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Bangladesh

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism. It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions. On November 27, a Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, while the eighth was acquitted. Defense attorneys indicated they would appeal all verdicts. The government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons in its stated effort to prevent militancy and monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging. Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, stated the government remained ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes. The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.

In October protesters clashed with police and attacked a Hindu temple in response to the October 20 arrests of two Muslims in Bhola, who were accused of hacking the Facebook account of a Hindu student in an extortion scheme. There were more than 100 injuries in the clash, and police killed four persons in what they stated was self-defense. In August, according to multiple press reports, police found the body of Buddhist monk Amrita Nanda, vice principal of Gyanaratna Buddhist Monastery, under a railway bridge in Comilla, approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Dhaka. According to media accounts, Nanda’s throat was slit. Buddhist community members said Nanda was returning to his hometown from Dhaka. The Christian Welfare Trust and other human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and social isolation for Christians who converted to Christianity from Hinduism and Islam. The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHCUC) said “atrocities” against minorities continued, but had slowed.

In meetings with government officials and in public statements, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion, and encouraged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance. The embassy successfully urged government officials not to charge a Hindu activist with sedition. The Ambassador and other embassy staff met with local government officials, civil society members, NGOs, and religious leaders to continue to underscore the importance of religious tolerance and explore the link among religion, religious freedom, and violent extremism. Since 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $669 million in humanitarian assistance to overwhelmingly Muslim ethnic Rohingya who fled, and continued to flee, Burma.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.” The constitution also stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion. It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions. The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.

Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison. Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.” The law applies similar restrictions to online publications. While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act, to charge individuals. The Digital Security Act criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” with penalties of up to 10 years in prison.

The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of destroying religious harmony or creating discrimination on religious grounds.

Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government. Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not. The law requires the NGOAB approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects. The NGOAB director general has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation or closure of the NGO. NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government). Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence (NSI), Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, although the standards for this clearance are not transparent.

Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations. Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying the name being registered is not taken; providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; a security clearance for leaders of the organization from the NSI; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; work plan; copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.

Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.

Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. These laws are enforced in the same secular courts. A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith. The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings. A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again. A Christian man may marry only one woman.

Hindu men may have multiple wives. Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur. Hindu women may inherit property under the law. Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus. Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry. Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry. Marriage between members of different religious groups is allowed and occurs under civil law. To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some marriages are not. Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.

Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim. Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child. Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands. Civil courts must approve divorces. The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate. Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.

Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling out of court family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership. With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.

Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice. Fatwas may neither be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.

Religious studies are compulsory and part of the curriculum for grades three through 10 in all public government-accredited schools. Private schools do not have this requirement. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.

The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons. The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them. Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a faith of their choice before execution.

The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state. In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups, especially Hindus, who fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.

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

Government Practices

On November 27, a Bangladesh Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced seven defendants to death for their role in the July 2016 killing of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka. An eighth defendant was acquitted. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors said they would appeal the verdicts, the government appealing only the one acquittal. According to numerous reports, the attackers, who claimed loyalty to ISIS, singled out non-Muslims and killed the victims with machetes and firearms. According to media, a police investigation found 22 persons were involved in the attack: the eight whose trial just concluded, including two who had fled the country; five who were killed during the security response to the attack; and nine who died in a series of security actions in the country following the incident.

Legal proceedings against suspects allegedly involved in the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy continued at year’s end. In March a Dhaka court transferred the murder case to the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal for trial proceedings. The trial of six men accused in the killing began in April. Machete-wielding assailants hacked to death Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, while he accompanied his wife, who was also injured in the attack, as they returned home from a Dhaka book fair. The press reported police suspected the Ansarullah Bangla Team, a militant Islamic organization claiming association with Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent– accused of other acts of violence and banned by the government – was involved in Roy’s killing. Four of the accused appeared before the court during the year; the other two remained at large.

Law enforcement concluded one of eight investigations into a 2016 attack on Hindu individuals, homes, and temples in Brahmanbaria District. In December 2017, 228 were charged with the attacks on the Hindu community, pending prosecution. However, according to media reports, all accused persons were since released on bail. According to media reports, in the three years since the attack, there was no further progress in this case following the completion of one of eight investigations, and no timeline was given for completing the other seven investigations or for scheduling hearings for the 228 charged. The courts held no hearings before the end of the year. The attackers injured more than 100 individuals and vandalized 52 Hindu homes and 15 temples following a Hindu resident’s Facebook post showing a Hindu deity pasted over the Kaaba in Mecca. The National Human Rights Commission stated the attack was orchestrated to drive Hindus from the area and obtain their land.

According to media reports in November, the government filed charges against members of the Santal Christian community, which was the target of a violent attack in 2016 that allegedly involved local authorities and law enforcement personnel. These charges necessitate these members paying legal and administrative fees, even if the cases fail to progress. Among those charged was the brother of a man killed in the attack. At the same time, authorities dropped charges against police officers videotaped in the attack for lack of sufficient evidence. On July 28, the UN Committee Against Torture reported the Police Bureau of Investigation submitted a report stating no police officers were involved in the burning of homes and schools and looting of property, despite the visual evidence suggesting their involvement.

Human rights organizations did not report the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions” during the year, in contrast with previous years.

Although most mosques were independent of the state, the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and to provide guidance to imams throughout the country through the Islamic Foundation on the content of their sermons. This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad. Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy. In April the government instructed mosques to denounce extremism.

The government continued to prohibit transmission of India-based Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV Bangla, stating the program spread extremist ideologies, and closed “peace schools,” which the government said reflected his teachings.

In May police arrested Catholic poet Henry Sawpon for “offending the religious sentiments of Catholics” in his many social media posts criticizing and insulting members of the clergy. The arrest followed a complaint filed by Father Larence Gomes, a local priest in the town of Barisal, also the home of Sawpon. According to Gomes, Sawpon said young priests organized a seminar for youth where girls were raped. At year’s end, Sawpon remained in jail.

According to the Ministry of Land, authorities adjudicated 15,224 of 118,173 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act as of 2018, the most recent year figures were published. Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 7,733 of the cases, recovering 8,187.5 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 7,491 cases. Media reports, rights activists, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of religious minority teachers for mandatory religious education classes. In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 11.68 billion taka ($137.4 million) for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which covers June 2018-July 2019, the most recent year for which figures were available. The budget included 9.21 billion taka ($108.4 million) allocated for development through various autonomous religious bodies. The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 8.24 billion taka ($96.9 million). The Hindu Welfare Trust received 780.8 million taka ($9.2 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 37.5 million taka ($441,000) of the total development allocation. While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the 2018-19 budget, it received 2.8 million taka ($32,900) to run its office.

Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including by the government, which remained unresolved at year’s end. The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas. In July three CHT villages filed a report with the deputy commissioner accusing Jashim Uddin Montu, a businessman, of land grabbing. In an investigative report, The Daily Star discovered Montu falsified residency documents in Bandarban for the right to purchase CHT land to build a tourist property. Villagers said Montu donated money and some of the purchased land in CHT to build a two-story police camp in Bandarban. According to minority religious associations, such disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had recently increased. They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriation for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution. Some human rights groups continued to attribute lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.

The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, celebrations during the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.

President Abdul Hamid continued to host receptions to commemorate each of the principal Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious minorities. In October the prime minister’s foreign policy advisor, Gowher Rizvi, said at an interreligious event the majority faith (Islam) had the responsibility to protect minority religious groups and urged all to work under a common umbrella and address common problems together.

Brunei

Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i School of Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.” In April the government implemented the second and third phases of the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which includes offenses punishable by corporal and capital punishments, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, and caning. The SPC, which is in force in parallel with the common-law-based secular penal code, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections. Under full SPC implementation, Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia. Following international condemnation, the sultan announced in May that the de facto moratorium on the death penalty would be extended to include cases under the SPC and that “individual privacy” would be respected. He also declared the government would ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT). Responding to UN expressions of concern regarding the SPC, the foreign minister reiterated that the constitution recognizes the right of non-Muslims to practice their religions “in peace and harmony.” Non-Muslims reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions following the full implementation of the SPC but noted that the law imposes new restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize other non-Muslims, which until April had been legal. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. In October sharia courts charged non-Muslim defendants in two criminal cases. The government permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued to ban several religious groups it considers “deviant.” The sultan publicly warned the government to strengthen its stance against deviation from what he called authentic Islamic teachings. Government limitations on the construction of new churches and temples, and the renovations or expansion of existing places of worship, resulted in facilities that were too small to accommodate some congregations. Islamic authorities organized a range of proselytizing activities and incentives to explain and propagate Islam.

Non-Muslims and Muslims faced social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior. According to media reports and sources within the country, although some members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community worried that new SPC laws would encourage homophobia, few believed that the harshest SPC punishments, such as stoning, would be enforced. In discussions of religion and religious freedom on social media, some Muslims and non-Muslims posted comments questioning the relevance of the Malay Islamic Monarchy (MIB) national philosophy or criticizing the SPC, while others called for increased Islamification and increased restrictions on non-Muslims. Anecdotal reports indicated that some Muslims and Christians who wished to convert to another religion feared social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community.

The Ambassador, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. government officials engaged with senior government officials regarding the negative religious freedom implications of full SPC implementation, as well as the importance of ratification of UNCAT and the protection of minority rights. In meetings with senior economic officials and business leaders, the Ambassador highlighted U.S. concerns relating to the SPC, including those of the private sector. He also met with minority religious leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC. The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs echoed concerns regarding implementation of the SPC during a visit in September.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.

The legal system is divided between secular law and sharia, which have parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department. The civil courts are based on common law. The sharia courts follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no concept of legal precedent and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court. Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC.

The government fully implemented the final phases of the SPC in April. The SPC spells out provisions for corporal and capital punishment for murder, theft, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, blasphemy, and other acts deemed crimes under sharia. Depending on the type and specifics of the offense, these punishments include fines, imprisonment, whipping, caning, amputation of hands or feet, or death (including by stoning). The SPC identifies murder, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, and blasphemy as capital offenses, although the law requires either a confession or the testimony of multiple pious Muslim male eyewitnesses to support a death sentence. Most SPC sections apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, and are applicable to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents. Non-Muslims are exempt from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers and pay zakat (obligatory annual almsgiving). The SPC states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation.”

The SPC incorporates longstanding domestic laws based on sharia that prohibit drinking alcohol, propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close physical proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex. It prohibits “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”

Punishments included under the SPC have different standards of proof from the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning. Stoning sentences, however, may be supported by a confession in lieu of witness testimony at the discretion of a sharia judge. If neither qualifying testimony nor a confession is available, the possible sentences are limited to caning, imprisonment, and fines.

The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which it defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.” The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and its main defense against “extremism.” A government body, the MIB Supreme Council, seeks to spread and strengthen the MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies. MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.

The Religious Enforcement Division under the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) leads investigations on crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays. Cases involving crimes that are not covered by sharia legislation, such as human trafficking, are investigated by the RBPF. Since full SPC implementation began in April, RBPF and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both the secular and sharia laws. In such cases, an “assessment committee” composed of secular and sharia prosecutors and secular and sharia law enforcement officers decides which court system will try the case. The deliberations of the assessment committee to determine whether specific cases would proceed through secular or sharia court are not public, and the government does not make public the committee’s bases for its decisions.

The government bans several religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, Al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is available on MORA’s website. The SPC also bans any practice or display of “black magic.”

The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam. MORA has clarified to embassy officials that the use of certain words such as “Allah” by non-Muslims, does not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.

Under the SPC, Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion. Non-Muslims must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert or renounce their religion. If parents convert to Islam, their minor children automatically become Muslim.

The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members. Applicants are subject to background checks for leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements. Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information requested by the registrar. Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds. The registrar of societies oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason. Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar. Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines. Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned. The penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,400), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.

The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance. Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly. In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private places in which gatherings do not require approval.

The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith. Under the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 BND ($14,900), or both. The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam, including the SPC itself.

Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature. The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.” The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith.

The law establishes two sets of schools: those offering the national or international curriculum that are administered by the Ministry of Education (MOE), and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.

MOE schools are required to teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children ages seven to 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident. Non-Muslims are exempted from all religious study requirements and receive teaching on moral behavior.

Ugama instruction in MORA schools is a seven-to-eight-year course that teaches the day-to-day practice of Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school. Under a 2012 government order, ugama instruction is mandatory for Muslim students ages seven to 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency; many students attend ugama schools in the afternoon after MOE schools have adjourned. Parents may be fined up to 5,000 BND ($3,700), imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year, or both for failure to comply with the order. The law does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs. MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education.

Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction in beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam as part of the school’s curriculum. Schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects. The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam. The law requires that any person wishing to teach on matters relating to Islam must obtain official permission. Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer private religious education in private settings, such as someone’s home.

All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to parents who are not both Muslim. The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam. The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.

Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (the crime of close physical proximity between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim. Foreigners are also subject to these laws.

A regulation requires businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for an exemption if serving non-Muslims.

MORA has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and describes it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification). The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM/C. In his 2017 fatwas, the state mufti declared that both male and female circumcision are required and specified that female circumcision involves a “small cut above the vagina.”

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

Government Practices

In March amid international criticism of the SPC by several governments, celebrities, and social media commentators, the government issued a statement asserting its right to enforce its own laws as a “sovereign Islamic and fully independent country.” The statement declared that the SPC would “educate, respect, and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals, society or nationality of any faiths and race” and that the country’s parallel sharia and common law judicial systems would “maintain peace and order and preserve our religion, life, family, and individuals regardless of gender, nationality, race, and faith.”

In April the government distributed a set of points on the implementation of the SPC to foreign diplomatic missions highlighting that the country’s constitution “provides that Islam shall be the official religion, but also explicitly recognizes the right of non-Muslims to practice their religions in peace and harmony.” The points also stated the government “reaffirms its commitment to its international obligations in promoting and protecting human rights as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and that the government’s 2015 signing of UNCAT “testifies our strong rejection to acts of torture.”

On April 1, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a letter to the government expressing concern about “the imposition of cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishments” under the SPC and urging the government to “repeal it completely as it would not be in conformity with international human rights law.” Minister of Foreign Affairs II Dato Erywan Pehin Yusof responded with a letter reiterating that the constitution recognized the right of non-Muslims to practice their religions “in peace and harmony” and that the SPC “aims to respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals” and had no intention “to victimize a person’s status based on sexual orientation or belief.”

In May the sultan announced that the de facto moratorium on the death penalty would be extended to include cases under the SPC and that “individual privacy” would be respected. He also declared that the government would ratify the UNCAT.

