The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and to practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities; it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity”; or hinder secular education. In two separate decisions in January and June, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of five individuals by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) under the European Convention on Human Rights and ordered it to pay compensation. According to Forum 18, an international human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), three of the five were arrested for gathering to study the works of the late Turkish Sunni theologian Said Nursi. One of the men said authorities physically abused him during his detention. In September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission it had violated the rights of multiple Muslim individuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses to meet for worship or religious study at members’ homes. Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after a July 2018 attack on the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee and the subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities alleged those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Civil society activists and human rights groups considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated and estimated 43 individuals remained in prison at year’s end in connection with the events in Ganja. Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered Muslim Unity Movement (MUM), which the government characterized as an extremist group. Civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the incarceration of MUM members to be politically motivated. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. According to these groups, the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 41 to 48 at the end of the year. Religious communities continued to express frustration that communities with fewer than 50 members were not allowed to legally register. The government stated that reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added “restriction of freedom” (i.e., probation) to preexisting penalties that included fines and imprisonment for publishing or distributing material with religious content without government approval. The government did not exercise control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region or surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting from September 27 to November 10 involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region. During the conflict, Human Rights Watch reported two separate attacks on October 8 on the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha by Azerbaijani forces. In connection with attacks on and vandalism of religious sites following the Fall fighting, Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives expressed concerns for the protection of Armenian cultural and religious heritage as the sites passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control.
Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics. Groups viewed as “nontraditional,” however, were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers urged government officials to address longstanding issues with the registration process for smaller religious communities and to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of registered and unregistered religious groups and civil society to discuss religious freedom in the country. Embassy officers also had consultations with theologians.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to 2011 data from the State Committee on Religious Associations in Azerbaijan (SCWRA) (the most recent available), 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches, Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are mainly Muslims and non-Muslims are mainly Russians, Georgians, Armenians, and other national minorities. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.
Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates the separation of religion and state and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.
According to the code of administrative offenses, an administrative offense is applicable to nonviolent crimes. An administrative arrest may last up to three months.
The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.
To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.
By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradict the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter or other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.
The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.
While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as believing no one outside of one’s religious group may criticize that group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature; setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions; and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms ranging from 15 years to life.
The law specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.
Rituals and ceremonies related to Islam may be performed only by citizens of the country. The law allows foreigners invited by non-Islamic registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they obtain special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2,900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.
The administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”
The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.
According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishments for “production, sale and distribution of religious literature (on paper and electronic devices), audio and video materials, religious items, and other informational materials of religious nature with the aim of importation, sale and distribution without appropriate authorization” are proscribed by law. Punishments for first-time offenders include a fine of between 5,000 and 7,000 manat ($2,900 and $4,100), up to two years’ restricted freedom, or up to two years’ imprisonment. Violations by a group of people “according to a prior conspiracy,” an organized group, an individual for a second time, or an official carry a fine of between 7,000 and 9,000 manats ($4,100 and $5,300), between two and four years’ restricted freedom, or imprisonment of between two and five years. In June, amendments to the criminal code entered into force that added the alternative punishment of “restriction of freedom” (probation) – two to four years in cases involving an individual first-time offender and two to five years in aggravated cases – to the preexisting punishments.
There is no religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may study religion at higher educational institutions, such as the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.
Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds. Refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.
The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist acts; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.
According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to parliament. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in a position of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.
The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.
The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists.
On June 4, the ECHR ruled the government had violated the religious freedom rights of four individuals whom it arrested between 2013 and 2015 by subjecting them to excessively long pretrial detention (between five and 10 months) in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. According to Forum 18, authorities arrested the four – Taleh Bagirov (aka Bagirzade), Zakir Mustafayev, Ismayil Mammadov, and Eldaniz Hajiyev – for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief. The government acknowledged the length of pretrial detention had been excessive. The ECHR ordered the government to pay each of the men 3,000 euros ($3,700) in compensation. It awarded Mustafayev an additional 500 euros ($610) for costs associated with applying to the court. Representatives of the men said the compensation was too low and wanted the court to continue hearing the case, but it refused. The ECHR ruling in June followed a similar decision by the same court on January 16 concerning the extended detention of Hajiyev, Mammadov, and a third man, Revan Sabzaliyev, arrested in April 2014 when they met to study the works of Nursi. Hajiyev and Mammadov were also among the four men included in ECHR’s June decision. Bagirov said authorities tortured him during his detention. In 2015, authorities arrested Bagirov on charges of extremism following a police raid of a home where he was preaching. Five attendees and two officers died in the raid.
