The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution and states that Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing the country’s “social structure,” which were used to ban circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.” The criminal code effectively prohibits conversion from Islam, according to scholars and human rights advocates. According to one press report, the Rada Special Deterrence Forces (SDF), a militia nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected. Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east, where non-GNA entities competed for control over territory and governance by setting up parallel government institutions. Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. Some of these detainees reported they were tortured and otherwise abused.
Some areas of the country, including the eastern part, operated under the influence of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and LNA-affiliated armed groups. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in parts of Tripoli and in Benghazi, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. According to media reports, elements of the Madkhali Salafist movement affiliated with the LNA continued to crack down on activities not sanctioned by their strict interpretation of Islam including the sale of books deemed un-Islamic and events where men and women mixed. According to the Christian rights advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings. Salafist and Islamist groups, some nominally aligned with the GNA, assumed law enforcement functions. One press report stated that in the western part of the country, these elements replaced imams, preachers, and the heads of Awqaf offices with individuals with a more Salafist orientation. U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS continued to operate within the country.
According to international media, former Muslims faced intense social and economic pressure to renounce their faith and return to Islam. Sources also reported converts to other religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and hostility from their families and communities because of their beliefs.
The U.S. Embassy to Libya operated from Tunis, Tunisia; its officials made periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. In September, the Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and establish a unified, stable, democratic, and tolerant Libyan state, and continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with authorities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and other human rights advocates.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution. It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws. The Constitutional Declaration prohibits any form of discrimination based on religion. Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs. Sharia, however, applies in any case in which a Muslim is involved. The interim constitution also states, “There shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights. The penal code and other laws provide criminal penalties for conviction of defamation and insults to religion. Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law. The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict.
The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) administers mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.
Sharia courts govern family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under the law, a Christian or Jewish woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal, and such marriages are not recognized, even when contracted abroad. The MEIA administers non-Muslim family law issues, although there is no separate legal framework governing non-Muslim family law. The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.
Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools. Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students, with no opt-out provisions.
There is no law providing for individuals’ right to choose or change their religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate their religious beliefs. There is no civil law explicitly prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion or prohibiting proselytization; however, the criminal code effectively prohibits missionary activities or conversion. It includes prohibitions against “instigating division” and insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, charges that carry a maximum sentence of death. The criminal code prohibits the circulation of publications that aim to “change the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental rules of the social structure,” which are used to criminalize the circulation of non-Islamic religious materials and speech considered “offensive to Muslims.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Since religion, politics, and security are often closely linked in the country, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers, a situation which worsened during the LNA offensive to seize the capital from April 2019 to June 2020. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east. The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups within the parts of the country it controlled was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.
According to one press report, the SDF, a nominally GNA-aligned militia in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians. Detainees of the SDF reported torture and other abuse while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.
Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. One Christian group operating in the country reported multiple accounts of a section within the SDF-run detention center at the Mitiga airbase where detainees who were Christian converts, “freethinkers”, or critics of Islam were concentrated. Some detainees in this section were reportedly subjected to torture.
Some detention facilities had no provision for non-Islamic burials.
The government permitted religious scholars to form organizations, issue fatwas, and provide advice to followers. The fatwas did not have legal weight but conveyed considerable social pressure, according to tribal and religious leaders. The GNA, however, did not exercise effective administrative control of mosques or supervision of clerics.
Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani, who is regarded by the Muslim Brotherhood and others as the country’s Grand Mufti, said in a video broadcast on Al-Tanasuh TV, “If detonating oneself while carrying out a fedaai [self-sacrificial] operation rattles the enemy and brings upon it a crushing defeat, then it is allowed by sharia law. Many of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions threw themselves from walls. They sacrificed themselves and died in order to breach the enemy’s ranks.”
On June 17, in a program that aired on Al-Tanasuh TV, Al-Ghariani said that supporters of the LNA were in violation of sharia and were fighting as a proxy for a “Zionist project” meant to protect Israel and the enemies of God.
In Tripoli, according to civil society sources, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias and armed groups, such as the SDF, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed “un-Islamic.” There continued to be no laws, however, imposing restrictions on dress.
The Ministry of Education continued to work to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four through nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance. The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.
According to human rights activists, civil society figures, and politicians, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religion and politics.
The constitutional declaration signed in August 2019 includes several provisions protecting the right to freedom of religious belief and worship “in accordance with the requirements of the law and public order.” Unlike the former constitution, it makes no reference to “sharia” or Islamic religious law as a source of law, although the clause restricting the death penalty permits its imposition as sharia-sanctioned (hudud) punishment of certain crimes. Laws promulgated under the former constitution remained in effect while the civilian-led transitional government (CLTG) worked to amend or abolish those laws and pass new legislation within the framework of the constitutional declaration. In July, the CLTG ratified the Miscellaneous Amendments (Fundamental Rights and Freedoms) Act of 2020 (MAA), repealing the article of law that made apostasy a crime subject to capital punishment and instead criminalizing the act of accusing others of apostasy. The MAA did not repeal the article that criminalizes blasphemy, as some media erroneously reported. In July, the CLTG removed flogging as a punishment for blasphemy. Some criminal laws and practices established by the previous government led by Omar al-Bashir remained in effect, including blasphemy, and were based on that government’s interpretation of a sharia system of jurisprudence, which human rights groups stated did not provide protections for some religious minorities, including minority Muslim groups. The MAA rescinded laws under which authorities could arrest individuals for indecent dress and other reasons deemed injurious of honor, reputation, and public morality. It repealed the law prohibiting non-Muslims from drinking alcohol. In July, the rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), active in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan States and led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, extended and signed a cessation of hostilities. Among other measures, al-Hilu called for the separation of religion and state, with no role for religion in lawmaking. On September 3, Prime Minister (PM) Abdalla Hamdok and al-Hilu signed a declaration of principles that included the separation of religion and state. Media reported that on March 11, the government abolished all government-appointed church committees, which had been imposed under the Bashir government. In October, a judge acquitted Sudanese Church of Christ (SCOC) leadership of trespassing and illegal possession of SCOC properties charges. According to Church clergy, the SCOC dropped its lawsuit against the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments (MRA) ending the long-standing ownership dispute over SCOC headquarters and other Church properties. According to Muslim religious leaders, the CLTG discontinued the practice that had been in place in years past of security forces monitoring imams’ sermons. Members of minority religious groups continued to express concerns regarding the education system, which lacked sufficient non-Muslim teachers to teach courses on Christianity and textbooks that promoted religious diversity.
