The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. In a constitutional referendum passed on November 1 and effective December 30, voters approved a new constitution that removes language providing for “freedom of conscience.” Christian leaders expressed concern the change could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities. In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law. In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi Muslim leader to two years’ imprisonment on “unauthorized gathering” charges that followed a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. On December 22, a court in Tizi Ouzou sentenced four Ahmadis to two months’ suspended sentences and 20,000-dinar ($150) fines while releasing 27 other Ahmadis whom authorities arrested in November. Lawyers for the Ahmadis said their clients were arrested for “disseminating leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” There were 220 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end, mostly involving unauthorized gatherings. Ahmadi religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. The Ministry of Justice completed, but did not release, an investigation into the 2019 death following a 60-day hunger strike in pretrial detention of Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar. A court sentenced a prominent opposition leader active in mass popular demonstrations (known as the hirak) to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600) on charges of denigrating Islam following a raid on his house, during which police found a damaged Quran. The 18 Christian churches affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) and closed by the government since 2017 all remain closed. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work. Catholic leaders in Algiers reported the government refused to renew the residency permit of a Catholic priest in Tamanrasset, citing a meeting with foreign officials.
Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. In April, the press reported that the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.” Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed with them the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups as well as with other members of the public. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions curtailed some of these activities during the year.
The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The government-run and funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general Islamic religious activities, as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest clerics and other members of the majority Shia community. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the August Ashura commemoration – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Police released some the same day and held some overnight; others remained in custody for several days or weeks. On January 13, authorities charged Shia cleric Abdul Zahra al-Samaheeji with defamation of religious figures. On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Abdul Mohsin Atiyya al-Jamri for a sermon “defaming a figure that is revered by a religious group.” On August 30, the Public Prosecution Office arrested a Shia physician for making remarks in public which defamed religious figures in Islamic history. The government continued to monitor, regulate, and provide general guidance for the content of all religious sermons – of both Sunni and Shia religious leaders – and to bring charges against clerics, citing violations of topics preapproved by the government. The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, al-Fateh Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques. Many Shia mosques broadcast sermons via social media. According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for public sector positions.
Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. An NGO reported that some in the country blamed the Shia community for the spread of COVID-19 after the first confirmed case was publicly linked to travel from Iran. The NGO pointed to a February statement by a member of the government’s national COVID-19 task force that sought to immediately dispel such rumors. NGOs reported on the adverse economic effect of Sunni-Shia tensions and local political divisions. Shia representatives reported persistently higher unemployment rates, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and lower socioeconomic status compared to the Sunni population. Because religious and political affiliations were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely base on religious identity.
U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister, Assistant Foreign Minister, and Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to provide for the full and equal participation of all citizens, irrespective of religious or political affiliation, in political, social, and economic opportunities. In both public and private settings, U.S. officials continued to request that the government pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practice. In October, the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence and the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism signed a memorandum of understanding outlining joint cooperation to combat anti-Semitism in Bahrain and the region.
The constitution states, “Freedom of belief is absolute” and “The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine [i.e., Abrahamic] religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the law” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each for setting fire to the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On December 6, a Cairo court extended the detention of Coptic rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied. In September, press and NGOs reported that police detained Quranist Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate, on charges of joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, reportedly based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his August 22 arrest. Authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention on December 31. On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict and upheld his sentence of three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. On June 27, a court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men to one year in prison each on charges of “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed, including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belongs to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year, resulting in a total of 1,800 buildings legally registered since the law’s enactment in 2017. According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands to build 10 new churches in eight cities. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. In a June 28 cabinet meeting, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the government should give “the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of religion, including freedom of belief.”
Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides. Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man uploaded posts to social media viewed as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor in the High Institute of Social Service in Alexandria, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed, which resulted in the Ministry of Higher Education suspending Mahdaly. On February 24, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post on social media in which he suggested that a Christian cardiac surgeon would not enter heaven due to his religious affiliation. In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers.
