrorist” and adding, “I hope you are executed.”

In March The Irish Times reported that abusive and threatening behavior towards Muslim women had prompted a group of Muslim women from the Dublin Mosque to establish a network of safe spaces in the city, where Muslim women could seek immediate shelter if harassed. The women said they were designing a large yellow sticker reading, “Ask for Help,” which they hoped participating establishments would post prominently.

In August Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson wrote an open letter to imams and other Muslim leaders in the city, expressing sorrow and solidarity with victims of attacks in the country targeting Muslims.

According to media, in March the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference objected to an advertisement for two consultants at the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin. The job announcement said candidates for consultant positions in obstetrics/gynecology and anesthesia must be willing to participate in elective abortions. The bishops’ conference said this precondition denied some candidates employment on the basis of conscience. According to the media, the hospital responded that the positions in question were specifically for providing abortion services and were therefore for individuals willing to provide those services. The hospital said the conscientious objection guidelines for staff remained unchanged.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Human Rights Unit, the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Education and Skills, and the police. Embassy officials also met with representatives of religious groups, interfaith organizations, and NGOs to discuss their concerns over religious tolerance, secularism, and religion in the national school system.

Mongolia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for “freedom of conscience and religion,” prohibits discrimination based on religion, and mandates the separation of the activities of state and religious institutions. The law requires religious institutions to register with authorities but provides little detail on registration procedures, leaving most specifics of implementation to local authorities. The law prohibits hindering the free exercise of faith but limits proselytization. In March the government amended a 2018 resolution that effectively required religious groups to hire 20 local employees for each foreign worker, thus enabling members of religious groups with at least five local employees to sponsor one foreign religious worker. Some religious groups reported continued difficulties or extended delays in some localities obtaining and renewing registration due in part to differing registration guidelines among provinces, uncertain registration practices, frequent staffing changes, and the requirement for each branch (or place of worship) of a religious group to register separately. The registration renewal application of al Jehovah’s Witnesses’ branch in the Ulaanbaatar district of Nalaikh remained pending despite a 2017 court decision rejecting the city council’s argument that the congregation posed a potential threat to national security. Some Christian groups said authorities conducted more frequent audits of their finances than of other religious groups, which they regarded as a form of harassment. Some Christian foreigners seeking to enter the country to proselytize reported difficulty obtaining religious visas. The Immigration Agency rescinded the registration of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) after determining its operation of a website promoting Christianity was at odds with the stated purpose under which it registered.

At a roundtable in October, religious leaders from a variety of faiths – including Buddhism, Shamanism, and a number of Christian groups – reported no difficulty in practicing their religion in the country. Participants said most citizens supported religious tolerance and diversity and people of different faiths live in harmony. A Muslim leader agreed with this assessment in a separate meeting in November.

U.S. officials discussed religious freedom concerns, including renewal of religious visas and the registration and renewal difficulties religious groups faced, with high-level officials in the Office of the President, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, parliamentarians, provincial governments, and the Ulaanbaatar City Council. Embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador met with religious leaders of Khovd Province in April for an interfaith discussion on the status of religious freedom in rural areas. In October the embassy hosted a roundtable with Buddhist, Christian, Baha’i, and Shamanist leaders on promoting respect for religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and religious tolerance, and the Ambassador discussed similar issues with a leader of the Muslim community in November. The embassy also regularly promoted religious freedom on social media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.2 million (midyear 2019 estimate). In the 2010 census (the most recent), 53 percent of individuals ages 15 and older self-identify as Buddhist, 3 percent as Muslim, 2.9 percent as Shamanist, and 2.1 percent as Christian. Another 38.6 percent state they have no religious identity. According to the president’s advisor on cultural and religious policy, the majority of Buddhists are Mahayana Buddhists. Many individuals practice elements of shamanism in combination with other religions, particularly Buddhism. The majority of Christians are Protestant; other Christian groups include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). Other religious groups, such as the Baha’i Faith, also have a presence. The ethnic Kazakh community, located primarily in the northwest, is majority Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution lists “freedom of conscience and religion” among the enumerated rights and freedoms guaranteed to citizens. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It prohibits the state from engaging in religious activity and religious institutions from pursuing political activities. The constitution specifies, “The relationship between the State and religious institutions shall be regulated by law.” The constitution provides that, in exercising their rights, persons “shall not infringe on the national security, rights, and freedoms of others and violate public order.” It further provides that the state shall respect all religions, and religions shall honor the state. The Law on the Relationship between the State and Religious Institutions provides, “The State shall respect the dominant position of Buddhism” in the country “in order to respect and uphold the traditions of the unity and civilization of the people.” It furthers states, “This shall not prevent citizens from following other religions.”

In accordance with the criminal code, if an individual is found to have used or threatened the use of force to hinder the activities or rituals of religious organizations, the individual is subject to a fine, ranging from 450,000 to 2.7 million tugriks ($160-$990), a community service obligation of 240-720 hours, or a travel ban ranging from one to six months. If a religious organization or religious representative, such as a priest, minister, imam, monk, or shaman, is found to have committed acts of proselytization through force, pressure, or deception, or to have spread “cruel” religious ideology, the law allows for fines ranging from 450,000 to 5.4 million tugriks ($160-$2,000), a travel ban ranging from six to 12 months, or six to 12 months’ imprisonment.

The law on petty offenses provides for fines of 100,000 tugriks ($37) for individuals and one million tugriks ($370) for legal entities for recruiting children to religion against their will. The law provides for a fine of 100,000 tugriks ($37) for individuals and one million tugriks ($370) for any legal entity for disclosing an individual’s religion on identity documents without that person’s consent or for interfering with the internal affairs of a religious organization unless otherwise allowed by law. The law also provides for a fine of 150,000 tugriks ($55) for individuals and 1.5 million tugriks ($550) for legal religious entities for conducting government or political activity or financing any such activity. The law specifies a fine of 300,000 tugriks ($110) for individuals and three million tugriks ($1,100) for legal entities for organizing religious training or gatherings on public premises, including schools.

The religion law forbids the spread of religious views by “force, pressure, material incentives, deception, or means that harm health or morals or are psychologically damaging.” It also prohibits the use of gifts for religious recruitment. The law on children’s rights provides children the freedom to practice their faith.

The law prohibits religious groups from undertaking activities that “are inhumane or dangerous to the tradition and culture of the people of Mongolia.”

Religious groups must register with local and provincial authorities, as well as with the General Authority for State Registration (General Authority), to function legally. National law provides little detail on registration procedures and does not stipulate the duration of registration, allowing local and provincial authorities to set their own rules. Religious groups must renew their registrations (in most cases annually) with multiple government institutions across local, provincial, and national levels. Each individual branch (or place of worship) of a religious organization is required to register or renew independently of its parent organization.

A religious group must provide the following documentation to the relevant local provincial or municipal representative assembly when applying for registration: a letter requesting registration, a letter from the lower-level local authority granting approval to conduct religious services, a brief description of the group, the group’s charter, documentation on the group’s founding, a list of leaders, financial information, a declaration of assets (including any real estate owned), a lease or rental agreement (if applicable), brief biographic information on individuals wishing to conduct religious services, and the expected number of worshippers. A religious group must provide to the General Authority its approved registration application to receive a certificate for operation.

The renewal process requires a religious group to obtain a reference letter from the lower-level local authority to be submitted with the required documents (updated as necessary), to the local provincial or municipal representative assembly. During the renewal process, the local provincial or municipal representatives commonly request a safety inspection of the religious organization’s offices and places of worship and remediation of any deficiencies found. The relevant provincial or municipal representative assembly issues a resolution granting the religious institution permission to continue operations, and the organization sends a copy of the approved registration renewal to the General Authority, which enters the new validity dates on the religious institution’s certificate for operation.

Public and private educational institutions are entitled to state funding for their secular curricula but are prohibited from using state funding for religious curricula. The education law prohibits all educational institutions from conducting any religious training, rituals, or activities with state-provided funding. A provincial or municipal representative assembly may deny registration renewals for religious groups that violate the ban on using state funding for the provision of religious instruction in educational institutions.

The law regulating civil and military service specifies that all male citizens between ages 18 and 25 must complete one year of compulsory military service. The law provides for alternatives to military service for citizens who submit an objection based on ethical or religious grounds. Alternative service with the Border Forces, National Emergency Management Agency, or a humanitarian organization is available to those who submit an ethical or religious objection. There is also a provision for paying the cost of one year’s training and upkeep for a soldier in lieu of service.

The law regulating the legal status of foreign citizens prohibits noncitizens from advertising, promoting, or practicing “inhumane” religions that could damage the national culture. There were no reports of any individual or organization being penalized for violating this prohibition. The religion law includes a similar prohibition on religious institutions, both foreign and domestic, conducting “inhumane” or culturally damaging activities within the country.

Foreigners seeking to conduct religious activities, including proselytizing, must obtain religious visas, and all foreigners are prohibited from proselytizing, promoting, and practicing religion that violates “national culture” and law. Only registered religious groups may sponsor foreigners for religious visas. Foreigners who enter on other classes of visas are not allowed to undertake activities that advertise or promote any religion (as distinct from personal worship or other individual religious activity, which is permitted). Under the law, “engag[ing] in business other than one’s purpose for coming” constitutes grounds for deportation.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Focused for much of the year on constitutional amendments adopted in November, the government again postponed planned updates to the religious law. According to its concept note, the stated intent of the draft law was to improve the monitoring, registration, renewal systems, and accountability mechanisms of religious institutions. During public discussion of the draft law in 2018, religious groups and NGOs expressed concern in the draft about the composition of a religious council that would oversee a national registration process.

At an interfaith religious roundtable meeting in October, numerous religious groups reported registration and renewal procedures varied significantly across the country, largely depending upon the practices of local government officials. Registration delays could negatively impact a group’s ability to employ foreign religious workers, as valid registration is required to sponsor a religious worker. Christian leaders stated the difficulty in obtaining visas for religious worker was mainly due to the requirement of hiring at least five local employees to be eligible to sponsor one foreign worker.

The Ulaanbaatar City Council issued registrations and renewals valid for one year, while some provincial and municipal representative assemblies issued renewals for two or three years. An Ulaanbaatar City Council official said Christian groups constituted the majority of those seeking registration and renewal; for this reason, most of the cancelled or suspended registrations were for Christian groups. The official said the council had not registered any new religious organizations during the year and approximately 50 applications for new registration were on hold pending expected updates to the law on religious freedom.

Some religious groups said they were deterred from registering because of the unpredictability of the registration process, which could take from several weeks to years; the difficulty and expense of establishing a dedicated, regular worship site; and changing government personnel. Some organizations said the requirement that each local branch of the organization separately register or renew created additional bureaucratic burdens.

Ulaanbaatar City Council officials said the government used the registration and renewal process to assess the activities of the religious group, monitor the number of places of worship and clergy, determine the ratio of foreigners to nationals conducting religious activities, and determine whether their facilities met safety requirements. City council officials said approval of applications that were ostensibly “denied” were more accurately “postponed” due to incomplete documentation, the poor physical condition of the place of worship, instances of a religious organization’s providing English language instruction without an educational permit, or the existence of financial issues such as failure to pay property taxes or declare funding from foreign sources. According to the council, in such cases, religious organizations were instructed to correct the deficiencies and resubmit their applications. Some Christian groups continued to say the government inconsistently applied and interpreted regulations, changing procedures frequently and without notice. Some religious groups continued to state the registration and renewal process was arbitrary in some instances, with no appeal mechanism for denials, notwithstanding the success of two Jehovah’s Witnesses organizations in previous appeals through the court system.

Some Christian religious leaders said temporary unregistered status could leave their organizations vulnerable to financial audit and possible legal action.

Shamanist leaders expressed concerns that the requirement for a registered place of worship placed limitations on their religion because of its practice of worshipping outdoors.

Unregistered churches lacked official documents establishing themselves as legal entities and as a result could not own or lease land, file tax returns, or formally interact with the government. Individual members of unregistered churches typically continued to own or lease property for church use in their personal capacity. For instance, some unregistered Christian churches on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar used private property owned by members to conduct meetings and other church business. Some unregistered religious groups said they often could still function, although some reported experiencing frequent visits by local tax officials, police, and representatives from other agencies. An Ulaanbaatar City Council official said the government generally allowed religious organizations whose applications were delayed to operate.

One Christian group said the government placed additional burdens on religious organizations by subjecting them to closer scrutiny by official organs, such as the General Authority for Labor and Benefit, the Immigration Agency, or the Ulaanbaatar City Council. Other religious organizations reported they had good relationships with local and district level authorities, but that lack of understanding of regulations governing religious organizations among some Ulaanbaatar City Council officials and provincial authorities resulted in delayed processing of registration and renewal applications.

Representatives of the Religious Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mongolia reported that the registration application for the Evangelizers of Good News of Holy Scriptures – their organization’s legal entity in Ulaanbaatar’s Nalaikh District – remained pending with the Ulaanbaatar City Council, despite a 2018 Ulaanbaatar Court of First Instance ruling that struck down the city council’s argument that the congregation posed a potential threat to national security. Although the city council revoked its decision to annul the group’s registration, it took no action to renew it.

The Immigration Agency rescinded the registration of a Christian NGO after determining that it violated its registered purpose of business by operating a website promoting Christianity, an activity that only registered religious organizations may conduct. The NGO stated it conducted such activities openly and transparently for several years and noted the law provides no mechanism for registering as a legal entity a humanitarian organization that is Christian but does not hold religious services. As of November, the NGO had been disbanded and its founder said there was no plan to appeal the Immigration Agency decision.

Religious groups continued to experience periodic audits, usually by officers from tax, immigration, local government, intelligence, and other agencies. Religious leaders said such audits typically took place once in a two-year period, but some inspection visits reportedly followed routine submissions of registration renewal applications. Two Christian groups reported officers from the Criminal Police Department conducted unexpected visits to their premises and demanded to see financial documents. One of these groups said these visits were a form of harassment.

The 2018 resolution on labor quotas implemented in January required religious organizations to ensure at least 95 percent of their employees are citizens. For most smaller religious organizations, this meant religious organizations had to hire 20 citizens to sponsor one foreign worker. The government amended the resolution in March to allow religious organizations with at least five Mongolian citizen employees to sponsor one foreign worker. A Christian church based in Darkhan-Uul Province reported difficulty in renewing the visa of a foreign pastor because it could not meet the labor quota; however, church representatives said the government renewed the pastor’s visa following the amendment of the resolution.

An NGO reported that some local authorities continued to restrict unaccompanied minors’ participation in Christian religious services due to stated fears of “brainwashing.” Children under the age of 16 required written parental permission to participate in church activities. Churches were required to retain this permission in church records and make it available upon request. According to the same NGO, this requirement had greater impact on Christian than other religious groups.