Media reported several church burnings during the year. According to Radio Dabanga, unknown individuals burned down one SCOC church in Omdurman on February 29 and another in Bout Village, Blue Nile State, on March 9. Individuals attacked one SCOC church in Jabarona near Khartoum four times between December 18, 2019, and January 29. Church leaders there said they also received threats from individuals characterized as Muslim extremists living in the area. They said one threat stated, “If the government gives you permission to build a church here, they’d better be prepared to collect your dead bodies.” Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that on August 14, unknown individuals set fire to a temporary straw church the congregation had built. SCOC members said one suspect was arrested in connection with the incident; however, arsonists who perpetrated the previous incidents remained at large. During the year, some Muslim clerics made anti-Semitic statements in response to reports that the government had begun exploring the normalization of relations with Israel. On February 5, in an interview with Tayba TV, Islamic scholar Abd al-Hayy Yousuf said, “We know that the Jews raise their children on the hatred of Muslims, and on the killing of the Arabs.” On March 1, Imam Abdallah Hassan Jiballah posted a video on the internet in which he said hatred and hostility towards Jews was part of Islam, and, “If there is something [in a treaty] that negates the faith of a Muslim, yet he still normalizes relations with them, this is haram. Such normalization is forbidden by sharia law.”
U.S. officials encouraged respect for religious freedom and the protection of minority religious groups. They urged repeal of apostasy and blasphemy laws. In addition, they highlighted the need for a new and inclusive education curriculum and urged government officials to abstain from the former regime’s practices, which included confiscating and demolishing religious properties. The U.S. embassy maintained close contact with religious leaders, faith-based groups, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Embassy representatives monitored the state of religious freedom in the country and stressed the importance of religious tolerance among the various religious groups.
On December 2, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Sudan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Sudan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 1999 to 2018 and was moved to the Special Watch List in 2019.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The 2019 constitutional declaration includes provisions regarding freedom of belief and worship. As stipulated in the constitutional declaration, existing laws and institutions governing religion remain in effect while the new government works to amend and restructure them. While the previous constitution stated all national legislation should be based on sharia, the constitutional declaration makes no reference to sharia, although the clause restricting the death penalty permits its imposition as sharia-sanctioned (hudud) punishment for certain crimes.
The constitutional declaration also has provisions providing for access to education regardless of religion, requiring that political parties be open to citizens of all religions, and ensuring all “ethnic and cultural” groups have the right to “exercise their beliefs” and “observe their religions or customs.”
Abuses of freedom of religion are often addressed in lower courts but may be appealed to the Constitutional Court.
Laws promulgated under the former constitution remain in effect while the CLTG worked to amend or abolish those laws and pass new legislation within the framework of the constitutional declaration.
National laws concerning personal and family matters of Muslims adopted during the Bashir administration remain largely in effect and are based on a sharia system of jurisprudence. The existing criminal code states the law, including at the state and local levels, shall be based on sharia sources and include hudood, qisas, and diyah principles (regarding punishment, restitution, and compensation for specific serious crimes). The criminal code takes into consideration multiple sharia schools of jurisprudence (madhahib). The Islamic Panel of Scholars and Preachers (Fiqh Council), an official body of 50 Muslim religious scholars responsible for explaining and interpreting Islamic jurisprudence, determines under which conditions a particular school of thought will apply. Other criminal and civil laws are determined at the state and local level.
Members of the Fiqh Council serve four-year renewable terms. In the past, the council advised the government and issued fatwas on religious matters, including levying customs duties on the importation of religious materials, payment of interest on loans for public infrastructure, and determination of government-allotted annual leave for Islamic holidays. The council’s opinions are not legally binding. Muslim religious scholars may present differing religious and political viewpoints in public. The Fiqh Council mandate is unclear under the CLTG.
In July, the CLTG ratified the MAA, rescinding a provision of a 1991 law that criminalized and imposed the death penalty for apostasy (conversion from Islam to another faith). The MAA replaced the apostasy provision with an article criminalizing takfir (the act of declaring someone a kafir or nonbeliever). Those charged with takfir face imprisonment not to exceed 10 years, a fine, or both.
The existing criminal code’s section on “religious offenses” criminalizes various acts committed against any religion. These include insulting religion; blasphemy; questioning or criticizing the Quran, the Sahaba (the Companions of the Prophet), or the wives of the Prophet; disturbing places of worship; and trespassing upon places of burial. In July, the CLTG removed flogging as a punishment for blasphemy. The criminal code states, “Whoever insults any religion, their rights or beliefs or sanctifications or seeks to excite feelings of contempt and disrespect against the believers thereof” shall be punished with up to one year in prison and/or a fine. The article includes provisions that prescribe penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both for anyone who curses the Prophet Muhammad, his wives, or members of his respective households.
