The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, expression, and the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination on the basis of religion. Religious groups are not required to register, but those that do receive tax-exempt status. In October the Quebec Superior Court offered “regrets” to a Muslim woman as a result of a lower court provincial judge’s refusal to hear her case unless she removed her hijab. The court found the judge had not breached the woman’s freedom of religion and declined to issue a declaratory judgement affirming the right to wear religious attire in Quebec courtrooms. The Quebec assembly continued to debate a bill tabled in 2015 that would ban individuals from wearing religious face coverings when providing or receiving provincial government services. The government said the bill would foster adherence to state religious neutrality while providing guidelines for religious accommodation, but critics said it would discriminate against Muslim women. A bylaw passed in May banned the opening of new places of worship on two streets in Montreal’s Outremont borough. The bylaw applied to all faith groups, but representatives of the Hasidic Jewish community said it targeted their community specifically because of their large representation in the borough.
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic activity, including incidents of violence, hate speech, harassment, and vandalism. In January an unknown assailant pepper-sprayed a crowd outside a Muslim community center after an event welcoming Syrian refugees; the incident was investigated as a potential hate crime. In June unknown individuals delivered a pig’s head to a mosque in Quebec City. In August and September vandals sprayed anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of a Jewish playground and elementary school in Winnipeg, and on two synagogues and a Jewish prayer center in Ottawa. A Jewish school, synagogue, and rabbi’s home in Ottawa were vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti within the span of one week in November. Police arrested and charged a minor in connection with the November incidents.
The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officers, and other U.S. government officials raised issues of religious freedom with the national and provincial governments. In March the U.S. Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia visited Ottawa to explore opportunities for collaboration on religious freedom issues globally through the International Contact Group on the Freedom of Religion or Belief. Embassy officials discussed strategies to combat religious intolerance, engaging with religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and religious minority groups. The embassy sponsored and participated in public programs and events encouraging dialogue, interfaith communication, and freedom of religion. In June, the wife of the Ambassador delivered remarks promoting religious tolerance at an iftar.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.4 million (July 2016 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the latest data available), approximately 67 percent of the population is Christian. Roman Catholics constitute the largest group (38 percent of the total population), followed by the United Church of Canada (6 percent), Anglican (5 percent), Baptist (1.9 percent), and Christian Orthodox (1.7 percent). Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Pentecostal groups each constitute less than 2 percent of the population. Approximately 3 percent of the population is Muslim and 1 percent Jewish. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Scientologists, Bahais, and adherents of Shintoism, Taoism, and aboriginal spirituality together constitute less than 4 percent of the population. Approximately 24 percent of the population claims no religious affiliation.
According to the 2011 census, 56 percent of immigrants who arrived in Canada from 2006-2011 were of Asian origin and 12 percent were of African origin; these groups generally adhere to religious beliefs that differ from the majority of native-born citizens. According to the 2011 census, non-Caucasian, non-Aboriginal ethnic minorities constitute 19.1 percent of the overall population and adhere to a diverse range of religious practices.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Every individual is equal under the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The law imposes “reasonable limits” on the exercise of these religious rights only where such restrictions can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The law permits individuals to sue the government for violations of religious freedom. Federal and provincial human rights laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. Civil remedies include compensation and/or changes to the policy or practice responsible for the discrimination.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but the government grants tax-exempt status to religious groups that register as nonprofit organizations with the Charities Directorate of the tax authority, the Canada Revenue Agency. Nonprofit status provides federal and provincial sales tax reductions, rebates, and exemptions. To gain and retain tax-exempt status, a group must be nonpolitical and undergo periodic audits. Charitable status also grants clergy various federal benefits, including a housing deduction under the tax code and expedited processing through the immigration system. Clergy includes persons whose communities have licensed, ordained, or otherwise formally recognized them for their religious leadership and authority to perform spiritual duties and services within their religious organization. Individual citizens who donate to tax-exempt religious groups receive a federal tax receipt entitling them to federal income tax deductions.
The criminal code prohibits the practice of polygamy, which is an indictable offense subject to imprisonment of up to five years.
Government policy and practices with respect to education, including religious schools, fall under the purview of the provincial, rather than federal, governments. Six of the 10 provinces provide full or partial funding to some religious schools.
