The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. According to the Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child With A Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The 2018 dismissal of a police officer for being a member of a religious organization triggered a Constitutional Court review of the laws prohibiting police officers’ membership in religious organizations. There were reports the government arbitrarily enforced the law, targeting police officers affiliated with minority religious groups. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke about the importance of freedom of religion and established a working group to review AAC-government relations, the public-school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, and other issues. Some AAC representatives objected to the review, describing the process as a threat to Armenian national identity. In September, built with private funds on private land, the world’s largest Yezidi temple opened in Aknalich Village, Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan spoke at the inauguration, stating, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people.” Some Yezidis interviewed at the celebration said the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction.
Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were again societal incidents of verbal harassment towards the group’s members, to which authorities responded promptly and appropriately. There were 16 reported instances of verbal harassment, compared with 12 in 2018. In November an AAC priest published an article on an AAC website, where he discussed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” He stated, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.” Societal and family pressure also remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than Armenian Orthodox.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to discuss the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation – bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government. In September the Ambassador, with national and local government officials, celebrated the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes in Meghri, Syunik Region. The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to convey messages in support of religious tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice, as long as it is not prejudicial to good morals or public order, and it protects the right to form religious associations. It names the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the state church, to which the government provided financial support and benefits not available to other religious groups, including treating ELC ministers and general staff as civil servants. According to a September agreement, effective on January 1, 2020, ELC clergy and staff will no longer have civil service status; instead, the government will make an annual lump-sum payment to the ELC, which will then pay salaries and benefits to clergy. Other religious and humanist “life-stance” groups must register to receive state subsidies. The government registered one Buddhist and one life-stance group during the year. In November the government announced a change in the implementation of a data protection law to allow all religious groups, not just the ELC, to access a list of their members.
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) cited five religiously motivated incidents in the country during the year, three of which occurred in the Reykjavik region. One incident resulted in formal charges. In July an unknown perpetrator spat on three Muslim women and attempted to remove the hijab of one of them. According to a September Gallup Iceland poll, 34 percent of the public expressed trust in the ELC, a result virtually unchanged from 2018 and down from 41 percent 10 years earlier.
U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the MOJ and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, and the local authority responsible for registering religious groups to discuss the status and rights of religious groups. Embassy officials also maintained contact with representatives of religious groups and life-stance organizations, and expanded contacts with minority religious groups, to discuss their views on religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee integration.
The constitutions of the union government and of the semiautonomous government in Zanzibar both prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religious choice. Since independence, the country has been governed by alternating Christian and Muslim presidents. Twenty-two members of the Association for Islamic Mobilization and Propagation (UAMSHO), an Islamist group advocating for Zanzibar’s full autonomy, remained in custody without a trial since their arrest in 2013 on terrorism charges. In May the Office of the Registrar of Societies, an entity within the Ministry of Home Affairs charged with overseeing religious organizations, issued a public notice requiring all religious institutions and community faith-based organizations registered under the ministry to verify their registration status with supporting documentation. This countrywide process began in May in Dar es Salaam and the coastal regions and continued in June and July in the Dodoma, Morogoro, Singida, and Manyara Regions. In June a court in Bukoba convicted and sentenced three Muslim men to death for killings committed in 2015 during conflicts between Pentecostal Christians and Muslims. In February police arrested the Itigi town council executive and two game rangers on charges they shot and killed a Seventh-day Adventist Church member during church services. In September press reported the minister of home affairs ordered the arrest of a Pentecostal preacher for noise pollution; the government later clarified that noise pollution laws did not restrict use of church bells or the Islamic call to prayer. In July a local government official closed 13 unregistered churches in the Bukoba Region after reports preachers were charging fees to pray for sick persons.
Witchcraft-related killings continued in the country. According to the Legal and Human Rights Centre midyear report, there were incidents of witchcraft-related killings of children in Njombe and other killings in Mbeya, Dar es Salaam, Iringa, and Simiyu. These killings involved both persons suspected of practicing witchcraft and victims whose body parts were used to make potions.
The embassy organized an interfaith iftar in May for senior Muslim and Christian religious leaders, government representatives, Dar es Salaam interfaith committee members, and journalists. The Charge d’Affaires hosted iftars and interfaith roundtables with religious leaders to promote and highlight the country’s religious diversity. The embassy brought together youth leaders and religious and community leaders to discuss local concerns around violent extremism related to religion and conflict.