Non-Muslims reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions in the country following the full implementation of the SPC but noted that the law imposed new restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize to other non-Muslims, which until April had been legal. The government continued to prohibit non-Muslims from proselytizing among Muslims or persons with no religious affiliation. Non-Muslims continued to express concern that the SPC had the potential to enable abuses in the future. Some non-Muslims described the SPC as a “scare tactic” that, alongside other government policies, would pressure non-Muslims to convert to Islam. They noted the SPC’s blasphemy provisions could be used to constrain non-Muslim groups’ activities but expressed greater concern about subtle pressure by the government than about the possibility of harsh sharia punishments.

Government-provided statistics indicated sharia courts convicted 107 individuals between January and October. In August authorities completed the first criminal prosecution in the sharia courts following the implementation of the SPC in April. The defendant, a local Malay Muslim, was sentenced to five months in prison for the theft of 100 BND ($74). During the year, the sharia courts convicted a total of 10 individuals under the newly implemented sections of the SPC – all relatively minor theft offenses resulting in a fine or prison sentence.

The sharia courts charged three non-Muslim defendants in two criminal cases during the year. In October an ethnic Iban (an indigenous group) man who local church officials stated was Catholic, was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for theft. In a case that was pending at year’s end, two Vietnamese men became the first non-Muslim foreigners to be charged in the sharia courts under the newly implemented SPC sections, accused of “causing hurt” for allegedly assaulting a colleague at their workplace.

The government periodically warned the population about the preaching of non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism. It permitted Shafi’i Muslims and members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths.

MORA continued to provide all mosques with approved sermons for Friday services. The government required that the sermons be delivered by registered imams, and deviance from the approved text was forbidden. In May, following a nationally televised interview in which a local government Muslim cleric claimed to have met the Prophet Muhammad in a dream, the sultan publicly urged the government to strengthen its stance against what he considered inauthentic Islamic teachings, including non-Shafi’i versions of Islam. Religious authorities reportedly chastised the cleric and required him to undergo additional training.

There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear a head covering (known locally as a tudong), and many women did so. When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards, Muslim females were required to wear a tudong. Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions. In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering. Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools. Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.

As in past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the Chinese temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members. Members of the royal family publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with front-page coverage in state-influenced media.

The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic instructional materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution. Authorities generally continued to ban non-Islamic religious texts from import, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviated from the Shafi’i school of Islam. Customs continued to check personal packages entering the country to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or perceived sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.

Christian leaders stated that a long-standing fatwa discouraging Muslims from perpetuating non-Islamic faiths continued to inhibit the expansion, renovation, or construction of new facilities. Christian religious groups, however, said authorities generally permitted churches and associated schools to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety. The process for obtaining approval to renovate church buildings remained lengthy and difficult, and there were continuing reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated requirements. With only six approved churches in the country, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors. Chinese Buddhist temples were also subject to the same fatwa. Government data from 2015, the latest available, indicated there were 99 registered mosques. Christian worshippers continued to report difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled.

The government reported that many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam. Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses on their transcripts could be advantageous. Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong. There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.

In February the sultan publicly called for extending Quranic education and encouraged all high schools to introduce “specialized Al-Quran education” in addition to their Islamic Religious Knowledge syllabus. School officials reported that by year’s end the government had not yet required them to introduce new Quranic studies programs.

Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools. All church-associated schools were recognized by the MOE and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.

Throughout the year, the government enforced restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers. In May the Borneo Bulletin, citing the SPC, warned local eateries not to serve dine-in customers during fasting hours and cautioned the public not to eat, drink, or smoke in public places during daylight hours throughout Ramadan. There were no reports during the year of raids or of religious enforcement officers enforcing the ban on restaurants serving dine-in food during the fasting hours of Ramadan.

The government maintained a longstanding ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages and cigarettes and a restriction against the import or consumption of alcoholic beverages by Muslims. After a period of increased enforcement on the ban of alcohol in 2018, enforcement reportedly returned to previous levels of routine customs checks at the border. Religious authorities allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but they continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.

The government offered incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing, welfare assistance, or help to perform the Hajj. The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media. According to government statistics, 292 individuals converted to Islam during the year, lower than previous years. Converts included citizens and permanent residents, as well as foreigners. Government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (one that remembers and obeys Allah).

Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Muslim weddings required approval from the sharia courts, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.

Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.

The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity and were used in part to determine whether he or she were Muslim; for example, all ethnic Malays, including those traveling in the country, were assumed to be Muslim. Malays were required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.

India

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The revocation sparked protests, criticism from Muslim leaders, and challenges filed in the Supreme Court from opposition politicians, human rights activists, and others. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region, shut down many internet and phone lines, and had not restored full service by year’s end. The government also closed most mosques in the area until mid-December. Seventeen civilians and three security personnel were killed during the protests. In December parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which accelerates citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014, but not for similarly-situated migrants who are Muslims, Jews, atheists, or members of other faiths. The law generated widespread media and religious minority criticism, including legal challenges in the Supreme Court. Protests and violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Uttar Pradesh and Assam following the passage of the law resulted in 25 civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries. Issues of religiously inspired mob violence, lynching, and communal violence were sometimes denied or ignored by lawmakers, according to a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to act to prevent or stop mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some officials of Hindu-majority parties, including from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent Hindu groups against minority communities, including Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of such “cow vigilantism,” which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution and filed charges against victims. In July Madhya Pradesh became the first state to set fines and prison sentences for cow vigilantism. Attacks on religious minorities in some cases included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six people, including the female pastor, who was beaten by the officers. In November the Supreme Court awarded the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya to Hindu organizations to build a temple there, while providing five acres of land elsewhere in the city for Muslims to build a new mosque. Leading national Muslim organizations and some Muslim litigants petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque, which was destroyed by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992, to be rebuilt on its original site. In December the Supreme Court dismissed these petitions and maintained its ruling. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In November the Supreme Court took up challenges to its 2018 reversal of a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data, 7,484 incidents of communal violence took place between 2008 and 2017 in which more than 1,100 people were killed. MHA data for 2018-2019 was not available, but incidents of communal violence continued through the year. On June 18, a mob in Jharkhand killed Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to declare allegiance to Hindu deities. NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that through 2019, Hindu groups characterized as extremist, some of which, according to HRW, had links with BJP supporters, continued to perpetuate mob violence against minorities, especially Muslims, amid rumors they traded or killed cows for beef. According to NGO Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related mob violence, in which Muslims comprised 50 percent of the victims, took place between 2010 and the first half of 2019. Lower-caste Hindus were also victims of cow vigilantism. Hate Crime Watch reported 10 cow vigilante attacks, with one person killed between January and June. On April 10, Prakash Lakda of Jurmu village in Jharkhand was killed by a mob, and three others seriously injured, reportedly for butchering a dead ox. All four victims were Christians who were Scheduled Tribe members. On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in the Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Media reported that local police arrested several individuals following the attack. Amnesty International (AI) in October recorded 72 incidents of mob violence in the first half of the year, of which 37 were directed at Muslims. AI recorded 181 alleged hate crime incidents overall in the first half of the year, compared with 100 during the same period in 2018. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s annual report, 527 incidents of persecution of Christians took place through the year. In August Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives reportedly because she was a Dalit (lower caste) and the couple had converted to Christianity. In February Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded.

U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance and mutual respect throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In their engagement with government officials, media, interfaith harmony organizations and NGOs, U.S. officials emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, condemn communal rhetoric, and ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. In March the embassy organized a speaking tour by a U.S. religious harmony expert to the northern cities of Lucknow, Allahabad, and Varanasi. In late May the Ambassador hosted a Ramadan iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and demonstrating empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths. In July the Department of State senior bureau official for South and Central Asian Affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and representatives from civil society groups advocating for the rights of religious minorities. In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts to hear their perspectives on conditions in the country. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in meetings with senior government officials raised concerns over violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including communal violence. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In meetings with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups, he raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anticonversion laws, and communal violence. Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador to India routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to hear their perspectives and concerns.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as any religion-based restrictions on individuals’ access to public or private facilities or establishments that are open to the general public. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits compelling anyone to pay taxes to promote or maintain any specific religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.

Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. Such legislation in Rajasthan, passed in 2008, was rejected by the central government in 2017 and remains unimplemented. In August the Himachal Pradesh state legislature added “coercion” to the list of conversion crimes, which also includes conversion by “fraud,” “force,” and “inducement.” The definition of “inducement” was broadened to include “the offer of any temptation.”

Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means,” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government. Violators, including missionaries and other religious figures who encourage conversion, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if the converts are minors, women, or members of government-designated, historically disadvantaged groups (Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes). Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($700). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment and/or fines of 25,000 rupees ($350). Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may consist of prison sentences rather than fines.

According to the Supreme Court, converting from Hinduism to another religion may deny those converting from lower castes the government benefits available to them if they had remained Hindu, such as placement in educational institutions or job training.

Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near another religion’s place of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($70).

The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.

There are no direct requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funds, and federal law requires religiously-affiliated organizations to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.

A federal law regulates foreign contributions to NGOs, including faith-based organizations. Organizations with “definite cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” must receive a federal government certificate of registration to receive foreign funds. The federal government may also require that certified organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject an application for a certificate of registration or a request for prior permission to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”

The constitution states that any reference to Hindus in law is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a blanket category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, and Jains, but clarifies that these are separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.

Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region and designate them as minorities under state law. Minority status makes these groups eligible for several government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government will protect the existence of religious minorities and will encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.

Personal status laws determine rights for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national- and state-level legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If the law board or community leaders cannot offer satisfactory solutions, the case is referred to the civil courts.

Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions, however, face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.

The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages, but there are no divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas (in most cases, 50 percent) for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For instance, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.

Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. The law in Gujarat mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts for manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.

As of July, one state (Madhya Pradesh) penalizes cow vigilantism by setting fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($350-$700) and prison sentences of six months to three years for committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.

The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These bodies have no enforcement powers, but launch investigations based on written complaints by plaintiffs charging criminal or civil violations and submit their findings to law enforcement agencies for action. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.

The constitution allows for a form of affirmative action for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, and the “Other Backward Class,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. Since the constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists shall be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste, the only means through which Christian and Muslim individuals may qualify for affirmative action benefits is if they are considered members of the “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.

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

Government Practices

A video that circulated widely on the internet showed a mob near Kharsawan in Jharkhand violently attacking 24-year-old Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” (allegiance to Hindu deities). Members of the mob accused Ansari of stealing a motorcycle. Ansari died in a hospital several days later. On September 10, the Jharkhand police dropped murder charges against all 11 individuals accused of the attack, citing the initial autopsy report that stated that Ansari had died of cardiac arrest. On September 18, the police reintroduced murder charges against all the accused after a detailed postmortem exam revealed grievous injury to Ansari’s skull. The Jharkhand government set up a special investigation team and suspended two policemen for not reporting the seriousness of the issue to a higher authority and for failure to report a case of lynching.

On December 12, parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which amends the 1955 Citizenship Act to provide an expedited path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly-situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. The legislation – the first-ever to use religion as a criterion for citizenship – was criticized heavily by domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties. Opponents stated it was unconstitutional because it violated the tenets of a secular state. Passage of the legislation was followed by widespread protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Assam, but they soon spread to university campuses and cities nationwide. The government deployed police, severely limited public gatherings, imposed a curfew, and cut internet service, primarily in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir. As of the end of December, domestic and international media had reported 25 deaths, hundreds of injuries and thousands of detentions, with 5,500 detained in Uttar Pradesh alone. There were multiple reports of excessive force by police against protesters, particularly against Muslim university students. For example, in December police moved onto the campus of Jamia Millia University in New Delhi to end a protest, deploying tear gas and beating protesters with batons, according to witnesses who spoke to the media.

Government critics, civil liberty activists, NGOs, and political organizations, including the Congress party, filed more than 100 legal challenges to the CAA in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. Some opposition leaders said the CAA was part of an ongoing BJP effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. The government defended the CAA by saying that it was legislation aimed at facilitating citizenship for illegal refugees from six religious minorities who had fled three neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could still apply for citizenship through the normal, non-expedited route. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the CAA was an act to provide citizenship and not to take it away from legal Indian citizens. In November he stated that the constitution should be revered as a “holy book and a guiding light.” Some officials linked the CAA with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process used to identify illegal immigrants in the state of Assam. On December 22, Modi disavowed any discussion of implementing the NRC nationwide, including earlier comments from Home Minister Amit Shah that a nationwide NRC should be in place so “we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” Some opposition leaders and protestors stated they feared that a national NRC could disenfranchise Muslims in the country.

According to a number of NGOs and media outlets, lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence, which often had a religious component. On September 18, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in an interview that there had been no incidents of mob lynching in Uttar Pradesh during his tenure, which began in 2017. According to the Uttar Pradesh Law Commission in July, however, 50 incidents of mob violence had taken place in the state between 2012 and 2019, resulting in 11 deaths. Adityanath also used the term “love jihad,” a derogatory term suggesting a deliberate effort by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into a relationship and coerce them to convert to Islam, which analysts stated proved to be a crucial election issue for the ruling BJP.

In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, splitting it into two union territories, one for Jammu and Kashmir and the other for Ladakh. Opposition political parties and other critics condemned this decision; the central government pledged to hold assembly elections in the new territories. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region and shut down internet and phone lines just before announcing the decision. Many of these restrictions were gradually reduced by December. The government also closed most mosques in the area, including the Jamia Masjid, the main mosque in Srinagar, from August 5 until mid-December. Muslim leaders criticized the move. The government’s actions sparked protests. Several politicians belonging to opposition parties, human right activists, journalists, and retired army personnel filed petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s actions. Government and media reported there were incidents of violence and intimidation carried out by militants. In November the government told parliament that 20 persons, including 17 civilians and three security personnel, were killed in terror-related incidents in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5. On November 21, Home Minister Shah told the media, “Not a single person has died by police firing” in Jammu and Kashmir.

On July 20, Maharashtra police arrested one person the day after a group accosted and allegedly tried to lynch Muslim youth Imran Patel, forcing him to say “Jai Shri Ram” (allegiance to a Hindu deity). Patel said a Hindu family residing nearby rushed to his rescue and saved his life.

By year’s end, parliament had not acted on a July 2018 Supreme Court order that it enact a federal law to outlaw mob violence. The court also ordered all state governments to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent mob violence and ensure that the police act promptly in such cases. Only Rajasthan and West Bengal had partially followed the Supreme Court order.

In July Rajasthan passed an anti-lynching law, but its implementation remained pending at the end of the year. The law defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence or aiding, abetting, or attempting an act of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, by a mob on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, [or] ethnicity.” Penalties include up to life in prison. The law followed attacks on Muslims and was a state-level response to the Supreme Court order directing state legislatures to pass laws to address lynching and mob violence. In August the West Bengal state legislature passed a bill that made lynching punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. The bill defined lynching as any mob violence on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other ground. The West Bengal bill had not been implemented by year’s end.