Some religious organizations reported the Ulaanbaatar City Council provided letters of support for immigration officials to help the organizations secure religious work visas for foreign religious workers when registration or renewal delays resulted in the temporary loss of an organization’s official status, and therefore its ability to serve as a sponsor.

Government officials continued to receive Buddhist leaders at the Government House during Lunar New Year celebrations, a practice some observers said was discriminatory against other religions not similarly recognized by the government on important holidays.

Some foreign citizens continued to face difficulties obtaining religious visas. Because most religious groups were bound by the 95 percent local hire requirement, groups that could not afford to hire enough local employees could not sponsor additional religious visas. Christian groups reported foreign missionaries seeking to enter the country often did so under nonreligious visas (such as student, teacher, or business visas), making them legally restricted from conducting activities allowed under religious visas. Inconsistent interpretations of the activities in which they could legally engage left them vulnerable to deportation. The validity of religious visas remained linked to a religious organization’s registration, which some Christian religious groups said resulted in additional visa problems. Foreign citizens could not receive or renew a religious visa unless their religious organization’s registration or renewal was already granted. The length of the religious visa’s validity corresponded with, and could not exceed, the registration validity of its sponsoring organization.

The government continued to allocate funding for the restoration of several Buddhist sites that it stated were important religious, historical, and cultural centers. For instance, it provided 178 million tugriks ($65,100) funding for the restoration of the Zankhan Temple, an annex of the Choijin Lama Temple and Museum complex in Ulaanbaatar. The government did not provide similar subsidies to other religious groups.

Parliament passed legislation in December declaring Buddha’s birthday – the 15th day of the first summer month of the lunar calendar – a public holiday. Some religious groups criticized the decision, saying it displayed preference for one religion over others.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Christian and Muslim groups said negative comments about non-Buddhist religious groups occasionally appeared on social media, but they added that they did not feel threatened or overly concerned by such incidents. For instance, one Muslim leader reported negative comments on Facebook regarding ethnic Kazakh Muslims. Such comments were not representative of societal attitudes as a whole, he stated.

At a roundtable in October, religious leaders from a variety of faiths – including Buddhism, Shamanism, Baha’i, and a number of Christian groups – reported no difficulty in practicing their religion in the country. They said most citizens support religious tolerance and diversity and that people of different faiths live in harmony. A Muslim leader agreed with this assessment in a separate meeting in November.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, other embassy officials, and visiting U.S. government officials regularly discussed religious freedom with government officials and shared the U.S. government’s concerns about visa and registration difficulties religious groups reported at the national, local, and provincial levels. The Ambassador and other embassy officers encouraged officials to enhance efforts to protect religious freedom and underscored the value of dialogue between the government and religious communities during meetings with parliamentarians, the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Issues, and high level officials in the President’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, the Ulaanbaatar City Council, and provincial and municipal governments.

The Ambassador routinely visited religious sites and temples and met with local religious leaders in his travels outside Ulaanbaatar. For example, in April the Ambassador met with local Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim leaders in Khovd Province for an interfaith discussion on the status of religious freedom in rural areas. In October the embassy hosted a roundtable on promoting respect for religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and religious tolerance. Leaders of the Buddhist, Christian (many denominations), Baha’i, and Shamanist communities participated in the roundtable. The embassy also regularly promoted religious freedom on social media. For example, on October 24, the Ambassador tweeted in Mongolian and English about his visit with leading shamans of Mongolian Tengrism, noting the ancient faith’s revival under democracy and stating his admiration for the diversity of Mongolia’s faith communities.

North Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government which constituted crimes against humanity. Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the report was published. On September 20, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly, “There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.” The government reportedly continued to deal harshly with those engaged in almost any religious practice through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO), citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2018 and other sources, reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances. For the 18th consecutive year, the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA ranked the country number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of guilt by association in cases of detentions of Christians. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. Media reported in March that in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities publicly executed two women for fortune telling and sentenced a third to life in prison following a sham trial. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners. Sources said in April police issued a proclamation ordering citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners. Following the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for being Falun Gong practitioners. In September The Christian Post reported an NGO obtained a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies.” According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. Many foreign visitors said activities at the state-sanctioned churches in Pyongyang appeared to be staged, and an NGO stated the churches served “mere propaganda purposes.”

There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify. Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vice President said, “[T]he United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.” Additionally, the United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights[.]”

Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The North Korean government last reported religious demographics in 2002, and estimates of the number of total adherents and of different religious groups varies. In 2002 the DPRK reported to the UN Human Rights Committee there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 800 Catholics, and 15,000 practitioners of Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners is considerably higher than reported by authorities. UN estimates place the Christian population between 200,000 and 400,000. Open Doors USA estimates the country has 300,000 Christians. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 100,000 Christians. In its 2020 World Christian Database, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported 58 percent of the country is agnostic; 15 percent atheist; 13 percent “new religionists” (believers in syncretic religions); 12 percent “ethnoreligionists” (believers in folk religions); 1.5 percent Buddhists; and Christians, Muslims, and Chinese folk religionists represent less than 0.5 percent collectively. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002. Consulting shamans and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The South Korea-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) reported five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states, “Citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.” It further states, however, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling. The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to deal severely with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. The 2014 COI final report concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded in many instances the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable. On September 20, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, reported to the UN General Assembly that the human rights situation in the country “remains extremely serious. The political prison camps, in which a large number of political prisoners are detained in the worst conditions, remain in operation under complete secrecy. There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.”

The NKDB, using reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,341 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to December 2018. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,341 cases, authorities reportedly killed 120 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 90 (6.7 percent), physically injured 48 (3.6 percent), deported or forcibly moved 51 (3.8 percent), detained 794 (59.2 percent), restricted movement of 133 (9.9 percent), and persecuted 105 (7.9 percent) using other methods of punishment.

A South Korean NGO estimated in 2013 that 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious activities, were held in prison camps in remote areas under harsh conditions. In February Open Doors UK estimated 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were imprisoned for being Christian. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian.

In September CSW reported there was no religious freedom in the country. CSW also reported that according to witness testimonies, “many Christians are detained in prison camps, where they endure dire living conditions and brutal torture.” CSW stated there were instances where citizens caught in possession of a Bible were executed.

While shamanism has always been practiced to some degree in the country, NGOs noted an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. One source told RFA it was common for persons to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, or considering other important decisions. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. RFA reported a source said that in March in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities found three women guilty of fortune telling in a public trial. Two of the women were publicly executed by shooting, and the third was sentenced to life in prison. According to the source, the women had created a group called Chilsungyo (Seven Star Group) and said two children in the group were possessed by an oracle spirit. The women received money for telling fortunes. The source said thousands of persons from factories, colleges, and housing units were forced to attend the trial and executions, which were aimed at forcing officials to stop patronizing fortune tellers and engaging in other “superstitious” behavior.

In its annual report, Open Doors USA for the 18th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians. Open Doors USA stated arrests and abductions of foreign missionaries and punishments for Christians increased. According to the NGO, “If North Korean Christians are discovered…not only are they deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot, their families will share their fate as well. Christians do not have the slightest space in society; meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.” The government strengthened border controls, with harsher punishments for citizens being repatriated from China and increased efforts “to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith.”

Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. According to Open Doors USA, one refugee said her family, upon being repatriated from China, was imprisoned for what authorities said were “problematic political beliefs,” and guards beat her parents for refusing to stop praying. Another woman who had been imprisoned after being repatriated from China told the NGO that prison authorities repeatedly asked her whether she went to church while in China, whether she owned a Bible, and if she was a Christian. The woman said she believed she would have been killed if she admitted being Christian.

According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps. According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2018 report, authorities punished both superstitious activities and religious activities, but the latter more severely. In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors were involved with the Bible or Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitious activity with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners during the year. Sources said the practice of Falun Gong entered the country through trade workers and spread rapidly, even among high-ranking government officials and their families. In April police issued a proclamation that ordered citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners, the government’s first ever such action. According to RFA, the proclamation threatened harsh punishments for those refusing to turn themselves in. Following issuance of the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for Falun Gong practices. According to sources, the crackdowns and negative publicity only increased Falun Gong’s popularity.

The government reportedly detained foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders. There was no further information on three South Korean missionaries detained in the country. In December 2018 The Korea Times reported the South Korean government tried to negotiate their release. One had been held since 2013 and two others since 2014.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment. Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country. In KINU’s 2016 white paper, one defector said, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The COI 2014 report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a charitable organization that helps North Korean refugees, said on its website that organized religion was seen by the government as a potential threat to the regime. Defectors continued to report the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.

According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. As it had in years past, KINU stated in its annual white paper on human rights, “[I]t is practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” The white paper quoted one defector as saying, “[A]uthorities call religion, as a whole, superstition. And all superstitious behaviors are prohibited.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country. In its 2018 report, the NKDB stated less than 1 percent of 12,880 defectors said they had visited religious facilities.

The HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes. There were neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

The Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian nonprofit organization, reportedly obtained a government video in September that depicted Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” who attempt to undermine the government. The video was allegedly used to instruct state security agents on how to identify and silence Christians in the country.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2018 there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church. The 2015 KINU annual white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and reported most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities and did not regard Buddhist monks as religious figures. The temples were regarded as cultural heritage sites and tourist destinations. KINU’s 2019 annual white paper concluded no religious facilities existed outside of Pyongyang.

According to KINU’s 2018 report, the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations said they believed some members were genuinely religious, but others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Chilgol Church, a state-controlled Protestant church, was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. One defector said when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches.

According to KINU, foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged. LiNK stated on its website “nothing apart from token churches built as a facade of religious freedom for foreign visitors are allowed.” In its 2018 report on religious persecution in North Korea, Open Doors USA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2018 KINU report, however, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.” According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report noted the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established Korean Catholic Council continued to provide basic services at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church. There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were citizens or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

The COI report concluded authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

In April United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday service at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral. According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended. The report quoted the clergyman making anti-U.S. and other political statements during the service.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items as well as other items the government deemed objectionable. Open Doors USA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

The government reportedly closely regulated certain forms of religious education, including programs at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il Sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries affiliated with Christian or Buddhist groups.

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies individuals on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime. The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. KINU continued to report that religious persons and their families were perceived to be “anti-revolutionary elements.”

According to KINU, the government continued to view Christianity as a means of foreign encroachment. KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s “Dictionary on Philosophy” as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.” KINU again reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year emphasizing ways to detect individuals who engage in spreading Christianity.

According to a 2018 Associated Press article, dozens of missionaries in areas of China near the border, most of whom were South Koreans or ethnic Koreans, provide assistance and religious education to North Koreans. According to the Rev. Kim Kyou-ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, in recent years, 10 such frontline missionaries and pastors died mysteriously, and he suspected the North Korean government was involved.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly continued tightening border controls in an effort to crack down on any such activities.

The government continued to allow some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations reported they were not allowed to proselytize; their contact with local citizens was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times. In October the Asia Times reported South Korean-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons, and in some cases the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

In November media reported South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office invited Pope Francis to meet Chairman Kim at the demilitarized zone. At year’s end, however, there were no reports that the pope planned to do so.

In December the UN General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution, cosponsored by the United States, condemning “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The UN General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.” The UN General Assembly also “strongly urge[d] the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms[.]” The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion.

Defector accounts indicated practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities. In February the South China Morning Post reported one defector described her family’s quietly singing Christian hymns on Sundays while one person watched for informers. Another described hiding under a blanket or in the bathroom while praying. Open Doors USA reported many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II. These were kept hidden and passed among believers. One man said individuals remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported. According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

In August the KCF Central Committee and the National Council of Churches in Korea (South Korea) composed their annual joint prayer for peaceful reunification of the peninsula, stating in part, “Lord, hear the prayers of the beloved Christians throughout the world for peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula….Let the fervent prayers of Christians all over the world bloom in our hearts, and in every corner of the Korean Peninsula as a flower of hope.”

In 2017, KINU reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available, and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks. The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.

KINU reported religious ceremonies accompanying weddings and funerals were almost unknown, but other sources indicated there were still shamanistic elements in weddings and funerals.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence in the country. In February the President and Chairman Kim held a second summit in Vietnam, and they held another meeting in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in June. In engagements with DPRK officials, the U.S. government consistently made clear full normalization of relations will require addressing human rights, including religious freedom.

In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vice President said, “[T]he United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.”

The United States cosponsored the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”

The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. This included an October meeting in Brussels of like-minded countries to coordinate actions and discuss the DPRK’s human rights record. The United States made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would significantly improve prospects for closer ties between the two countries. Senior U.S. government officials, including the President, met with defectors and NGOs that focused on the country, including some Christian humanitarian organizations.

Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained. In April the government executed 37 citizens for “terrorism crimes,” the largest mass execution since 2016. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following what they stated were unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses. In January rights groups reported Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and mistreatment, and in August, Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri died due to a heart condition while held in solitary confinement in Tarafia Prison. Authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, three Shia Muslims who have written in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia Muslims, in April with no official charges filed; they remained in detention at year’s end. On February 1, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. During the year, government leaders, including the crown prince and the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), took new steps to combat religious extremism and to encourage interreligious tolerance and dialogue, conducting prominent public outreach, particularly with Christian and Jewish leaders and groups.

According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother reportedly because he was Shia. In September an academic at Qassim University, Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out heretic Shia from the holy city of Medina. Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in legal and security matters and in private sector employment. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, Vice President Pence called on the Saudi government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating that Badawi, among others he highlighted, “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added that “the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 33.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including more than 12 million foreign residents. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they probably constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, probably number at least a few hundred, most of whom are of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering a total of approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Foreign embassies indicate the noncitizen population, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim. According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there were approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion. The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna. The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

Blasphemy against Islam may also be legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences and lashings. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” On January 25, authorities issued implementation regulations that criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to access government-held evidence.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.

Clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses amount to one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the king’s behalf. By decree, the CPVPV’s activities are limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; those actions are explicitly reserved as the purview of the police and counternarcotics units. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges. The CPVPV’s religious purview includes the prohibited public practice of non-Islamic faiths or displaying emblems (such as crosses) thereof; failing to respect Islam, including Ramadan fasting; “immodest” dress; displaying or selling media “contrary to Islam;” and venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters, and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king. The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas. The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The country’s legal architecture does not derive from a common law system, and judges are not bound by legal precedent. In the absence of a comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; in some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year, the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.