Catholic schools in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan retain the constitutionally protected provincial funding they had when those provinces joined the federation. Federal statutory protection for Catholic and Protestant publicly funded minority education exists in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut, which do not have provincial status. Constitutional or federal statutory protection for public funding of religious education does not extend to schools of other religious groups. The law permits parents to homeschool their children and to enroll them in private schools for religious reasons.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June the British Columbia (BC) Court of Appeal upheld a lower court decision affirming the province’s authority to appoint a special prosecutor to issue polygamy charges against two Mormons in Bountiful, BC. The original charges of polygamy were at first dropped for fear they violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion. In 2011 the BC Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion that the harm polygamy represented outweighed the right to religious freedom. The province brought charges against the individuals in August 2014 and alleged one of the accused had 24 wives, several of whom were under the age of 18 at the time of marriage.
The Quebec Assembly continued to debate a bill, tabled in June 2015, which would ban women from wearing religious attire that covered their faces during public ceremonies. At a press conference in October, provincial Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee of the Quebec Liberal Party stated that banning the burqa was necessary for the sake of identification, communication, and security at public services, including naturalization ceremonies.
In October the Quebec Superior Court ruled a provincial judge erred in refusing to hear the case of a Muslim woman in February 2015 who refused to remove her hijab. The court offered “regrets” to the woman, but found no breach of her right to freedom of religion and declined to issue a declaratory judgment affirming the right to wear religious attire in Quebec courtrooms. The Superior Court agreed with a separate finding by the provincial judicial council in September that judges have the authority to interpret the law on appropriate dress within their courtrooms on a case-by-case basis.
Montreal’s Outremont borough passed a bylaw in May banning the opening of new places of worship on two streets in its busiest commercial zone. The bylaw applied to all faith groups. In November, residents of the borough voted in favor of maintaining the ban, which representatives of the Hasidic Jewish community said targeted their community and worsened “already tense relations between elected officials and Hasidic Jews.” Approximately one quarter of Outremont borough residences belong to members of the Hasidic Jewish community.
In November, a BC woman filed a legal challenge against the local school district, stating her child was forced to participate in an aboriginal religious ceremony without her consent and against the wishes of the child. She sought a court order from the Supreme Court to prevent the school district from hosting any expressions of religion, including indigenous ceremonies. The school district, in court documents, denied it violated any rights and said its actions had not favored one belief over another.
In November a Hamilton, Ontario court rejected a parent’s complaint that the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, the provincial elementary teachers’ union, and the Ontario government infringed on his right to religious freedom when they failed to inform him of the content of the mandatory provincial sexual education curriculum in public schools. The parent stated he lacked the necessary information to determine whether the content conflicted with his Christian views. The school board stated the curriculum promoted tolerance, including tolerance of the LGBTI community, and the father’s request was impossible to fulfill as it did not apply to a specific class but to the curriculum as a whole. The judge said the school board was not obligated to inform the parent of topics he might find objectionable, as inclusion and equality come before “individual religious accommodations in public education.”
Courts in Ontario, BC, and Nova Scotia heard cases during the year regarding decisions by legal societies in the provinces to deny accreditation to future graduates of Trinity Western University (TWU), a Christian university in BC. In Ontario, the law society argued TWU’s requirement that students sign a “Christian covenant” pledging to abstain from sexual relations outside heterosexual marriage discriminated against homosexuals and violated same-sex equality laws. In June the Ontario appeals court found the law society’s decision to deny accreditation to future TWU graduates was reasonable. In September TWU asked the federal Supreme Court for permission to file an appeal of the Ontario decision, citing infringement on freedom of religion. The court had not granted permission as of the end of the year, and the request remained pending. In July a Nova Scotia appeals court ruled the province’s law society exceeded its jurisdiction in denying accreditation to future TWU graduates, because TWU was located in BC and was outside the jurisdiction of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act. In November the BC Court of Appeal held that the decision of the BC provincial law society to refuse accreditation to TWU graduates was unlawful. The law society decided against further appeal. The court did not comment on the constitutional arguments related to religious freedom.