HRW said that since May 2015, 50 people have been killed and over 250 injured in mob violence. HRW reported that Muslims were also beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans and that the police failed to properly investigate these incidents, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses in order to intimidate them. The NGO Alliance for Defending Freedom India (ADF India) reported that less than 40 of more than 300 cases of “cow vigilantism” that it had documented were prosecuted by the police. At the same time, according to HRW, the government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives designed to prevent and investigate mob attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, which, according to HRW, were sometimes linked to BJP supporters.

On April 14, according to the website AsiaNews, 200 men attacked a church in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh as police officers looked on without intervening. The report stated that the church’s clergy fled while the men attacked members of the congregation with sticks.

A police investigation continued into a May 2018 communal clash in Aurangabad in Maharashtra in which a Muslim youth was shot and killed by police and a Hindu man died in his burning shop. The clash followed allegations that authorities were cracking down on illegal water connections in a discriminatory manner. Police briefly arrested two city councilors, but they were released on bail.

On August 22, authorities arrested a fourth individual for the 2018 cow vigilante killing of Rakbar Khan in Rajasthan, who was assaulted by villagers who suspected him of cattle smuggling. Khan died when police took at least three hours to transport him to a local hospital that was 2.5 miles away. According to media reports, the police stopped for tea along the way. The case of the fourth individual was pending trial at year’s end.

On July 24, the Uttar Pradesh government dropped charges in 22 cases tied to riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 that claimed at least 65 lives and displaced thousands. By year’s end, the state government had dropped charges in at least 70 cases related to the riots. Since 2017, Muzaffarnagar courts have acquitted the accused in 40 of 41 cases involving attacks against Muslims. A BJP state legislator from the region said there were 93 other (pending) cases involving false allegations of Hindu attack against Muslims, which he said were brought for political reasons. By year’s end, there was one conviction related to the riots that followed the killings of two Hindu youths.

On April 23, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay a Muslim woman five million rupees ($70,400) in compensation for being gang-raped during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim communal riots in that state. Fourteen members of her family, including her two-year-old daughter and mother, were killed during the riots.

On July 27, Gujarat police arrested four persons on charges that they beat a 17-year-old Muslim youth to death because they objected to his relationship with a tribal girl in Ankleshwar District.

A Special Investigation Team formed in 2018 to assess 186 cases related to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and Punjab in 1984 submitted its report to the government in April; the government presented it to the Supreme Court in November. Supreme Court action, which could include an order to reopen some of the cases, was pending at year’s end.

On September 8, Jharkhand police arrested Catholic priest Binoy John and lay leader Munna Handsda for allegedly trying to convert villagers in Jharkhand’s Godda District. The accused had also reportedly asked villagers to donate their land to the church. They were arrested under a 2017 Jharkhand law that criminalizes religious conversion by inducement or coercion, following a complaint lodged by a villager. Both men were released on bail later in the same month.

Media reported that many of the 271 Christians charged by police in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh in September 2018 with “spreading lies about Hinduism” remained in prison at year’s end. Authorities said the Christians violated national laws against spreading enmity among different religious groups and causing social disharmony.

NGOs International Christian Concern (ICC) and ADF India stated authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, especially Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, such as Section 259A of the national penal code. In September ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed down in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A, then released a few days later on bail.

According to ICC, Christian pastors, their families, and their congregations were threatened by police and Hindu residents in Jharkhand, with some fleeing their villages out of concern for their safety. ICC reported pastors receiving death threats, mobs attacking Christian worship services, and Christians being detained by police for not giving money for Hindu ceremonies. ICC said that “an atmosphere of impunity” (for attacking Christians) had “been allowed to gather” in the state.

According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six persons, including the female pastor, Sindhu Bharti. According to the NGO and media accounts, the pastor was beaten by police officers and had boiling tea poured down her throat to ensure she was not feigning unconsciousness.

In September activists from the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), disrupted a Christian prayer meeting held by the New Life Fellowship Association in a public school in the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai, accusing it of being a cover for religious conversion. Mumbai police issued a notice to the association, warning that it had not sought the required advance permission to gather in a public place and would face prosecution if it did so again without permission. The police also warned the Bajrang Dal not to disrupt the fellowship’s meetings. The church pastor stated that he objected to the police action and said it violated the right to worship.

According to the website AsiaNews, in June police detained four Christians in Uttar Pradesh for organizing prayer meetings following reports that they were conducting “forced conversions.” The police released the men the same day without charges.

In May the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that police in Uttar Pradesh arrested Reverend Gyan Singh and another Pentecostal Christian in the village of Bugauliya Block, Basti District, for forced conversions. Police told GCIC that they would release the two without charges. In June authorities arrested Uttar Pradesh pastor Dependra Prakash Maleywar of the Church of North India after he was accused of the forced conversion of 16 persons. Police originally arrested Maleywar after a local Hindu activist accused him of an assault against Bajrang Dal activists. A judge ordered Maleywar held in custody for 14 days pending an investigation; after a week, authorities released him on bail. Police in Jharkhand arrested Dalu Soren, a Christian veterinarian, on October 16, after a 13-year-old girl’s father filed a complaint alleging forced conversion of his daughter by Soren.

On April 11, in Jamadha Village in Uttar Pradesh, according to the NewsClick website, members of a Christian group were detained under a section of the criminal procedure code that gives local magistrates the authority to prohibit the gathering of four or more persons or the holding of public meetings. The action came after a Hindu nationalist group interrupted the Christians’ prayer meeting and called the police.

In August a judge of the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu said that coeducational study in Christian institutions was “unsafe for girls.” The judge made his remarks in the context of a case involving allegations of sexual assault against a professor in a Christian college that was not linked to conversion. After strong protests from the Tamil Nadu Catholic Bishops’ Council, other Christian organizations, and civil society groups, the judge removed his comments from the court order.

On September 2, Uttar Pradesh police launched a smartphone-based intelligence-gathering system that they said was designed to alert them to flare-ups of communal tensions, so-called “anti-social elements,” and land disputes. According to reports, 10 individuals in every village across the state agreed to provide information on communal tensions. Cross-referencing among the informants was meant to help combat rumors.

On November 9, the Supreme Court awarded the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh – which was destroyed in a riot by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992 – to Hindu organizations to build a temple. Hindus stated the site of the mosque was the birthplace of the god Ram, and that the mosque had been built in the 16th century by destroying a Hindu temple there. Muslims stated they rejected this account and claimed ownership of the mosque. The court decision provided five acres of land elsewhere in Ayodhya for Muslims to build a new mosque. In December Muslim litigants, the prominent Muslim organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and the AIMPLB petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque to be rebuilt on its original site. The Hindu Mahasabha organization filed a petition against the decision to provide five acres for the mosque. Prominent Muslim community members signed a petition to accept the court ruling, but also stated that the judgment gave precedence to the Hindu faith. Others criticized the court for not addressing Muslim grievances concerning the violent destruction of the mosque. On December 12, the Supreme Court dismissed all review petitions and upheld its original decision.

On August 10 in New Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority demolished the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple and its idols on the grounds that it had been built illegally on government-owned property. The demolition, which had been delayed by court challenges from Dalit groups since 1986, was followed by protests in Punjab and other parts of North India. On August 21, large groups of mostly Hindu Dalit protesters came to New Delhi from Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and other states to demand that the government hand over the concerned plot of land to the community and rebuild the temple. Police armed with batons dispersed the crowd, and some were detained. Representatives of several Muslim organizations supported the demand for reconstructing the temple. In September the management of the temple petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene again in the matter. In October the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple at the same site.

In April, according to AsiaNews, the High Court in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) ordered Uttar Pradesh to reopen a church in Siddharth Nagar District, protect the church members, and allow them to conduct religious observances in peace. Authorities shut down the church in 2018 when a Hindu group filed a complaint against it.

In March the Kerala Law Reforms Commission circulated a draft of a proposed “Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill” for public review. The draft bill proposed the state set up a tribunal to intervene in any property disputes in which a church was involved (such disputes were not further specified). The proposed bill elicited a strong reaction from Christian churches in Kerala, as it would have eroded the authority of a church’s leadership in managing the affairs of the church. Officials in the Kerala state government later stated the government had no intention to move forward with the bill following strong opposition from leading churches in the state.

On August 31, Assam authorities published the final state-level NRC, which listed the citizens residing there. The NRC list excluded 1,906,657 residents, compared to four million in the earlier draft NRC of July 2018. Excluded residents were able to appeal to foreigners’ tribunals, and subsequently to the high court and the Supreme Court. Although the religious profile of those excluded was not contained in the NRC list, the BJP’s Assam unit stated it was concerned that more Bengali Hindus were excluded than Muslims, and that the results “favor the illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”

A report released in August by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found evidence of anti-Muslim bias among police in the country. In Uttarakhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, two-thirds of police surveyed felt that Muslims were more prone to commit crimes than other religious communities. In Uttarakhand, 80 percent of police personnel expressed this opinion. One-third of those surveyed felt that it was natural for a mob to resort to violence in cases of cow slaughter. Almost one-third of respondents said they felt that religious minorities were not given equal treatment with police forces. Sikh individuals were most likely to hold this opinion.

In September the newly-elected Andhra Pradesh state government began implementing a Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party election pledge to provide a salary supplement of 10,000 to 35,000 rupees ($140-$490) a year to Hindu priests who conducted regular rituals in rural temples and a 25 percent increase in the salaries of priests working in temples with “meager revenues.” The new government also pledged an additional 15,000 rupees ($210) to imams and muezzins, and 5,000 rupees ($70) to Christian clergy each year.

The BJP criticized the Andhra Pradesh government’s initiative to conduct a survey of Christian clergy using state resources, stating that under its chief minister, a Christian, the government was acting in a biased manner. A journal affiliated with a Catholic church near Delhi criticized the state government, stating that it was the responsibility of religious boards and communities, and not secular state governments, to support religious activities.

On August 25, Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary L.V. Subrahmanyam declared that non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions in Andhra Pradesh’s Hindu religious temples board, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), would be removed from their positions. He said their presence in the TTD, which manages several Hindu temples in Tirupati city in southern Andhra Pradesh, “hurts the sentiments” of Hindu pilgrims. The chief secretary stated that non-Hindu employees must not conceal their religious beliefs, and that inspections of employees’ residences would be conducted if needed to discern their religious affiliations. According to media reports, the state government decided to remove the non-Hindu employees because of public criticism that tickets given to Hindu pilgrims visiting the Tirumala temple on state-run buses had details of a Jerusalem tour on the back. The TTD stated it was not involved with producing the tickets. According to media reports, however, the TTD may have acted against the non-Hindus because of alleged Christian proselytization on temple premises in the past. The TTD had tried to remove 42 non-Hindu employees in 2018, but the Hyderabad High Court stayed the order. In the wake of the state’s August announcement, the court asked the state government to provide an explanation for the removal of non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions. Ultimately, no non-Hindus were removed from the TTD during the year.

In May, July, and November, the Supreme Court granted bail to all seven Christians convicted by a trial court in 2013 in the 2007 killing of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda. The Odisha High Court had deferred bail hearings for more than two years. Christian legal aid organizations and an independent journalist lobbied for their release on bail, stating the seven individuals were innocent and that the trial court had convicted them on “flimsy evidence.”

According to NGO sources, authorities reportedly denied three U.S. citizens entry under non-missionary visas due to concerns that they intended to engage in missionary activity, although the U.S. citizens denied that this was their intention.

An 86-year-old Spanish missionary nurse from the Daughters of Charity left the country on August 20 after the Ministry of External Affairs refused to renew her visa and informed her that she would have to depart within 10 days. She had worked among the poor in the Gajapati District of Odisha for 50 years. The ministry did not disclose the reason for the denial, but a member of parliament said the decision may have been motivated by the ministry’s “unstated policy of denying visas to foreign nationals who indulge in religious activities.”

In April Hindu Mahasabha Party (HMP) Vice President Deva Thakur called for the forced sterilization of Muslims and Christians. Media also reported that the HMP continued to operate unsanctioned “courts” based on the principles of Hindutva (Hindu cultural, national, and religious identity) after it unsuccessfully petitioned the prime minister in 2018 to close sharia courts around the country. The Hindu “courts” dealt with a range of issues, including interreligious relationships. A self-styled Hindu judge told the media in October that her court sought to “cleanse a girl’s mind and even get the police involved” in cases where a Hindu woman is involved with a Muslim man.

According to data compiled by news channel NDTV, there were 25 instances of public officials engaging in hate speech in December after the president signed the CAA into law, the highest number recorded in a single month since the Modi government came to power in 2014. NDTV said of the 25 instances, 23 were comments were made by BJP leaders. Formal requests to open investigations had been filed for three of those instances by year’s end. On December 15, referring to anti-CAA protesters, the prime minister said that people could make out who was spreading violence by the clothes they wore. Media outlets and editorial commentary criticized the statement for implying that individuals in Muslim attire were responsible for the violence.

On September 18, Telangana state lawmaker T. Raja Singh of the BJP released two videos announcing the creation of a vigilante army to “deal with traitors inside the country” and to create a Hindu Rashtra (nation). He stated, “Whichever traitor is hidden inside India will be dragged out and worn down, and sent outside India – or even directly to Jahannum (Urdu for hellfire).”

In August a bill criminalizing “triple talaq,” the practice by which a Muslim man may divorce his wife instantly by saying the Arabic word for divorce (talaq) three times, became law. This followed a 2018 government executive order that set a fine and prison sentence for the practice, and a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional and inconsistent with Islamic law. Some Muslim organizations, including the AIMPLB, and Muslim politicians, including MP Asaduddin Owaisi, criticized the new law. In October the AIMPLB filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the new law.

Using Aligarh Muslim University as an example, the government continued its 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions and their resulting independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In February the chief justice referred the challenge to a seven-judge panel for action.

Unlike in 2018, no state or local jurisdiction with an Islamic-origin name was renamed during the year.

In July 49 celebrities and activists wrote Prime Minister Modi a letter asking him to intervene to stop rising incidents of attacks on minorities, misuse of religion by Hindu hardliners, and intolerance against dissent in the country. News accounts suggested the letter was timed to imply that Hindu nationalist supporters of Modi’s BJP might feel emboldened by their electoral victory in May to increase actions against religious minorities. According to HRW, Bihar state authorities filed a sedition case against the writers of the letter in October. Following a public outcry, including by 180 celebrities and activists in addition to those who endorsed the July letter, the case was closed. By year’s end, there was no reaction from the government to the letter.