Social media users who post or share satire attacking religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000). The country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter: “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

There were NGO and Shia activist reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including two cases of abuse that led to prisoners’ deaths. On November 13, human rights NGOs announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country said that authorities tortured al-Ribh while detained. In January another Shia activist, Naif al-Omran, died after eight years in detention, while serving a 20-year sentence for protest-related charges in Qatif dating back to 2011. According to al-Omran’s family, his body bore visible marks of abuse.

On April 23, the MOI announced the execution of 37 citizens in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Asir regions in connection with “terrorism crimes.” According to HRW, at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism. Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Attiyah was among the executed. Amnesty International said those executed were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair trial standards and which relied on confessions extracted through torture. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet commented, “It is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing.” According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at least six of the executed were minors at the time of their alleged offenses: Abdullah Salman al-Sarih and Abdulkarim Mohammed al-Hawaj, whose charges date back to age 16; and Said Mohammed al-Sakafi, Salman Amin al-Quraysh, Mujtaba Nadir al-Sweiket, and Abdulaziz Hassan al-Sahwi, whose charges date back to age 17. The government denied the individuals were minors and disputed the ages reported by HRW and ESOHR. The mass executions were the largest since January 2016.

On January 7, security forces raided the predominately Shia al-Jish village for suspected “links to cases of state security” in al-Qatif Governorate, killing six people and arresting others after an exchange of fire, according to Saudi Press Agency. Five officers were also wounded in the operation.

On May 11, security forces killed eight members of an alleged Shia terrorist cell in a security operation in Taroot in Qatif Governorate in the Eastern Province, according to the Presidency of State Security. The statement added the newly formed “terrorist cell” had plans to carry out terrorist operations targeting vital installations and security sites.

On January 8, security forces stormed the Shia village of Umm al-Hamam, killing five persons and injuring an unspecified number, according to SRW. SRW said authorities also used armored vehicles in a separate operation in Jaroudiya town. SRW also reported a number of arrests during these operations, including Qatif-based Shia rights activist Mohammemod Nabil al-Jowhar on January 11.

On January 20, the London-based human rights group ALQST (“Justice” in Arabic) reported that Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and possible torture. Authorities detained Al-Amari, the former dean of the School of Quran at the University of Medina, in 2018, and he suffered a brain hemorrhage on January 2. The Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, and ALQST reported the 69-year-old’s death was caused by “intentional neglect” on the part of the prison authorities.

On August 3, rights groups reported the death of Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri due to health complications he had developed at Tarafia Prison. Authorities kept Al-Dhamiri, who suffered from a heart condition, in solitary confinement, according to the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account.

On November 13, family members of Islamic scholar Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi announced that al-Qadi had died in prison. The government detained Al-Qadi in 2016 and sentenced him in October to six years in prison. The circumstances surrounding his death remained unknown at year’s end. Prisoners of Conscience reported he was detained after he sent a letter of advice to the Royal Court.

As many as 39 individuals, most of them believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to ESOHR. ESOHR also reported that up to seven minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher. The government disputed the claim that these individuals were minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted, and noted the courts use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations (which could differ from Western Gregorian calendar ages by a few months). Five Shia individuals, including al-Nimr, al-Marhoon and al-Zaher, faced a final death sentence and nine faced preliminary death sentences, which still needed to be upheld by an appellate court, the Supreme Court, and the king. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting the ruling of the Court of Appeal after his second verdict. Some human rights NGOs reported that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.” International human rights NGOs reported that these individuals said authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On August 25, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence, to an additional five years in prison and a five-year ban on international travel after he was convicted of supporting demonstrations in Qatif and cybercrimes. According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

On February 1, human rights NGOs reported the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals, including her husband.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes and authorities suggested informally that there were no current plans to do so. According to international human rights contacts, Badawi declared a hunger strike in September to protest his poor treatment and lack of medical attention while in prison. In December he reportedly went on a second hunger strike to protest his placement in solitary confinement.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. In January local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery.

In April, authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, who wrote in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia in the country. By year’s end, authorities had not filed official charges against them and they remained in detention. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Sadiq and al-Ibrahim write regularly for Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, a Qatari funded news website based in London, while al-Marzouqi published articles on his own blog as well as contributing to Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and to the Okaz newspaper.

During the year, the SCC continued trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and the Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents. In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.” The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.” The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization. Amnesty International reported al-Odah was ill-treated while in prison, including solitary confinement.

On May 18, authorities released Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer from prison after he completed his eight-year jail term. Officers arrested al-Amer in 2011 and the SCC convicted him in August 2014 of slander against the state and abuse of the faith, stirring up sectarian strife, and calling for change in a series of sermons delivered in 2011.

In March authorities detained Shia cleric Majed al-Sadah for three days over comments criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in his hometown of Saihat, Qatif Governorate. According to online activists, al-Sadah had to sign a written pledge to refrain from interfering in internal affairs. According to Al-Jazeera, authorities arrested cleric Omar al-Muqbil in September after he criticized music concerts sponsored by GEA, calling them a threat to the kingdom’s culture, according to the Prisoners of Conscience rights group. Al-Muqbil described in a video the GEA’s actions as “erasing the original identity of society.”

A court sentenced an Indian national to 10 years for “misusing social media,” “blasphemy,” and “hurting the religious and national sentiment of the Kingdom.”

During the year, social media reported the SCC held many hearings in the trial of influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali. The government detained al-Hawali along with three of his sons in 2018. Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.

During the year, the SCC held at least five hearings on the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. In 2018, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labeling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS.

In February Deputy Governor of Makkah Province Badr bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz ordered the arrest of comedian Yasir Bakr for allegedly mocking the CPVPV at an entertainment event in Jeddah. Bakr, founder of Al-Comedy Club in Jeddah, later appeared in a video on Twitter apologizing for his comments.

On April 20, local media reported that the public prosecutor summoned a man for investigation regarding a tweet that “disturbed public order” under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. According to press reports, the man tweeted a call for all women in the country wearing a niqab to come together at Riyadh Boulevard in order to burn them, according to media reports.

On June 23, authorities arrested Dammam-based Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullatif Hussain al-Nasser when he attempted to travel to Bahrain. The government provided no reason for his arrest. Security officials interrogated Abdullatif and then transferred him to the State Security Prison in Dammam, according to activists.

On June 27, the SCC held the first hearing for three Shia men, Ramzi al-Jamal, Ali Hasan al-Zayyed, and Mohammed Issa al-Labbad, who turned themselves in to security authorities in 2017 after their names appeared on a list of 23 individuals wanted by the authorities. The public prosecutor sought the death penalty for the three on protest-related charges, according to ESOHR and activists.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons; it restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas. In 2018 the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. A May article in a government-linked newspaper described the hotline as a 24/7 service to report “undisciplined imams and mosques that need maintenance.” In 2018 the MOIA launched a mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) which monitors sermons and allows mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

In March the Council of Ministers approved a new regulation for imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina stipulating that the clerics be “moderate,” among other requirements.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden. Some Shia community members reported that Shia pilgrims were permitted to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj. Sources also stated that Shia pilgrims were permitted to approach, but not touch, the graves of the four Shia imams buried in the al-Baqi Cemetery in Medina for a period of two hours after morning prayers and two hours after noon prayers.

Since 2016, authorities have permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the largest Shia population in the country. These commemorations included significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There is, however, a public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially. There also is a private, non-Muslim cemetery only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunni practice), or in some instances not to close at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government prohibited eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction for employment credit, while the government generally recognized graduates of Sunni religious training institutions for government positions and religious jobs.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The Institute for Gulf Studies found that Saudi textbooks in 2019 were still teaching students that “Christians, Jews, and other Muslims are ‘enemies’ of the true believer, and to befriend and show respect only to other true believers, specifically the Wahhabis.” According to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, Saudi textbooks in 2019 taught students “to consider Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘assassins’ bent on harming Muslim holy places, and to punish gays by death.” Shia community representatives in the Eastern Province reported throughout 2018-19 that textbooks no longer disparaged Shia beliefs. The Anti-Defamation League reported the newest edition of textbooks for the fall of 2019 continued to contain problematic passages.

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that contained “objectionable” content such as views of religion it considered extremist or ill-informed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anti-cybercrimes law. The government also located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger. Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked.

Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to approve extension of endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports. The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Authorities allowed Shia communities to rebuild a mosque in Taroot, near Qatif, during the year. Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar. Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur, particularly with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities. Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring. There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown. Many Shia stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.

Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. There were seven Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Muslims were concentrated, had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. Shia Muslims were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. According to HRW, the Saudi government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

According to international human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

There were continued media reports that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Reports of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, reportedly were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”

The government hosted many Jewish and Christian religious leaders, but did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis, continued to hold low-profile services without government harassment, although they reportedly found restrictions on clergy travel particularly problematic. Authorities also allowed regular visits by the Catholic bishop, resident in Bahrain, who has responsibility for Catholics in the country, and by evangelical Protestant leaders.

In November the Presidency of State Security released a video on Twitter that categorized feminism, homosexuality, and atheism as extremist ideas. The animated clip said “all forms of extremism and perversion are unacceptable.” It also included takfir, the practice by some Muslims of labeling followers of other schools of Islam unbelievers, among the categories of unacceptable behavior. The security agency later deleted the post and said the video contained “many mistakes” while suggesting that those behind it would face a formal investigation, according to a statement posted by the official press agency.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, [and] The Protocols of [the Elders of] Zion.” In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

On April 5, August 23, October 11, and December 27, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Makkah in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

In May the Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa called for the protection of followers of religions and places of worship after the terrorist attack on a Jewish temple in California and previous terrorist crimes. Al-Issa offered condolences to a number of Jewish religious leaders in New York.

During the May MWL International Conference on Moderation in Islam in Mecca, King Salman called for encouraging “concepts of tolerance and moderation, while strengthening the culture of consensus and reconciliation.” He added that the country was founded on values of moderation. The conference adopted the “Mecca Charter,” which calls for laws “to deter the promotion of hatred, the instigation of violence and terrorism, or a clash of civilizations, which foster religious and ethnic disputes.”

During the year, some Qatari nationals again reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017. The Saudi Press Agency announced that Qataris and foreign residents of Qatar would be allowed to land at Jeddah or Medina airports to perform the Hajj. The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah and Medina. In May, however, the government of Qatar stated that the Saudi government continued to deny Qatar-based religious tour operators’ access to Saudi Arabia to make Hajj and Umrah arrangements for pilgrims. Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said that the government rejected the politicization of the holy rituals, adding that it has never barred any nationalities from performing them.

On September 10, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Jeddah. Following the meeting, the group met with MWL Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level. The delegation and the MWL agreed in a joint statement to promote respect for religions and mutual trust and to encourage religious harmony.

On April 28, al-Issa visited a New York synagogue, the first such trip by an MWL leader to a Jewish house of worship in the United States, and signed an agreement with the NGO Appeal of Conscience Foundation supporting the protection of religious sites around the world. On April 30, al-Issa signed a memorandum of understanding with American Jewish Committee (AJC) in which the MWL and AJC agreed “to further Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperate against racism and extremism in all its forms.” In May the MWL invited a Jewish delegation to visit the country in January 2020. Al-Issa said discussions during the visit, the first ever by a Jewish group, would address the issue of Holocaust denial.

In November the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Issa visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discuss “ways of supporting bridging relations between followers of religions and cultures to promote peace and positive harmony.”

At the annual Jeddah International Book Fair, several vendors sold anti-Semitic material, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf. Additional titles were observed that linked Jews to conspiracies.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother, reportedly because he was a Shia. Local media reported the public prosecutor’s office in Medina assured the victim’s family that it was investigating the perpetrator.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” In addition, terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were commonly found in public discourse. In September an academic at Qassim University, Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out Shia from the holy city of Medina, stating that “myths and self-flagellation of Persians has reached the holiest place on earth… They must be uprooted and eradicated before this disease spreads.” In January cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini named Shia “rejectionists” in a tweet. In February another tweet described Shia as “enemies of God” and “infidels.”

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

Anti-Semitic comments occasionally appeared in the media. In January columnist Muhammad al-Sa’idi wrote in an article in Al-Watan newspaper that Jews deliberately promote the publication and circulation of anti-Semitic literature in Arab countries that describes them as secretly running the world “in order to convince the Arabs of their power and thereby demoralize and frighten them.” When the same literature appears in the West, he added, the Jews fight it in order to maintain their positive image and present themselves as victims.”

On March 3, journalist and businessman Hussein Shobakshi wrote in his column in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat Arabic daily, owned by a member of the royal family, of the “deeply rooted hatred of Jews in Islamic culture,” in which the term “Jew” is strongly derogatory. He stated, “Anti-Semitism in the Arab world is the product of loathsome, racist education that is rooted in the Arab mentality that is used to labeling people according to tribal, family, and racial affiliation, and according to the religious school to which they belong.”

On April 5 and August 23, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” His prayer included, “Oh Allah, show us the wonders of Your might and ability inflicted upon them.”

In May columnist Mansour al-Nugaidan, who U.S. National Public Radio described as a former “jihadi” turned “moderate,” said in an interview with Dubai-based Rotana Khalijiah TV channel “atheism is a faith that should be respected because it’s man’s choice.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, the Vice President called on the government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating Badawi and others “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” Senior embassy and consulate general officers pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, the MOIA, the Muslim World League, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Somalia

Executive Summary

The provisional federal constitution (PFC) provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion, makes Islam the state religion, prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulates all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. Most areas of the country beyond greater Mogadishu remained outside federal government control. Federal Member State (FMS) administrations, including Puntland, Jubaland, South West State, Hirshabelle, Galmudug, and self-declared independent Somaliland, governed their respective jurisdictions through local legislation but did not fully control them. The constitutions of Somaliland and Puntland State declare Islam as the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion, bar the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and require all laws to comply with the general principles of sharia. In August the government began issuing approximately two million textbooks that reflect the new curriculum to students countrywide, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Culture. Ministry officials declared that religious education was important in order to counter efforts by al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law.

According to media reports, by October the year was one of the deadliest years on record for fatalities from attacks by terrorist group al-Shabaab, with numbers already more than 1,200. Al-Shabaab killed, maimed, or harassed persons suspected of converting from Islam or those who failed to adhere to the group’s religious edicts. During the year, al-Shabaab was responsible for the killings of civilians, government officials, members of parliament, Somali national armed forces, police, and troops from contributing countries of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Al-Shabaab continued its campaign to characterize the AMISOM peacekeeping forces as “Christians” intent on invading and occupying the country. In July al-Shabaab killed an aid worker from the humanitarian nongovernmental organization (NGO) Lifeline in Buulo Cadey, in the Gedo Region of Jubaland State. In January al-Shabaab reportedly kidnapped 100 civilians who refused to pay the group zakat (tax). In July the group publicly executed 10 civilians in Hagar and Salagle, towns located in the Middle Juba Region of Jubaland State, for “spying” for foreign and Somali security forces. Al-Shabaab, which launched a primary and secondary education curriculum in 2017, continued to threaten parents, teachers, and communities who failed to adhere to al-Shabaab’s precepts.

Strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islamic traditions continued. Conversion from Islam to another religion remained illegal in some areas and socially unacceptable in all. Those suspected of conversion faced harassment by members of their community. In June Christian media reported a woman in Burao, Somaliland, was reportedly beaten by her brothers, divorced by her husband, and separated from her two children after her husband found a Bible in a drawer in their home. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, according to observers.

Following the reestablishment of a permanent diplomatic presence in December 2018, travel by U.S. government officials remained limited to select areas when security conditions permitted. U.S. government engagement to promote religious freedom remained focused on supporting efforts to bring stability and reestablish rule of law, in addition to advocating for freedom of speech and assembly.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Other sources, including the World Bank, estimate the population to be at least 14.7 million. According to the federal Ministry of Religious Affairs, more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. According to the World Atlas, members of other religious groups combined constitute less than 1 percent of the population and include a small Christian community of approximately 1,000 individuals, a small Sufi Muslim community, and an unknown number of Shia Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and those not affiliated with any religion. Foreign workers, who are primarily from East African countries, belong mainly to non-Muslim religious groups.

The Somali Bantu population largely inhabits the southern and central regions of the country near the Shabelle and Jubba Rivers. The majority of the Somali Bantu population is Muslim but also maintain traditional animist beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The PFC provides for the right of individuals to practice their religion but prohibits the propagation of any religion other than Islam. It states all citizens, regardless of religion, have equal rights and duties before the law but establishes Islam as the state religion and requires laws to comply with sharia principles. While the PFC does not explicitly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions, sharia forbids conversion from Islam. No exemptions from application of sharia legal principles exist for non-Muslims.

The constitutions of Somaliland in the northwest and Puntland State in the northeast make Islam the state religion, prohibit Muslims from converting, prohibit the propagation of any religion other than Islam, and stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia.

The Somaliland constitution states: “Every person shall have the right to freedom of belief and shall not be compelled to adopt another belief. Islamic Sharia does not accept that a Muslim can renounce his beliefs.” The Puntland State constitution prohibits any law or culture that contravenes Islam and prohibits demonstrations contrary to Islam. The constitution and other laws of Puntland State do not define contravention of Islam.

Other interim FMS administrations, including Galmudug, Hirshabelle, Jubaland, and South West State, have constitutions identifying Islam as the official religion. These constitutions stipulate all laws must comply with the general principles of sharia. The Galmudug, Hirshabelle, and South West State interim administrations have not enacted laws directly addressing religious freedom.

The national penal code generally remains valid in all regions of the country. It does not prohibit conversion from Islam to another religion, but it criminalizes blasphemy and “defamation of Islam,” which carry penalties of up to two years in prison.

Both the PFC and the Puntland State constitution require the president, but not other office holders, to be Muslim. The Somaliland constitution requires, in addition to Somaliland’s president, the candidates for vice president and the House of Representatives to be Muslim.

The judiciary in most areas relies on xeer (traditional and customary law), sharia, and the penal code. Xeer is believed to predate Islamic and colonial traditions, and in many areas, elders will look to local precedents of xeer before examining relevant sharia references. Each area individually regulates and enforces religious expression, often inconsistently. In areas controlled by al-Shabaab, sharia is the only formally recognized legal system, although reports indicate that xeer is applied in some cases.

The Somaliland constitution prohibits the formation of political parties based on a particular religious group, religious beliefs, or interpretation of religious doctrine, while the PFC and the constitutions of state administrations do not contain this prohibition.

The federal Ministry of Religious Affairs has legal authority to register religious groups. Guidance on how to register or what is required is inconsistent. The ministry has no ability to enforce such requirements outside of Mogadishu.

Somaliland has no mechanism to register religious organizations and no specific requirements to register Islamic groups. The Puntland State government has no laws governing registration and no mechanism to register religious groups. Other FMS administrations have no mechanism to register religious organizations.

In Puntland State, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Puntland Ministry of Justice and Religious Affairs. In Somaliland, religious schools and formal places of worship must obtain permission to operate from the Somaliland Ministry of Religion. Neither Puntland State nor Somaliland law delineates consequences for operating without permission. The FMS administrations require formal places of worship and religious schools to obtain permission to operate from local authorities.

The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs is responsible for monitoring religious affairs and promoting religious tolerance between practitioners of Islam and minority religions. Specific responsibilities of the ministry include arranging affairs for Somali Hajj pilgrims and developing messaging to counter al-Shabaab ideology. The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education has the mandate to regulate religious instruction throughout the country. The PFC and FMS authorities require Islamic instruction in all schools, public or private, except those operated by non-Muslims. Private schools have more flexibility in determining their curriculum. These schools must request approval of the federal Ministry of Education; however, requests are infrequent. Non-Muslim students attending public schools may request an exemption from Islamic instruction, but according to federal and FMS authorities, there have been no such requests.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.

Government Practices

The federal government continued to confront multiple challenges, including a persistent threat from al-Shabaab, a stalemate in relations with the FMS governments, and attempts by external actors to increase influence at the subnational level. Despite the government’s reported attempts to strengthen governance, reform key security institutions, and carry out operations to combat al-Shabaab, the terrorist group continued to carry out attacks regularly in the capital and to control large land areas throughout the southern and central parts of the country.

Federal and FMS governments maintained bans on the propagation of religions other than Islam. The federal government reportedly continued not to strictly enforce the registration requirement for religious groups opening schools for lay or religious instruction.

The federal Ministry of Education, Culture, and Higher Education continued to implement a new national curriculum framework, although parliament by year’s end had not passed the draft law establishing the new system. The initiative mandates Somali as the language of instruction for primary school, Islamic religious instruction at all levels, and Arabic-language Islamic religion courses at the secondary level. In August, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Culture, the government began issuing countrywide approximately two million textbooks that reflect the new curriculum. Ministry officials declared that religious education was important in order to counter efforts by al-Shabaab to impose a strict version of Islamic law. Muslim clerics helped create the new materials and trained teachers in Islamic ethics, according to ministry representatives.

The federal minister of endowments and religious affairs noted the ministry’s ambitious efforts to promote religious tolerance and messaging to counter al-Shabaab ideology but stated such efforts were underresourced.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There reportedly continued to be strong societal pressure to adhere to Sunni Islam traditions.

Conversion from Islam to another religion continued to be socially unacceptable, and individuals suspected of conversion and their families were reportedly subject to harassment from members of their local communities.

In June Morning Star News reported a woman in Burao, Somaliland, was reportedly beaten by her brothers, divorced by her husband, and separated from her two children after her husband found a Bible in a drawer in their home.

Christians and members of other non-Muslim religious groups continued to report an inability to practice their religion openly due to fear of societal harassment across most of the country. The small Christian community continued to keep a low profile with regard to religious beliefs and practices. Other non-Islamic groups likely also refrained from openly practicing their religion.

There continued to be no public places of worship for non-Muslims other than in the international airport. Religion News Service reported that hundreds of Christians in the country, typically foreigners from nearby countries but also some local converts, met secretly in houses for religious services. According to Catholic Bishop Giorgio Bertin, it would be hard to operate a church in the country because of the risks Christians faced there. He stated, “They are forced to pray and worship secretly because it’s risky being identified as a Christian.”

Private schools continued to be the main source of primary education. The majority offered religious instruction in Islam. Quranic schools remained key sources of early education for a majority of the country’s children. Integrated Quranic schools, in which both religious and secular curriculum were taught, still operated. Externally funded madrassahs throughout the country provided inexpensive basic education, and many taught Salafist ideology, especially in al-Shabaab-controlled areas, according to observers.

South Africa

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status. Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws, one requiring religious groups to register with the government and the other criminalizing, defining, and punishing hate crimes and speech, could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech. In March the Pretoria High Court ordered the Dutch Reformed Church to allow individual church councils to recognize and bless same-sex relationships and to employ noncelibate gay clergy. In September the Constitutional Court ruled that parental rights to religious freedom did not include the right to discipline their children using corporal punishment (including spanking), in response to a case brought by the NGO Freedom of Religion SA.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 36 anti-Semitic incidents during the year – a 15-year low. Numerous individuals made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year. Religious leaders reported a number of anti-Muslim incidents, including vandalism of several mosques and desecration of Muslim graves in a Cape Town cemetery, and attempts to prevent the slaughter of animals for Eid-al-Adha.

U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and humanist representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 55.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, 81 percent of the population is Christian. Approximately 15 percent of the population adheres to no particular religion or declined to indicate an affiliation; some of these individuals likely adhere to indigenous beliefs. Muslims constitute 1.7 percent of the population, of whom the great majority are Sunni. Shia religious leaders estimate that not more than 3 percent of the Muslim population is Shia. Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and adherents of traditional indigenous beliefs together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Many indigenous persons adhere to a belief system combining Christian and indigenous religious practices. The Church of Scientology estimates it has approximately 100,000 members.

The Pew Research Center estimates 84 percent of the Christian population is Protestant, 11 percent Roman Catholic, and 5 percent other denominations (2010 estimate). African independent churches constitute the largest group of Christian churches, including the Zion Christian Church (approximately 11 percent of the population), the Apostolic Church (approximately 10 percent), and a number of Pentecostal and charismatic groups. Other Christian groups include Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Seventh-day Adventists, and members of the Greek Orthodox, Dutch Reformed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Assemblies of God, and Congregational Churches.

Persons of Indian or other Asian heritage account for 2.5 percent of the total population. Approximately half of the ethnic Indian population is Hindu, and the majority resides in KwaZulu-Natal Province. The Muslim community includes Cape Malays of Malayan-Indonesian descent, individuals of Indian or Pakistani descent, and approximately 70,000 Somali nationals and refugees. The SAJBD estimates the Jewish community at 60,000 persons, the majority of whom live in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief, including the right to form, join, and maintain religious associations. It prohibits religious discrimination and specifies freedom of expression does not extend to advocacy of hatred based on religion. The constitution permits legislation recognizing systems of personal and family law to which persons professing a particular religion adhere. It also allows religious observances in state or state-supported institutions, provided they are voluntary and conducted on an equitable basis. These rights may be limited for reasons that are “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, and freedom” and take account of “all relevant factors.” Cases of discrimination against persons on the grounds of religion may be taken to Equality Courts, the South African Human Rights Commission, and the Constitutional Court. The constitution also provides for the promotion and respect of languages used for religious purposes, including, but not limited to, Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit.

The constitution establishes and governs the operation of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities (CRL) with the mission of fostering the rights of communities to freely observe and practice their cultures, religions, and language. The CRL is an independent national government institution whose chair is appointed by the president and whose commissioners include members of the clergy, scholars, and politicians, among others.

The law does not require religious groups to register; however, registered religious and other nonprofit groups may qualify as public benefit organizations, allowing them to open bank accounts and exempting them from paying income tax. To register as a public benefit organization, groups must submit a nonprofit organization application, including their constitution, contact information, and list of officers and documentation stating they meet a number of prescribed requirements that largely ensure accounting and tax compliance, to the provincial social development office. A group registers once with the local office but its status then applies nationwide. Once registered, the group must submit annual reports on any changes to this information, important achievements and meetings, and financial information, as well as an accountant’s report.

The government allows but does not require religious education in public schools but prohibits advocating the tenets of a particular religion.

The law allows for marriages to be conducted under customary law; however, it applies only to “those customs and usages traditionally observed among the indigenous African people” and may be performed by all religious groups and their leaders.

The constitution grants detained persons visitation rights with their chosen religious counselor.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In March the Pretoria High Court ordered the Dutch Reformed Church to allow individual church councils to recognize and bless same-sex relationships and to employ noncelibate gay clergy. The case effectively ended the Church’s 2016 policy banning LGBTI persons from marrying or becoming clergy, according to civil society activists. In September the Church’s General Synod adopted a policy “in which everyone’s human dignity is respected.” The synod’s decision allowed councils and ministers to “confirm civil unions between persons of the same sex” and called for the licensing of theological students without regard to their “race, gender, class, or sexual orientation and identity.”

In June the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) charged an officer with disobedience for refusing to remove her religious headscarf. Major Fatima Isaacs worked in SANDF for more than a decade and always wore the Islamic garment under her military beret. According to her attorney, Isaacs received permission to wear her hijab from senior officers. One “colonel had continuously refused her request until he served her with a final written warning for repeatedly disobeying a lawful instruction,” the attorney said. In August SANDF gave Isaacs interim relief while it reviewed its dress code. In November the case was postponed to January 2020.

In September the CRL denounced a public school in Alberton, Gauteng for promoting a specific religion. The CRL cited a 2017 ruling by the High Court in Johannesburg that found it unconstitutional for Laerskool Randhart and other public schools to promote one religion over others. A parent complained to the CRL that the school continued to hold Monday morning Bible reading and prayer along with Wednesday religious periods featuring a teacher from a church. “The outcome of the High Court matter is quite explicit about this because it said that schools have the right to determine access to any religion, but any preference given to one religion is not permitted,” said CRL Chair Luka David Mosoma.

Also in September, in a case brought by the NGO Freedom of Religion SA, the Constitutional Court ruled that parents may not spank their children. The case concerned a father convicted in 2016 of assaulting his 13-year-old son and upheld an earlier ruling by the High Court to do away with the common-law defense of reasonable chastisement when spanking a child. The Constitutional Court found that “violence meted out to the son… took the form of vicious kicking and punching… The father could not… [have] relied on any religious or cultural ground to justify that unmistakably immoderate and unreasonable application of force…The application of force or a resort to violence, which could be harmful or abused, cannot in circumstances where there is an effective non-violent option available be said to be consonant with the best interests of the child.” The court charged parliament with devising an appropriate regulatory framework to implement the decision and stated, “The aim is not to prosecute parents but to get them to parent better. The removal of the defense does not mean that all cases of parental corporal punishment mean automatic or frequent prosecution of parents.” Freedom of Religion SA argued that “there is a clear distinction between violence or abuse, and mild (non-injurious) physical correction.” Freedom of Religion SA’s attorney said the judgment “sets a very dangerous precedent in that the State can dictate to people of faith how to read and live out the Scriptures, thereby seriously eroding their right to religious freedom.”

According to media, the Johannesburg Metro Police (JMPD) closed at least 16 churches for not complying with city bylaws regarding noise and fire safety. JMPD also created a forum with church leaders to raise awareness about the municipal code. “Rogue churches, they will never be allowed,” JMPD head David Tembe told the private broadcaster eNCA.