A coalition of groups representing Christian physicians in Ontario filed a request in June for judicial review of the province’s requirement that physicians who oppose assisted death on moral grounds make an “effective [active] referral” to another medical provider for patients who seek the service. Under Ontario’s regulations, physicians who fail to make such referrals could face sanctions up to and including the loss of their medical license. The request for judicial review followed enactment of a new federal law that legalized assisted death but specified doctors had the right of freedom of conscience and the right not to perform or assist in providing the procedure. Ontario was the only province to require referral to another physician rather than to a registry or other mechanism. The plaintiffs argued the referral to another practitioner, rather than to a registry, constituted facilitation and violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion.
Ontario-based physician faith groups continued a suit filed in 2015 against the province’s medical regulator. The suit challenged a provincial policy requiring doctors who decline to provide access to contraception and decline to perform abortions on religious or moral objections to refer the patient to another physician. The legal challenge remained pending at year’s end.
In September the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that courts could exercise jurisdiction in matters of religious edicts when it allowed a Calgary man’s appeal of his “shunning” by a community of Jehovah’s Witnesses to proceed in a lower provincial court. The plaintiff had won approval for judicial review of the act of “disfellowship” in the lower court on the grounds it was procedurally unfair and adversely affected his civil and property rights as a real estate agent whose clientele was largely composed of members of his former religious community. The appeals court dismissed the church’s challenge of the review, allowing the case to proceed.
A Quebec court in December cleared an individual in a slander case brought by a private Islamic school in Montreal of charges that in a blog post and radio broadcast she likened the school’s teaching to extremist instruction delivered in terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The school sought damages for the costs of increased security at the school and harm to its reputation. The judge ruled the comments could be deemed hurtful, but were not erroneous or made in bad faith and the individual had a right to freedom of speech and expression.
The government closed the Office of Religious Freedom within Global Affairs Canada (GAC) in May and replaced it with an Office of Human Rights, Freedoms, and Inclusion. The new office includes religious freedom as one of three divisions, which also include human rights, indigenous affairs, and democracy. GAC’s external advisory committee on religious freedom and Canada’s chairmanship of the International Contact Group on the Freedom of Religion or Belief remained in place.
In August the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) stated female Muslim officers could wear the hijab as part of their uniform. The RCMP became the third police force to add the hijab option after Toronto and Edmonton.
The city of Montreal created a hate crimes unit in May to centralize information, facilitate analysis, and improve prevention of hate-motivated crimes, including religious hate crimes. The new unit will also provide support to victims.
The government remained a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The government supported, both domestically and abroad, Holocaust education, remembrance, and research, and recommended continued participation in the IHRA.
In his statement to recognize Holocaust Memorial Day on May 4, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated the government’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, racism, and all forms of discrimination.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of incidents against religious groups, in particular anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents including physical violence, destruction of places of places of worship, vandalism, hate speech, and harassment.
In January an unknown assailant pepper-sprayed a crowd gathered outside a Muslim community center after an event that welcomed Syrian refugees in Vancouver, BC. The prime minister, federal immigration minister, premier of BC, and Mayor of Vancouver publicly condemned the attack. Police investigated the incident as a potential hate crime, but did not make an arrest.
A woman reportedly spit on and pulled at the hijab and hair of a Muslim female shopper in a London, Ontario supermarket in June. Police arrested the assailant and charged her with assault.
The BC Human Rights tribunal awarded an individual C$8,500 ($6,300) in March following its 2015 ruling that in 2014 the Vancouver, BC office of the Amaruk Wilderness Corporation, a Norwegian company, had refused to hire her because she was a Christian. As of the end of the year, the company had not provided the monetary award to the individual.
Montreal police arrested an individual in June who posted messages on social media against Muslims and Islam and threatened the prime minister. The individual was released from custody and his trial was scheduled for October, but no verdict had been published by year’s end.
Unknown individuals dropped off a gift-wrapped pig’s head in a mosque at an Islamic cultural center in Quebec City in June. The Premier of Quebec and the Mayor of Quebec City publicly condemned the act. Police investigations were ongoing as of the end of the year.
Police identified two suspects (one a minor) from a 2015 incident in which two men and a woman made anti-Muslim slurs against two Muslim women on public transit in Toronto. As of the end of the year, the police had not filed charges against the two suspects.
Police in London, Ontario investigated whether an article in the June-July edition of Al Saraha, an independent Arabic language newspaper, stating Jews inflated the number of Holocaust victims from 100,000-600,000 to six million constituted a hate crime. The article, reprinted from an Egyptian newspaper, blamed Jews for Germany’s economic collapse in the 1920s and for promoting promiscuity, homosexuality, and sexual deviance. The publication is distributed in Middle Eastern restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Greater London area. The premier of Ontario condemned the article.