Malaysia

Executive Summary

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 mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. 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. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” 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. In April the country’s human rights commission announced state agents, namely the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch, were responsible for the 2016 and 2017 enforced disappearances of a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings and a Christian pastor. In June the government announced a special panel would investigate the human rights commission’s finding. Religious authorities arrested at least 30 people in two states in September for participating in Ashura celebrations and violating a state fatwa that declares Shia Islam to be “deviant.” In November religious authorities caned four men for attempting “sexual intercourse against the order of nature.” In December a sharia state court sentenced six men each to one month in jail and 2,400 to 2,500 ringgit ($590-$610) in fines for deliberately missing Friday prayers. In August the High Court upheld a 2014 fatwa declaring a nongovernmental organization (NGO) “deviant” because it subscribed to the principles of liberalism and pluralism. In March a special police unit was formed to monitor writing across all media platforms for anything deemed insulting to Islam. The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion without approval from a sharia court and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes. Religious converts from Islam to another religion had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards. Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty when they sought to use 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. Some political parties expressed concerns about the judicial system because non-Muslims occupied senior government positions, including attorney general. In March a court sentenced a man to 10 years and 10 months in prison and a 50,000 ringgit ($12,200) fine for posting information “offensive to Islam” on Facebook, although his sentence was later reduced to six years. According to the home minister, the government no longer permitted Israeli citizens to enter the country to attend conferences or meetings organized by international organizations.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again stated society was becoming increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. In May police arrested four men for allegedly plotting attacks on houses of worship and an entertainment outlet. Some Muslim leaders supported calls on social media to “buy Muslim-made products first,” which some civil society representatives characterized as a boycott of non-Muslim businesses.

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of three Christians and a Muslim activist. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders, scholars, and the wife of a missing pastor in visitor exchanges and conferences that promoted religious tolerance and freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The federal constitution states, “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 law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. 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 “Heads of Islam” within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states and are the highest Islamic authority; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the king. Islamic law is administered by each state. The office of mufti exists in every state to advise the sultan in all matters of Islamic law. Sultans oversee 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.

Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law except in matters concerning Islamic law. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. However, since 2018, the Federal Court (supreme court equivalent) has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors, and that such jurisdiction cannot be abrogated by a constitutional amendment.

The Sharia Judiciary Department (JKSM) is the federal agency charged with coordinating the sharia courts. The federal Department of Development of Islam (JAKIM) is the permanent secretariat of the federal Fatwa Committee, which consists of 14 muftis, one from each state and one representing the Federal Territories. The Sharia and Civil Technical Committee within the Attorney General’s Chambers oversee the process of sharia lawmaking at the federal level. A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

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, especially for those born Muslims, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. Penalties for apostasy vary by state. In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death, but this penalty has never been imposed, and its legal status remains untested. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam. In some states, sharia courts allow one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent.

A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15. A 2018 decision of the Federal Court ruled against the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents. The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. Convictions may result in prison sentences of three to seven years, or up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison, caning, or a 5,000-ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam. According to some state laws, Muslims may be fined 1,000 ringgit ($240) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia law in some states, individuals who sell food to fasting Muslims or Muslims who do not fast are subject to a fine, a jail sentence, or both.

JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare all 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 teachers of Islam before they may preach or lecture on Islam in public.

There is no legal requirement for non-Muslim religious groups to register, but to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Registrar of Societies (RoS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and by paying a small fee. These organizations are legally required to submit annual reports to the RoS to remain registered. The RoS may inspect registered organizations and investigate those suspected of being used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order, or morality.”

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state. Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual, same-sex sexual relations and prostitution. Caning is also permitted for a wider variety of offenses under the Penal Code.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, including imprisonment and caning. The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing without any restriction. 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 must convert to Islam for the marriage to be officially recognized.

State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship, as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and prayer rooms – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or prayer rooms.

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.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. 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, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. When civil and sharia jurisdictions intersect, civil courts continue largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where sharia judgements affect non-Muslims.

Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have symbolically enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of the code. The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, except in Selangor State, where Muslim and non-Muslim females must be 18. Sharia courts may make exceptions for marriage before those ages with the permission of their parents. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry but may marry as young as 16 with the approval of their state’s chief minister.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation, and the government uses them to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is 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.

Foreign missionaries and international students for religious courses must apply for a Professional Visit Pass with Immigration. The visa is given on a year-to-year basis and must be endorsed by a national body representing the respective faiths.

JAKIM coordinates the Hajj, endowment (waqaf), tithes (zakat), and other Islamic activities.

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

Government Practices

An investigatory panel from the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) announced in April its “final decision” that Amri Che Mat, a Muslim social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings, and Christian Pastor Raymond Koh, who were abducted in 2016 and 2017 respectively, were victims “of forced disappearance by state agents, namely Special Branch.” Police called the decision against them “unjustified,” without providing any detailed rebuttal. In response to the announcement, several NGOs called for immediate action against those involved, including the resignation of Inspector General of Police (IGP) Fuzi Harun, who led the Special Branch from 2015 to 2017. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad later said the government “will let [Fuzi Harun] retire first and then we will have another IGP who will conduct an investigation” into his possible involvement. Fuzi retired in April, but as of year’s end, the new IGP did not initiate an investigation.

In June Minister of Home Affairs Muhyiddin Yassin announced the composition of a government panel to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Special Branch was responsible for the disappearances; the panel, however, was not tasked with investigating them. In separate statements, the wives of Amri and Pastor Koh noted the panel included only Malay (Muslim) men, one of whom represented the police during SUHAKAM’s inquiry and later rejected its findings. The Home Ministry later appointed a female representative and an ethnic Chinese representative; the police officer who had been involved in the SUHAKAM investigation stepped down from the government panel. An editorial in the online news site Malaysiakini by the spokesperson for NGO Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances called the Home Ministry’s investigation “bogus” because it was established to investigate the SUHAKAM report, not the abductions. The panel’s investigation continued at the end of the year.

SUHAKAM reported little progress investigating the case of Christian Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth, who disappeared in 2016, due to a lack of information on their disappearances.

The Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) raided a Shia religious center outside of Kuala Lumpur on September 6, three days before the beginning of Ashura commemorations, and arrested at least 22 people for violating a state fatwa that declares Shia Islam to be “deviant.” Religious authorities in Johor State also raided Ashura commemorations and detained at least eight individuals. Participants in the Johor event said religious authorities did not produce a warrant and were accompanied by masked police who brandished guns. The raid in Selangor came after mosques in the state delivered a government-sanctioned sermon calling Shia Islam “heinous,” “nonsense,” and “nauseating.” IKRAM, an Islamic NGO, supported the raid and in a statement urged the authorities “to continue to monitor and take stringent action against anyone who tries to spread, practice and promote Shia teachings.”

Following the raids, the federal minister of religious affairs reaffirmed the constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom but said states are ultimately responsible for regulating religious matters, adding, “We respect their decision.” The Penang State mufti, however, told media, “Shias should be allowed the freedom to follow their teachings without the involvement of the public. If adherents of other religions are allowed to practice their faiths in private, why are the Shias excluded? We must be consistent, not selective.” Later in the month, members of the Shia community met with SUHAKAM and, according to media, “spoke of how Shia Muslims were barred from enrolling their children in school or registering their marriages.” The representatives reportedly told SUHAKAM that “powerful individuals” in Johor State were involved in “oppressing” the community.

Religious authorities in Selangor State caned four men in November after a sharia court found them guilty of attempting “sexual intercourse against the order of nature.” A fifth man appealed his sentence and was not caned, while the sharia court continued its case against six other men charged with the same offense. In a statement, Amnesty International Malaysia said, “These vicious punishments against LGBTI people are the actual crimes being committed here. The Religious Police used more than 50 officers to ensnare these men in a sting operation – all to bring hateful charges and inflict cruel, degrading punishments. The whole affair is a scandal and a judicial travesty.”

In what media reported as “possibly the first case in the country,” a sharia court in Terengganu State sentenced six men each to one month in jail and 2,400 to 2,500 ringgit ($590-$610) in fines for deliberately missing Friday prayers. Religious enforcement officers arrested them during a “raid” on August 23 at a recreation area where they were picnicking with their families.

According to media reports in June, the Kelantan State Islamic Religious and Malay Customs Council (MAIK) planned to convert all indigenous people (Orang Asli) living in the state to Islam by 2049. According to MAIK’s deputy chairman, the organization worked with religious authorities and public universities and targeted indigenous groups through a database of profiles of those who had converted and those who had not. A human rights activist wrote on Facebook she had heard of cases of indigenous individuals not informing state authorities about the deaths of family members in order that the deceased not be buried against their will in an Islamic cemetery. The Society for the Promotion of Human Rights, an NGO, said, “We condemn any attempt by preachers who exploit the vulnerable Orang Asli community to lure them into religious conversions.”

Despite calls from the High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s ex-husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing at year’s end. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her ex-husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. Gandhi filed a police report in July alleging organizations affiliated with the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), southern Thailand separatists, and followers of Islamic preacher Zakir Naik were involved in helping her ex-husband evade arrest.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech that allegedly denigrated Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In March Alister Cogia, of Sarawak State, pleaded guilty to posting offensive materials about Islam on Facebook and was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison and a 50,000 ringgit ($12,200) fine, although the sentence was later reduced to six years. His legal team said his family was not allowed to visit him while he was in detention and he was unaware of his court date, which resulted in his not being represented by a lawyer at his trial. “There is doubt whether Alister understood the gravity of the charges and the significance of his guilty plea,” a state assemblyman assisting in the case told media. Politicians and civil society leaders called the sentence “excessive,” with some pointing out that police rarely took action against individuals who allegedly insulted non-Muslims.

In August the chief minister of Selangor State said he would put forward a motion at the suggestion of the Selangor Islamic Religious Council to pass amendments permitting unilateral religious conversion of minors in the state. Legal scholars said such a move could not be enforced because federal laws restricting unilateral child conversion would supersede state laws.

In June the National Council for Islamic Religious Affairs (MKI) approved a plan to standardize sharia criminal laws and punishments but did not implement any changes by the end of the year. A statement from the minister for religious affairs said, “There are certain offences which carry the punishment of whipping in some states, but not in other states. This inconsistency, among others, causes injustice, especially to the accused, the prosecution, and those involved in a sharia criminal case.”

NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert or non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to have their religious identification changed by the authorities.

Prime Minister Mahathir continued to justify previous anti-Semitic comments he made on the grounds of free speech. “Why is it that I can’t say something against the Jews, when a lot of people say nasty things about me, about Malaysia, and I didn’t protest, I didn’t demonstrate?” he said at a Columbia University event in September. He had previously said Jews were “hook-nosed” and the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was not six million.

According to the home minister, the government no longer permitted Israeli citizens to enter the country to attend conferences or meetings organized by international organizations. In January the government announced it would not permit Israeli athletes to participate in the World Para Swimming Championships, scheduled for July in Sarawak state. The International Paralympic Committee said in a statement it was “bitterly disappointed at the stance of the Malaysian government” and later canceled the country’s hosting rights, moving the event to London. Sports Minister Syed Saddiq told media the country would “lose its moral compass” if it allowed Israel to compete in the event.

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.

In October Minister of Home Affairs Muhyiddin said all foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to hold religious talks would undergo background checks for national security reasons to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant” teachings and to protect Malaysia’s “fragile” society.

State-level 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). In January the Kelantan State government announced an “anti-vice” campaign “aimed at preventing unmarried individuals of the opposite sex from sitting next to each other” and other “vice activities,” including drug abuse. The same month the state government banned shisha (hookah) and karaoke outlets, purportedly in an effort to curb social problems among youth. A government representative explained the decision by stating young people “hang out in droves to have fun while smoking shisha till two in the morning at these premises. When they go home late, they will be exposed to unhealthy activities.”

The Kelantan State Islamic Affairs and Religious Department (JAHEAIK) issued notices to 39 women in May for reportedly dressing immodestly and indecently in public during Ramadan. The NGO Sisters in Islam said in a statement, “The obsession to control what women wear needs to stop. Not only does this practice humiliate and degrade the value of women, but the compulsive need to control what women wear also implies that they are mentally, physically and spiritually defective and a danger to the moral order of society.”

The Kelantan State government ordered restaurants and other food outlets to close temporarily between the hours of 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. during Ramadan to encourage Muslims to perform the tarawih prayer (additional evening prayers performed during Ramadan). There were no reports of authorities enforcing the measure, however.

The Segamat Municipal Council (MPS) in Johor State denied media reports that MPS placed officers disguised as cooks and restaurant workers to catch Muslims who did not fast during Ramadan. In May the New Straits Times quoted the MPS president as stating, “We have specially selected enforcement officers who are dark-skinned for the undercover job. They sound convincing when they speak the Indonesian and Pakistani lingo, so the customers will believe they are really hired to cook, serve meals, and take orders.” In a statement MPS said, “MPS has never conducted any operation in disguise to spy on Muslim individuals who are not fasting during the month of Ramadan as stated. Such a move is beyond the jurisdiction of MPS.”

The Kelantan State government lifted a 28-year ban on performing the traditional Mak Yong dance but said cultural organizations must comply with sharia regulations in performances, including separation of men and women on stage and in the audience, and ensuring that dancers are properly covered. “We want to ensure only Islamic-related performances are shown to the audience,” Deputy Chief Minister Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah told media in September.

Authorities in Terengganu State said they would introduce “sharia-compliant” sportswear and a code of conduct for athletes participating in competitions in the state and for athletes representing Terengganu in other states, and make sharia-compliant uniforms compulsory for Muslim athletes beginning in 2020.

In September the chairman of the Terengganu State Youth Development, Sports, and Non-Government Development Committee said the state withdrew from women’s gymnastics events because such events went against Islamic requirements. “There is no compromise for these sports, as they display indecent movements, and unless the audience comprises only women, then maybe we will allow them. Even then, it would still be against the respective sports’ governing body regulations,” the chairman said. The director general of the National Sports Council opposed Terengganu’s decision, stating the National Sports Council “believes that the government should always provide a fair and equal platform in sports for all, regardless of religion, gender, and skin color.”

Police arrested Muhammad Zamri Vinoth Kalimuthu, the head of an Islamic information center, in April for allegedly insulting Hinduism (“disrupting harmony” and “transmitting offensive communications”) during a 2018 religious lecture released on social media. The Mufti of Perlis State said individuals such as Zamri were driven to make remarks against other religions “because of the political reality that allowed Muslims to be bullied.” The Attorney General’s office announced in July it would not pursue charges against Zamri.

The federal minister for religious affairs announced in March the establishment of a unit “tasked with monitoring any writing or provocation deemed insulting to the Prophet and Islam across all media platforms, including social media.” By August, JAKIM had referred 5,000 such complaints to the new police unit. “Since the online complaint [platform] was opened, we have received many complaints, and there was a time when the unit received up to 10,000 complaints a day,” the religious minister said. Some groups raised concerns that the initiative only monitored insults against Islam and no other religious. “If they (JAKIM) are going to take action and report the insults to the police, then we also must be able to do the same,” R.S. Mohan Shan, the president of the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism said.

An Instagram account owner tweeted on February 22 that Instagram notified him that “because of an order from the government, court, or other authority, access to [his] account [had] been restricted in the region.” The account, which appeared to have been taken down entirely, included memes mocking Islamic authorities.