In July, the CLTG repealed a provision of law under which individuals could be arrested for indecent dress and other offenses deemed injurious to honor, reputation, and public morality. The MAA in July also removed penalties for anyone who imported or distributed alcohol to any individual regardless of religion.
Some parts of the criminal code specify punishments for Muslims based on government interpretation of sharia punishment principles. For example, the penalty for adultery with a married person is hanging and for an unmarried person is 100 lashes. An unmarried man may additionally be punished with banishment for up to one year. These penalties only apply to Muslims. Adultery is defined as sexual activity outside of marriage, prior to marriage, or in a marriage that is determined to be void.
Under the law, the Minister of Justice may release any prisoner who memorizes the Quran during his or her prison term. The release requires a recommendation for parole from the prison’s director general, a religious committee composed of the Sudan Scholars Organization, and members of the Fiqh Council, which consults with the MRA to ensure decisions comply with Islamic jurisprudence.
The MRA is responsible for regulating Islamic religious practice, supervising churches, and guaranteeing equal treatment for all religious groups. The MRA also provides recommendations to relevant ministries regarding religious issues that government ministries encounter.
To gain official recognition by the government, religious groups are required to register at the state level with the MRA. The MRA determines, along with the state-level entities responsible for land grants and planning, whether to provide authorization or permits to build new houses of worship, taking into account zoning concerns such as the distance between religious institutions and population density. The allocation of land to religious entities is determined at the state level.
The Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), formerly known as the Higher Council for Guidance and Endowment, oversees NGOs and nonprofit organizations. Religious groups that engage in humanitarian or development activities must register as nonprofit NGOs by filing a standard application required by the HAC. Only NGOs registered with HAC are eligible to apply for other administrative benefits, including land ownership, tax exemptions, and work permits. The HAC works with the Ministry of Interior to facilitate the visa process for NGO representatives seeking to obtain visas.
Customary practice does not permit followers of Shia Islam to hold worship services; however, they are allowed to enter Sunni mosques to pray.
The MRA has federal entities in each state that coordinate travel for the Hajj and Umra.
The state-mandated education curriculum requires that all students receive religious instruction from elementary school to secondary school. The curriculum further mandates that all schools, including international schools and private schools operated by Christian groups, provide Islamic education classes to Muslim students from preschool through the second year of university. The law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, and it mandates that public schools provide Christian students with other religious instruction if there are at least 15 Christian students in a class. According to the Ministry of Education, following the separation of South Sudan, this number was not reached in most schools. Non-Muslim students therefore normally attend religious study classes of their own religion outside of regular school hours to fulfill the religious instruction requirement. The Ministry of Education is responsible for determining the religious education curriculum. According to the ministry, the Islamic curriculum must follow the Sunni tradition.
Under the law, a Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman. In practice, Muslim men follow sharia guidance, which advises they may marry “non-Muslim women of the book,” i.e., either Christian or Jewish women. A Muslim woman, however, legally may marry only a Muslim man. A Muslim woman marrying a non-Muslim man could be charged with adultery.
There are separate family courts for Muslims and non-Muslims to address personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and child custody, according to their religion. By law, in custody dispute cases where one parent is Muslim and the other is Christian, courts grant custody to the Muslim parent if there is any concern that the non-Muslim parent would raise the child in a religion other than Islam.
According to Islamic personal status laws, Christians (including children) may not inherit assets from a Muslim. Children of mixed (Muslim-Christian) marriages are considered Muslim and may inherit.
Government offices and businesses are closed on Friday for prayers and follow an Islamic workweek of Sunday to Thursday. A 2019 decree mandates that academic institutions not give exams on Sunday, and it authorizes Christians to leave work at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday for religious activities. Individuals may also leave work to celebrate Orthodox Christmas, an official state holiday, along with several key Islamic holidays.
An interministerial committee, which includes the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the General Intelligence Service, and in some cases Military Intelligence, must approve foreign clergy and other foreigners seeking a residency permit.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Investigations continued into incidents in which government forces under former President Bashir allegedly attacked protesters outside mosques during antigovernment protests that took place from December 2018 to April 2019.
In July, the rebel group SPLM-N, active in Blue Nile and South Kordofan States and led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, extended and signed a cessation of hostilities. Al-Hilu called for the separation of religion and state with no role for religion in lawmaking. He had previously made repeated statements that sharia was incompatible with basic freedom for the people of South Kordofan and Blue Nile States and was his primary rationale for armed struggle against the Bashir government. Bloomberg News reported that on September 3 in Addis Ababa, PM Hamdok and al-Hilu signed a declaration of principles that included the separation of religion and state. In November, a follow-up workshop on the declaration of principles was held between the SPLM-N and CLTG.
CSW reported that on August 13, a judge in Khartoum sentenced a Christian woman to two months’ imprisonment and a 50,000-Sudanese-pound ($910) fine for dealing in alcohol, despite amendments to the law that exempt non-Muslims from that prohibition except in cases where they supplied alcohol to Muslims.
During the year, the MRA recovered more than 48 endowments, with assets totaling more than $397 million, according to Minister Nasreddine Mufreh. The ministry also recovered assets from seven endowments located in Saudi Arabia. Under the former regime, sources stated that ministries funded their budgets by usurping endowments, properties, or services from the MRA. The MRA had opened its investigation into allegations of corruption pertaining to endowments and Hajj and Umra pilgrimages to Mecca in December 2019.