In nine cases concluded in September, the ECHR accepted the government’s admission that it had violated the rights of multiple individuals to freedom of religion or belief. One case involved seven Muslims who were detained when they met at a home in Baku in 2015 to discuss the works of Nursi. In another case, authorities detained four Jehovah’s Witnesses when they met at a member’s home in Ganja in 2010. The government paid 4,400 euros ($5,400) in compensation to the Muslims and 4,000 euros ($4,900) to the Jehovah’s Witnesses following the decisions. In these cases, as well as in earlier cases where the government admitted culpability, the victims said they were concerned by both the low level of compensation the government offered and what they saw as its failure to change the laws to ensure similar violations did not occur again. Forum 18 said there were 34 cases alleging violations of freedom of religion or belief involving 61 individuals and five religious communities that were pending before the ECHR at year’s end.
Throughout the year, courts continued reviewing appeals and sentencing individuals detained after the July 2018 assault on Elmar Valiyev, the then-head of the Ganja City Executive Committee, and the subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. In response to the 2018 events, police killed five persons and detained 77 others during special operations in Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the convicted individuals were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed had resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government’s account of events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed hade not resisted arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. With the exception of Yunis Safarov, who was accused of trying to shoot Valiyev, civil society activists and human rights advocates considered the vast majority of the verdicts to be politically motivated. They estimated 43 individuals connected to the events in Ganja remained in prison at year’s end.
Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with the unregistered group MUM. Authorities stated the movement mixed religious and political ideology and said they were concerned about its ties to Iran. Charges against MUM members included illegal possession of weapons, violation of the COVID-19 quarantine regime, and “resisting police” (a broad offense that includes not obeying police orders). As in prior years, human rights advocates and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity. According to data collected by human rights advocates, at year’s end, the estimated number of believers who were political prisoners ranged from 41 to 48, compared with 45 to 55 in 2019.
On March 13, police detained MUM member Elvin Muradov. On September 25, the Narimanov District Court sentenced him to two years and three months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. On June 22, police detained MUM member Shamil Hasanov. On October 27, the Binagadi District Court sentenced him to four years and six months in prison for illegal possession of a weapon. During the year, authorities placed multiple members of MUM under administrative arrest for allegedly violating the COVID-19 quarantine regime and “resisting police.” For example, on March 21, the Sabunchu District Court sentenced Samir Babayev to 30 days of administrative arrest. On April 12, the Khatai District Court sentenced Hikmat Agayev to 25 days of administrative arrest. On June 10, the Imishli District Court sentenced Alik Aslanov to 15 days of administrative arrest.
On April 6, a presidential pardon released a number of individuals over the age of 65 because of concerns over COVID-19-related risks to elderly prisoners. The released individuals included two religious activists whom human rights advocates considered political prisoners, including one person arrested after a large November 2015 police operation targeting members of MUM.
Some minority Christian communities said the SCWRA made efforts to create more favorable conditions for their activities than in prior years, such as by becoming more responsive to their requests and concerns and establishing closer communication with them. The groups said there were fewer instances of officials raiding the premises of religious communities or detaining and fining individuals in connection with peaceful practice of their religion or beliefs than in years past. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated there were no detentions related to practice of their religion during the year, compared with 18 in 2019. They attributed the lack of incidents to improved relations with the SCWRA and their reduced public proselytizing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government did not implement alternative military service for conscientious objectors, despite being required to do so by the constitution, or make any draft law public. According to Forum 18, on March 30, ruling party deputy Siyavush Novruzov recommended parliament adopt an alternative service law. In April 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. Mehdiyev and Abilov filed an appeal with the ECHR, on which the court had not ruled as of year’s end.