In August police instituted a “ban” on Islamic preacher Zakir Naik speaking in public and on social media after he made controversial statements about ethnic Chinese and Indian minority groups. Inspector General of Police Abdul Hamid Bador said the ban “is only temporary, [but] if the situation doesn’t change, the order will remain.” Police said they “ordered” law enforcement officers to “advise” organizers of any events involving Zakir to cancel his participation. Police cited a law authorizing them to maintain “law and order [and preserve] …peace and security.” Some lawyers said police did not have the explicit authority to ban an individual from speaking in public under this provision. Naik later stated, “I feel I owe an apology to everyone who feels hurt because of this misunderstanding. Racism is evil and I am staunchly against it – as is the Quran – and it is the exact opposite of everything I stand for as an Islamic preacher.”

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam. In August the Sabah State Legislative Assembly passed amendments to the Sharia Criminal Offences Enactment of 1995 that prohibited the spread of non-Islamic religious doctrines and that included whipping as a punishment for those found guilty of spreading and/or performing any acts that are against the true teachings of Islam. “Islam is a religion that unites people. Any thoughts, actions and practices that cause rifts must be avoided. Likewise, deviant Islamic teachings that are permeating the Muslim community must be eliminated,” Sabah Minister of Law and Native Affairs Datuk Aidi Moktar said.

The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and provisions; these denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the RoS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say 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 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 registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.

In August the High Court dismissed the arguments of the NGO Sisters in Islam that a 2014 Selangor State fatwa deeming the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights, but as of the end of the year no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to operate as it negotiated with the government to resolve the issue. The 2014 fatwa said Sisters in Islam deviated from the teachings of Islam because it subscribed to the principles of liberalism and pluralism. The fatwa also ruled the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The High Court judge who decided the case said because the fatwa was issued legally and dealt only with religious matters, he did not have jurisdiction to hear the NGO’s appeal. In response to Sisters in Islam’s argument that Islamic authorities could not issue fatwas against companies because companies do not profess a faith, the judge said the organization’s entirely Muslim board justified the ruling, adding, “Justice warrants lifting the corporate veil.” The NGO’s executive director told media she was “very disappointed” in the decision.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including 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 performed in an officially registered mosque. In a report released in March, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said, “Malaysia’s treatment of the Shia and Ahmadiyah minorities is directly contrary to its obligations to guarantee the rights to freedom of religion or belief and to equality under the law, and the non-discrimination of religious minorities.” ICJ also called on the country to “amend or repeal all laws that criminalize the propagation of religious beliefs among people of all faiths.”

Restrictions continued on the use of the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words by non-Muslims. These restrictions included saying certain words, such as “Allah,” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.” An appeal by the Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the right of the church and its Malay-language-speaking congregation to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications remained ongoing.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.” In April the High Court upheld a previous ban on three books published by the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), ruling they “are likely to be prejudicial to public order and interest and likely to alarm public opinion” because their content did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam. IRF’s director, Farouk Musa, said, “It seems to me the minister of home affairs has the absolute discretion in banning books that do not conform to the version of [Islam preferred by] Islamic authorities.” The same month the High Court lifted the previous government’s ban on the book “Breaking Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy” by the NGO G25.

In September an appellate court dismissed sharia charges from 2013 against Mohd Ezra Mohd Zaid for publishing and distributing Canadian author Irshad Manji’s book Allah, Kebebasan dan Cinta (Allah, Liberty, and Love) because it had been banned by the home ministry. The appellate court also granted Ezra 10,000 ringgit ($2,400) in damages for “mental distress and agony” caused by a 2012 JAIS raid on his property.

At the direction of the minister for religious affairs, Islamic authorities opened an investigation into an April forum held at a bookstore outside Kuala Lumpur entitled “Malay Women and De-hijabbing,” in which Muslim women discussed their decision to stop wearing the hijab. The event’s panelists said in a statement, “We condemn this unnecessary investigation as abuse of power to harass and intimidate women activists. We are ready to give full cooperation to the authorities; however, we are unequivocal that there has been no transgression of Malaysian laws.” Maryam Lee, author of “Unveiling Choice,” a book that was featured at the April forum, said JAIS summoned her in October as part of an investigation into activity that “insults or brings into contempt the religion of Islam.” Those found guilty of such an offense are subject to a fine up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report 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 this practice remained largely tolerated but left the religious groups vulnerable.

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 no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM, compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. That department’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($67.3 million), while 1.3 billion ringgit ($317.9 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In September the Prime Minister’s Department issued a directive barring Muslims and non-Muslims from reciting joint prayers, either simultaneously or separately, before the start of government functions promoting unity that involved Muslims and non-Muslims. Instead, joint prayers at such events were to be “replaced with an activity where a message of unity is shared.” According to the Mufti of Negeri Sembilan State, Muslims praying alongside non-Muslims lowered the status of Islam. Observers noted that many government functions began with a recitation of the Islamic doa or prayer of supplication, and the ban only applied to interfaith events where prayers were previously offered by multiple faiths.

During the year, JAKIM continued to fund a wide variety of Islamic education- and mosque-related projects. There were no funds in the government budget specifically allocated to non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities.

At public primary and secondary schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with the recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Particularly in the country’s peninsula, community leaders and civil liberties groups said religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces, except for their eyes. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families continued to report difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.

In September the federal Ministry of Education issued a warning to the Methodist Girls’ School in Penang in response to allegations that students recited a prayer at an awards ceremony that did not also include an Islamic prayer. Police opened an investigation into the matter. Pusat Komas, a local NGO, issued a statement which criticized the government for an “unnecessary” warning that “bullied” the school. Federal Minister of Education Maszlee Malik later met with representatives of the Federation of Christian Mission Schools to discuss the matter and said the government would respect the ethos, character, and traditions of mission schools in the country.

Following public outcry, particularly from the ethnic Chinese community, the government reversed its plan to require students in Tamil and Chinese-language public schools to study khat, a Malay text that uses Arabic characters. Politicians and civil society leaders report that khat, once taught as part of Malay language and culture, has more recently become associated with Islam and is currently only included in religious curriculums. According to media, the cabinet decided in August to introduce khat only after achieving the consent of students, parents, and the Parent Teacher Association in those schools.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. The government continued its appeal of a 2017 ruling by the Court of Appeal that the National Registration Division was not bound by a 2003 edict issued by the National Fatwa Committee, a religious body, regarding when a child conceived out of wedlock could take the father’s name. Implementation of the court’s decision remained stayed, pending the appeal, limiting parents’ ability to give their child the father’s name if the child was deemed to be conceived out of wedlock. The government does not impose this restriction on non-Muslim families.

Prime Minister Mahathir said the government would consider five resolutions put forward at a “Malay Dignity Congress” in October, including proposals to banish Chinese- and Tamil-language public schools by 2026, require top government positions to be filled only by Sunni Muslims, and restrict “outsiders” from spreading “ideologies and teachings that deviate from Islam and the Malay culture.” Mahathir, along with Economic Affairs Minister Azmin Ali, PAS Party President Hadi Awang, and United Malays National Organization (UMNO) Secretary General Annuar Musa attended the event, which was sponsored by four public universities. The event organizer told participants the country [exists] for the ethnic Malay Muslim majority, argued minorities must adhere to the “social contract” that gave them citizenship, and asserted that this “social contract” could be revoked. Haris Zuan, a research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, criticized political leaders for attending the event and for using public universities “as a tool to provide political legitimacy to government propaganda” and ethno-nationalist narratives.

In June JAKIM said a gender and sexuality conference to be held in Kuala Lumpur later in the year should be canceled because it “clearly promotes LGBT in Malaysia and is against Islam and the Federal Constitution.” In a post on social media JAKIM called on authorities to take “suitable action.” The conference took place in Sri Lanka instead.

Nepal

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and bans religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. The law prohibits both proselytism and “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally. Officials arrested and deported or threatened to deport several foreign individuals for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity, including, for the first time, two U.S. citizens in separate incidents. Police arrested five Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year for proselytizing, eventually deported two, and released two on bail who were awaiting trial at year’s end. In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate most Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but prohibited the private celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday and continued to drastically curtail their ability to hold public celebrations. During the year, police surveillance of Tibetans markedly increased. Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the emphasis the Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) placed on reestablishing the country as a Hindu state. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs. The government again did not recognize Christmas as a public holiday as it had previously, but recognized some other religious minority holidays and allowed Muslims a holiday for Eid al-Adha. Christian and Muslim groups said they continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.

As of year’s end, charges against 28 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim interreligious clashes in 2016, during which two persons in the Banke District were killed, remained pending. Muslim leaders again expressed disappointment at the district court’s decision to set the arrested individuals’ bail at a low amount. In September police dispersed a clash between Shia Muslims commemorating Muharram and local Hindus in Rajpur. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other high-caste individuals continued to prevent persons of lower castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites. Christian and Muslim sources reported no incidents of arson and vandalism against churches or mosques, a change from the previous year when several such incidents occurred.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, U.S. embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code, including the continued criminalization of converting others and proselytizing. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against “forced or induced” conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. Following arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers met with detainees and police and urged the latter to respect the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of conscience. Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country to be a secular state but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” The constitution stipulates every person has the right to profess, practice, and protect his or her religion. While exercising this right, the constitution bans individuals from engaging in any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.” It also prohibits persons from converting other persons from one religion to another or disturbing the religion of others and states violations are punishable by law.

The criminal code sets the punishment for converting – or encouraging the conversion of – another person via coercion or inducement (which officials commonly refer to as “forced conversion”) or for engaging in any act, including the propagating of religion, that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of any caste, ethnic group, or community at five years’ imprisonment. It stipulates a fine of up to 50,000 Nepali rupees ($440) and subjects foreign nationals convicted of these crimes to deportation. The criminal code also imposes punishments of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees ($180) for “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing.

The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. It is not mandatory for Buddhist monasteries to register with the government; however, doing so is a prerequisite for receiving government funding for maintenance of facilities, skills training for monks, and study tours. A monastery development committee under the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration oversees the registration process. Requirements for registration include providing a recommendation from a local government body, information on the members of the monastery’s management committee, a land ownership certificate, and photographs of the premises.

Except for Buddhist monasteries, all religious groups must register as NGOs or nonprofit organizations to own land or other property, operate legally as institutions, or gain eligibility for public service-related government grants and partnerships. Religious organizations follow the same registration process as other NGOs and nonprofit organizations, including preparing a constitution and furnishing information on the organization’s objectives, as well as details on its executive committee members. To renew the registration, which must be completed annually, organizations must submit annual financial audits and activity progress reports.

The law prohibits the killing or harming of cattle. Violators are subject to a maximum sentence of three years in prison for killing cattle and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($440) for harming cattle.

A 2011 Supreme Court ruling requires the government to provide protection for religious groups carrying out funeral rites in the exercise of their constitutional right to practice their religion, but it also states the government is not obligated to provide land grants for this purpose. There is no law specifically addressing the funeral practices of religious groups.

The constitution establishes the government’s authority to “make laws to operate and protect a religious place or religious trust and to manage trust property and regulate land management.”

The law does not require religiously affiliated schools to register, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religious schools must register as religious educational institutions with local district education offices (under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology) and supply information about their funding sources to receive funding at the same levels as nonreligious public/community schools. Religious public/community schools follow the same registration procedure as nonreligious public/community schools. Catholic and Protestant groups must register as NGOs to operate private schools. The law does not allow Christian schools to register as public/community schools, and they are not eligible for government funding. Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups may also register as NGOs to operate private schools, but they too are not eligible to receive government funding.

The law criminalizes acts of castebased discrimination in places of worship. Penalties for violations are three months to three years imprisonment, a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 rupees ($440 to $1,800), or both.

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

Government Practices

According to Christian groups and legal experts, police arrested and deported several persons for proselytizing. In June Bardiya District police in the southwestern part of the country arrested a U.S. citizen and his Nepali associate on allegations of coerced or induced conversion. The U.S. citizen, who was in the country for two weeks with an evangelical Christian tourism group, was released on his own recognizance after 12 days in detention and a court hearing in Bardiya, after which he was allowed to return to Kathmandu and depart the country. In April police in the southwestern part of the country arrested a U.S. citizen on similar charges and, as in previous arrests of foreigners for proselytizing, law enforcement quickly transferred her to the Department of Immigration for judgment on a visa-related violation. As with similar arrests in Dolakha District in 2016, multiple sources stated that local police prejudice factored heavily in the selective enforcement of the vague criminal code provision against “forced conversion.”

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses and local civil society members, during the year police arrested five Jehovah’s Witnesses, a decrease from nine in 2018, on separate occasions in Bardiya, Kaski, and Rupandehi Districts on charges of proselytizing. Four of those arrested were Japanese citizens, and the fifth was a Nepali citizen who was released shortly after. Authorities fined and deported two of the Japanese citizens, while the other two were released on bail and were awaiting trial in Pokhara at year’s end. During the year, authorities deported three Jehovah’s Witnesses who were arrested and incarcerated in 2018.

According to members of civil society groups, police arrested at least 23 individuals for alleged cow slaughter during the year, and civil society sources reported that many more remained incarcerated for previous convictions for the same offense.

The government continued and deepened restrictions instituted in 2016 on Tibetans’ ability to celebrate publicly the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, stating the religious celebrations represented “anti-China” activities. Although authorities allowed celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday in 2018, in July police, reportedly acting on explicit Home Ministry orders, threatened to arrest Tibetans who openly or privately celebrated the event, including within a walled refugee compound. Similarly, they could only conduct in private other ceremonies with cultural and religious significance, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and World Peace Day, the latter commemorating the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Abbots of Buddhist monasteries reported monasteries and their related social welfare projects generally continued to operate without government interference, but they and other monks said police surveillance and questioning increased significantly during the year. Tibetan Buddhist business owners also reported unwarranted police questioning about religious and social affiliations in their businesses and homes. Human rights organizations said surveillance increased most in the months before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s October visit to the country, likely to prevent any protests or displays including the Tibetan flag.

Human rights lawyers and leaders of religious minorities continued to express concern the constitution’s and criminal code’s conversion bans could make religious minorities subject to legal prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of their religious practices, and also vulnerable to prosecution for preaching, public displays of faith, and distribution of religious materials in contravention of constitutional assurances of freedom of speech and expression. Numerous evangelical Christians were arrested during the year, including foreigners, for distributing religious materials and gifts.

Human rights experts expressed concern that a provision in the criminal code banning speech or writing harmful to others’ religious sentiments could be misused to settle personal scores or target religious minorities arbitrarily. According to numerous civil society and international community legal experts, some provisions in the law restricting conversion could be invoked against a wide range of expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups or merely speaking about one’s faith.