Although the MAA abolished the death penalty for apostasy, minority religious groups, including Shia and other Muslim minorities, expressed concern they could be convicted of apostasy if they expressed beliefs or discussed religious practices that differed from those of the Sunni majority. Some Shia said they remained prohibited from writing articles about their beliefs, and local media exercised self-censorship to avoid covering religious issues, due to concern regarding receiving a negative response from members of society.
Morning Star News reported that on March 11, the MRA abolished government-appointed committees imposed on churches under the Bashir government. Reverend Yahia Abdelrahim Nalu, head of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church, described the abolition as a positive step. Church leaders said further legal action would be needed to regain some church properties lost under the former committees.
On October 19, a criminal court in Omdurman acquitted the SCOC leadership committee of criminal trespass and illegal possession of SCOC properties. The government had reopened the 2019 case in July despite a 2018 court ruling that the SCOC national leadership committee led by Moderator Ayoub Tilliano had ownership of the SCOC headquarters in Omdurman. The case arose from a 2015 raid by security forces on the SCOC headquarters, after which the security forces confiscated all of the group’s legal documents and brought charges against the leadership council for trespassing. The SCOC retained ownership of the headquarters.
In previous years, government security services reportedly monitored mosques and imams’ sermons closely, and they provided talking points and required imams to use them in their sermons. According to Muslim religious leaders, the CLTG discontinued this practice. Throughout the year, religious leaders’ sermons were varied and were sometimes critical of the CLTG.
Prisons provided prayer spaces for Muslims, but observers said authorities did not allow Shia prayers. Shia prisoners were permitted to join prayer services led by Sunni imams. Some prisons, such as the Women’s Prison in Omdurman, had dedicated areas for Christian observance. Christian clergy held services in prisons, but access was irregular, according to SCOC and Roman Catholic clergy.
Members of minority religious groups continued to express concerns regarding the education system, which lacked sufficient non-Muslim teachers to teach courses on Christianity and textbooks that promoted religious diversity. Although the law does not require non-Muslims to attend Islamic education classes, some schools did not excuse non-Muslim students from these classes. Some private schools, including Christian schools, received government-provided teachers to teach Islamic subjects, but non-Muslim students were not required to attend those classes. Most Christian students attended religious education classes at their churches based on the availability of volunteer teachers from their church communities.
On December 30, the Islamic Edict Council of the MRA prohibited the use of sixth-grade history textbooks because the books contained content that countered Islamic doctrine. Clerics also argued the newly proposed curriculum glorified Western history.
Local parishioners continued to state that compared with Islamic institutions, Christian places of worship were disproportionately affected by unclear zoning laws.
According to CSW, the Governor of Gezira State authorized the construction of four church buildings on empty land, three for SCOC and one for an evangelical church. This was the first time land had been granted to Christians since 2005.
The CLTG granted Christian churches or their humanitarian institutions tax-exempt status, which the Bashir government had only granted to Islamic relief agencies. Christian churches reported authorities no longer required them to pay or negotiate taxes on items such as vehicles. Church officials said the CLTG also dramatically eased restrictions. The CLTG increased the number of visas and resident permits it granted foreign Christian missionaries.
In July, Minister of Justice Naseredeen Abdulbari said the MAA was necessary to guarantee freedoms outlined in the 2019 constitutional declaration. He said the Ministry of Justice had abolished the death penalty for apostasy because it threatened social peace by putting people’s lives in danger, and that the new criminal law required prosecutors to protect the lives of those accused of apostasy.
In September, MRA Minister Mufreh said the 2019 constitutional declaration granted religious groups the right to worship as long as their practices did not infringe on others’ rights or instigate religious strife.
The MRA Minister hosted roundtables with religious leaders and civil society throughout the year on coexistence and tolerance. In October, the Minister hosted an event on religious freedom and coexistence entitled, “A Sudan for All.” PM Hamdok provided opening remarks and stated religious freedom “is the root of all human freedoms.”
In May, during Juba Peace Talks between the CLTG and the SPLM-N, both sides agreed to create an independent religious freedom commission to work through religious freedom issues from the previous regime.
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and media sources, was exacerbated by government actions, the deterioration of the economy, and the broader ongoing conflict in the country. At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced, including 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and approximately 5.6 million refugees. Government and progovernment forces continued major aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture areas of the northwest of the country, killing more than 1,000 civilians and forcing nearly one million people to flee prior to the brokering of a ceasefire in March that largely held through the remainder of the year. The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit human rights abuses and violations against its perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims, as well as widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 Syrians who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing. The government continued to use Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country designated for reconstruction, to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs who wished to claim their property or return to their homes. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but the Alawi minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services. A March study by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center (Carnegie Middle East Center) noted that all of the top 40 posts in the armed forces were held by Alawites. In a joint paper, the Middle East Institute and NGO Etana stated that there are 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia Muslims in the country’s southwest than when the Syrian conflict began. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable with imprisonment or death.
The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that it had reasonable grounds to believe some Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) committed abuses that may have amounted to war crimes, including torture, rape, hostage-taking, looting, and appropriating private property, particularly in Kurdish areas, as well as vandalizing of Yezidi religious sites in areas under their control. The COI, human rights groups and media organizations reported multiple firsthand accounts of killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, and torture of civilians; the desecration and looting of minority religious and cultural sites; and the looting and seizure of private properties in and around Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Community representatives, human rights organizations such as the NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation-gathering groups reported victims of TSO abuses were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin. The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the country. In the northeast, formerly the stronghold of the ISIS caliphate, thousands of former ISIS members and their family members were being held either in detention centers or were living in the closed al-Hol camp at year’s end. Many former victims of ISIS remained missing.
Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups. NGOs reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly. The state news agency SANA reported that Adnan al-Afiyuni, the Sunni mufti for Damascus Province, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the town of Qudssaya. International observers considered al-Afiyuni to be close to President Bashar Assad.
The President and Secretary of State of the United States continued to state that a political solution to the conflict must be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and respect for the human rights of the country’s citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in those areas there is often a breakdown in law and order, leaving militias, often sectarian in nature, in a dominant position. In areas of the country controlled by opposition or terrorist groups, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these do not disturb public order. There is no official state religion, although the constitution states “Islam is the religion of the President of the republic.” The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.
The constitution states, “The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected,” and “Citizens shall be equal in rights and duties without discrimination among them on grounds of sex, origin, language, religion, or creed.” Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it violated their rights. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case being decided.
According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees. This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism. Neither the government broadly nor the state security court has specifically defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity. Affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment. The law prohibits political parties based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests.
The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “politically-motivated Zionist organization.”
The law restricts proselytizing and conversion. It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to sharia. The law recognizes conversion to Islam. The penal code prohibits causing tension between religious communities.
The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.”
By law, all religious groups must register with the government. Registered religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.
The law regulates the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The law provides for a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist thought or deviate from approved discourse. The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” activity, including “Wahhabism.” The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight of the country’s religious affairs.
All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.
Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes the Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools. There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula. Religious instruction covers only Islam and Christianity, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Members of religious groups may choose to attend public schools with Islamic or Christian instruction or to attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.
For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation. Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce. Per the personal status code, a Muslim man may marry a Christian woman, but a Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam and may not inherit any property or wealth from her husband, even if she converts. The law states that if a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.
The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges. In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence. A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce. In addition, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.
The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.
An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation. Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards except for Jews, who are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.
Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit indiscriminate human rights abuses and violations against civilians, as well as participate in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. According to press and NGO reporting, the government continued its widespread use of unlawful killings, attacks on civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims.
Some opposition groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Muslim in statements and publications. According to observers, these opposition groups drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis. Some NGO sources stated that the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from attacks by violent Sunni extremist groups. Other NGO sources said that some minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists. A May report by the Carnegie Middle East Center stated, “The destruction during the conflict was not solely collateral damage. Its scale, nature, and consequences implied that it was used as a weapon of war to eradicate the populations of opposition areas…. Additionally, many believe the damage took place along sectarian lines, with a majority of destroyed areas being Sunni.”
The government’s counterinsurgency campaign continued to be aimed at those within the country who criticized or opposed the government, the majority of whom are Sunni and whom the government described as violent extremists. There were continued reports that in its efforts to retake opposition-held areas, the government targeted civilian centers in towns and neighborhoods, which, due to prevailing demographics, were inhabited by a majority Sunni population. From December 2019 to early March 2020, the government, with the support of its Russian allies, launched a large-scale military attack in Idlib Governate that killed hundreds of civilians as well as several dozen Turkish military personnel deployed in Idlib. The United Nations estimated that nearly one million persons were forced to leave their homes and that entire areas were left depopulated. The assault, which involved the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists, a status meant to exempt them from military targeting. Turkey reinforced its military position in Idlib to halt the offensive, and on March 5, Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire that included joint patrols and that largely held for the remainder of the year.
The attacks in Idlib resulted in the destruction of several mosques. For example, on March 2, government forces shelled the Othman Bin Affan Mosque in Balyoun village, in the Jabal al-Zaweya area of Idlib Governorate, partially destroying the building, according to the SNHR.
The SNHR reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 individuals who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing.
Media and NGOs continued to report that government forces continued to detain, torture, and kill citizens in connection with their political dissent and expression of opinions despite the right to freedom of opinion and expression being protected by the constitution and international law. The SNHR estimated the government and progovernment militias arbitrarily detained approximately 900 citizens during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers. The Syria Justice and Accountability Center reported government forces operated with impunity, while systematic, officially sanctioned torture continued. According to the SNHR, since 2011, more than 14,300 persons have died from torture in government custody. During the year, government forces were reportedly responsible for 157 deaths by torture. As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, most were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition or likely to support the opposition.
According to a March Freedom House Report, individuals living in government-held territory increasingly exposed corruption among local officials and among the government’s business allies and security services. The Freedom House report stated that the government harassed and detained those who did so, and that the government and loyalist militias punished Sunni Arab civilians more harshly than Alawites.
A July 24 Middle East Institute report stated that during the parliamentary elections in summer 2020, the Baath Party announced the list of candidates for different governorates and removed the name of at least one Christian candidate, justifying the change by stating that a Christian representative was not needed because there were no Christians left in Idlib.
The government continued to use Law No. 10 of 2018 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to claim their property and return to their homes. According NGO reports, since the law’s enactment, the government has replaced residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies, including by allowing only religious institutions submissive to government control to operate in those areas. These reports stated that the government’s policies disproportionately impacted Sunni populations. One U.S.-based NGO described the law as part of the government’s attempt to legalize demographic change and stated, “It is unlikely that displaced citizens will ever see their property again.” In response to a conference focused on refugees hosted by the government in November, the SHNR released a statement that said that Law No. 10 and other legislation “constitute a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs, amounting to enforced evictions and to an effort to manipulate demographics and social structures” of the country.
According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers. It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.
Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. In addition, Hizballah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.
According to experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services, although the senior officer corps of the military continued to accept into its ranks individuals from other religious minorities. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.