During the year, the SCWRA registered 14 new religious communities (12 Muslim and two Christian), compared with 34 religious communities registered in 2019 (31 Muslim and three Christian). There were a total 963 registered communities at the end of the year, of which 37 were non-Muslim – 26 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also said 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered. There were 23 Christian prayer houses (worship spaces that did not have the status of a church), one Baha’i house of worship, and one Krishna Consciousness house of worship in the country at year’s end.
The SCWRA said it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA maintained its prohibition on these communities’ religious activities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request.
The government said the inability of some groups to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members and that the government did not take administrative action against unregistered religious communities. The government said reducing the minimum number of members below 50 would promote extremism. Religious communities continued to state frustration with government registration requirements, particularly the 50-member minimum. For example, Baptist communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration. Jehovah’s Witnesses were registered only in Baku. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated they were unable to obtain legal registration, although they stated they were able to worship openly despite being unregistered. Forum 18 reported that in January, the SCWRA told the Baptist community in the village of Aliabad, which has been seeking legal status since 1994, that SCWRA had “no objection” to the group meeting once per week for two hours, despite it not having legal status. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders stated their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities quiet for fear of government repercussions.
On September 23, the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the Baku Administrative Court, which on January 30, 2019 declined to review the complaint of former parliament employee Rahim Akhundov. Akhundov stated that in December 2018 he was forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal if he did not resign voluntarily. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home, and informed parliamentary leadership that he held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.
On August 28, authorities did not permit Shia believers to gather in mosques or mosque courtyards to mark the Ashura religious commemoration because of COVID-19 quarantine restrictions that applied to all public gatherings, regardless of the purpose. Police detained numerous individuals in Shamkir, Yevlakh, Barda, and Lankaran for trying to observe Ashura in spite of the prohibition on gatherings. Judges sentenced at least six individuals to administrative detention ranging from 10 to 30 days.
Forum 18 said government officials sometimes refused to give birth certificates to Georgian-speaking families for children with Georgian first names or to Baptists wishing to give their children biblical names. According to Forum 18, without a birth certificate, a child may not attend kindergarten or school, be treated in a hospital, or travel abroad. The NGO said that in the early part of the year, following a one-year delay, officials granted a birth certificate to a family in Aliabad who had named their son Daniel. An individual close to the family told Forum 18, “The parents chose the name for religious reasons. But officials refused and insisted they choose an Azeri name.”
The SCWRA stated it prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 3,680 and the publication of six books out of 205. By comparison, in 2019 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239.
On October 22, the ECHR ruled in the case of Jehovah’s Witness Nina Gridneva. The court dismissed the case because the parties had reached a settlement in which the government recognized it had violated her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights and committed to pay her 4,500 euros ($5,500) as compensation. In 2010, police stopped Gridneva while she was distributing religious literature on the street and officers seized the materials. A local court subsequently fined her for distributing “illegal” religious literature.
The ECHR ruled on February 20 that the government had violated the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses by banning three of their publications from importation and distribution in 2008. The ECHR ordered the government to pay compensation for the violation and refund court fees Jehovah’s Witnesses incurred trying to challenge the bans in local courts.
According to Shia Rights Watch, in June, officials demolished the Hazrat Zahra Mosque in Baku, saying the building was condemned, and undertook construction of a new mosque on the same site. The government had attempted to demolish the mosque in 2008; however, due to demonstrations, demolition was postponed.
The government continued to allocate funds to “traditional” religious groups. On June 2, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1.18 million) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews, the same amounts as in 2019. The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,200) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku, and 100,000 manat ($58,800) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, the same amounts as in 2019. Some observers stated the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.
The government did not exercise control over Nagorno-Karabakh or the surrounding territories throughout much of the year. During 44 days of intensive fighting in the fall in and around Nagorno-Karabakh involving Armenia, Armenia-supported separatists, and Azerbaijan, significant casualties and atrocities were reported by all sides. After Azerbaijan, with Turkish support, reestablished control over four surrounding territories controlled by separatists since 1994, a Russian-brokered ceasefire arrangement announced by Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 9 resulted in the peaceful transfer of control over three additional territories to Azerbaijan as well as the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region.