According to legal experts and leaders of religious minority groups, the constitutional language on protecting the “age-old religion” and the prohibition on conversion was intended by the drafters to mandate the protection of Hinduism. Christian religious leaders said the emphasis of politicians in the RPP on re-establishing the country as a Hindu state continued to negatively affect public perception of Christians and Christianity. (The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007 when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.)

Media and academic analysts continued to state that discussions on prohibiting conversion had entered into religious spheres in the country and that actors seeking political advantage manipulated the issue, prompting religious groups to restrict some activities. One prominent member of the RPP tweeted that the high rate of conversion in the country would eventually cause major setbacks to “Nepal’s identity, culture, and unity” if it continued. Civil society leaders said pressure from India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other Hindu groups in India had pushed politicians in Nepal, particularly within the Hindu nationalist RPP, to support reversion to a Hindu state.

Civil society leaders said what they characterized as right-wing religious groups associated with the BJP in India continued to provide money to influential politicians of all parties to advocate for Hindu statehood. According to NGOs and Christian leaders, small numbers of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) supporters were endeavoring to create an unfriendly environment for Christians and encouraging “upper-caste” Hindus to enforce caste-based discrimination on social media and occasionally at small political rallies.

Leaders of the minority RPP continued their calls for the reestablishment of Hindu statehood and advocated strong legal action against those accused of killing cows. On February 27, the RPP held a conference in Kathmandu to launch an initiative to convert the country to a Hindu theocracy. The party leadership also stated its intention to ban forced, organized, and planned religious conversion achieved by financial rewards or false promises. Christian leaders continued to express concern and reported that support for Hindu statehood was gaining momentum.

NGO representatives in many parts of the country said municipal governments and other local bodies sometimes continued to require significant tax payments even though the national government had recognized the NGOs’ nonprofit status. Religious leaders said the requirement for NGOs to register annually with local government authorities placed their organizations at political risk. Christian leaders expressed fears that changing obligations could potentially limit the establishment of churches, which must be registered as NGOs. Some Christians said they interpreted the government efforts as an attempt to pressure Christian NGOs to leave the country. Many Christian leaders said missionary hospitals, welfare organizations, and schools continued to operate without government interference, although others reported undue scrutiny when registering as NGOs. They said the government usually did not expel foreign workers for proselytizing, although there were exceptions, but missionaries reported they attempted to keep their activities discreet.

As in 2018, the government did not recognize Christmas as a public holiday as it had previously. The government continued to recognize holidays of other religious minorities, such as Buddha’s birthday, while Muslims were officially permitted a holiday for Eid al-Adha.

A Central Hajj Committee made up of representatives of political parties, mosques, and civil society, under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs, continued to coordinate and facilitate logistics for the Hajj for participating Muslims. The government paid for 15 committee members, comparable with previous years, to travel to Saudi Arabia to carry out their work.

Christian leaders said the government-funded Pashupati Area Development Trust continued to prevent Christian burials in a common cemetery behind the Pashupati Hindu Temple in Kathmandu, while also allowing burials of individuals from other non-Hindu indigenous faiths. According to Christian leaders, the government continued its inconsistent enforcement of a court ruling requiring protection of congregations carrying out burials. Protestant churches continued to report difficulties gaining access to land they had bought several years prior for burials in the Kathmandu Valley under the names of individual church members. According to these churches, local communities continued to oppose burial by groups perceived to be outsiders but were more open to burials conducted by Christian members of their own communities. As a result, they reported, some Protestants in the Kathmandu Valley continued to travel to the countryside to conduct burials in unpopulated areas.

Catholic leaders reported that despite their general preference for burials, almost all Catholic parishioners continued to choose cremation due to past difficulties with burials. Many Christian communities outside the Kathmandu Valley said they continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, conduct burials in public forests, or use land belonging to indigenous communities for burials. They also said they continued to be able to use public land for this purpose.

Muslim groups stated Muslim individuals in the Kathmandu Valley continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries.

According to Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups, the government continued to permit them to establish and operate their own community schools. The government provided the same level of funding for both registered religious schools and public schools, but private Christian schools (not legally able to register as community schools) continued not to receive government funding. Although religious education is not part of the curriculum in public schools, some public schools displayed a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on their grounds.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development, which is under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, 907 madrassahs were registered with district education offices, representing no change from the previous year. The number of gumbas (Buddhist centers of learning) registered with the Department of Education rose from 82 in 2016 to 111. The Department had 103 gurukhuls (Hindu centers of learning) registered during the year, up from 100 in 2018.

Some Muslim leaders stated as many as 2,500 to 3,000 full-time madrassahs continued to be unregistered. They again expressed apprehension that some unregistered madrassahs were promoting the spread of less tolerant interpretations of Islam. According to religious leaders, many madrassahs, as well as full-time Buddhist and Hindu schools, continued to operate as unregistered entities because school operators hoped to avoid government auditing and the Department of Education’s established curriculum. They said some school operators also wished to avoid the registration process, which they characterized as cumbersome.

Many foreign Christian organizations had direct ties to local churches and continued to sponsor clergy for religious training abroad.

Singapore

Executive Summary

The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). The government restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” In October parliament passed legislation (not yet in effect at year’s end) that will allow the minister of home affairs to take immediate action against individuals deemed to have insulted a religion or to have incited violence or feelings of enmity against a religious group. The same bill will limit foreign funding to, leadership of, and influence over, local religious organizations. There is no legal provision for conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 11 conscientious objectors remained detained at year’s end. The government continued to ban all religious processions on foot, except for those of three Hindu festivals, including Thaipusam, and it reduced restrictions on the use of live music during Thaipusam. Authorities cancelled a concert by Swedish band Watain after public complaints that the group was offensive towards Christians and Jews. Authorities banned a foreign clergyman from preaching in Singapore after he refused to return to the country for a police investigation into anti-Muslim comments he had reportedly made at a Christian evangelical conference in 2018. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences, including in June during a 1,000-person international conference it had organized to discuss religious diversity and cohesion in diverse societies. Government organizations initiated interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives.

Seventy-seven percent of the population said they followed a religion, according to survey data. Most local residents perceived followers of other religions positively, although 16 percent saw Muslims as “threatening,” or “somewhat threatening.” A separate survey found that 97 percent of residents described the level of racial and religious harmony in Singapore as moderate, high, or very high. There were numerous community-led initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.

The Charge d’Affaires discussed the country’s approach to religious harmony and amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) legislation with the minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. U.S. embassy officials engaged with senior government officials and religious leaders at a May iftar, during which the Charge d’Affaires gave a speech embracing religious diversity. Visiting representatives from the Office of International Religious Freedom met with the imam of Ba’alwie Mosque. Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups to support religious freedom including the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), the government’s Islamic Religious Council (MUIS), the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), and representatives from Buddhist, Christian, Shia Muslim, Sikh, Sunni Muslim, Taoist, and interfaith groups. The embassy used social media, including a Facebook item featuring the work of a former participant in a U.S.-sponsored exchange program, to highlight its religious outreach and to demonstrate respect for the country’s religious diversity.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states every person has a constitutional right to profess, practice, or propagate his or her religious belief as long as such activities do not breach any other laws relating to public order, public health, or morality. The constitution also prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion in the administration of any law or in the appointment to or employment in any office under a public authority. It states every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs, and it does not prohibit restrictions on employment by a religious institution. The constitution states no person shall be required to receive instruction or take part in any ceremony or act of worship other than his or her own.

The government maintains a decades-long ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church. The government banned Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1972 on the grounds the religion was prejudicial to public welfare and order because it objected to national service, reciting the national pledge, or singing the national anthem. A 1996 decision by the Singapore Appeals Court upheld the rights of individual members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to profess, practice, and propagate their religious beliefs. The government does not arrest Jehovah’s Witnesses for attending or holding meetings in private homes; however, it does not allow them to hold public meetings or publish or import their literature. The government banned the Unification Church in 1982 on grounds it was a “cult” that could have detrimental effects on society.

The MRHA authorizes the minister for home affairs to issue a “restraining order” (RO) against a person in a position of authority within a religious group if the minister ascertains the person is causing feelings of enmity or hostility between different religious groups, promotes political causes, carries out subversive activities, or encourages disaffection against the government under the guise of practicing religion. An RO places various restrictions on public activities in which a religious authority can participate. Under the MRHA, the minister must provide any individuals or religious groups 14 days to make written representations before an RO may be issued against them, and the minister must also consult and take into consideration the views of the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) as to whether an RO should be issued. In addition, under the penal code, “Wounding the religious or racial feelings of any person” or knowingly promoting “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred, or ill will between different religious or racial groups” may result in detention or imprisonment. Imprisonment may last up to five years.

The amended MRHA will require that key leadership roles in religious organizations be filled by Singaporeans or permanent residents, and that the majority of each organization’s governing body be composed of Singapore citizens. The law, as amended, will hold that, with some exceptions, religious organizations must disclose foreign donations of 10,000 Singapore dollars (SGD) ($7,400) or more, and that they must declare any affiliation to foreign groups that are in a position to exert influence. The minister could issue an RO against any religious group, which would prevent or reduce foreign influence affecting the group, if he or she believed this foreign influence could undermine religious tolerance or present a threat to public peace and order.

The PCRH reports on matters affecting the maintenance of religious harmony and considers cases referred by the minister for home affairs or by parliament. The president appoints the council’s members on the advice of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights. The law requires two-thirds of PCRH members to be representatives of the major religions in the country, which according to law are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The constitution states Malays are “the indigenous people of Singapore” and requires the government to protect and promote their interests, including religious interests. The MUIS, established under the Ministry for Culture, Community, and Youth (MCCY), administers affairs for all Muslims in the country such as the construction and management of mosques, halal certification, fatwa issuances, preparation of Friday sermons, and the Hajj. The MUIS includes representatives from the Sunni majority as well as Muslim minority groups, including Shia. Use of MUIS sermons is not compulsory, but imams who use their own content are responsible for it and may be investigated if there are complaints.

The government appoints all members of the MUIS and the Hindu Endowments Board and nominates four of the 11 members of the Sikh Advisory Board. These statutory boards manage various aspects of their faith communities, ranging from managing properties and endowments to safeguarding customs and the general welfare of the community.

The law requires all associations of 10 or more persons, including religious groups, to register with the government. Registration confers legal identity, which allows property ownership, the ability to hold public meetings, and the ability to conduct financial transactions. Registered religious groups may apply to establish and maintain charitable and humanitarian institutions, which enable them to solicit and receive funding and tax benefits, such as income tax exemptions. Registered societies are subject to potential deregistration by the government on a variety of grounds, such as having purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare, or good order. Deregistration makes it impossible to maintain a legal identity as a religious group, with consequences related to owning property, conducting financial transactions, and holding public meetings. A person who acts as a member of or attends a meeting of an unregistered society may be punished with a fine of up to 5,000 SGD ($3,700), imprisonment of up to three years, or both.

Prisoners, including those in solitary confinement, are allowed access to chaplains of registered religious groups.

Citizens need a permit to speak at indoor public gatherings outside of the hearing or view of nonparticipants if the topic refers to race or religion. Indoor, private events are not subject to the same restrictions. Organizers of private events, however, must prevent inadvertent access by uninvited guests, or they could be cited for noncompliance with the rules regarding public gatherings.

By law, a publication is considered objectionable if it describes, depicts, expresses, or deals with, among other things, matters of race or religion in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to cause feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between racial or religious groups. The government may prohibit the importation of publications, including religious publications, under the law. For offenses involving the publication of objectionable material, an individual may be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding 5,000 SGD ($3,700), imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or both. A person in possession of a prohibited publication may be fined up to 2,000 SGD ($1,500) and imprisoned for up to 12 months for a first conviction. All written materials published by the International Bible Students Association and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, publishing arms of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, remain banned by the government.

The Ministry of National Development and the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) establish the guidelines on land development and use of space for religious activities. The URA regulates all land usage and decides where organizations may be located. Religious buildings are primarily classified as places of worship. A group seeking a new place of worship must apply to the URA for a permit. The ministry and the URA determine whether a religious institution meets the requirements as a place of worship, such as being located in an allotted zone and meeting the maximum plot ratio and building height. URA guidelines regulate the use of commercially and industrially zoned space for religious activities and religious groups; they apply equally to all religious groups. Commercial or industrial premises that host religious activities but are not zoned as places of worship must be approved by the URA. They may not be owned by or exclusively leased to religious organizations or limited to religious use and must also be available to rent out for nonreligious events. They may not display signage, advertisements, or posters of the religious use; be furnished to resemble a worship hall; or display any religious symbols, icons, or religious paraphernalia when the premises are not in use by the religious organization. Use of the space for religious purposes must not cause parking, noise, or other problems.

Registration with the MUIS is compulsory for all Muslim religious teachers and centers of learning. Registration requires adherence to minimum standards and a code of ethics, as well as fulfilment of certain training requirements.

The law allows the Muslim community, irrespective of school of Islam or ethnicity, to have personal status issues governed by Islamic law, “as varied where applicable by Malay custom.” Ordinarily the Shafi’i school of law is used, but there are provisions for use of “other accepted schools of Muslim law as may be appropriate.” Under the law, a sharia court has nonexclusive jurisdiction over marriage issues where both parties are or were married as Muslims, including disposition of property upon divorce, custody of minor children, and inheritance. The president of the country appoints the president of the sharia court. A breach of sharia court orders is a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment of up to six months, and an individual may lodge a complaint for breach in the civil courts. The sharia court does not have jurisdiction over personal protection orders or applications for maintenance payments. Divorce proceedings in the sharia court may be moved to the civil courts for decisions on custody or division of matrimonial assets. Appeals within the sharia system go to an appeals board, which is composed of three members selected by the president of the MUIS from a panel of at least seven Muslim individuals nominated every three years by the president of the country. The ruling of the appeals board is final and may not be appealed to any other court.

The law allows Muslim men to practice polygamy, but the Registry of Muslim Marriages may refuse requests to marry additional wives after soliciting the views of existing wives, reviewing the husband’s financial capability, and evaluating his ability to treat the wives and families fairly and equitably. By law, the president of the country appoints a “male Muslim of good character and suitable attainments” as the Registrar of Muslim Marriages.

Under the law, certain criminal offenses apply only to those who profess Islam. This includes publicly teaching or expounding any doctrine relating to Islam in a manner contrary to Islamic law, which carries a maximum fine of 2,000 SGD ($1,500), maximum imprisonment of 12 months, or both. It is also a criminal offense for Muslims to cohabit outside of marriage, but that law has not been enforced in decades.

Under the law, Muslim couples where one or both parties are under the age of 21 must complete a marriage-preparation program and obtain parental or guardian consent before applying for marriage. Each party to the marriage must be at least 18.

According to legal experts in inheritance, Islamic law governs Muslims in the context of inheritance issues by default, but under certain circumstances civil law will take precedence when it is invoked. Islamic law may result in a man receiving twice the share of a woman of the same relational level. A man may also incur financial responsibilities for his female next of kin, although this provision is not codified in the country’s law.