In a March study, Muhsin al-Mustafa, a researcher for the Carnegie Middle East Center, stated that “every single one of the top 40 posts in the Syrian armed forces was held by a member of President Assad’s Alawite sect.” He added, “The entire Syrian military is not built on one particular sect. But in recent years the institution has been characterized by an unprecedented degree of sectarianism.” The SNHR in a June report stated, “The vast majority of the leaders of the security services and the army (which are the two most prominent institutions ruling in Syria) are from the Alawite sect, a form of blatant discrimination on the basis of sectarianism….” Yazid Sayigh, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote in March, “The regime has increased dependence on Alawi recruits and on militarizing the Alawi community….” However, Abdulrahman al-Masri, writing for the Atlantic Council in September, stated that the support of the Alawite community for the government came at great cost – it suffered disproportionate battlefield losses and continued to be hurt by deteriorating living conditions – while it endured increased isolation from the rest of society.
On June 15, the New York Times reported that some in the military said the collapse of the Syrian currency had made their salaries virtually worthless, with army generals earning the equivalent of less than $50 per month and soldiers earning less than a third of that. It noted, “Anger about sinking livelihoods has flared even among members of…[the] Alawite minority, whose young men fought in large numbers…only to find that they will share in the country’s poverty instead of reaping the benefits of victory.”
There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population. The Atlantic Council, in an August 12 report, stated, “The Syrian regime deals with all groups and sects in the same way.… In reality, the regime is neither a protector of minority rights nor an advocate of women’s rights – let alone a promoter of peace and reconciliation. It operates merely to preserve itself, it undermines chances of Syrians uniting across religious and ethnic lines, and [it] gouges the government’s chances of effectiveness by manipulating positions, all while retaining the true decision-making power for itself.”
According to a June Carnegie Middle East Center report, the civil war “has altered the Sunni Muslim religious landscape of the capital, Damascus.” The report stated that Damascus was previously home to disparate and often times competing Sunni religious institutions. Many of these institutions and individual Sunni leaders have been forced into exile for being “insufficiently subservient” to the Assad regime and many have now united into a single opposition organization, the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC).
In a joint paper released in March, Manufacturing Division: the Assad Regime and Minorities in South-West Syria, the Middle East Institute and Etana Syria stated that tens of thousands of minority citizens in the country’s southwest have fled to Damascus or left the country. Compared with 2011, when the civil war began, there were 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia in the area. The report stated the government promoted itself as the champion of minorities and as a firewall against Islamic radicalism, intentionally stoking sectarian fears while simultaneously recruiting members of the Alawite and Shia communities to join the ranks of militias allied with the government. According to the report, “The weaponization of specific sects has eroded historically strong ties between Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Alawite communities in the southwest.” The paper also concluded that the government cultivated relationships with influential members of the Christian clergy, Druze leadership, and Circassian elite, granting these local powerbrokers disproportionate authority and influence in their communities, resulting in the breakdown of traditional social hierarchies and the appointment of progovernment minority figures to positions of power.
According to a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, anti-Semitism was endemic and had taken root at every level of society. The paper stated that religious leaders “quote – out of historical and religious context – Quranic scriptures to drive this ideology of hate, while many Syrian intellectuals and the artists adopt the hateful rhetoric of this dictatorship without question.” Anti-Semitic literature remained available for purchase at low prices throughout the country. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.
In May, the SANA Cinema and Television Industry Committee called on broadcasters to denounce the screening of a documentary series produced by the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center that called for normalization with Israel. The committee statement said, “Producers in Syria denounce the normalization with the Zionist entity through broadcasting such a series with a low message to deal with the enemy and distort facts.” A May 18 article in the official newspaper of the Syrian government, the daily Al-Thawra, stated that the COVID-19 virus had been developed by the United States and was deployed according to a plan by “the Zionist Freemasons, the Rothschilds, and the Rockefellers,” who control the United States “empire” and seek to prevent its collapse and to renew their “global control.”
Discussing Arab states’ normalization of relations with Israel, Mohammed Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed, the Minister of Religious Endowments, said in an October 27 television interview, “Every single surah in the Quran that mentions Israelites talks about their disgrace [and] their violation of treaties[.]”
The Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s joint Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative reported in May that the condition of 62 percent of Jewish-built heritage sites in the country was poor, very bad, or beyond repair.
The national school curriculum did not include materials on religious tolerance or the Holocaust.
The government continued to allow foreign Christian NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering. It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive approval from the Awqaf to operate. Security forces continued to question these Islamic organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.
Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
There continued to be reports that the Iranian government directly supported the Assad government primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that it recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters to the conflict. The Turkish press agency Anadolu stated that poverty and ideological motivations seemed to be the main reasons for foreign Shia to volunteer, and that while Iran promised jobs and an income, it also abused faith as a tool of sectarian-ideological exploitation. According to the report, in its recruitment efforts, Iran emphasized religious shrines and graves targeted and desecrated during the civil war and aroused hatred against Sunni groups fighting on the side of the opposition in Syria. The report also stated that Iranian recruiters promised that anyone who died in the war would be regarded as a martyr and be buried in Iran’s holy city of Qom. On March 1, Radio Farda reported that Iran buried 21 Afghan and Pakistani militia members in Qom. The Atlantic Council estimated in November that the Afghan brigade had an estimated 3,000 to 14,000 fighters spread between three battalions in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama Governates and that the Pakistani brigade had an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 fighters deployed in Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and Hama Governate.