A Jewish school, synagogue, and rabbi’s home in Ottawa were vandalized with graffiti within the span of one week in November with anti-Semitic messages. Police arrested and charged a minor in connection with the vandalism; the minor may face up to 20 charges, including charges of “uttering threats” and “mischief to religious buildings.”
CBC news reported in April vandals wrote the words “Muslim terrorists” over a picture of a Muslim woman wearing a niqab at a library exhibit on the lives of Muslims in Quebec. The library staff reported the incident to the police, but the police did not identify any suspects.
In August B’nai B’rith reported unknown vandals defaced the playground of the Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg, Manitoba with graffiti. In September vandals painted swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of a separate Winnipeg-area elementary school. School officials removed the graffiti but did not report the incidents to police.
The B’nai B’rith Canada League for Human Rights received 1,277 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available, compared to 1,627 incidents in 2014, which had the highest number of incidents since B’nai B’rith began its survey in 1981. Ontario was the source of 914 incidents, 71 percent of those reported. Reports included harassment such as verbal slurs; hate propaganda via the web, telephone, or printed material (1,123 incidents); vandalism such as graffiti, attacks on synagogues, private homes, community centers, and property, and desecration of cemeteries (136); and physical violence or credible threat of assault (10).
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officers and other U.S. government officials met with government representatives to discuss religious freedom. They conducted regular outreach to religious leaders, NGOs, and religious groups to discuss strategies for combating religious intolerance.
The Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia visited Ottawa in March and met with GAC’s Office of Human Rights, Freedom, and Inclusion to discuss opportunities for collaboration on religious freedom issues globally through the International Contact Group on the Freedom of Religion or Belief.
The Consul General in Montreal hosted a lunch in March for leaders of Montreal’s immigrant communities to exchange best practices to combat religiously motivated discrimination and compared experiences with other forms of discrimination. The group discussed working together in future events to address shared challenges.
In May the U.S. Consulate General in Montreal participated in the city’s annual Holocaust memorial ceremony hosted by the Mayor of Montreal to underscore U.S. commitment to fighting anti-Semitism globally. U.S. participation sought to highlight the commemoration as a global issue beyond the Jewish community. The event attracted religious leaders and members of different faith groups, elected officials, and members of the diplomatic corps.
The Ambassador’s wife delivered remarks relating her Jewish family’s immigrant experience and her reflections as a Jew in North America. She stressed religious tolerance and the U.S. commitment to religious freedom at an iftar hosted by the mayor of Ottawa and the Association of Progressive Muslims of Canada in June. She was the first female keynote speaker invited to address this annual event.
Following his attendance at the dedication of the site of the country’s planned new National Holocaust Monument in September, the Ambassador amplified the event and recognized Holocaust victims and survivors through social media postings.
The U.S. Consulate General in Montreal organized a roundtable meeting in September at which senior U.S. government officials, Quebec’s minister of immigration, religious leaders, and refugee assistance organizations discussed the importance of religious diversity and tolerance.
The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to control doctrine among Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal and subject to action by religious authorities. The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government arrested several people practicing forms of Islam other than Sunni and individuals who authorities said insulted religion or incited “religious disharmony.” The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes. Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty in using the word “Allah” to denote God. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report difficulty in gaining registration as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship; religious converts had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards.
Local human rights organizations and religious leaders stated that society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They cited public protests against non-Sunni Muslim groups, some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as heavily publicized social media posts targeting Muslim and non-Muslim groups. Women who did not dress in what others considered modest attire continued to report incidents of public shaming. A Catholic group reported increasing incidents of Islamic proselytism in its schools. At least eight incidents of vandalism at Hindu temples around the country were reported in a span of five months, although authorities stated this did not constitute a trend.