The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools, although it is allowed in the country’s 57 government-subsidized religiously affiliated schools (mostly Christian but including three Buddhist schools). Religious instruction in these schools is provided outside of regular curriculum time and must not include proselytization; students have a right to opt out and be given alternatives such as civics and moral education in lieu of religious instruction. Religious instruction is allowed in private schools not aided by the government. At the primary level, however, the law allows only seven designated private schools (six Sunni madrassahs and one Seventh-day Adventist school) to educate citizen students; these schools must continue to meet or exceed public school performance benchmarks in annual national exams. Other Muslim minority groups may operate part-time schools. Public schools finish early on Fridays, which enables Muslim students to attend Friday prayers, or they allow Muslim students to leave early to attend prayers. Secondary school students learn about the diversity of the country’s religious practices as a component of their character and citizenship education.

The law empowers the Ministry of Education (MOE) to regulate primary and secondary schools. MOE rules prohibit students (but not teachers) in public schools from wearing anything not forming part of an official school uniform, including hijabs or headscarves. Schools have discretion to grant a child dispensation from wearing the official uniform based on health but not religious requirements. International and other private schools are not subject to the same restrictions. For example, in madrassahs, which are all under the purview of the MUIS, headscarves are part of the uniform. Headscarves are not banned at institutions of higher learning.

The law does not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service, including for religious reasons. Male citizens or second-generation permanent residents are required to complete 24 months of uniformed national service upon reaching age 18, with no alternative provided to national service.

The Presidential Council for Minority Rights, an advisory body that is part of the legislative process, examines all legislation to ensure it does not disadvantage particular religious groups. The council also considers and reports on matters concerning any religious group the parliament or the government refers to it.

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

Government Practices

The official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that at year’s end, 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses were held in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete national service. Conscientious objectors are generally court martialed and sentenced to detention, typically for 12 to 39 months. Although they remained technically liable for national service, men who had refused to serve on religious grounds were generally not called up for reservist duties. They do not, however, receive any form of legal documentation that officially discharged them from reservist duties.

The government reduced restrictions on the use of live music at the Tamil Hindu procession for Thaipusam, one of three religious foot processions, all Hindu festivals, permitted in the country. In January authorities permitted the use of percussion instruments in the two-day procession for the first time since 1973, and increased the number of hours, from 7:00 a.m. (one hour earlier than the previous year) to 10:30 p.m., during which live music could be played.

In March the authorities cancelled a concert by the Swedish band Watain. Authorities initially agreed to the band performing under an R18 (Restricted to 18 years and above) rating and with “religiously offensive” songs and “ritualistic acts” removed from the performance, but they retracted permission on the day of the concert after Minister for Home Affairs K. Shanmugam raised concerns about the group’s history of denigrating religions and promoting violence. The ministry assessed that allowing what they called a Satanist band to play had the “potential to cause enmity and disrupt Singapore’s social harmony.”

Although government policy prohibited the wearing of hijabs by certain public sector professionals, such as nurses and uniformed military officers, many statutory boards within government agencies continued to allow Muslim staff to wear the hijab while the government continued to evolve its stance “gradually and carefully.” Some in the Muslim community continued to quietly petition for a change in government policy.

In March authorities banned a U.S. clergyman from preaching in the country after he refused to return to the country for a police investigation into anti-Muslim comments he reportedly made at a Christian evangelical conference in 2018.

While the government did not formally prohibit proselytization, it continued to discourage its practice through the application of laws regarding public speech and assembly based on concerns that proselytizing might offend other religious groups and upset the balance of intergroup relations. In March media reported that police investigated a complaint against a Christian man for allegedly preaching to Muslim schoolchildren; media did not report that charges were filed.

The government assisted religious groups in locating spaces for religious observance in government-built housing, where most citizens lived. The government continued to enforce the maintenance of ethnic ratios in public housing and to prevent the emergence of religious enclaves in concentrated geographic areas.

As part of the MOE’s National Education Program, the official primary and secondary public school curricula encouraged religious harmony and tolerance. Secondary school students visited diverse religious sites, including Buddhist and Hindu temples, mosques, churches, and synagogues. All schools celebrated the annual racial harmony day in July, which promoted understanding and acceptance of all religions within the country. Children wore traditional clothing and celebrated the country’s racial and religious diversity. Students were encouraged to recite the “Declaration of Religious Harmony,” which repeatedly affirms the importance of religious harmony for the country.

The government instituted a requirement that Islamic teachers, known as asatizah, must complete a mandatory three-hour ethics class prior to 2020 in order to fulfil registration requirements. Among other requirements, the code of ethics requires teachers not to denigrate any individual or group by means of terms or concepts that could erode social harmony.

In July the director of the Public Service Commission defended awarding a taxpayer-funded scholarship to a student of Buddhist studies after the local newspaper published two letters of complaint about the award. She said that to make sound policy, the public service needed a diversity of strengths and a deep understanding of the country’s religions: “Secularism does not mean being devoid of religious content.”

President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and government ministers regularly stressed the government’s commitment to the country as a multiracial and multireligious society and cited religious harmony as an important policy goal. Ministers frequently gave speeches on strengthening religious pluralism. In October Prime Minister Lee wished Hindus a happy Diwali on his Facebook page and wrote, “Here in Singapore, we are fortunate that we can share in the joy of one another’s cultural and religious festivals.” In September when accepting a World Statesman Award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, he praised the country’s institutions that protect multiculturalism, including the Presidential Council for Minority Rights and the IRO.

In June 1,000 delegates attended the government’s inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies (ICCS), at which President Halimah celebrated religious diversity and distinctive cultures, while calling on different communities to accommodate others’ differences and to build interfaith understanding. Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat delivered the conference’s closing speech, during which he noted that the country must also learn to take into account the perspectives of the nonreligious, who comprise approximately 20 percent of the local population.

Members of parliament (MPs) expressed support for religious freedom, respect, and harmony. In July Ruling People’s Action Party MP Zainal Bin Sapari recommended on Facebook that employers accommodate male Muslim employees by allowing them to attend Friday afternoon prayers at mosques.

In May Muslim MPs from the ruling party, the opposition, and independent lawmakers held the first ever cross-party breaking of the fast within parliament. In March in the wake of the Christchurch massacre, Muslim MP Amrin Amin led a political-constituency visit by Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists to St. Andrew’s Cathedral, built on land donated by an Arab Muslim.

Under the auspices of the MCCY, local government and government-affiliated organizations advocated for interreligious understanding and support for followers of other religions. In February the country’s five district mayors launched a national interfaith initiative called Common Senses for Common Spaces, which included activities such as community dialogues on Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.

Interfaith activities occurred in each of the country’s five mayoral districts through the expansion of programs such as Common Sense for Common Spaces, while 89 “Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles” (IRCCs) continued to operate in each of the country’s 27 electoral constituencies. The IRCCs conducted a variety of local interreligious dialogues, counseling and trust-building workshops, community celebrations, and similar activities. In May more than 100 volunteers from IRCCs, district council Racial Harmony Youth Ambassadors, and religious organizations joined Muslim MP and Mayor Maliki Osman in an interfaith iftar after the group had packaged and distributed adult diapers to the elderly in local nursing homes.

The government continued to work with religious groups through a community engagement program which trained community leaders in emergency preparedness and techniques for promoting religious harmony. It also worked through the BRIDGE initiative (Broadening Religious/Racial Interaction through Dialogue and General Education), which provided financial support for community-based initiatives that fostered understanding of different religious practices and beliefs.

The MUIS continued to operate the Harmony Center, which was established to promote greater religious understanding. The Harmony Center houses artifacts and information about Islam and nine other major religious groups in the country. It also organized interfaith programs, including dialogues with leaders from different religious groups.

Authorities helped Muslims undertake travel for religious reasons through the MUIS, which maintains a national Hajj registration process, and which provides medical and welfare support for citizens making the Hajj. Ministers continued to advocate an increase in the number of permits that Saudi Arabia allocates to the country for pilgrims annually.

Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws accord Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of minority religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against minorities. Religious minorities reported government officials and police often sided with religious majorities and did not prevent harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. On Easter Sunday, April 21, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks on three churches and four luxury hotels, killing more than 250 civilians and injuring more than 500. In the aftermath, the government banned three organizations it labeled Muslim extremists, including NTJ, and temporarily banned face coverings. Although the government deployed security forces and police to control subsequent anti-Muslim violence, Muslim religious and civil society leaders reported some police stood idly by while attacks occurred. On May 12-13, mobs led by Buddhist monks and encouraged online by Sinhalese nationalist politicians from small parties affiliated with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party attacked and vandalized mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and Puttalam Districts, resulting in the death of one Muslim man and extensive property damage. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found, “Mobs appear to have had a free hand to engage in the destruction of mosques” in several Northwestern Province towns, as well as in destruction of Muslim homes, businesses and vehicles. These attacks started to subside in May. NGOs reported in April police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks said a short story he published had insulted Buddhism. Religious rights groups reported police continued to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing government regulations, which legal scholars said did not apply. Media reports stated police and military personnel were complicit in allowing Buddhists to build religious structures on Hindu sites.

During the year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 94 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services, compared with 88 in 2018. According to NCEASL, on September 21, a group of approximately 10 villagers assaulted six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while on their way to church. Five individuals were hospitalized. According to civil society groups, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to media, on May 15, Gnanasara Thero, a senior Buddhist monk, called for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate. Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force), used social media to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities. Media reports said some Muslim businesses were failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts.

In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the U.S. Ambassador issued a statement condemning the attacks and urging the country’s citizens to remain unified. Embassy officials repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and hosted a national Youth Forum workshop in November, bringing together religiously diverse youth from across the country. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” including the freedom to choose a religion. The constitution gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, both in public and in private. The constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and requires the government to protect it, although it does not recognize it as the state religion. According to a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, the state is constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism, and other religions do not have the same right to state protection. The same ruling also holds that no fundamental right to proselytize exists or is protected under the constitution. In 2017 the Supreme Court determined the right to propagate one’s religion is not protected by the constitution.

The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. There is no registration requirement for central religious bodies of these four groups. New religious groups, including groups affiliated with the four recognized religions, must register with the government to obtain approval to construct new places of worship, sponsor religious worker (missionary) visas/immigration permits, operate schools, and apply for subsidies for religious education. Religious organizations may also seek incorporation by an act of parliament, which requires a simple majority and affords religious groups state recognition.

The government adheres to a 2008 ministerial circular, introduced by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana (the cabinet ministry responsible for oversight of what the constitution describes as the country’s foremost religion, Theravada Buddhism), requiring all groups, regardless of their religion, to receive permission from the ministry to register and construct new places of worship. A 2017 Supreme Court ruling upholds the registration requirements. In 2018 the Ministry of Buddha Sasana ruled that the 2008 circular on registration and construction of religious facilities only applied to Buddhist religious sites.

Specific government ministers are responsible for addressing the concerns of each major religious community. Departmental and ministerial assignments are based on the religion of the respective incumbent minister and change when a new minister of a different faith takes office – a customary political tradition that has spanned the past several governments.

Religion is a compulsory subject at primary and secondary levels in public and private schools. Parents may elect to have their children study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity, provided enough demand (at least 15 students) exists within the school for the chosen subject. Students may not opt out of religious instruction even if instruction in their religion of choice is not available, or if they do not choose any religion. All schools, including private schools founded by religious organizations, teaching the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus must use the Ministry of Education curriculum on religion, which covers the four main religions and is compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary Level exams (equivalent to U.S. grade 10). International schools not following the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level syllabus are not required to teach religious studies.

Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and property inheritance, are adjudicated either under customary law of the ethnic or religious group in question or under the country’s civil law. According to the 1951 Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Islamic personal law governs marriages and divorces of Muslims, while civil law applies to most property rights. According to civil society groups in the Northern Province, civil law governs marriages, while the Thesawalamai (Hindu) customary law often governs the division of property. Similarly, civil society activists report that for Sinhalese, Kandyian personal law governs civil matters, such as inheritance issues, and works within the caste system. Civil law governs most marriages of Sinhalese and Tamils of various religions, including mixed marriages or those of individuals who state no religious affiliation. Religious community members report practices vary by region, and numerous exceptions exist.

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 does not stipulate a minimum age for marriage, permitting Islamic religious court judges to allow children as young as 12 to be married. Written consent from the bride is not required. The religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration do not have to take place concurrently, which can complicate divorce and child support cases.

There is no national law regulating ritual animal sacrifice, but there are laws prohibiting animal cruelty, used to prevent religious ceremonies involving animal sacrifice.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The country’s ICCPR Act, which is designed to incorporate the international covenant into domestic law, criminalizes propagating or advocating religious or racial hatred. Punishments range from fines to up to 10 years imprisonment.

Government Practices

On Easter Sunday, April 21, the NTJ, a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks targeting Easter Sunday services attendees at three churches and patrons of four luxury hotels that cater to foreign tourists. According to the government, more than 250 civilians were killed and more than 500 were injured.

On April 22, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency, during which it banned face coverings, such as the burqa and niqab, citing national security and public safety. It also banned three Islamist organizations described by the government as extremist: NTJ, Jamathe Millathe Ibrahim, and Vilayath As Seylani. The state of emergency expired on August 22, but the government continued to ban the three Islamist groups under the Prevention of Terrorism. The ban on face coverings lapsed with the end of the state of emergency.

In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, media reported several days of mob violence occurred in towns primarily across Northwestern Province; mosques and Muslim-owned homes and businesses were attacked. One man was killed with a sword. Through emergency regulation, the government restricted access to social media and deployed police and security forces to prevent anti-Muslim violence. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, however, stated, “There appeared to be no preventive measures taken although retaliatory violence against the Muslim communities was a distinct possibility after the terror attacks,” and noted also that despite many villagers in affected areas phoning police and requesting protection in the hours prior to the mob violence, “No preventative measures were taken.”

Damage estimates from the May mob violence varied widely, with former government minister Nalin Bandara conservatively estimating the damage to include the destruction of 14 mosques, 86 houses, and 96 shops. In the ethnically and religiously mixed area of Minuwangoda, Gampaha alone, the local government divisional secretariat reported 12 houses, 64 business places, one mosque, and nine vehicles damaged. At the same time, in the mostly Sinhala Buddhist area of Kurunegala, the NGO Muslim Aid assessed that 147 houses, 132 business places, 29 mosques, 52 vehicles, and two common facilities were damaged due to the anti-Muslim violence.