U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, other embassy representatives, senior Department of State officials, and the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development met with government officials and religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, bishops and senior pastors of the Coptic Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches, and the Jewish community. In the meetings, embassy officials raised the importance of the need for accountability for sectarian violence, protections for victims of sectarian attacks, and concerns about religious discrimination, including through the inclusion of official religious designations on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on issues such as legalization and construction of churches, and the restoration and protection of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish religious sites.
The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” According to the online news service Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court, for the third time, upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni Muslim prisoners who were charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.” On October 4, according to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish nongovernment organization (NGO), security forces arrested a prominent Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in his home in the city of Piranshahr. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. On October 8, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, stating, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities in the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’is across the country in “simultaneous operations.” On May 28, Radio Farda reported that police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri (an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals) and separatist groups.” The opposition website Iran Focus stated human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several religious Sunni teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan (which began in late April). NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them were placed there during the year. In July, a court sentenced seven of eight Christian converts who were arrested in Bushehr in 2019 for spreading “propaganda against the regime.” After sentencing a married couple among the group, the court ruled that, as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their adopted daughter, who has heart and other health conditions, whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In May, the parliament passed amendments to the Islamic Penal Code, including language that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. On November 9, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her prison sentence for protesting the compulsory hijab. On November 1, Iran International and the international human rights news agency HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. In January, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would only allow citizens to register as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism; previously application forms for the identity card had an option for “other religions.” According to a December 4 report by the news website IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to provincial judiciary heads establishing a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, including women lawyers not wearing the mandatory hijab at work or on social media or doubts about a lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader.
According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries. According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University in Qom had infected the country with the COVID-19 virus. According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. In June, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on research on Iran, conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that found dramatic changes in Iranian society’s religiosity, especially an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim.
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. On September 24, the United States sanctioned several officials and entities for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking only to practice their religion, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad prisons. The statement read, in part, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.”
Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces (ISF) remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018 and 2019. In September, a Sunni Muslim parliamentarian from Diyala Province said government-affiliated Shia militia continued to forcibly displace Sunnis in his province, leading to widespread demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS. Christians said the PMF continued to control territory in Christian areas and trade routes in the Ninewa Plain, and militias reportedly coerced Christians to pay bribes to pass through PMF checkpoints. In August, former parliamentarian Kamil al-Ghurawi, a Sunni from Baghdad, accused government-affiliated Shia militia groups of forcibly displacing Sunni residents in al-Madain District on the outskirts of Baghdad and attempting to alter the district’s demography. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, 2,874 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. Representatives of minority religious communities said that despite occasional harassment from local authorities, the central government generally did not interfere with religious observances by members of minority groups.
According to multiple sources in Khanaqin, ISIS attacks in May and June on several Kaka’i villages wounded and killed a total of 13 persons. In June, the director of the Kaka’i-affiliated Chraw Organization for Documentation reported that attacks of this kind were not isolated and were increasing. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced in March that 18 additional mass graves had been discovered throughout the country, marking more than 200 such graves discovered since 2017; they contained victims of al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, with some remains dating back decades. Two additional mass graves were discovered in Sinjar District during the year. In October, forensic teams, with support from the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began the exhumation of the last of 17 mass graves in Kocho and began work at a site at Solagh, known as the “Grave of Mothers,” where ISIS killed dozens of Yezidi women considered too old to be sold into sexual slavery. The Yezidi community in Sinjar District reported in August that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children with the aim of recruiting them in the years since ISIS was defeated in Sinjar in 2015 and that 70 children were still missing.
In July, the Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organization Aid to the Church in Need released a report stating that the country’s Christian community faced “extinction” and that 87 percent of Christians living in the Ninewa Plain reported feeling a lack of security “remarkably” or “very much.” According to media and human rights organizations, societal violence perpetrated by sectarian armed groups, mainly pro-Iran Shia militias, continued, although there were no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Members of non-Muslim minority groups reported abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, including Father Yaqoub al-Saedy of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Father Bihnam Banoqa of the Syriac Catholic Church, both located in Bartella, and said they received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade. Interreligious entities, including the Masarat Foundation and the Iraqi Institute for Diversity, continued their work to promote respect for the country’s religious diversity, including through contributions of information on religious minority groups to school textbooks.