In February the then minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs urged the CRL to “protect the public against abuse in the name of religion” after a video clip of a pastor allegedly raising someone from the dead was widely distributed on the internet. In July the new CRL chair stated that “the issue of regulation of religion is still on the plate… Parliament will have to take a position on whether religion is regulated or not.” Several groups, including the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the nonprofit Christian organization Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), and the International Institute for Religious Freedom, stated their continued opposition to a 2016 CRL legislative proposal requiring religious groups to register, stating it would restrict their religious freedom. The proposal would require religious groups to register formally with the government and would create a peer review council, consisting of representatives from various religious groups, which would grant organizations and individual religious leaders’ permission to operate. In 2018 the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs announced that every comment it had received from the religious community opposed the CRL proposal. No member of the committee recommended that the CRL proposal be forwarded for adoption by parliament. According to media, the legislative proposal was prompted by the CRL’s 2016 investigation that revealed some independent church leaders instructed their congregations to eat live snakes, expose their faces to insect repellant, drink gasoline, and pay large sums of money to receive blessings and miracles. The proposal remained with the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs at year’s end.

In 2018 the Department of Justice introduced to parliament a hate crimes and hate speech bill that would criminalize any action or statement motivated by bias or hatred towards an individual based upon a number of categories, including his or her ethnic, national, religious, or sexual identity; health status; employment status or type; or physical ability. The bill would provide law enforcement officials and courts increased authority to arrest and punish offenders, and it would mandate prison sentences of up to three years for first-time offenses. Opponents to the bill, including religious figures, media representatives, and civil society and NGOs, argued the bill’s definition of hate crimes and speech was too vague and could potentially restrict freedom of religion and speech. The draft legislation was expected to be debated in parliament in early 2020, according to media reports.

Twin brothers Brandon Lee Thulsie and Tony Lee Thulsie continued to await trial on charges of contravening the Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terror and Related Activities. The brothers, along with two others who were alleged to have links to ISIS, were arrested in 2016 for allegedly planning to set off explosives at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria and Jewish institutions in the country. Their trial was expected to begin in March 2020.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In June unknown individuals vandalized three Western Cape Jewish cemeteries. A Jewish group in Strand filed a police complaint after four Jewish gravestones were damaged.

In July at a Johannesburg university following the showing of a documentary, a student said that “if Hitler had succeeded in wiping out the Jews, there would be no apartheid state of Israel,” according to the SAJBD. The student subsequently apologized.

In August a driver rammed the trailer of a Muslim family in Saddlebrook Estate, a gated neighborhood in Midrand, Gauteng, as they were arriving home with animals to slaughter for Eid-al-Adha. The driver also slashed the tires of the family’s vehicle, for which he was subsequently arrested. The slaughtering eventually took place under police guard. Representatives of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had visited the residents’ premises and deemed them suitable for the slaughtering ceremony. The estate’s board of directors denounced the “intolerant and illegal actions in the estate of some residents.”

In September protesters from nearby neighborhood Thokoza forced open the gate of Katlehong Mosque in Johannesburg and burned a parked car and some artwork in the building. Imam Sheikh Ishaq told media the attack stemmed from a hoax message circulating on social media alleging that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were kidnapping students from a local school. Later in September, a man threw a Molotov cocktail at the Himayatul Islam Mosque while worshippers were inside. Police arrested two suspects, according to media reports.

In October vandals desecrated 80 Islamic graves in Mowbray in Cape Town and rearranged the headstones in the shape of a cross, according to media.

The SAJBD recorded a 15-year low of 36 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, a 40 percent drop from the 62 during 2018. The incidents included verbal threats and intimidation, verbal abuse, abusive communications, and graffiti/offensive slogans.

During Ramadan in Cape Town, a neighbor of the Zeenatul Islam Mosque in the neighborhood known as District Six lodged a noise complaint with the city over the mosque’s call to prayer. A variety of organizations, including the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, defended the mosque. “It defies logic that anyone living in District Six…would consider the call to prayer worthy of a complaint,” it said in a statement, referring to the fact that District Six has historically had a significant Muslim population and the Zeenatul Islam Mosque had been broadcasting the call to prayer since 1919.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives engaged with religious leaders and NGOs, including individuals from the Muslim Judicial Council, Islamic Council of South Africa, Inner Circle (a Muslim lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex organization), Hindu Maha Sabha, Christian Coalition, Christian Social Services, American Jewish Committee, SAJBD, South African Secular Society, and Atheist Movement of South Africa to discuss the environment for religious freedom and concern over cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. They also discussed the draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.

South Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for religious freedom and prohibits discrimination based on religion. In December the National Assembly passed legislation outlining alternative service options for conscientious objectors, although individuals who refused to serve or undertake alternative service continued to face up to three years imprisonment. The government ceased detaining, charging, or imprisoning new cases of conscientious objectors, but prosecutors continued to appeal “not guilty” verdicts of some Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been tried previously, and cases against 935 conscientious objectors whose trials began before the court’s decision were still pending at year’s end. Members of Christian groups prevented an initiative to create a comprehensive antidiscrimination bill that would specifically include religious affiliation and sexual orientation as protected classes. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights attorneys providing assistance to asylum seekers stated immigration officials fabricated statements made by Yemeni Muslim asylum seekers to make it more difficult for them to qualify for refugee status. The Korean Falun Dafa Association said government-affiliated performance venues in Seoul and Busan blocked a Falun Gong-affiliated performance troupe from performing to avoid conflict with the Chinese government.

The National Human Rights Commission of Korea (NHRCK) reported 13 cases alleging religious discrimination during the year, compared with 21 in 2018. According to media, in January 30,000 persons from civil society organizations and religious groups gathered in Seoul to demand the Christian Council of Korea (CCK) be shut down for corruption and for running coercive religious conversion programs. In July a group of NGOs and scholarly organizations sent an open letter to President Moon Jae-in calling on him to put an end to coercive conversion in the country. Muslims, particularly Yemenis who arrived in 2018 as asylum seekers, continued to report incidents of discrimination, including in employment. Some critics of President Moon used derogatory words associated with Islam to denigrate him and his supporters.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged with senior government officials on issues related to religious freedom, including the treatment of Yemeni Muslim refugees and conscientious objectors and the continuing refusal of government-affiliated venues to book a Falun Gong performance troupe. The Ambassador and embassy officials met with leaders of the Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss areas of concern, including trials of conscientious objectors, anti-Muslim sentiment, and freedom of expression, and to underscore the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. The embassy used social media to highlight the Ambassador’s outreach to different religious communities and U.S. support globally for religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 51.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2016 census conducted by the Korea Statistical Information Service, of the 44 percent of the population espousing a religion, 45 percent are Protestant, 35 percent Buddhist, 18 percent Roman Catholic, and 2 percent “other.” The census counts members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church) as Protestants. Followers of “other” religious groups, including Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Jeongsando, Cheondogyo, Daejonggyo, Daesun Jinrihoe, and Islam, together constitute less than 2 percent of the population. According to the only rabbi in the country, there is a small Jewish population of approximately 1,000, almost all expatriates. The Korean Muslim Federation estimates the Muslim population at 135,000, of which approximately 100,000 are migrant workers and expatriates mainly from Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan. One expert on the Muslim diaspora in the country stated the population could be more than 200,000 because many migrant workers enter the country without proper documentation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all citizens have freedom of religion, and that there shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social, or cultural life because of religion. Freedoms in the constitution may be restricted by law only when necessary for national security, law and order, or public welfare, and restrictions may not violate the “essential aspect” of the freedom. The constitution states religion and state shall be separate.

According to regulation, a religious group that has property valued at over 300 million won ($260,000) may become a government-recognized religious organization by making public internal regulations defining the group’s purpose and activities, meeting minutes of the group’s first gathering, and a list of executives and employees.

To obtain tax benefits, including exemption of acquisition or registration taxes when purchasing or selling property to be used for religious purposes, organizations must submit to their local government their registration as a religious and nonprofit corporate body, an application for local tax exemption, and a contract showing the acquisition or sale of property. All clergy are taxed on earned yearly income. Clergy are exempt from taxation on education, food, transportation, and childcare expenses. Individual laypersons are eligible for income tax benefits upon submitting receipts of donations made to religious organizations.

The law requires active military service for virtually all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 40 (in the army for 21 months, the navy for 23 months, or the air force for 24 months), followed by reserve duty training. In December the National Assembly amended the law to allow conscientious objectors to fulfill obligatory military service and reserve duties by working as government employees for 36 months at correctional facilities. Those who refuse to fulfill military service or alternative service face up to three years imprisonment. The law is silent regarding soldiers currently on active duty who wish to switch to alternative service due to conscientious objections.

Following military service (or alternative service for conscientious objectors), there is an eight-year reserve duty obligation involving several reserve duty exercises per year. The December law allows those who already completed their military service obligation but subsequently became conscientious objectors to perform their reserve duties in correctional facilities. Previously, these individuals were subject to fines for not participating in mandatory reserve duty exercises. Failure to perform reserve duties or alternative service carries fines and possible imprisonment. The fines vary depending on jurisdiction but typically average 200,000 Korean won ($170) for the first conviction. Fines increase by 100,000 to 300,000 won ($87 to $260) for each subsequent violation. The law puts a ceiling on fines at two million won ($1,700) per conviction. Civilian courts have the option, in lieu of levying fines, to sentence individuals deemed to be habitual offenders to prison terms or suspended prison terms that range from one day to three years.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools. Private schools and religious schools are free to conduct religious activities. Students at these schools may opt out of religious instruction.

The law provides government subsidies for preservation and upkeep of historic cultural properties, including religious sites.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (MCST) Religious Affairs Division works with the seven members of the NGO Korea Conference of Religions for Peace (KCRP) – the National Council of Churches of Korea (NCCK), the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions – on interfaith solidarity and is the primary government contact for religious organizations.

The NHRCK’s mandate gives it permission to investigate complaints, issue policy recommendations, train local officials, and conduct public awareness campaigns. The NHRCK can make nonbinding recommendations but does not have authority to implement policies or penalize individuals or agencies that violate human rights.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In December the National Assembly passed a law allowing conscientious objectors to work for 36 months as government employees at correctional facilities in lieu of mandatory military service and reserve duties. President Moon then pardoned 1,879 conscientious objectors who had been barred from becoming government officials because they had been convicted of refusing military service. The new law did not address the question of active duty service members wishing to switch to alternative service on the grounds of conscientious objections.

In December 2018 and again in March the NHRCK said the government’s then-proposed bill did not meet international human rights standards because it did not offer due process to active duty soldiers and reservists who wished to apply for alternative service on the grounds of conscientious objection. The NHRCK did not release a statement after the passage of the law.

The government ceased detaining, charging, or imprisoning conscientious objectors to military service immediately after the Constitutional Court’s decision in June 2018, but prosecutors continued during the year to appeal “not guilty” verdicts, arguing the beliefs of some Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been acquitted were insincere because they played violent video games or did not routinely attend church. According to Watchtower International, in February authorities released from prison the last prisoner detained for conscientious objection; however, 935 conscientious objectors whose trials began before June 2018 were still on trial at year’s end, including 63 who fulfilled the mandatory active duty service but refused to participate in reserve duty.

On July 29, the Suwon District Court found Shin Ok-ju, head pastor of the Grace Road Church, and five other church officials guilty on charges of violence, child abuse, and fraud in connection with a 400-member church-owned compound in Fiji. Former members of the church said they were instructed to beat each other to “drive out evil spirits” and were not free to leave the compound. The court sentenced Shin to six years in prison. A district court spokesperson told media the other five officials received penalties ranging from a suspended sentence to 44 months in prison.

According to media reports, in February a government-subsidized social welfare center dismissed a social worker after the individual refused to study the Bible with the director of the center.

According to the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, a social worker at one of its government-subsidized welfare centers was forced to read a Buddhist prayer and bow 3,000 times in worship at an annual event. The order stated it was taking steps to prevent recurrence.

In January the Supreme Court ruled that Han Ji-man, a Seventh-day Adventist medical student, could take university exams outside Sabbath hours, overturning a lower court ruling. According to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, when Han began his studies as a first-year medical student, he learned several of his exams were scheduled on Saturday. The Church stated that he filed the lawsuit after speaking with professors and school administrators and after appeals to the NHRCK did not resolve the issue.

Media reported that in October President Moon met with religious leaders – including Archbishop Hyginus Kim Hee-joong of Gwangju, Chairman of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Korea and the highest ranking Catholic official in the country – and called for them to support the creation of a proposed comprehensive antidiscrimination law that would specifically include religious affiliation and sexual orientation as protected classes. According to media reports, although the NHRCK, international groups, and many lawmakers in the ruling Democratic Party supported an initiative to create a new law, other parliamentarians, including those in the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), opposed it due to the outspoken objection to LGBTI protections from Christian groups, notably the CCK. The CCK also stated such a law would make the country “a paradise” for Muslims. The NCCK stated it publicly opposed all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. An NCCK representative said, however, it did not directly engage on a comprehensive antidiscrimination bill to avoid division among member churches with varying viewpoints. The Jogye Order of Korea Buddhism lobbied the National Assembly to work towards creating an antidiscrimination law.

In November LKP Representative Ahn Sang-soo proposed a revision to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea Act that would remove the NHRCK’s authority to investigate discrimination based on sexual orientation and would define gender as “biological male and female.” According to media, Ahn said the existing law “legally and actively protects and promotes homosexuality” and discriminates against those who oppose homosexuality on religious or other grounds. Forty members of the 300-seat legislature, predominantly LKP representatives but also members of the Bareunmirae Party and the Democratic Party, signed Ahn’s proposed amendment despite criticism and protests from domestic and international human rights groups.

Immigration officials extended by one year the humanitarian stay permits to 412 Yemeni Muslim asylum seekers who were among a group of approximately 500 who arrived in 2018. Extensions for the remaining Yemenis were pending adjudication by ROK immigration officials at year’s end.

In July NGOs providing services to asylum seekers and human rights attorneys accused immigration officials of fabricating statements made by Yemeni Muslims applying for asylum during the second half of 2018. According to the NGOs, immigration officials attributed statements to the Yemenis that would make it easier to dismiss their applications, such as stating that the applicant came to the country in search of better economic prospects. In other instances, the NGOs said immigration officials used interpreters who did not speak Arabic fluently, if at all. Media reported in July that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) stated three refugee screening officers would face disciplinary action for “rigging” Arabic-speaking refugee interview records as far back as 2017.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor continued to support Muslim laborers by offering Korean language classes and encouraging employers to better accommodate Muslim workers’ prayer schedules and dietary requirements.