Human Rights Watch stated Azerbaijani forces attacked and damaged the Holy Savior Cathedral in Shusha in two separate incidents on October 8. Reporters on-site during the attack reported a drone flying overhead at the time and that the two strikes were made by high-precision missiles. There was reportedly no evidence the site was used for military purposes. In an October 26 interview, President Aliyev denied purposefully bombing the church, saying it was bombed by accident or was done by the Armenians themselves to frame Azerbaijan. Armenian religious officials accused Azerbaijan forces of desecrating the Holy Savior Cathedral after taking control of the city of Shusha on November 14. Photographs circulated on the internet showed graffiti on the outer walls of the cathedral. Azerbaijani media said the graffiti in the online images had been photoshopped.
Numerous videos circulated during and after the fall fighting that showed attacks on and vandalism of cultural and religious sites. These videos prompted Armenian officials, religious leaders, and civil society representatives to express serious concerns regarding the preservation of the sites as they passed from Armenian to Azerbaijani control. Following the ceasefire, leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church requested that Russian peacekeepers protect the medieval Dadivank Monastery in the district of Kalbajar, a territory returned to Azerbaijani control after the fall fighting, fearing its carvings could be destroyed and that without protection the site would become inaccessible. Russian peacekeepers took control of the site immediately following a November 14 call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. President Aliyev’s public claim that “the churches in Kalbajar belong to the ancient Caucasian Albanian state” raised concerns among Armenians that Azerbaijan might seek to sever some religious sites’ connections with their Armenian heritage.
Armenian media reported both during and after the fall fighting that representatives of the Azerbaijani armed forces deliberately targeted monuments of historical, religious, and cultural significance. On November 14, a person whom local media identified as Azerbaijani posted a video on Facebook showing the alleged destruction of the dome and the bell tower of the St. John the Baptist Church (also known as Kanach Zham/Green Church) located in Shusha.
There were also videos of soldiers desecrating and damaging the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin, located in Mekhakavan settlement, including the breaking of the church’s cross. When the Church of Zoravor St. Astvatsatsin was constructed in 2017 by Armenia-supported de facto authorities as a military chapel, Azerbaijan formally protested the construction on “occupied lands” in a depopulated area as a violation of international humanitarian law.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate and, in some cases, financially support “traditional” minority religious groups, such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust.
The executive director of the Moral Values Promotion Foundation, Mehman Ismayilov, said that during the year, the foundation provided monthly assistance to 984 Muslim religious figures serving in mosques, including imams and deputy imams, and transferred 100,000 manat ($58,800) to 22 non-Muslim communities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate for the release of individuals that NGOs stated were imprisoned for their religious beliefs. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed the government to implement an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution. They met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues regarding the registration process for smaller religious communities and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. The Ambassador advocated at the highest levels of government for the protection of religious and cultural sites in the newly returned territories. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in the months following the ceasefire arrangement, the Ambassador consistently underscored the importance of granting unimpeded access to religious and cultural sites to UNESCO and international journalists with Azerbaijan’s Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, alternative military service, and relations with SCWRA. Officials also consulted with theologians. In a program intended to empower women involved in work with religious organizations, the embassy sponsored the travel of a group of five female employees working for the SCWRA and CMB to the United States from March 4 to March 13. In the United States, the group met with representatives of different interfaith and religious organizations, visited different houses of worship, and learned about the role of women in American religious communities.
The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” A concordat grants the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC) rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional faiths” of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law prohibits all religious activity by unregistered groups. The country experienced massive peaceful protests met with what most observers considered a brutal government crackdown following the August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent. Demonstrators protested electoral fraud, and authorities responded with widespread violence against peaceful protesters, the opposition, journalists, and ordinary citizens. Most of those detained, jailed, or fined – including clergy – were charged indiscriminately with “organizing or participating in unauthorized mass events.” Authorities continued their surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Religious groups met less frequently at their own discretion due to COVID-19 infection concerns. At the same time, authorities focused less on monitoring religious groups as they were preoccupied with other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, a struggling economy, the presidential campaign, and the election-related protests that followed. Some minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to have difficulty registering, and most said they avoided trying to register during the year because of COVID-19 and the unsettled political situation. Roman Catholic groups again stated the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign clergy (notably priests from Poland). On August 31, the government blocked the return of Catholic Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz from a visit to Poland, despite his being a Belarusian citizen. Authorities allowed the Archbishop to return on December 23. Throughout the year, authorities continued to support commemoration of victims of the Holocaust and preservation of Jewish cemeteries.
Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians. Interdenominational Christian groups continued to work together on education and charitable projects.
Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with the government, including at the highest levels, on religious freedom issues, including registration of religious communities, the return of Archbishop Kondruszewicz, and anti-Semitism. The Secretary of State and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom publicly called on the country’s authorities to allow Archbishop Kondrusiewicz to reenter the country and lead the Roman Catholic Church there. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about their religious activities and discuss government actions affecting the exercise of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration (the latest such data available), approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and six percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, eight percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately two percent of the population include Jews, Muslims, Greek Catholics (“Uniates” or members of the Belarusian Greek Catholic Church), Old Believers (priestist and priestless), members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Most ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, are Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious belief and participating in the performance of acts of worship is not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.
The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters. The office takes part in drafting and implementing state policies on religious affairs, enforces and protects religious rights and freedom, monitors activities of religious organizations and compliance with their charters, regulates relations between the state and religious organizations, liaises with state agencies and religious organizations upon their request, promotes tolerance and mutual understanding between religious organizations of various faiths and nationalities, and researches dynamics and trends in interdenominational relations to prevent “religious exclusiveness” and disrespectful treatment of religions and nationalities. OPRRNA has one deputy and the office has two subdivisions, a section for religious affairs and a section for nationalities affairs. The executive committees of the country’s six regions and Minsk city have departments for ideology and youth engagement, which include religious issues. These departments are independent from OPRRNA but share information. The plenipotentiary representative heading OPRRNA is appointed and dismissed by the President, based on a nomination from the Council of Ministers. The plenipotentiary office performs the functions of a government body and is subordinate to the Council of Ministers.
The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an exarchate (affiliate) of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.
A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the Church with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s Orthodox patron saint.
The concordat serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen agreements, including with the Ministries of Defense, Health Care, and Information. There is also an agreement with the Ministry of Education through 2020 that provides for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.
The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons older than 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, and one of these communities must have been active in the country for at least 20 years. National-level religious associations have the ability to institute regional and local level religious associations. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.
According to OPRRNA data, as of January 1, there were 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,389 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,709 religious communities, 15 dioceses, six schools, 35 monasteries, one mission, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. (The latter two are clergy-led lay organizations.) The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, six schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 498 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 13 denominations encompass 1,038 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 34 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 53 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.
The national religious associations are the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.
To register, a religious community must submit an official application containing the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion as well as its rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches toward marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.
Regional government authorities as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk) review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, and a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.
To register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities, except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.
The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law does not contain a provision for appealing a warning or suspension.
The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. Local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.
By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.
The law requires organizers to notify authorities of a mass event, including those involving religious groups, planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the event. Authorities must inform organizers of a denial no later than five days before the event. Denials may be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicts with one organized by a different individual or group; or the notification does not comply with regulations. Organizers of mass events outside designated locations must apply at least 15 days in advance, and authorities are required to respond no later than five days prior to the event.
The government has a system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services required from organizers of mass events, including religious events held outside of religious premises and sites, rallies, competitions, cultural events, festivals, concerts, and similar occasions. If an application is approved, organizers must sign contracts for such services two days in advance and must reimburse all costs within 10 days.
The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.
Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for restitution to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property being used for cultural or sports purposes
The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy but does not permit religious communities to do so.
The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is the only religious group to have such an agreement. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “Such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’s sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”
The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.
The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.
The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.
Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign clergy may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.