U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The bilateral strategic dialogue held in Washington, D.C. in August provided additional opportunities to highlight the need for outreach to the country’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of members of religious minority groups. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for these communities and to assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.
The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. It does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their “true” religious beliefs and practices. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In October, the government eased COVID-19-related restrictions, allowing movement on all days of the week except Fridays. The government amended this decision after Muslim worshippers organized small-scale, uncoordinated, nationwide protests about what they viewed as an unfair limit on attendance at Friday prayers. On July 15, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) branch in country, saying the organization had failed to resolve its legal status. The court’s decision did not affect the MB’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which won 10 seats in the November 10 parliamentary election, down from 15 in the previous election. Members of some unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children, and also renewing their residency permits. The government continued to monitor mosque sermons and required that preachers refrain from political commentary and adhere to approved themes and texts
Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism, as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some worshipped in secret due to the social stigma they faced. Some converts reported persistent threats of violence from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor. Religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Some social media users defended interfaith tolerance, with posts condemning content that criticized Christianity, or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. There were instances of anti-Semitism in the press and online. In media commentary, writers made anti-Semitic comments, saying, in one newspaper column, that “Jewish families” had taken over the global economy, and in an online article, “Judaism is a cancer.”
U.S. embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the Minister of Awqaf, Grand Mufti, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of expatriate religious workers and volunteers. Embassy officers also engaged with Muslim scholars, Christian community leaders, and representatives of nonrecognized religious groups to promote interfaith tolerance and dialogue. The embassy supported programs promoting religious tolerance, as well as civil society programs seeking to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.
The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state but declares freedom of belief is “absolute.” It declares the state protects the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals. The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be equal before the law regardless of religion. Defamation of the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government finds inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law. In January, the government announced it had prosecuted 57 individuals in 48 cases on charges of “stirring up sectarian strife” between 2016 and 2019. In March, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, upheld the 10-year prison sentences of three citizens and the two-year sentence for one Syrian national for joining ISIS and plotting to blow up Shia mosques. The government prosecuted numerous individuals for remarks deemed religiously offensive, mostly for comments made online, and sentenced some to prison terms. In March, authorities arrested three Indian nationals working at the Kuwait National Petroleum Corporation for insulting Islam and Muslims on Twitter. The government continued to appoint and pay the salaries of Sunni imams and provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at mosques. It did not exercise the same oversight of Shia imams. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) fined, reprimanded, or suspended several Sunni imams for giving sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, or violating the national unity law. Minority religious groups said they could worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and restrictions on proselytizing. Members of registered churches reported that as of October, the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) had refused their attempts to renew lists of authorized signatories, stating that only citizens would be granted the authority to sign official documents on behalf of the churches, despite many congregations lacking citizen members. Representatives of registered churches also reported that banks would no longer process donations on behalf of the churches unless they received approval from MOSA to fundraise and collect donations, requests that the churches say MOSA denied. In addition, church members reported MAIA refused to recognize marriage certificates that were not signed by Kuwaiti nationals, despite Kuwaitis not being among their ordained clergy. At year’s end, church representatives reported that they hoped to reach a resolution on this issue with government authorities in 2021. Most minority religious groups reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulty obtaining permission to construct new facilities. The government did not accredit any religious schools or permit Shia religious training within the country, notwithstanding an increased need for qualified judges to staff the newly-approved Shia personal status courts. The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials referring to the Holocaust or Israel. Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in clerical and public sector employment.
Individuals continued to face societal pressure against conversion from Islam; some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them because of their conversion. Leaders and members of religious communities said they did not convert Muslims in the country. An NGO reported that “Although Shia have the same legal rights as Sunnis and access to education, health care, and other state benefits, they are often perceived as being lower on the social scale and marginalized in religious, economic, social, and political terms.” Shia representatives consistently said, however, that discrimination was not an issue for their community. Hotels, stores, and businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. News media continued to publish information about celebrations of religious holidays, including material on the religious significance of Christmas. Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval on social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays.