Official U.S. representatives regularly discussed with government officials and leaders issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, proposed legislation affecting religious groups, and increasing religious intolerance. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities visited and discussed religious freedom with government officials and civil society leaders. Embassy representatives also met with members of religious groups, including those not officially recognized by the government. The embassy’s continued engagement with the government and religious organizations included speaker programs and visitor exchanges to promote religious tolerance and freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.9 million (July 2016 estimate). Census figures from 2010 indicate that 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; and 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions. Other minority religious groups include animists, Sikhs, and Bahais. Ethnic Malays, who are defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the east coast of peninsular Malaysia – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The federal constitution states that “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as the “Heads of Islam” within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the king. Sultans oversee the sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils who manage the operations of the courts. In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the king assumes responsibility for this process. The law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law, except in matters concerning Islamic law. A 1996 fatwa with the effect of law under the sharia code requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.
The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, but allows and supports Muslims proselytizing others. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim, however, must convert to Islam for the marriage to be officially recognized. A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without the explicit permission of his or her guardian; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15.
Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests and can impose penalties on apostates, including enforced “rehabilitation.” In the states of Perak, Melaka Sabah, and Pahang, conversion from Islam to another religion is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam, and sharia courts remain unwilling to allow such conversions for those who are born Muslims and reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. In the states of Perak, Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Sarawak, and Melaka, sharia allows one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent.
Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”
There is only one approved Islamic organization in each state. There is no legal requirement for other religious groups to register, but in order to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Office of the Registrar of Societies (RoS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and paying a small fee. Many churches and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), however, continue to find registration difficult, with RoS denying many applications for highly technical reasons. Once registered, these organizations continue to be registered as long as they submit annual reports to the RoS as legally required.
All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and surau (prayer rooms) – fall under the authority of the federal Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or surau. JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques. JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all Islamic teachers before they may be allowed to preach in any particular mosque within a state or the Federal Territories.
Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision – most frequently in rulings affecting custody and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have symbolically enacted hudood (Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the code to be implemented.
The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim girls and 18 for Muslim males, although they may marry before those ages with the permission of their parents and the sharia courts. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry.
Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for the individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donations to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.
National identity cards specify religious affiliation and are used by the government to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in a printed fashion; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is not printed, but encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card. Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.
Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to forbid any non-Sunni practice of Islam, barred Muslims from converting to another religion, and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslim who contravened sharia codes. It also limited proselytization by non-Muslim religious groups and restricted the distribution of religious texts. The government prosecuted some deemed to have “insulted Islam” under sedition laws, often following criticism of the government’s policies on religion. Because Islam, Malay ethnic identity, and the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party are closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The government continued actions against Shia Muslims engaged in religious practice. In October the Selangor State Islamic Department (JAIS) detained 50 Pakistani nationals believed to be Shia Muslims at an event to mark the day of Ashura. In November the Melaka State Islamic Department arrested 15 suspected members of what authorities said was a “deviant” Shia group. Those arrested were free on bail pending trial as of the end of the year. Under state sharia law, each faced up to three years in jail or a 5,000 ringgit (RM) ($1,115) fine for “insulting Islam.”
JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines concerning what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length, but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. State Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments, and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex).
Proceedings were ongoing in a civil court in the case of the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) against JAIS authorities. The case stemmed from a 2014 fatwa with the force of law labeling the NGO a “religiously deviant organization for subscribing to liberalism and pluralism.” In June a lower civil court ruled only the sharia court had the authority to decide on the validity of the fatwa; SIS filed an appeal of the decision to a higher civil court.
The government used sedition laws to restrict and punish speech seen as criticizing Sunni Islam. Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech allegedly denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In August authorities detained rapper Wee Meng Chee, who uses the stage name Namewee, in Penang State for releasing a music video they said “defiled a place of worship with the intent of insulting a religion of any class.” The video used the word “Allah” and sounds of the Islamic call to prayer and was partly filmed at a mosque as well as a church and Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist temples. Namewee was released on bail after four days and could face up to two years in prison. At year’s end, authorities had not charged him with a crime.
In September police conducted a predawn raid on the home of a former journalist after he posted remarks on social media about a recently deceased prominent Islamic political leader. Police detained him twice in 10 days while investigating him under laws against online “abuse” and causing “religious disharmony.” As of the end of the year, authorities had not charged him with a crime.
In June the head Islamic official of the Pahang State government referred to members of a mostly ethnic Chinese opposition party as kafir harbi (nonbelievers who can be slain for waging war on Islam) for their opposition to the adoption of hudood in the country. The police took no action against the religious leader despite calls to do so from civil society and opposition leaders.