The Korean Falun Dafa Association said the Falun Gong-affiliated performance troupe Shen Yun was unsuccessful in reserving public venues in January, February, and July in Seoul for commercial performances, including at the government-affiliated Seoul Arts Center and the Seoul city government-affiliated Sejong Center for the Performing Arts. The association indicated the venues said Shen Yun’s applications were rejected for scheduling and/or artistic reasons, but the group’s representatives stated they believed the venues and their associated government authorities refused these requests to avoid conflict with the Chinese government. The association also said Shen Yun’s application to perform in March at the Busan Cultural Center – affiliated with the Busan city government – was rejected apparently for similar reasons, despite the group’s having performed at the venue on several previous occasions. Local sources inside and outside the government noted the country’s cautious approach toward the Chinese government, especially on sensitive “internal” issues like Falun Gong, and said the government’s caution was reinforced in part by the experience of China’s economic retaliation against the government for allowing the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in 2017, the economic effects of which, the sources said, were still being felt.

Yonhap News Agency reported that in August the Seoul Immigration Office rejected the refugee application of an Iranian man, claiming his conversion to Catholicism was not sincere and therefore he did not qualify under the law. The father arrived in the country with his then-six-year-old son, Kim Min-hyuk, in 2010 and both converted to Catholicism five years later. Kim received refugee status in 2018. In August the MOJ granted the father a one-year extension to his humanitarian stay permit to allow him to remain in the country with his minor son.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The NHRCK reported 13 cases of alleged religious discrimination during the year, compared with 21 in 2018. The NHRCK did not provide details on cases under investigation.

According to media, on January 27, 30,000 persons from civil society organizations and religious groups gathered in Seoul to protest “unconstitutional actions” by the CCK and demanded the council to be shut down. The Global Citizens’ Human Rights Coalition organized the protest. Protestors accused the CCK – which maintains an alliance relationship with the World Evangelical Alliance – of corruption and of running coercive religious conversion programs. The coalition called for “enactment of a special law against coercive conversion programs to enhance freedom of religion.”

In July a group of NGOs and scholarly organizations specializing in research on religious pluralism sent an open letter to President Moon calling on him to put an end to coercive religious conversions in the country. According to these groups, individuals, often parents, took those they wished to convert against their will to specialized “counselors” or “deprogrammers,” often pastors of established churches. The letter stated the “deprogrammers” then attempted to forcibly convert the children from whatever religion they deemed unorthodox back to the religion of their parents.

Yemeni Muslims who remained on Jeju Island instead of migrating to the mainland (approximately 120 out of the 500 who arrived on the island in 2018) reported increased acceptance by the local community. Those who migrated to the mainland, however, reported ongoing instances of discrimination and a general societal view associating Muslims with terrorism. They said there were instances where employers were unwilling to accommodate dietary needs, breaks for prayer, or other religious observances. NGOs, police, government officials, and asylum seekers accused media of reporting that was untruthful or biased against Muslims, portraying Muslim refugees as violent, potential terrorists, or antifeminist. For example, in June an online newspaper suggested Yemeni refugees may have been to blame for reddish tap water at an apartment complex. The article cited anonymous sources who said Houthi rebels (referring to the refugees) might have poisoned the water.

According to the KCRP, some critics of President Moon, including former main opposition LKP leader Hong Joon-pyo, called Moon “Moonslim,” a word blending Moon and Islam, and his supporters “Moonslims,” as a derogatory insult. Some critics also called Moon’s supporters “Daliban,” a play on the Korean word for moon (dal) and Taliban. The KCRP stated this derogatory usage exemplified the negative views of Muslims in the country. The KCRP also stated some Protestant leaders provoked discriminatory attitudes against Muslims on social media platforms such as YouTube by publishing fake news and misinformation.

Prominent religious leaders regularly met on a panel to promote religious freedom, mutual understanding, and tolerance. The panel was funded by the government but functioned independently from it. Throughout the year, the KCRP hosted religious leaders from multiple faiths at religious events including seminars, exhibitions, arts and cultural performances, and interfaith exchanges to promote religious freedom, reconciliation, and coexistence. For example, in October the KCRP held the Religious Festival for Reconciliation in Daegu. The festival invited followers from seven different religions to explore coexistence through sports and visiting a Buddhist temple together. Islam is not one of the seven religious groups represented in the KCRP, which is comprised of the NCCK, the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, the Catholic Church, Won Buddhism, Confucianism, Cheondogyo, and the Association of Korean Native Religions, but Muslims were often invited as observers. On September 25-27, the KCRP and the NHRCK cohosted a seminar discussing countermeasures against anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. Ten representatives from the Korea Muslim Federation were among the 80 participants.

In August North Korea’s state-controlled Korean Christian Federation’s Central Committee and South Korea’s NCCK composed their annual joint prayer for peaceful reunification of the peninsula, stating in part, “Lord, hear the prayers of the beloved Christians throughout the world for peace and prosperity of the Korean Peninsula….Let the fervent prayers of Christians all over the world bloom in our hearts, and in every corner of the Korean Peninsula as a flower of hope.”

In March the sole rabbi in the country opened the country’s first Jewish mikveh (bath used for ritual purification) in Seoul.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers regularly engaged the government – including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MCST, MOJ, and National Assembly members – on religious freedom and tolerance issues, including urging the government to pass legislation providing equitable alternative service options for conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds. Embassy officials also raised the treatment of Yemeni Muslim refugees with the government. The Ambassador voiced concern at the vice foreign minister level regarding the Korean Falun Dafa Association’s allegations that the government was contributing to censorship of Falun Gong by allowing government-funded venues to deny Shen Yun performances under pressure from China.

The Ambassador met with Anglican, Baptist, Buddhist, and Jewish community leaders to discuss religious freedom issues, including anti-Muslim sentiment, the proposed opening of a synagogue in Seoul, and freedom of expression, and to underscore the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

Embassy officials met with members of various religious groups and NGOs, including Yemeni humanitarian stay permit holders and the imam of the largest mosque in the country, to discuss the state of religious tolerance and concerns about anti-Muslim sentiment. Embassy officials also discussed the status of conscientious objectors facing trial with Jehovah’s Witness representatives.

The embassy highlighted the U.S. commitment to religious freedom via social media, including by noting the Ambassador’s meetings with U.S. and South Korean military chaplains, and meetings in May with the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The embassy posted to social media information about the Ambassador’s meeting with the country’s sole rabbi and his attendance at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the country’s first Jewish mikveh in March to highlight support for religious pluralism. The embassy also highlighted on Facebook and Twitter the Vice President’s speech on September 23 at the United Nations General Assembly calling for the protection of religious freedom worldwide.

Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws accord Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of minority religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against minorities. Religious minorities reported government officials and police often sided with religious majorities and did not prevent harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. On Easter Sunday, April 21, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks on three churches and four luxury hotels, killing more than 250 civilians and injuring more than 500. In the aftermath, the government banned three organizations it labeled Muslim extremists, including NTJ, and temporarily banned face coverings. Although the government deployed security forces and police to control subsequent anti-Muslim violence, Muslim religious and civil society leaders reported some police stood idly by while attacks occurred. On May 12-13, mobs led by Buddhist monks and encouraged online by Sinhalese nationalist politicians from small parties affiliated with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party attacked and vandalized mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and Puttalam Districts, resulting in the death of one Muslim man and extensive property damage. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found, “Mobs appear to have had a free hand to engage in the destruction of mosques” in several Northwestern Province towns, as well as in destruction of Muslim homes, businesses and vehicles. These attacks started to subside in May. NGOs reported in April police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks said a short story he published had insulted Buddhism. Religious rights groups reported police continued to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing government regulations, which legal scholars said did not apply. Media reports stated police and military personnel were complicit in allowing Buddhists to build religious structures on Hindu sites.

During the year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 94 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services, compared with 88 in 2018. According to NCEASL, on September 21, a group of approximately 10 villagers assaulted six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while on their way to church. Five individuals were hospitalized. According to civil society groups, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to media, on May 15, Gnanasara Thero, a senior Buddhist monk, called for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate. Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force), used social media to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities. Media reports said some Muslim businesses were failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts.

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the U.S. Ambassador issued a statement condemning the attacks and urging the country’s citizens to remain unified. Embassy officials repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and hosted a national Youth Forum workshop in November, bringing together religiously diverse youth from across the country. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The 2012 national census lists the population as 70.2 percent Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.4 percent Christian. According to census data, the Theravada Buddhist community, which comprises nearly all the country’s Buddhists, is a majority in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, and Western Provinces.

Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Tamils, mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority, constitute the majority in the Northern Province and constitute the second largest group, after Muslims, in the Eastern Province. Most Muslims self-identify as a separate ethnic group, rather than as Tamil or Sinhalese. When a woman of any religion marries a Muslim, she must convert to Islam and is identified as Muslim. Tamils of Indian origin, who are mostly Hindu, have a large presence in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Uva Provinces. Muslims form a plurality in the Eastern Province, and there are sizable Muslim populations in the Central, North-Central, Northwestern, Sabaragamuwa, Uva, and Western Provinces. Christians reside throughout the country but have a larger presence in the Eastern, Northern, Northwestern, and Western Provinces, and a smaller presence in Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces.

Most Muslims are Sunni, with small Sufi, Ahmadi, and Shia, including Dawoodi Bohra, minorities. An estimated 82 percent of Christians are Roman Catholic. Other Christian groups include Church of Ceylon (Anglicans), the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Baptists, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christian evangelical and nondenominational Protestant groups have grown in recent years, although there are no reliable estimates of their numbers. According to the government, membership remains low compared with the larger Christian community. There is a small Jewish population living in different parts of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including the freedom to choose a religion. The constitution gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, both in public and in private. The constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and requires the government to protect it, although it does not recognize it as the state religion. According to a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, the state is constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism, and other religions do not have the same right to state protection. The same ruling also holds that no fundamental right to proselytize exists or is protected under the constitution. In 2017 the Supreme Court determined the right to propagate one’s religion is not protected by the constitution.

The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. There is no registration requirement for central religious bodies of these four groups. New religious groups, including groups affiliated with the four recognized religions, must register with the government to obtain approval to construct new places of worship, sponsor religious worker (missionary) visas/immigration permits, operate schools, and apply for subsidies for religious education. Religious organizations may also seek incorporation by an act of parliament, which requires a simple majority and affords religious groups state recognition.

The government adheres to a 2008 ministerial circular, introduced by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana (the cabinet ministry responsible for oversight of what the constitution describes as the country’s foremost religion, Theravada Buddhism), requiring all groups, regardless of their religion, to receive permission from the ministry to register and construct new places of worship. A 2017 Supreme Court ruling upholds the registration requirements. In 2018 the Ministry of Buddha Sasana ruled that the 2008 circular on registration and construction of religious facilities only applied to Buddhist religious sites.

Specific government ministers are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community. Departmental and ministerial assignments are based on the religion of the respective incumbent minister and change when a new minister of a different faith takes office – a customary political tradition that has spanned the past several governments.

Religion is a compulsory subject at primary and secondary levels in public and private schools. Parents may elect to have their children study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity, provided enough demand (at least 15 students) exists within the school for the chosen subject. Students may not opt out of religious instruction even if instruction in their religion of choice is not available, or if they do not choose any religion. All schools, including private schools founded by religious organizations, teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus must use the Ministry of Education curriculum on religion, which covers the four main religions and is compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level exams (equivalent to U.S. grade 10). International schools not following the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus are not required to teach religious studies.

Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and property inheritance, are adjudicated either under customary law of the ethnic or religious group in question or under the country’s civil law. According to the 1951 Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Islamic personal law governs marriages and divorces of Muslims, while civil law applies to most property rights. According to civil society groups in the Northern Province, civil law governs marriages, while the Thesawalamai (Hindu) customary law often governs the division of property. Similarly, civil society activists report that for Sinhalese, Kandyian personal law governs civil matters, such as inheritance issues, and works within the caste system. Civil law governs most marriages of Sinhalese and Tamils of various religions, including mixed marriages or those of individuals who state no religious affiliation. Religious community members report practices vary by region, and numerous exceptions exist.

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage, permitting Islamic religious court judges to allow children as young as 12 to be married. Written consent from the bride is not required. The religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration do not have to take place concurrently, which can complicate divorce and child support cases.

There is no national law regulating ritual animal sacrifice, but there are laws prohibiting animal cruelty, used to prevent religious ceremonies involving animal sacrifice.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The country’s ICCPR Act, which is designed to incorporate the international covenant into domestic law, criminalizes propagating or advocating religious or racial hatred. Punishments range from fines to up to 10 years imprisonment.

Government Practices

On Easter Sunday, April 21, the NTJ, a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks targeting Easter Sunday services attendees at three churches and patrons of four luxury hotels that cater to foreign tourists. According to the government, more than 250 civilians were killed and more than 500 were injured.

On April 22, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency, during which it banned face coverings, such as the burqa and niqab, citing national security and public safety. It also banned three Islamist organizations described by the government as extremist: NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The state of emergency expired on August 22, but the government continued to ban the three Islamist groups under the Prevention of Terrorism. The ban on face coverings lapsed with the end of the state of emergency.

In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, media reported several days of mob violence occurred in towns primarily across Northwestern Province; mosques and Muslim-owned homes and businesses were attacked. One man was killed with a sword. Through emergency regulation, the government restricted access to social media and deployed police and security forces to prevent anti-Muslim violence. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, however, stated, “There appeared to be no preventive measures taken although retaliatory violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the terror attacks,” and noted also that despite many villagers in affected areas phoning police and requesting protection in the hours prior to the mob violence, “No preventative measures were taken.”

Damage estimates from the May mob violence varied widely, with former government minister Nalin Bandara conservatively estimating the damage to include the destruction of 14 mosques, 86 houses, and 96 shops. In the ethnically and religiously mixed area of Minuwangoda, Gampaha alone, the local government divisional secretariat reported 12 houses, 64 business places, one mosque, and nine vehicles damaged. At the same time, in the mostly Sinhala Buddhist area of Kurunegala, the NGO Muslim Aid assessed that 147 houses, 132 business places, 29 mosques, 52 vehicles, and two common facilities were damaged due to the anti-Muslim violence.

Police reported a total of 60 persons were arrested in connection with the mob violence, but there were only nine arrests in Hettipola, 10 in Kuliyapitiya, and 14 in Minuwangoda, despite traditional and social media video reports showing that mobs were far larger in these areas. Among those arrested were leaders of the Sinhalese nationalist groups: Amith Weerasinghe of Mahason Balakaya, Dan Priyasad of New Sinha Le, and Namal Kumara of the “Anti-Corruption Front.” All were subsequently released. Weerasinghe was previously arrested for inciting violence during anti-Muslim riots in Kandy district in March 2018. In a May 15 interview with the Daily Mirror, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary and Member of Parliament Dayasiri Jayasekara admitted he took the arrested rioters in his personal car from one police station to another police station, where they were later released on bail. At year’s end, there were no prosecutions related to the May mob violence. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka investigation found police inappropriately released suspects detained for mob violence and concluded this “clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and also to the public at large.”