Police reported a total of 60 persons were arrested in connection with the mob violence, but there were only nine arrests in Hettipola, 10 in Kuliyapitiya, and 14 in Minuwangoda, despite traditional and social media video reports showing that mobs were far larger in these areas. Among those arrested were leaders of the Sinhalese nationalist groups: Amith Weerasinghe of Mahason Balakaya, Dan Priyasad of New Sinha Le, and Namal Kumara of the “Anti-Corruption Front.” All were subsequently released. Weerasinghe was previously arrested for inciting violence during anti-Muslim riots in Kandy district in March 2018. In a May 15 interview with the Daily Mirror, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary and Member of Parliament Dayasiri Jayasekara admitted he took the arrested rioters in his personal car from one police station to another police station, where they were later released on bail. At year’s end, there were no prosecutions related to the May mob violence. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka investigation found police inappropriately released suspects detained for mob violence and concluded this “clearly prevented equal protection of the law to affected citizens and also to the public at large.”

At year’s end, no convictions were reported in the 2018 anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy District that left two dead and 28 injured and resulted in significant damage to mosques, houses, shops, and vehicles. Media reported 81 arrests in connection with the violence.

Media reported Amith Weerasinghe, leader of Mahason Balakaya, who was arrested in March 2018 in connection with the Kandy riots, stayed six months in pretrial remand before authorities released him on bail in October 2018. He was arrested again in May for organizing anti-Muslim mob violence, and the Colombo additional magistrate granted him bail of two million rupees ($11,000) on June 4. The magistrate advised him to refrain from making statements that could be identified as hate speech or statements that could result in public unrest. Authorities also banned Weerasinghe from attending political rallies.

By year’s end, the government had not fully compensated owners for property damage they sustained during the March 2018 riots in Kandy District, even though the prime minister instructed that all compensation should be paid by July 2018. Media reports and public statements from Muslim politicians affirmed many victims of the 2018 violence continued to await compensation.

NCEASL said Christian evangelical groups continued to state police and local government officials were complicit in physical attacks on and harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. Christian groups said officials and police often sided with the religious majority.

On April 14, Aadara Sevana (Abode of Love), a social service and prayer center run by the Methodist Church in Kundichchaankulama, Anuradhapura, came under attack during its Palm Sunday service. According to media reports, a group of 20-25 Sinhalese Buddhists shouted death threats and threw stones and firecrackers. The attackers then locked the gates and held the 15 congregants and two clergy for nearly two hours until police arrived. Police requested the church not permit worshippers from other villages attend their services; no arrests were made. A similar group led by SLPP Party Pradeshiya Sabha (local council) Councilor Nalin Siriwardene previously attacked the same church in March, with no arrests made. According to press reports, at an April 18 public meeting with then-prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Bishop Asiri Perera, president of the country’s Methodist Church said, “I wonder if the police act only for a segment of society, and don’t believe it must protect everyone equally. Each time a church comes under attack, we hear about how the church was barely able to make a complaint to the police. Victims go seeking protection and return feeling utterly insecure.”

According to Christian, Hindu, and Muslim civil society groups, official harassment often occurred in concert with harassment by local Buddhist monks and Buddhist nationalist organizations. According to civil society sources, on February 24, a group of approximately 200 individuals led by four Buddhist monks forcibly entered the Christian Family Church premises in Galgamuwa. They demanded the pastor stop her worship service and threatened congregants using obscene language. The Buddhists damaged furniture and vandalized the building. Some of them seized a female congregant, dragged her into the street, threw her at the feet of the monks, and beat her. The pastor lodged a police complaint against the assailants; the Buddhist monks also filed a police complaint stating the pastor had breached the peace in the area. At year’s end, the breach of peace case was dismissed; however, the assault case continued.

Media reported that on April 1, police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks, led by Agulugalle Siri Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Centre, filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, which has thus far only been used to arrest individuals deemed to have offended Buddhism. Sathkumara had published a fictional short story Ardha (Half) that referred to homosexuality and child abuse at a Buddhist temple. Sathkumara was released on bail on August 5; the charges against him remained pending at year’s end. On July 29, Amnesty International declared Sathkumara a prisoner of conscience. Sathkumara filed a fundamental rights petition challenging the constitutionality of his arrest, which the court scheduled to review on July 28, 2020.

Media reported that on October 17, the police Organized Crimes Prevention Division (OCPD) questioned playwright Malaka Devapriya for four hours about a series of radio dramas he directed. Police acted after Buddhist monk Jinananda Thero of the Buddhist Information Center filed a complaint under the ICCPR Act, stating the dramas were a blasphemous distortion of Buddhist terminology.

Commenting in October on the Sathkumara and Devapriya cases, representatives of NGO Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice said, “The readiness of the police to pursue spurious complaints against artists perceived to have insulted Buddhism lies in stark contrast to the shocking lack of action against the hate speech of Buddhist extremists, including those who have incited physical violence against Muslim communities and other minorities in Sri Lanka in recent times.”

Despite a public awareness campaign by the Department of Christian Religious Affairs that began in 2016 to encourage local congregations of nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, at year’s end the government did not register any new groups. Instead, unregistered Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property. Without formal government recognition through the registration process, however, nondenominational churches said they could not sponsor religious worker visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship. According to Christian groups, they experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements. First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard-copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys. Second, without the consent of the majority of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings. Church leaders said they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for Christian religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.

On January 12, according to NCEASL, the pastor of Foursquare Church, Kalkudah, Batticaloa District, filed a police complaint stating that neighbors were shouting obscene threats at the church. On January 22, Kalkudah police officials, after recording statements from both parties, sided with the pastor’s neighbors and ordered him to stop his religious worship activities until he registered his church. According to NCEASL, the congregants moved their service to a different location for a few weeks but moved back to Kalkudah and continued their services without further reports of harassment.

NCEASL reported that on October 26, two officers in civilian clothes from Deniyaya Police Station arrived at the Hokma Bible Center in Deniyaya, Matara District, ordered the pastor to stop the prayer service immediately, and told the congregants to leave. According to the NCEASL report, the police stated the church was unauthorized and needed to be registered if the pastor wished to continue. Police verbally ordered the congregants to leave, but the pastor asked police to convey this order in writing, which they did on October 27. On October 28, while the pastor and his family were away, police and three villagers surveyed the perimeter of the pastor’s home and took a series of photographs, but no police action followed.

Media reported that on June 3, crowds gathered in Kandy District in support of an influential Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana, who began a hunger strike and called for the resignation of three Muslim politicians whom he accused of having links to the Easter Sunday attackers. Rathana did not provide any evidence to support his accusation. Two Muslim provincial governors and all Muslim ministers resigned from their posts to protest threats they said the community faced. All nine Muslim ministers subsequently returned to their posts. Media reported on May 22, then-president Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Buddhist monk and general secretary of the BBS Gnanasara Thero, who served less than one year of a six-year prison sentence for intimidating human rights activist Sandya Eknaligoda on court premises during a hearing at which military intelligence officers were accused of abducting her husband, journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda.

According to government gazette notifications, the ban on face coverings instituted by the government following the April 21 bombings lapsed when the state of emergency ended on August 27. Due to confusion about the status of the ban, police arrested four women in Colombo on August 31 for wearing the niqab, but released them the same day. Media reported the cabinet discussed legislation to permanently ban full-face covering in public places but delayed any decision after Muslim political leaders asked for time for deliberation within the community.

Muslims widely reported being harassed by security forces, especially at police and military checkpoints set up after the April 21 attacks. Media reported that in June in Marichchukaddi, Mannar, Muslim women were forced to remove their abayas in front of male military personnel. In another incident at the same location, female military officers cut off a Muslim woman’s head covering.

Human Rights Watch reported that Abdul Raheem Masaheena, a resident of Kolongoda, was arrested on May 17 for wearing a kurta (a loose collarless tunic) decorated with an image of a ship’s wheel, which police mistook for a Buddhist sacred symbol, the dharmachakra. In a fundamental rights petition filed with the Supreme Court, Masaheena said her arrest was arbitrary and malicious, she suffered degrading treatment in custody, and she had been “singled out and subjected to hostile inimical discrimination based on both grounds of race and religion.” Her petition remained pending at year’s end.

According to members of Christian groups, local authorities sometimes demanded their groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. Local police and government officials reportedly continued to cite a 2011 government circular requiring places of worship to obtain approval to conduct religious activities. The Ministry of Buddha Sasana, however, revoked the 2011 circular in 2012. Police also reportedly cited the 2008 circular on construction of religious facilities to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship. According to some legal experts, however, there was no explicit basis in national law for compulsory registration of places of worship with the state.

According to NCEASL, in early September during a meeting at the Koralaipattu Divisional Secretariat to discuss issues surrounding the Berea Prayer House in Pasikuda, Batticoloa, the divisional secretary (DS) said the prayer house was unauthorized and further stated the 2008 circular empowered him to intervene. The DS also demanded an end to the pastor’s religious worship activities. Subsequent to advocacy from NCEASL and an inquiry by the SLHRC, the DS verbally told the pastor he could continue his activities, and authorities allowed the church to continue operating.

According to NCEASL, on June 6, approximately 50 villagers, 12 Buddhist monks, and six members of the Divulapitiya local council in Gampaha District protested outside an Assemblies of God church, demanding it stop its religious activities. Buddhist monks and members of the council threatened the pastor and her husband in the presence of police. On June 9, the pastor and her lawyer filed a complaint with police. When they went to record a statement on June 10, the acting inspector general of police, the officer-in-charge, six Buddhist monks, and four members of the Divulapitiya council were present. The acting inspector general instructed the pastor’s lawyer to register the church with the Department of Christian Religious Affairs through the Divulapitiya Divisional Secretariat, stating it was a requirement under the 2008 circular. He further instructed the pastor to cease her religious worship activities until the church was registered. According to NCEASL, the pastor continued her religious worship activities in the area despite opposition. Five Christian families from her church, however, left the village following this incident.

Civil society groups and local politicians continued to state the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups and the military in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim Northern and Eastern Provinces constituted religious intimidation, as some shrines were built in areas with few, if any, Buddhist residents. According to local politicians in the north, the military sometimes acted outside its official capacity and aided in the construction of Buddhist shrines. Reports published by various civil society groups indicated security forces continued to be involved in constructing Buddhist religious sites, citing archeological links in places where there were no Buddhist populations. In July prominent Tamil twitter activist Garikaalan posted on Twitter that soldiers had constructed a Buddhist shrine on private land in Thyiddy, Jaffna.

Media reported that on September 23, a Buddhist group led by BBS monk Gnanasara Thero defied a Mullaitivu Magistrate Court order by cremating the body of a Buddhist monk in an open field next to the Neeraviyadi Pillayar Hindu temple in Mullaitivu District in the north of the island. BBS supporters shouted insults at the lawyers representing the temple association when they questioned police officers for failing to implement the court order. On October 21, the Court of Appeal ordered Gnanasara to appear before the court on November 8 for violating the Mullaitivu magistrate’s order. At year’s end Gnanasara remained free on bail while the case continued.

In May the Mullaitivu Magistrate’s Court ruled in favor of the Neeraviyadi Pillaiyar Hindu Temple, which a Buddhist monk occupied in 2013 and subsequently constructed a Buddhist shrine on the site. With the endorsement of the government archeological department, the monk said the site was an ancient Buddhist temple. In its ruling, the court said the monk should no longer interfere with the temple’s operation by expanding the shrine, and any future building work on the shrine should only take place with the permission of the local government.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, it continued to have difficulty obtaining approval to build houses of worship. Local government officials cited the 2008 circular and forwarded all new Kingdom Hall construction applications to the Ministry of Tourism Development and Christian Affairs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, during the year the ministry again did not issue any approvals for building applications, even when local authorities had no objections. Applications to construct new houses of worship in Pugoda and Nattandiya were submitted to local councils in July and August 2015 and forwarded to the ministry. Relevant authorities did not reply to those applications, which remained pending at year’s end.

Although religious education remained compulsory in state-funded schools, not all schools had sufficient resources to teach all four recognized religions, and according to civil society groups, some students were required to study religions other than their own. Government schools frequently experienced a shortage of teachers, sometimes requiring available teachers to teach the curriculum of a faith different from their own.

Religious schools continued to receive state funding for facilities and personnel and to fall under the purview of the central government and/or provincial ministry of education. The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka reported several dozen cases of schools refusing students admission on religious grounds during the year, even though the law requires government and private schools receiving government funding, some religiously affiliated, to accept students of all faiths.

On August 21, the Cabinet of Ministers approved amendments to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act of 1951 to end child marriages in the Muslim community. These amendments awaited parliamentary approval at year’s end. The proposed changes would set the minimum age of marriage at 18, and marriages of anyone between the ages of 16 and 18 would require permission from a sharia court judge. Further amendments included stipulations for mandatory written consent from the bride and for the religious marriage ceremony and marriage registration to take place concurrently. According to Muslim human rights activists, lack of this requirements created difficulties during divorce and child support cases.

On October 8, a video featuring well-known singer and politician Madhumadhawa Aravinda using derogatory language to describe the Muslim community at a village meeting went viral. Aravinda was the deputy leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, a small political party aligned with the ruling Podujana Peramuna Party. In the video, Aravinda said, “You [Muslims] will not be able to practice sharia for as long as the Sinhalese live in this country.” On October 8, he announced he had resigned from the party. Authorities questioned Aravinda but did not arrest him for anti-Muslim social media postings that civil society groups said incited anti-Muslim riots in Northwestern Province in May.

On June 24, chairman of the Wennappuwa local council K.V. Susantha Perera issued a directive temporarily banning Muslim traders from participating in the Sunday farmers’ market in Dankotuwa, 30 miles north of Colombo. He told media the Sinhalese traders were afraid to work with Muslims. Following a police complaint against the chairman, a magistrate court on June 28 ordered Muslim vendors to be allowed in the market.

Media reported that on July 16 in Kanniya, regular police, riot police, and military personnel blocked several hundred Hindu protesters from worshipping at the site where a Buddhist temple was to be built on the ruins of a Hindu temple. Police allowed Sinhalese merchants and counterprotesters to enter the site. According to media, Sinhalese counterprotesters assaulted members of the Hindu crowd while police looked on. When police allowed Hindu priests and the landowner onto the site for mediation talks, the Sinhalese merchants pelted them with objects and hot tea. Police took no action against the assailants. On July 18, then-president Sirisena announced a ban on construction of the Buddhist temple and appointed five Tamil archeologists to the board of the government archeological department. The president also ordered the staff of the archeological department to permit Tamils into the area. On July 22, the Trincomalee High Court issued an order banning construction of the Buddhist temple and permitted the Hindu temple trustees to enter the area to maintain the Maariyamman Kovil Hindu Temple at the site. The court ordered that Hindu devotees be allowed to engage freely in religious activities.

On July 18, the Court of Appeal set aside the 2016 judgment of the Jaffna High Court in a case brought by Hindu temple leadership prohibiting ritual animal sacrifice at Narasimma kovil in Kavunawatte in Northern Province.

Religious rights advocates said across all religious categories, traditional leaders charged with adjudication of religious law were poorly or completely untrained and issued inconsistent or arbitrary judgments.

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