Members of banned groups such as Shia, Ahmadi, and Al-Arqam Muslims, could not speak freely about their religious beliefs. Restrictions remained on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. The Sidan Injil Borneo (an evangelical church), based in Malaysia’s eastern island states, requested the Federal Court, the country’s highest court, consider the right of the church and its Malay language-speaking congregation to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The court is scheduled to consider the case in 2017.
The government prohibited publications, public events, and public debates that it stated might incite religious disharmony. Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion. In January JAKIM released pamphlets, flyers, and other promotional materials that said Shia Muslims were potential “radical” threats.
The government placed restrictions on religious assembly and denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Representatives of religious groups complained the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups. In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported that registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of groups that registered as companies include Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
The federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be deviant Islamic groups such as Shia, Ahmadiyya, and Al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers as these could only be done in an officially registered mosque.
In August a court in Kuala Lumpur upheld the government’s ban of four books by novelist Faisal Tehrani for allegedly spreading Shia teachings.
State governments had exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries. Non-Muslim groups reported regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said that this practice has been largely tolerated, but also has left the religious groups vulnerable.
Representatives from one Christian group reported continued frustration at local authorities’ unwillingness over the last several years to approve plans to build a new house of worship. The group said it planned instead to renovate existing warehouse space.
The federal government budget allocated RM 1 billion ($223 million) to JAKIM during the year for a wide variety of Islamic education and mosque-related projects. There were no specifically allocated funds in the government budget for non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and activities.
At primary and secondary public schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families reported difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education. Community leaders and civil liberties groups reported that religion teachers in many public schools, particularly in the peninsula of the country, pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils fully covering the face.
Civil liberty groups and non-Muslim religious leaders said that when civil and sharia jurisdictions intersected, civil courts continued to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where non-Muslims were affected by sharia judgments. The media and civil liberty lawyers reported that sharia courts often decided child custody cases where one parent converted to Islam while the other did not – and have historically favored the Muslim parent. When facing competing orders by civil and sharia courts regarding custody, they stated the police generally sided with the sharia decisions. In August, however, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the government’s plans to introduce amendments ensuring interfaith disputes involving civil marriages would be resolved in civil court. Parliamentary debate on the proposed amendments was expected to begin in March 2017.
In May the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) introduced a bill significantly raising current limits on sharia courts’ punishment powers. States must currently limit sharia court punishments to three years in prison; RM 5,000 ($1,115) fines; and six strokes of the cane. The most recent version of the PAS bill proposed to raise those limits to 30 years in prison; RM 100,000 ($22,297) fines; and 100 strokes of the cane. The bill generated substantial public discussion, with Muslim groups and some official state Islamic authorities supporting the effort. In a November speech Prime Minister Najib reiterated his ruling UMNO party’s position of cooperating with PAS on the bill in order to “develop Islam” and “empower the sharia courts.” Some other Muslim and non-Muslim groups opposed the legislation, which they stated infringed on the country’s civil laws and represented a first step toward the eventual enforcement of hudood.
It remained difficult for those registered as Muslims to have their religious identification changed by the authorities. In August the court of appeal in Sarawak State ruled against three converts to Islam who later said they had left the religion and wanted their identification information changed accordingly. The court decided that the matter needed to be resolved in the state sharia court but the applicants appealed their case to the civil Federal Court.
According to press reports, in April the National Registration Department (NRD) appealed a federal High Court ruling that a Sarawak man who was born into a Christian family that converted to Islam when he was a child had the right to reconvert to Christianity as an adult and have his identity card show his faith as Christian. Reportedly, the NRD argued that only a sharia court could make this decision, but the High Court judge disagreed saying, “…freedom of religion is his constitutional right and only he can exercise that right.”
Government officials made anti-Semitic, and in some cases anti-Christian, statements. In March Member of Parliament and Deputy Minister of Agriculture Tajuddin Abdul Rahman accused former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of working with Jewish-controlled media to bring down Prime Minister Najib.
Some government bodies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, were tasked with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that none had the power and the influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, citing the large footprint and budget for the Department of Islamic Development, compared to the limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local human rights organizations and religious leaders stated that society continued to become increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. They cited public protests against non-Sunni Muslim groups, some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic,” as well as heavily publicized social media posts targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.