At year’s end, no convictions were reported in the 2018 anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy District that left two dead and 28 injured and resulted in significant damage to mosques, houses, shops, and vehicles. Media reported 81 arrests in connection with the violence.

Media reported Amith Weerasinghe, leader of Mahason Balakaya, who was arrested in March 2018 in connection with the Kandy riots, stayed six months in pretrial remand before authorities released him on bail in October 2018. He was arrested again in May for organizing anti-Muslim mob violence, and the Colombo additional magistrate granted him bail of two million rupees ($11,000) on June 4. The magistrate advised him to refrain from making statements that could be identified as hate speech or statements that could result in public unrest. Authorities also banned Weerasinghe from attending political rallies.

By year’s end, the government had not fully compensated owners for property damage they sustained during the March 2018 riots in Kandy District, even though the prime minister instructed that all compensation should be paid by July 2018. Media reports and public statements from Muslim politicians affirmed many victims of the 2018 violence continued to await compensation.

NCEASL said Christian evangelical groups continued to state police and local government officials were complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Christian groups said officials and police often sided with the religious majority.

On April 14, Aadara Sevana (Abode of Love), a social service and prayer center run by the Methodist Church in Kundichchaankulama, Anuradhapura, came under attack during its Palm Sunday service. According to media reports, a group of 20-25 Sinhalese Buddhists shouted death threats and threw stones and firecrackers. The attackers then locked the gates and held the 15 congregants and two clergy for nearly two hours until police arrived. Police requested the church not permit worshippers from other villages attend their services; no arrests were made. A similar group led by SLPP Party Pradeshiya Sabha (local council) Councilor Nalin Siriwardene previously attacked the same church in March, with no arrests made. According to press reports, at an April 18 public meeting with then-prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Bishop Asiri Perera, president of the country’s Methodist Church said, “I wonder if the police act only for a segment of society, and don’t believe it must protect everyone equally. Each time a church comes under attack, we hear about how the church was barely able to make a complaint to the police. Victims go seeking protection and return feeling utterly insecure.”

According to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim civil society groups, official harassment often occurred in concert with harassment by local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations. According to civil society sources, on February 24, a group of approximately 200 individuals led by four Buddhist monks forcibly entered the Christian Family Church premises in Galgamuwa. They demanded the pastor stop her worship service and threatened congregants using obscene language. The Buddhists damaged furniture and vandalized the building. Some of them seized a female congregant, dragged her into the street, threw her at the feet of the monks, and beat her. The pastor lodged a police complaint against the assailants; the Buddhist monks also filed a police complaint stating the pastor had breached the peace in the area. At year’s end, the breach of peace case was dismissed; however, the assault case continued.

Media reported that on April 1, police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks, led by Agulugalle Siri Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Centre, filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, which has thus far only been used to arrest individuals deemed to have offended Buddhism. Sathkumara had published a fictional short story Ardha (Half) that referred to homosexuality and child abuse at a Buddhist temple. Sathkumara was released on bail on August 5; the charges against him remained pending at year’s end. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. Sathkumara filed a fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest, which the court scheduled to review on July 28, 2020.

Media reported that on October 17, the police Organized Crimes Prevention Division (OCPD) questioned playwright Malaka Devapriya for four hours about a series of radio dramas he directed. Police acted after Buddhist monk Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Center filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, stating the dramas were a blasphemous distortion of Buddhist terminology.

Commenting in October on the Sathkumara and Devapriya cases, representatives of NGO Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice said, “The readiness of the police to pursue spurious complaints against artists perceived to have insulted Buddhism lies in stark contrast to the shocking lack of action against the hate speech of Buddhist extremists, including those who have incited physical violence against Muslim communities and other minorities in Sri Lanka in recent times.”

Despite a public awareness campaign by the Department of Christian Religious Affairs that began in 2016 to encourage local congregations of nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, at year’s end the government did not register any new groups. Instead, unregistered Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property. Without formal government recognition through the registration process, however, nondenominational churches said they could not sponsor religious worker visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship. According to Christian groups, they experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements. First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard-copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys. Second, without the consent of the majority of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings. Church leaders said they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for Christian religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.

On January 12, according to NCEASL, the pastor of Foursquare Church, Kalkudah, Batticaloa District, filed a police complaint stating that neighbors were shouting obscene threats at the church. On January 22, Kalkudah police officials, after recording statements from both parties, sided with the pastor’s neighbors and ordered him to stop his religious worship activities until he registered his church. According to NCEASL, the congregants moved their service to a different location for a few weeks but moved back to Kalkudah and continued their services without further reports of harassment.

NCEASL reported that on October 26, two officers in civilian clothes from Deniyaya Police Station arrived at the Hokma Bible Center in Deniyaya, Matara District, ordered the pastor to stop the prayer service immediately, and told the congregants to leave. According to the NCEASL report, the police stated the church was unauthorized and needed to be registered if the pastor wished to continue. Police verbally ordered the congregants to leave, but the pastor asked police to convey this order in writing, which they did on October 27. On October 28, while the pastor and his family were away, police and three villagers surveyed the perimeter of the pastor’s home and took a series of photographs, but no police action followed.

Media reported that on June 3, crowds gathered in Kandy District in support of an influential Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana, who began a hunger strike and called for the resignation of three Muslim politicians whom he accused of having links to the Easter Sunday attackers. Rathana did not provide any evidence to support his accusation. Two Muslim provincial governors and all Muslim ministers resigned from their posts to protest threats they said the community faced. All nine Muslim ministers subsequently returned to their posts. Media reported on May 22, then-president Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Buddhist monk and general secretary of the BBS Gnanasara Thero, who served less than one year of a six-year prison sentence for intimidating human rights activist Sandya Eknaligoda on court premises during a hearing at which military intelligence officers were accused of abducting her husband, journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda.

According to government gazette notifications, the ban on face coverings instituted by the government following the April 21 bombings lapsed when the state of emergency ended on August 27. Due to confusion about the status of the ban, police arrested four women in Colombo on August 31 for wearing the niqab, but released them the same day. Media reported the cabinet discussed legislation to permanently ban full-face covering in public places but delayed any decision after Muslim political leaders asked for time for deliberation within the community.

Muslims widely reported being harassed by security forces, especially at police and military checkpoints set up after the April 21 attacks. Media reported that in June in Marichchukaddi, Mannar, Muslim women were forced to remove their abayas in front of male military personnel. In another incident at the same location, female military officers cut off a Muslim woman’s head covering.

Human Rights Watch reported that Abdul Raheem Masaheena, a resident of Kolongoda, was arrested on May 17 for wearing a kurta (a loose collarless tunic) decorated with an image of a ship’s wheel, which police mistook for a Buddhist sacred symbol, the dharmachakra. In a fundamental rights petition filed with the Supreme Court, Masaheena said her arrest was arbitrary and malicious, she suffered degrading treatment in custody, and she had been “singled out and subjected to hostile inimical discrimination based on both grounds of race and religion.” Her petition remained pending at year’s end.

According to members of Christian groups, local authorities sometimes demanded their groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. Local police and government officials reportedly continued to cite a 2011 government circular requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities. The Ministry of Buddha Sasana, however, revoked the 2011 circular in 2012. Police also reportedly cited the 2008 circular on construction of religious facilities to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship. According to some legal experts, however, there was no explicit basis in national law for compulsory registration of places of worship with the state.

According to NCEASL, in early September during a meeting at the Koralaipattu Divisional Secretariat to discuss issues surrounding the Berea Prayer House in Pasikuda, Batticoloa, the divisional secretary (DS) said the prayer house was unauthorized and further stated the 2008 circular empowered him to intervene. The DS also demanded an end to the pastor’s religious worship activities. Subsequent to advocacy from NCEASL and an inquiry by the SLHRC, the DS verbally told the pastor he could continue his activities, and authorities allowed the church to continue operating.

According to NCEASL, on June 6, approximately 50 villagers, 12 Buddhist monks, and six members of the Divulapitiya local council in Gampaha District protested outside an Assemblies of God church, demanding it stop its religious activities. Buddhist monks and members of the council threatened the pastor and her husband in the presence of police. On June 9, the pastor and her lawyer filed a complaint with police. When they went to record a statement on June 10, the acting inspector general of police, the officer-in-charge, six Buddhist monks, and four members of the Divulapitiya council were present. The acting inspector general instructed the pastor’s lawyer to register the church with the Department of Christian Religious Affairs through the Divulapitiya Divisional Secretariat, stating it was a requirement under the 2008 circular. He further instructed the pastor to cease her religious worship activities until the church was registered. According to NCEASL, the pastor continued her religious worship activities in the area despite opposition. Five Christian families from her church, however, left the village following this incident.

Civil society groups and local politicians continued to state the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups and the military in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted religious intimidation, as some shrines were built in areas with few, if any, Buddhist residents. According to local politicians in the north, the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist shrines. Reports published by various civil society groups indicated security forces continued to be involved in constructing Buddhist religious sites, citing archeological links in places where there were no Buddhist populations. In July prominent Tamil twitter activist Garikaalan posted on Twitter that soldiers had constructed a Buddhist shrine on private land in Thyiddy, Jaffna.

Media reported that on September 23, a Buddhist group led by BBS monk Gnanasara Thero defied a Mullaitivu Magistrate Court order by cremating the body of a Buddhist monk in an open field next to the Neeraviyadi Pillayar Hindu temple in Mullaitivu District in the north of the island. BBS supporters shouted insults at the lawyers representing the temple association when they questioned police officers for failing to implement the court order. On October 21, the Court of Appeal ordered Gnanasara to appear before the court on November 8 for violating the Mullaitivu magistrate’s order. At year’s end Gnanasara remained free on bail while the case continued.

In May the Mullaitivu Magistrate’s Court ruled in favor of the Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Hindu Temple, which a Buddhist monk occupied in 2013 and subsequently constructed a Buddhist shrine on the site. With the endorsement of the government archeological department, the monk said the site was an ancient Buddhist temple. In its ruling, the court said the monk should no longer interfere with the temple’s operation by expanding the shrine, and any future building work on the shrine should only take place with the permission of the local government.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, it continued to have difficulty obtaining approval to build houses of worship. Local government officials cited the 2008 circular and forwarded all new Kingdom Hall construction applications to the Ministry of Tourism Development and Christian Affairs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year the ministry again did not issue any approvals for building applications, even when local authorities had no objections. Applications to construct new houses of worship in Pugoda and Nattandiya were submitted to local councils in July and August 2015 and forwarded to the ministry. Relevant authorities did not reply to those applications, which remained pending at year’s end.

Although religious education remained compulsory in state-funded schools, not all schools had sufficient resources to teach all four recognized religions, and according to civil society groups, some students were required to study religions other than their own. Government schools frequently experienced a shortage of teachers, sometimes requiring available teachers to teach the curriculum of a faith different from their own.

Religious schools continued to receive state funding for facilities and personnel and to fall under the purview of the central government and/or provincial ministry of education. The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka reported several dozen cases of schools refusing students admission on religious grounds during the year, even though the law requires government and private schools receiving government funding, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths.

On August 21, the Cabinet of Ministers approved amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 to end child marriages in the Muslim community. These amendments awaited parliamentary approval at year’s end. The proposed changes would set the minimum age of marriage at 18, and marriages of anyone between the ages of 16 and 18 would require permission from a sharia court judge. Further amendments included stipulations for mandatory written consent from the bride and for the religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration to take place concurrently. According to Muslim human rights activists, lack of this requirements created difficulties during divorce and child support cases.

On October 8, a video featuring well-known singer and politician Madhumadhawa Aravinda using derogatory language to describe the Muslim community at a village meeting went viral. Aravinda was the deputy leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, a small political party aligned with the ruling Podujana Peramuna Party. In the video, Aravinda said, “You [Muslims] will not be able to practice sharia for as long as the Sinhalese live in this country.” On October 8, he announced he had resigned from the party. Authorities questioned Aravinda but did not arrest him for anti-Muslim social media postings that civil society groups said incited anti-Muslim riots in Northwestern Province in May.

On June 24, chairman of the Wennappuwa local council K.V. Susantha Perera issued a directive temporarily banning Muslim traders from participating in the Sunday farmers’ market in Dankotuwa, 30 miles north of Colombo. He told media the Sinhalese traders were afraid to work with Muslims. Following a police complaint against the chairman, a magistrate court on June 28 ordered Muslim vendors to be allowed in the market.

Media reported that on July 16 in Kanniya, regular police, riot police, and military personnel blocked several hundred Hindu protesters from worshipping at the site where a Buddhist temple was to be built on the ruins of a Hindu temple. Police allowed Sinhalese merchants and counterprotesters to enter the site. According to media, Sinhalese counterprotesters assaulted members of the Hindu crowd while police looked on. When police allowed Hindu priests and the landowner onto the site for mediation talks, the Sinhalese merchants pelted them with objects and hot tea. Police took no action against the assailants. On July 18, then-president Sirisena announced a ban on construction of the Buddhist temple and appointed five Tamil archeologists to the board of the government archeological department. The president also ordered the staff of the archeological department to permit Tamils into the area. On July 22, the Trincomalee High Court issued an order banning construction of the Buddhist temple and permitted the Hindu temple trustees to enter the area to maintain the Maariyamman Kovil Hindu Temple at the site. The court ordered that Hindu devotees be allowed to engage freely in religious activities.

On July 18, the Court of Appeal set aside the 2016 judgment of the Jaffna High Court in a case brought by Hindu temple leadership prohibiting ritual animal sacrifice at Narasimma kovil in Kavunawatte in Northern Province.

Religious rights advocates said across all religious categories, traditional leaders charged with adjudication of religious law were poorly or completely untrained and issued inconsistent or arbitrary judgments.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion, language, and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence. According to press reports and civil society, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities, especially in social media. These groups said authorities did not act against those inciting violence against the Muslim community.

On June 16, prominent monk Gnanasara Thero delivered a nationally televised speech in which he said Muslim-run restaurants were seeking to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate by putting “sterilization medicine” in their food. “Don’t eat from those [Muslim] shops. Those who ate from these shops will not have children in future,” he said. “Some female devotees said that they [traitors] should be stoned to death. I don’t say this, but what should be done is this.”