In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives from minority faiths to discuss a broad range of religious freedom issues. The group discussed the status of religious freedom in the country, the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns on their communities, and the challenges the pandemic has presented for worship and fundraising. During the year, embassy officials and religious leaders continued to discuss various religious groups’ needs, which continued to include more space for worship, more transparency in the registration process for new churches, and permission to obtain religious school accreditation.
The constitution states the King holds the title “Commander of the Faithful” and that he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. It prohibits political parties founded on religion, as well as political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. The law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. The government claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the area it controls by the same constitution, laws, and structures as elsewhere in the country, including laws that deal with religious freedom. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization seeking the territory’s independence, disputes this claim to sovereignty over the territory. In May, authorities arrested movie actor Rafik Boubker for making “blasphemous remarks against Islam and attacking the sacredness of worship” in a social media posting. After the government ordered the closure of mosques in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some Salafists objected to the closures as an assault on faith. After Salafist leader Abou Naim criticized the government’s decision in a March 16 Facebook post, authorities arrested him the next day and indicted him for incitement and compromising public order. On April 3, the Rabat Court of Appeal sentenced Naim to one year in prison and a fine of 2,000 dirhams ($220). In February, the Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the King’s spiritual authority, protested in Rabat and Tangier a decision made in 2019 to close unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of JCO members. On February 20, Agadir University expelled three students affiliated with JCO on charges of “insulting public officials and defamation of things intended for public benefit.” Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. In January, the King inaugurated Bayt Dakira, a Jewish cultural museum in Essaouira.
On April 1, police in Casablanca arrested a man for hate speech for social media posts accusing a Jewish citizen and a foreign national of being directly responsible for the infection of a large number of persons with COVID-19. Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. Foreign clergy discouraged some Christian citizens from attending services for fear of societal harassment. A member of the local Christian community stated that Christian services were held in secret house churches to avoid such harassment. According to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) annual report for 2018-19, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and in Friday sermons. Christian and Jewish representatives stated that they had seen a positive change in regard to societal tolerance, which they attributed to the 2019 visit of Pope Francis and statements at that time by the King. Representatives of Christian minority groups in the Western Sahara said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families and social ridicule, was the main reason leading them to practice their faith discreetly.
The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials, including from the Ministry of Interior and the MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities. In regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, embassy and consulate general representatives highlighted the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.
The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief. Proselytizing in public is illegal. All religious organizations must register with the government. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration. Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship. Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material. In February, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) again called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair.
Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. In January, al-Bawaba, a regional news website, reported that activist Majda al-Balushi, who now lives in the United States, had received “massive backlash” on social media after she announced her conversion from Islam to Christianity, including criticism from some of her fellow citizens.
At various times throughout the year, the Ambassador and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials and religious minority leaders to discuss the needs and support the worship practices of all religious groups. In October, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion with religious minority leaders to communicate U.S. support for religious freedom and to assess the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective beliefs in Oman.
The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal, but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately. The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. In July, the government issued administrative deportation notices to four longtime resident Indian-national Christians and their families. The deported individuals attributed the deportations to their religious activities. After closing all mosques and churches in mid-March as part of its measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, the government allowed the reopening of 500 mosques in June and the reopening of other houses of worship and all other mosques in mid-August. In September, the government sent a letter to nearly 150 unregistered religious groups temporarily banning any worship outside the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, which is located on government land and provides worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, justifying the ban on its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 and for security reasons. Sixty-one church villas were slated to open but had not received permission from the government by year’s end. Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971. The Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that some particularly offensive material was removed from school textbooks and the “curriculum does not meet international standards of peace and tolerance.” The NGO stated, “Elements of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood dominate the religious tenor of the curriculum” and “In Islamic religious studies there is very little improvement. Jihad war, martyrdom and violent jihadi movements are praised.”