According to AsiaNews, in February Catholic school leaders reported and denounced what they said was increasingly aggressive proselytism in Catholic schools to convert Catholic students to Islam. The president of the Educational Commission of the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu, Sister Rita Chew, said the government denied such activity was taking place but Catholic schools and parents reported their children being taught Islamic prayers and some conversions had taken place.
Hindus protested Indian Imam Zakir Naik’s April speaking tour to the country because they said his message insulted Hinduism and promoted extremism. Naik was welcomed by the government.
Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former coreligionists, including friends and relatives. Muslim women and girls faced social pressure to wear the tudong. Muslim women who did not wear the head scarf or dress modestly were often subject to shaming on social media. In September fans criticized local celebrity Nik Zaris Uqasha Senrose for removing her tudong.
Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. In July Muslim groups including PAS protested Selangor State’s approval of a concert featuring an American pop star deemed “too sexy” and therefore “un-Islamic” and inappropriate for the Muslim-majority city to be hosting the event during the holy month of Syawal. The singer performed in the concert.
At least eight incidents of vandalism at Hindu temples around the country were reported from April to November. In April police charged Fathi Munzir Nadzri with defiling a temple in Perak State, which carried a jail sentence of up to two years and a fine. In November the Sessions Court acquitted Nadzri on grounds of insanity, but prosecutors appealed the ruling. In July police arrested a suspect accused of two temple vandalism cases in Penang State. Hindu leaders and NGOs said police ignored the potential religious or ethnic motivations for the crimes and called on authorities to increase protection for places of worship and to investigate the cases of vandalism for any elements of “terrorism and extremism.”
According to media reports, in March a mosque in Lutong, Sarawak State, said it would open its new parking lot to churchgoers of the neighboring Anglican church. The priest said it was an example of the “true spirit” of the country and the tolerance in Sarawak.
Several months after protesters forced the congregation of a small Christian church to take down the cross on its outside wall in 2015, the church replaced the cross without protests following community mediation efforts from the Department of National Unity and Integration.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. and embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials and civil society leaders on religious freedom issues throughout the year.
In November the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with the federal minister for unity, the chair of the National Human Rights Commission, and with the mufti overseeing Islamic affairs in the country’s capital and Federal Territories. The Ambassador at Large discussed the difficulties reported by minority groups, including non-Muslim and non-Sunni Muslim groups. He urged the authorities to provide equal protection to all religious groups. In May the U.S. Special Representative to Muslim Communities promoted religious freedom during meetings with religious and civil society leaders. He met with the federal minister for youth and sports and discussed interfaith dialogue and religious freedom issues in the context of preventing violent extremism. During a February visit to Kuala Lumpur, a Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor hosted a roundtable meeting with religious leaders and faith-based organizations. Among the topics discussed with the group, which included Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist representatives, were the negative effects of forbidding use of the word “Allah” to denote God for Christians worshipping in their native language, and the role of Islam in the courts’ inability to settle the limits of sharia in child custody and conversion cases. They also discussed the changing official view of Islam, which has led government religious authorities to limit the voices heard in mosques.
Embassy officials engaged with religious and civil society leaders throughout the year on topics of concern, including meetings to hear the concerns of Shia and Ahmadi Muslim groups deemed “deviant” by government religious authorities; the groups detailed the heavy restrictions on their worship activities. Embassy officials also met with a variety of non-Muslim groups who reported continued difficulties registering churches, building houses of worship, and facing societal discrimination. The embassy also engaged with groups of Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as the Islamic NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS). Embassy officers regularly attended the court proceedings in SIS’s civil case against JAIS and encouraged diplomats from other countries also to attend and provide support for the group.
The U.S. embassy promoted religious freedom issues through a variety of outreach programs around the country. In January embassy officers visited Islamic religious schools in rural Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis, and Penang states to engage with influential religious leaders on various issues, including freedom of religion. In March a senior embassy official hosted an event for former participants of a U.S. government exchange program on their continued engagement in the country’s rural Muslim communities. In June the embassy hosted an iftar for Rohingya refugee children to showcase the U.S. commitment to religious minorities under threat. In August the embassy hosted a U.S.-based imam who spoke with a diverse set of audiences about issues faced by youth, life as a Muslim in the United States, and the positive role young people can play in developing a more tolerant society.
The U.S. embassy also inaugurated a months-long series of interfaith dialogues and forums in September with an emphasis on unity among Malaysians from different religious backgrounds.