A November report by the Atlantic Council stated that Iran encouraged the Shia minority in Syria to form special militias inside Syria, adding that “some of the Shia militias in Syria were and continue to be recruited on a sectarian basis under the pretext of defending places considered holy by the Shia community. For example, campaigns are being conducted in the areas housing holy Shia shrines in Damascus in the Sayeda Zeinab district.” The report also stated, “Iran recruited from the Shia minority… mainly from northern Aleppo, northern Homs, and parts of Raqqa.” The report stated that Iranian-recruited Syrian militia had between 5,000 and 8,000 members.
According to the news website IranWire, pro-Iranian militias reinforced government forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in the southwest of the country in June. Since 2011, the government permitted Iran to open primary and secondary schools on the coast, including in Latakia, where there previously was no Shia community. In March, a new center in Deir ez-Zor affiliated with the Alawalaya Scouts was inaugurated, supported by the Iranian Cultural Center. According to a notice in front of the center, the latter sponsors “cultural activities, sports, the arts, volunteer opportunities, developmental work, and educational and Holy Quran activities.”
According to community representatives, human rights organizations such as Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation gathering groups, TSOs in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other residents, including detentions and abductions of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained individuals across the border into Turkey, cutting off water to local populations, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines. TSOs also reportedly abused members of other religious minorities.
In areas under Turkish control, TSO groups operating under the Syrian National Army (SNA) restricted religious freedom of Yezidis through attacks against and the intimidation of civilians. The COI in March reported that Yezidi civilians in Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad were attacked and stated, “Videos published on the Internet, purportedly by SNA fighters, used language comparing their enemies to ‘infidels,’ ‘atheists,’ and ‘pigs’ when referring to civilians, detainees, and property, which further amplified fears and created an environment conducive to abuse.”
In December, the Voice of America reported that Yezidi community members in the northwest of the country said they were in a state of fear after Turkey-backed rebels in control of the area launched a weeklong blockade and arrest campaign against the Yezidi community in Afrin. The campaign started after an explosion near the two predominantly Yezidi villages of Basoufan and Ba’ay in southern Afrin targeted a TSO leader.
Religious and ethnic minorities, especially displaced Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, in areas under Turkish control, such as in the city of Afrin, reported persecution and marginalization. In August, regional news media reported that TSOs kidnapped 14 Syrian Kurds living in Afrin who had converted to Christianity. According to press reporting, TSOs attacked the predominantly Christian city of al-Suqyiabiyeh on November 6. In August, the press reported that a TSO in Afrin detained Radwan Mohammed, a Christian school headmaster, after he refused to convert his school into an Islamic educational center. The TSO alleged that Mohammed had committed apostasy.
The COI report in March stated, “Civilians in and around Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad reported numerous cases of looting and property appropriation by members of the SNA primarily affecting Kurdish residents and, on occasion, Yazidi owners who had fled in October.”
A March news report from Kurdistan 24, an Erbil-based Kurdish broadcast news station, reported anti-Yezidi abuses during the 2019 Operation Peace Spring offensive by Turkey had compounded those experienced during the Turkish incursion into Afrin in 2018. The report stated that experts on the Yezidis warned that the small community in Syria could “go extinct as the result of years of victimization by the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, and ongoing Turkish threats.” The COI reported in March, “Anticipating attacks on their community, Yezidi women, men and children, who populated some 13 villages across Ra’s al-Ayn District, also left.” Reports stated that only 15,000 of 50,000 Yezidis in northeast Syria remained and that it was feared more would flee. Yezidi Council spokesman Adnan Hassan told the Arab Weekly in an October report that since Turkish cross-border operations had begun in Afrin, 28 Yezidi villages had been evacuated, including one village that was transformed into a Turkish military base. Hassan also stated that Islamist factions in the region tried to force Yezidis to change their religion.
According to the COI, Yezidi women were detained by TSO groups and on at least one occasion were urged to convert to Islam during interrogation. In Afrin, Yezidi women who were reported to have been kidnapped by TSOs remained missing. The COI reported in September that it was “currently investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yezidi women were detained in both Ras al-Ayn and Afrin by [SNA] members between November 2019 and July 2020.”
The September COI report referenced a case in which the TSO’s Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council and a Turkish NGO, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, converted two TSO-seized, private, Kurdish-owned properties in Ras al-Ayn into religious centers. The owner of the properties said he objected to the properties’ conversion and was not compensated, but the conversions proceeded. The Ras al-Ayn Local Council deputy chair stated this sequence of events was correct.
A September COI report identified cases from April in which “several Yezidi shrines and graveyards were deliberately looted and partially destroyed across locations throughout the Afrin region, such as Qastel Jindo, Qibar, Jindayris, and Sharran, further challenging the precarious existence of the Yezidi community as a religious minority in SNA-controlled regions.” Human rights groups and Syrian media reported that militants of the TSO group Sultan Suleiman Shah looted the archaeological hill of Arnada, in the area of al-Sheikh Hadid west of Afrin, with heavy equipment. The looting heavily damaged the hill. In April, the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July, the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar Cemetery. These organizations also reported cases in which TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.
In the northeast of the country, civilians, many of them members of religious minorities, including Christians and Yezidis, faced threats from TSO groups to cut off water, via the deliberate shutdown of or interference with the Alouk Water Station, which since October 2019 was controlled by TSO groups. One press report stated that human rights groups reported TSOs had specifically threatened minority Christian and Yezidi communities recovering from ISIS abuses. In August, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch appealed to the UN Secretary General regarding what he termed was the use of water from the Alouk station as a “weapon,” stating that the cutting off of water amounted to “a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights.”