The Doha branch of Northwestern University cancelled an event by the pro-LGBTQI rock band Mashrou’ Leilaa after the booking created controversy in the country. A faculty member at a private graduate school posted a tweet that criticized Northwestern for its sponsorship of the event, stating that the concert crossed a “red line” for observant Muslims. In June, the privately owned newspaper al-Raya published an article by Khalifa al-Mahmoud, later removed from the daily’s website, which stated that Jews over the course of history had infiltrated international power centers and shaped decision-making, including through the overthrow of governments, to serve their own interests. In his June 25 column in the online newspaper al-Arab, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman wrote that secularism was to blame for the “horrific state” of Arab and Muslim societies, stating, “This is one of the gravest forms of treason against the noble Islamic nation, faith and culture.…In our Islamic society, secularism represents a position of hostility to Islam and Muslims.”
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with relevant government bodies as well as with quasigovernmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and anti-Semitism. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue throughout the year with the Ministry of Education (MOE) about newly published Islamic studies textbooks for public school students in grades seven through 12, including a discussion during a December 15 visit by the Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism. In March, the embassy participated in a religious freedom conference among various faiths and academics hosted by the government-funded Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), which included embassy-funded guest speakers. Throughout the year, the embassy met with various faith communities, including the Hindu, Shia Muslim, Baha’i, and evangelical Christian communities, and the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern. Embassy representatives continued to meet with Ministry of Culture and Sports officials regarding anti-Semitic books being available at the annual Doha International Book Fair.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Mohammed). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In practice, there is some limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious exercise, but religious practices at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations (of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) were marked by improved sectarian relations and public calls for mutual tolerance. Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of their community on a religious basis with security operations and legal proceedings. In July, Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that security forces raided the largely Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one injury. In September and October, rights groups reported the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics arrested in 2017, sentencing them to between three to 10 years in prison. In February, rights groups reported the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat, who was convicted on charges including disrupting security and participating in demonstrations. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” Government leaders, including the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League, continued to advocate for interreligious tolerance and dialogue and to denounce religious extremism. In September, following the UAE and Bahrain’s agreement to normalize ties with Israel, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca said in a televised sermon that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors, and he urged listeners to avoid “passionate emotions.”
The Saudi-owned MBC television network aired a historical drama series during the prime Ramadan viewing season centered on a Jewish midwife living in an unnamed multireligious Persian Gulf community in the 1930s to 1950s. Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world. Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.
In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and media sources, was exacerbated by government actions, the deterioration of the economy, and the broader ongoing conflict in the country. At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced, including 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and approximately 5.6 million refugees. Government and progovernment forces continued major aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture areas of the northwest of the country, killing more than 1,000 civilians and forcing nearly one million people to flee prior to the brokering of a ceasefire in March that largely held through the remainder of the year. The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit human rights abuses and violations against its perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims, as well as widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 Syrians who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing. The government continued to use Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country designated for reconstruction, to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs who wished to claim their property or return to their homes. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but the Alawi minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services. A March study by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center (Carnegie Middle East Center) noted that all of the top 40 posts in the armed forces were held by Alawites. In a joint paper, the Middle East Institute and NGO Etana stated that there are 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia Muslims in the country’s southwest than when the Syrian conflict began. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable with imprisonment or death.
The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that it had reasonable grounds to believe some Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) committed abuses that may have amounted to war crimes, including torture, rape, hostage-taking, looting, and appropriating private property, particularly in Kurdish areas, as well as vandalizing of Yezidi religious sites in areas under their control. The COI, human rights groups and media organizations reported multiple firsthand accounts of killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, and torture of civilians; the desecration and looting of minority religious and cultural sites; and the looting and seizure of private properties in and around Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Community representatives, human rights organizations such as the NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation-gathering groups reported victims of TSO abuses were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin. The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the country. In the northeast, formerly the stronghold of the ISIS caliphate, thousands of former ISIS members and their family members were being held either in detention centers or were living in the closed al-Hol camp at year’s end. Many former victims of ISIS remained missing.
Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups. NGOs reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly. The state news agency SANA reported that Adnan al-Afiyuni, the Sunni mufti for Damascus Province, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the town of Qudssaya. International observers considered al-Afiyuni to be close to President Bashar Assad.