Muslim civil society activists described a vast outpouring of anti-Muslim hate speech on social media and in parts of the broadcast and print media, often making similar claims that the small Muslim population was plotting to outnumber the Buddhist population. Human rights activists pointed to social media calls for the country’s Muslims to be “erased,” and praise for atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

On May 24, media reported police in Kurunegela arrested obstetrician Shihabdeen Shafi. The initial justification for his detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act was an investigation of allegedly suspicious assets. According to a fundamental rights petition filed on his behalf and numerous media reports, however, a newspaper article and social media posts then immediately insinuated Shafi had been responsible for sterilizing thousands of Sinhalese women during caesarean section operations. Police invited women to come forward to make allegations against Shafi, who was free on bail. These allegations were echoed by anti-Muslim preachers such as Gnanasara Thero. Shafi’s hospital colleagues and medical experts said the allegations were highly unlikely. In June lawyers representing police conceded in court that they found no evidence against Shafi. In a December hearing, lawyers representing police argued that a new investigation was required, and stated there had been political interference in the previous investigation that had absolved Shafi. In the December hearing, the magistrate ordered an expert panel of physicians and academics from University of Colombo to evaluate all available medical evidence to determine if the charges had merit. The court was scheduled to reconvene in January 2020 to review the findings of the expert panel.

NCEASL documented 94 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 88 cases in 2018.

According to the NCEASL, on September 21 a group of approximately 10 villagers beat six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while the individuals were on their way to church. Five of the victims were admitted to the Batticaloa and Valachchenai hospitals. According to NCEASL, both hospitals discharged the victims before they had fully recovered from their injuries, denying them adequate medical care. The Valachchenai Hospital also refused to issue them reports on their injuries. Police arrested two perpetrators on September 22, with no trial date set at year’s end. The pastor and his congregants faced continuous harassment throughout the year from the same group of individuals, according to NCEASL.

On May 14, NCEASL issued a statement condemning attacks on Muslims in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and the Puttalam Districts following the April 21 church bombings. The statement said, in part, “We are extremely troubled that some of the incidents were reportedly perpetrated by mobs during police curfew…we request authorities to speedily compensate the losses suffered by these communities and take proactive action to prevent any further violence.”

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported multiple incidences of discrimination and abuse. For example, on February 23, they reported that four Jehovah’s Witnesses were speaking to individuals about their religious beliefs in a neighborhood in Adikarimulla, Divulapitiy, when two men walked over to the group and assaulted them. When the wife of one Jehovah’s Witness arrived, the two men held her and punched her. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint on the same day and police arrested the two men. Charges were downgraded, and the case remained pending at year’s end. On March 17, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that Angmaduwe Vimala Himi, chief monk of the Weralugahamulla temple, with a group of followers, approached four female Jehovah’s Witnesses. The monk and his followers verbally abused the women and beat them with a cane. They seized religious literature from one of the women and burned it, while issuing threats to all of them against returning, saying they would “face worse.” One of the women was hospitalized after the attack. On the same day, the same monk and group confronted another group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, confiscated their literature, and assaulted them, resulting in the hospitalization of two. The Jehovah Witnesses filed complaints in both instances, which remained pending at year’s end. Multiple cases from previous years also remained pending.

There were multiple reports of Muslim businesses failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts. In May video footage emerged on social media showing Buddhist monks entering a Muslim-owned shop in Padiyathalawa, Ampara District and chasing out Sinhalese customers. The monks also threatened the Muslim shop owner not to operate his business in the area.

According to representatives of a Muslim Sufi community of approximately 10,000 based in the Eastern Province town of Kathankudy, the majority Sunni community discriminated against them by harassing them, vandalizing religious and community centers, and denying them access to local government resources. The Sufis noted the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the country’s main body of Islamic theologians, issued a directive labelling the group as nonbelievers. The Sufis said members of the NTJ assaulted them and vandalized their community centers on multiple occasions.

On July 18, media reported that a Buddhist monk raised a Buddhist flag over the Madasami Hindu Temple in Kanthapallai, Nuwara Eliya City. He also tried to remove the statues of Hindu deities from the temple. After local politicians and police intervened, temple custodians removed the flag from the temple.

Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees that consisted of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an NGO founded in 1995, created these committees in 2010 following the end of the civil war between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the primarily Hindu and Christian Tamil minority.

According to NCEASL, the number of Christian groups worshipping in “house churches” continued to grow.

In September Colombo hosted the Ashara Mubaraka, an annual global Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Convention, five months after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks and four months after incidents of anti-Muslim violence occurred throughout the country. The convention, titled “We Believe in Sri Lanka,” proceeded peacefully, drew 21,000 Bohra Muslims from 40 countries, and generated an estimated 10 billion rupees ($55.2 million).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with the president, prime minister, and other senior government officials, the Ambassador emphasized the need for respect for and inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities as part of the post-conflict reconciliation process. Following the April 21 bombing, the Secretary of State condemned the terror attacks “in the strongest possible terms.” The Ambassador issued a statement saying, “These terrible attacks are the work of a few individuals and not of an entire community. Sri Lankans of all backgrounds and faiths have come together to condemn these atrocities. Unity is the most powerful answer to terrorism.” During times of heightened religious and ethnic tensions, such as during the May Kurunegala, Puttalam, and Gampaha riots, the Ambassador urged political leaders to defuse the immediate crisis and called on citizens to disavow religious violence. Embassy officers also met regularly with cabinet ministers holding religious portfolios to encourage them to build ties across religions. The Ambassador also conducted numerous television and print media interviews addressing the attacks and the aftermath and held a Facebook live chat on the topic.

Embassy officials met with Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu civil society activists and victims of reported attacks across the country to gauge the climate for religious minorities. In addition, embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with religious groups, civil society organizations, and government officials to express concern about harassment of, attacks on, and government and societal discrimination against members of religious minority groups.

Three participants representing National Peace Council, NCEASL, and the District Interreligious Committee-Kandy took part in a two-week religious freedom and interfaith dialogue exchange program in the United States July 17-28.

The embassy supported multiple reconciliation projects that identified and resolved local grievances, built empathy and understanding among religious groups, and supported government reconciliation efforts. The embassy led ongoing tolerance and unity programs in cultural centers. In November it held a national Youth Forum workshop where youth from across the country representing different religions and ethnicities gathered for interreligious dialogue. A senior embassy official encouraged the youth “to nurture inclusive, thoughtful, and courageous leadership” and to “understand the experiences and perspectives of Sri Lanka’s diverse communities.” Embassy representatives supported the work of civil society organizations to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to foster peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building through the National Peace Council.

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. NGOs reported that some religious officials who engaged in political discourse perceived as negative toward the ZANU-PF government became targets of the security services. In June Talent Farai (T.F.) Chiwenga, founder of Apostle T.F. Chiwenga Ministries, stated state security agents attempted to kill him for insulting Vice President and then minister of defense Constantino Chiwenga. In November the government dropped subversion charges against Pastor Evan Mawarire of His Generation Church for urging citizens via social media to protest the country’s deteriorating economy in January. In September the government allowed the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association to hold a series of prayer vigils for its president, Dr. Peter Magombeyi, who had gone missing, but attendees reported a heavy presence of state security personnel at the services. Multiple church organizations released public 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. In October Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi made remarks on social media about Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) General Secretary Kenneth Mtata, calling him a fool, a false prophet, and a demon possessed in response to Mtata’s call for the government to engage with the opposition in a national dialogue.

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

The U.S. embassy raised freedom of speech and human rights with government officials. The Ambassador repeatedly urged the president and cabinet ministers to allow the political opposition party Movement for Democratic Change to conduct peaceful demonstrations, including holding a national week of prayer in July. Embassy representatives met with religious leaders and faith-based organizations to discuss the role of faith communities in supporting political reconciliation and national healing. The Ambassador met with leaders from the country’s main Apostolic coalitions to encourage them to promote women’s empowerment and access to health and education among their followers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 14.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2015 nationwide Demographic and Health Survey conducted by the government statistics agency, 86 percent of the population is Christian, 11 percent reports no religious affiliation, less than 2 percent adheres uniquely to traditional beliefs, and less than 1 percent is Muslim. According to the survey, of the total population, 37 percent is Apostolic, 21 percent Pentecostal, 16 percent other Protestant, 7 percent Roman Catholic, and 5 percent other Christian.

While there are no reliable statistics regarding the percentage of the Christian population that is syncretic, many Christians also associate themselves with traditional practices, and religious leaders reported a continued increase in syncretism.

Most of the Muslim population lives in rural areas and some high-density suburbs, with smaller numbers living in other suburban neighborhoods. There are also small numbers of Greek Orthodox, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha’is.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious belief and provides for freedom of religion and the freedom to practice, propagate, and give expression to one’s religion, in public or in private and alone or with others. It recognizes the right of prisoners to communicate with and receive visits by their chosen religious counselor. It stipulates these rights may be limited by a law during a state of emergency or by a law taking into account, among other things, the interests of defense; public safety, order, morality, or health; regional or town planning; or the general public interest. Any such law must not impose greater restrictions on these rights than is necessary to achieve the purpose of the law. Although the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) restricts freedom of assembly, expression, and association in many cases, the act itself specifies that POSA was not meant to apply to public gatherings “held exclusively for bona fide religious, educational, recreational, sporting, or charitable purposes.” The Maintenance of Peace and Order (MOPO) Act, which became law in November and replaced POSA, maintains the same exception for religious purposes. The criminal code prohibits statements that are “insulting” or “grossly provocative” and that cause offense to persons of a particular race, tribe, place of origin, color, creed, or religion, or intend to cause such offense. Individuals convicted under this law are subject to a fine, imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year, or both.

The government does not require religious groups to register; however, religious groups operating schools or medical facilities must register those institutions with the appropriate ministry. Religious groups, as well as schools and medical facilities run by religious groups, may receive tax-exempt status. Religious groups may apply for tax-exempt status and duty-free privileges with the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA), which generally grants these requests. To obtain tax-exempt status, a group is required to bring a letter of approval from a church umbrella organization confirming the group’s status as a religious group. Examples of approval letter-granting organizations include the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, ZCC, and the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe. ZIMRA generally grants a certificate of tax-exempt status within two to three days.

The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education sets curricula for public primary and secondary schools. Many public primary schools require a religious education course focusing on Christianity but including other religious groups with an emphasis on religious tolerance. There is no provision for opting out of religious instruction courses at the primary level. Students are able to opt out at the secondary level beginning at age 14, when they begin to choose their courses. The government does not regulate religious education in private schools but must approve employment of headmasters and teachers at those schools.

The law requires all international NGOs, including religiously affiliated NGOs, to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the government defining the NGO’s activities and zones of geographic activity. The law stipulates international NGOs “shall not digress into programs that are not specified in the MOU as agreed upon by line ministries and registered by the Registrar.” Local NGOs, including faith-based NGOs, have no legal requirements to sign an MOU with the government but “shall, prior to their registration, notify the local authorities of their intended operations.” The law gives the government the right to “deregister any private voluntary organization that fails to comply with its conditions of registration.”

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In June Talent Farai Chiwenga, founder of Apostle T.F. Chiwenga Ministries, stated state security agents attempted to kill him for insulting Vice President and Minister of Defense General (retired) Constantino Chiwenga. On June 12, according to T.F. Chiwenga, his wife and a bodyguard died in a car accident that occurred after security agents ran them off the road. He suffered serious injuries in the crash but survived. In the days after the country’s November 2017 military-assisted transition, T.F. Chiwenga publicly stated that then general Constantino Chiwenga “was not fit to lead.” In a September 2018 sermon, T.F. Chiwenga told congregants he saw “two coffins that will bring this country to a standstill,” which sources said prompted many to believe he was referring to former president Mugabe and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga. The vice president publicly rebuked T.F. Chiwenga, accusing him of extortion and practicing satanism.

In January the government charged Pastor Evan Mawarire of His Generation Church with subversion for urging his followers via social media to protest the country’s deteriorating economy. A court dismissed the charges in November. In 2018 Mawarire filed a lawsuit against the Zimbabwe Republic Police for unlawful arrest and detention during his participation in 2017 antigovernment protests; the lawsuit remained pending at year’s end.

Civil society organizations reported the government continued to use security laws to monitor public events and prayer rallies of religious groups, but there were no reports of specific incidents or disruptions. Christian aid organizations and local NGOs focused on memorializing victims of the 1980s Gukurahundi mass killings of mainly Ndebele civilians said that security officials monitored their activities frequently throughout the year but generally did not interfere with their activities.

In February NGO Ibhetshu LikaZulu, an advocacy group in Matabeleland South that organizes memorial and prayer services to commemorate victims, built a memorial for Gukurahundi victims after the government twice blocked similar efforts in 2018. The organization’s Secretary General Mbolu Fuzwayo told local media that vandals destroyed the memorial a few days after its completion.

Religious activities and events remained free from POSA and MOPO restrictions, but observers stated 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. In September the government allowed the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association to hold a series of prayer vigils for its president, Dr. Peter Magombeyi, who had gone missing. According to media, attendees reported a heavy presence of state security personnel at the services. Magombeyi was found outside Harare on September 19 and stated plainclothes government security officers had kidnapped and tortured him.

Multiple church organizations, including the Churches Convergence on Peace, ZCC, 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. Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi made remarks on social media in October about ZCC General Secretary Kenneth Mtata, calling him a fool, a false prophet, and a demon possessed in response to Mtata’s call for the government to engage with the opposition in a national dialogue.

The legislature considered but had not yet passed a draft amendment to the Private Voluntary Organizations Act that would increase penalties for all NGOs, including faith-based NGOs, for failure to comply with registration requirements.

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.

The government continued to enforce a 2018 ban on all radio and state-run television programs advertising prophets and traditional healing. Authorities said the ban was a response to increases in fraud. 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 used their status to rape or defraud congregants. In February a court convicted Walter Magaya, the founder of Prophetic Healing Deliverance Ministries, of fraud for falsely claiming he discovered a cure for HIV.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in previous years, some Christian groups, such as the United Methodist Church and the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust, criticized child marriages and immunization prohibitions in some Apostolic religious groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy raised human rights, including freedom of religion, with government officials. The Ambassador repeatedly urged the president and cabinet ministers to allow the political opposition party Movement for Democratic Change to conduct peaceful demonstrations, including holding a national week of prayer in July. The Ambassador met with leaders of the country’s main Apostolic coalitions to encourage them to promote women’s empowerment and access to health and education among their followers. Embassy representatives met with Catholic, evangelical, and other Protestant, Apostolic, and Muslim religious leaders and faith-based NGOs to discuss the status of religious freedom in the country and the role of religious leaders in political reconciliation.