The COI and numerous independent sources reported that, during the course of the conflict, nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations, the United States, and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and members of other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, including Kurds, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and detentions. These resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. In areas where government control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration.
The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, including persons suspected of collaborating with government security forces, and members of groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the region, according to a January report by the NGO Open Doors. The report said that many Christians, fearing the possibility of an ISIS resurgence, did not feel safe. Thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members were being held in detention in the northeast of the country by the SDF or living in the closed al-Hol camp.
Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals detained by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, whom ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children have since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.
According to media reports, different Islamic factions subjected Christians in Idlib Governate to the application of sharia as well as the introduction of jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims) to pressure them to leave their homes. Media reporting indicated that HTS increased such restrictions on Christians in Idlib city. According to these reports, the HTS office of “Christians’ properties” notified Christian tenants and landlords to check with the HTS administrative offices before renewing leases or setting new terms, including raising the rents of houses and shops, since HTS considered Christians’ properties to be spoils of war. According to the COI, the HTS committed a wide range of abuses based on sectarian identity in areas it controlled.
The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) remained in control of Aden, the temporary capital, until December 30, when the cabinet of a unity government, formed under the 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, returned to the city. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. Sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year.
At year’s end, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and continued to discriminate against individuals who did follow those practices, particularly religious minorities. According to the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media, military actions by Houthis continued to damage places of worship and religious institutions, and to inflict casualties at religious gatherings. In January, media reported that Houthi militants launched a missile attack on a mosque at a government military installation in Ma’rib Governorate, killing at least 116 soldiers during prayers. The UN Panel of Experts reported a second Houthi attack in August on a mosque at a government security compound in Ma’rib killed seven. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings early in the year on the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 on charges of apostasy and spying for Israel. In March, Mahdi al-Mashaat, President of the Houthi Supreme Political Council (SPC) in Sana’a, ordered the release of all detained Baha’is and pardoned Haydara. In July, Haydara and five other detained Baha’is – part of a group of 24 Baha’is charged with apostasy and espionage in 2018 – were released and exiled. According to the Sana’a-based human rights organization Mwatana, the Specialized Criminal Court continued proceedings against the six exiled Baha’is, ordering them to return to Sana’a to face trial, and the court continued to hold hearings against the other 19 Baha’is charged in 2018. Mwatana reported more than 70 instances of abuse against the Baha’i community since 2015, such as arbitrary detentions of dozens of Baha’is for practicing cultural activities, and deportation and enforced disappearances of others. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, the Houthis damaged or destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone and transformed more than 100 mosques throughout the country into military barracks and sniper positions. In January, Minister of Endowments Ahmed al-Attiyah stated that the Houthis had targeted 76 mosques in areas under their control. According to the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, the Houthis continued to use anti-Semitic rhetoric – including multiple speeches made by Houthi supreme leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi – that incited violence against Jews. The Group of Experts reported Jews faced Houthi-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement and constant threats to their lives and security. According to the United Nations, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’, and Abyan Governorates. According to media, gunmen killed Khalid al-Hameidi, a university professor known as a secular thinker and critic of religious extremism, in the city of Dhale on December 5. Local officials said they believed the gunmen were members of AQAP or of an ISIS affiliate.
Jewish community members said their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. No rabbis remained in the country, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with family members. Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the country’s small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.
The Department of State suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2015, and the embassy has operated since then as the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), based in Saudi Arabia. In March, the U.S. Ambassador expressed his concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha’i Faith leader imprisoned since 2013. The Ambassador emphasized that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear. In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.
Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.
The constitution states the President must be Muslim who “practices his Islamic duties”; however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.
The criminal code states that “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are spared the death penalty.
Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.
The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims. The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion and prescribes up to five years’ imprisonment if the ridiculed religion is Islam.
There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.
By law, the government must authorize construction of any new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.
Public schools must provide instruction in Islam, but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education. Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum, but the government is unable to enforce it in Houthi-controlled areas, where instructional materials indicate schools are teaching Zaydi principles only.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Media reports noted Shia-majority Iran supported the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supported the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and they said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. Many sources, including international media and foundations, continued to describe the conflict as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.
In July, the government and STC reached a new agreement to accelerate implementation of the November 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, which called for a ceasefire, military withdrawal, and power-sharing. In December, the parties reached agreement on the formation of a new unity government, and the cabinet returned to Aden on December 30. The government did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country throughout the year, which limited its ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors in areas not under its control.
The September 2019 UN Group of Experts report Situation of human rights in Yemen including violations and abuses since September 2014, covering the 2014-2019 period, reported that military actions by all parties during the conflict had inflicted casualties at religious gatherings and damaged places of worship and religious institutions. According to the NGO Yemen Data Project, the number of airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition forces during the year increased significantly compared with 2019. The NGO reported a continued decrease in airstrikes against nonmilitary targets, however, while airstrikes on military targets increased, as did airstrikes of unknown origin on a variety of targets. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year, however. According to the UN Protection Cluster’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project (CIMP), civilian casualties from air strikes fell from 2,588 in 2018 to 796 in 2019, and finally to 216 in 2020. Air strikes accounted for less than 10 percent of the 2,087 civilian casualties CIMP reported during the year (749 persons killed and 1,338 injured).
In August, the government publicly condemned, through the state news agency, Houthi authorities for persecuting religious minorities, in response to the Houthi deportation of six Baha’is to European countries and the United States.
Because of the conflict and the government’s absence from the country until the end of the year, the government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in private schools. Many public and private schools throughout the country remained closed, and those operating were open for only a few hours a day.