The President and Secretary of State of the United States continued to state that a political solution to the conflict must be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and respect for the human rights of the country’s citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens.
The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam. The constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Media reported in June that Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and president of Shams, a group that advocates for sexual minorities, fled to France after the government accused him in late 2019 of “incitement to hatred and to animosity between races, doctrines, and religions.” Police arrested four foreign nationals in Sousse on February 18 for distributing flyers encouraging conversion to Christianity. On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui, who since fled the country, to six months in prison and a 2,000-dinar ($750) fine for a May 2 social media post, “Sura Corona,” that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse as a comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology. In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status. On February 21, an administrative court ruled in favor of allowing the Baha’i Faith to establish an association. The General Prosecutor appealed the ruling and the case remained ongoing at year’s end. While face coverings used to guard against COVID-19 were permitted and mandated by the government, wearing the niqab remained prohibited. Christian citizens stated the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly as they pertain to the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. On May 19, the Minister of Cultural Affairs announced the ministry would include the synagogue of Tataouine in its national heritage registry and would place it under protection to prevent further degradation of the building. The multicultural Attalaki Association for Freedom and Equality reported continued positive exchanges with members of parliament from the Nahda political party, Tahya Tounes political party, and the Reform bloc in parliament, and the Union for Religious Affairs regarding efforts to combat hate speech based on religion and license a Christian cemetery and church.
Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. On May 3, a neighbor called a woman an infidel and physically assaulted her for wearing a Christian cross. An article published by an international NGO stated that several historical factors “have contributed to a persistent societal perception of religious minorities in Tunisia as foreigners (Christians more than Jews due to the longer presence of the latter), or at least as not fully Tunisian.” Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials continued to maintain regular contact with government officials, including in the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), Office of the Presidency, and Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights, to discuss issues concerning religious freedom and encourage tolerance of religious minorities. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, difficulties facing Baha’i Faith and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths. Throughout the year, embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. Embassy officers continued to engage, virtually, on a regular basis with a range of religious leaders.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to enable the practice of Islam, provide religious education, and manage religious institutions. In January, media reported the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a 13.5-month sentence against an ethnic Armenian citizen for provoking hostility by criticizing the Prophet Mohammed. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media and nongovernmental organizations reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; holding governing board elections for their religious foundations; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, again raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In July, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconverted Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum, originally an Orthodox church that was subsequently converted to a mosque and then a museum, into a mosque and declared it open to Islamic worship. In August, President Erdogan similarly ordered the reconversion of the Kariye (Chora) Museum to a mosque. Construction of the new Syriac Orthodox church in Istanbul continued, according to the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Office.
According to a press report, on March 20, relatives found the body of Simoni Diril, the mother of a Catholic Chaldean priest, two months after unidentified persons abducted Diril and her husband. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship and cemeteries continued. In May, security cameras caught an individual attempting to vandalize an Armenian church in Istanbul. Police detained the suspect, and authorities charged him with vandalism. Other media outlets reported an increase of vandalism of Christian cemeteries, including the destruction in February of 20 gravestones in the Ortakoy Christian Cemetery in Ankara. According to a news report in June, unknown perpetrators vandalized a monument commemorating Alevis killed in 1938. Anti-Semitic discourse and hate speech continued in social media and print press; in March, there were media reports, including by the Jewish publication Avlaremoz, of anti-Semitic speech on various social media sites linking the COVID-19 outbreak to Jews.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to emphasize to government officials the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups and make progress on property restitution. Senior U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. In June, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom called for the government to keep Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum. In a tweet on June 25, he stated, “The Hagia Sophia holds enormous spiritual & cultural significance to billions of believers of different faiths around the world. We call on the Govt of #Turkey to maintain it as a @UNESCO World Heritage site & to maintain accessibility to all in its current status as a museum.” In July, the Secretary of State urged the government “to maintain Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the country’s faith traditions.” In November, during a visit to Istanbul, to promote the United States’ “strong stance on religious freedom around the world,” the Secretary of State met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and with Archbishop Paul Russell, the Holy See’s representative to the country. The Secretary also visited St. George’s Cathedral and the Rustem Pasha Mosque. Embassy and consulate officials met with a wide range of religious minority community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, and Chaldean Catholic communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.
United Arab Emirates
The constitution states that Islam is the country’s official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The law prohibits blasphemy and proselytizing by non-Muslims. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered them deported for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, the Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported after the courts determined that he insulted Islam in WhatsApp messages. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of limited the spread of what the authorities characterize as extremist ideology. Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families. The Abu Dhabi Emirate implemented a three-tier authorization system for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship by issuing licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. A new Abu Dhabi guideline requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for the numerous religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree, and led to the denial of permits to leaders of some groups. Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths otherwise reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities. In April, Dubai’s government granted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022. COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures. A phased reopening of all houses of worship began with mosques.
The press reported that a man identified as a citizen of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. A court sentenced him to three years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how the “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press that he would investigate the incident. An employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. The press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police. According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with the houses of worship officially recognized by the Abu Dhabi government in 2019, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations. On September 17, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, and the country’s first Jewish wedding was held in Dubai on December 1.
The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, visiting U.S. government officials, and embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the DCD, and the Department of Culture and Tourism during the year. In meetings with government authorities, U.S. officials discussed issues related to the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In addition to discussing the implementation of licensing procedures, regulatory practices, and interfaith education and training, officers discussed international, bilateral, and governmental efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance as well as host government initiatives to promote what it believed were moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. Remarks by both U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.
The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) remained in control of Aden, the temporary capital, until December 30, when the cabinet of a unity government, formed under the 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, returned to the city. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. Sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year.
At year’s end, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and continued to discriminate against individuals who did follow those practices, particularly religious minorities. According to the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media, military actions by Houthis continued to damage places of worship and religious institutions, and to inflict casualties at religious gatherings. In January, media reported that Houthi militants launched a missile attack on a mosque at a government military installation in Ma’rib Governorate, killing at least 116 soldiers during prayers. The UN Panel of Experts reported a second Houthi attack in August on a mosque at a government security compound in Ma’rib killed seven. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings early in the year on the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 on charges of apostasy and spying for Israel. In March, Mahdi al-Mashaat, President of the Houthi Supreme Political Council (SPC) in Sana’a, ordered the release of all detained Baha’is and pardoned Haydara. In July, Haydara and five other detained Baha’is – part of a group of 24 Baha’is charged with apostasy and espionage in 2018 – were released and exiled. According to the Sana’a-based human rights organization Mwatana, the Specialized Criminal Court continued proceedings against the six exiled Baha’is, ordering them to return to Sana’a to face trial, and the court continued to hold hearings against the other 19 Baha’is charged in 2018. Mwatana reported more than 70 instances of abuse against the Baha’i community since 2015, such as arbitrary detentions of dozens of Baha’is for practicing cultural activities, and deportation and enforced disappearances of others. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, the Houthis damaged or destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone and transformed more than 100 mosques throughout the country into military barracks and sniper positions. In January, Minister of Endowments Ahmed al-Attiyah stated that the Houthis had targeted 76 mosques in areas under their control. According to the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, the Houthis continued to use anti-Semitic rhetoric – including multiple speeches made by Houthi supreme leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi – that incited violence against Jews. The Group of Experts reported Jews faced Houthi-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement and constant threats to their lives and security. According to the United Nations, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’, and Abyan Governorates. According to media, gunmen killed Khalid al-Hameidi, a university professor known as a secular thinker and critic of religious extremism, in the city of Dhale on December 5. Local officials said they believed the gunmen were members of AQAP or of an ISIS affiliate.
Jewish community members said their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. No rabbis remained in the country, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with family members. Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the country’s small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.
The Department of State suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2015, and the embassy has operated since then as the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), based in Saudi Arabia. In March, the U.S. Ambassador expressed his concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha’i Faith leader imprisoned since 2013. The Ambassador emphasized that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear. In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country.