By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. Authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country – a decision which cannot be appealed.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The August 9 presidential election, which civil society and human rights groups, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others, stated was fraudulent, prompted massive peaceful protests. The government responded with what most observers considered a brutal crackdown against what it deemed to be “unauthorized mass events.” Human rights groups reported more than 33,000 persons were detained and at least four killed by security forces by year’s end. Some of the “unauthorized” gatherings were organized by religious groups in response to violent actions by security forces and widely reported human rights abuses. Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents in which religious communities participated as being solely based on religious identity.
The peaceful public protests generally sought an end to violent action by police and called for the release of political prisoners, investigations into human rights abuses by the authorities, Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s peaceful departure from office, and new free and fair elections. Those postelection protests that involved public prayer largely focused on calling for peace and an end to violent actions by authorities. Some clergy were among those detained during the postelection protests. For example, on August 13, Orthodox priest Uladzimir Drabysheuski stood in front of the investigative committee office in Homyel holding a banner that said, “Stop the Violence.” A district court convicted him on charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event and sentenced him to 10 days in jail on September 18. He was additionally convicted on similar charges for a protest on September 6 and given a sentence of 15 additional days of arrest on September 28.
Forum 18, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on international religious freedom, said in October there were “violations of freedom of religion and belief and of the interlinked freedoms of expression, association, and assembly in the country” that “worsened amid widespread continuing protests against falsified results of the August 2020 presidential election and against the regime’s other serious violations of the human rights of the people it rules.” The NGO stated that the government detained and charged individuals with civil penalties for participating in unauthorized mass events when they took part in public prayer events that called for peace and an end to violent actions by security forces in Minsk, Hrodna, Lida, and other cities.
On August 26 and 27, members of religious communities were among the protesters in Minsk’s Freedom Square – also the location of Orthodox and Roman Catholic cathedrals – who intended to march to Independence Square. During the protest events, Uladzimir Vladimir Mayoraurov, a Protestant, was detained and sentenced to eight days in jail after preaching against violence to riot police in Freedom Square. On August 27, a group of Protestants led by Pastor Taras Telkouski of Trinity Church prayed outside the doors of the Holy Spirit Orthodox Cathedral on Freedom Square and then marched to the nearby Roman Catholic Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral. Telkouski was detained, charged with “organizing an unauthorized mass event,” and fined 810 rubles ($310).
According to media reports, on August 16, while security forces indiscriminately detained and beat protesters in Minsk, riot police also detained Aleksandr Fruman. Upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him with a rubber truncheon while shouting anti-Semitic insults, according to Fruman, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” He was released a few days later. Jewish community leaders said they observed no increase in anti-Semitism during the postelection protests, and they did not express concerns that their community members who participated were targeted for their ethnicity or religious beliefs by police.
Religious leaders spoke out together against violence and in favor of societal dialogue after the August 9 election, expressing sympathy for those hurt in the violence. On August 14, in his address to Lukashenka and government officials, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz said, “In the name of such a necessary peace in our Fatherland and national harmony, I appeal to authorities to start a constructive dialogue with society, end the violence, and immediately release all innocent citizens detained at peaceful rallies.” He condemned “the bloodshed on the streets, the beating of peaceful demonstrators who want to know the truth, the cruel treatment of detainees, and their detention in inhuman conditions in prisons” as “a grave sin on the conscience of those who give criminal orders and commit violence.” On August 17, then Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan Pavel visited a Minsk hospital, where he stated that the BOC was apolitical, but he spoke out against violence and noted the hospital’s patients included protesters, bystanders, and those injured in police custody. On August 18, the Catholic Church in Belarus – together with the BOC, Protestant denominations, and Jewish and Islamic communities – hosted an interfaith service in Minsk to pray for a peaceful resolution to the postelection crisis and an end to violence and hatred among all sides. In response, authorities said remarks by religious leaders constituted interference in political affairs.
On August 31, border guards denied Archbishop Kondrusiewicz reentry into the country after a trip to Poland. The Archbishop had spoken out against violent actions by security forces and prayed in front of a detention center in Minsk after unsuccessfully trying to visit peaceful protesters arrested following the August election. Kondrusiewicz, a Belarusian citizen, said he was given no explanation at the border for why he was denied his legal right to return. Authorities said they placed him on a no-entry list and revoked his passport while they probed allegations he maintained multiple citizenships. The Archbishop reportedly only maintained Belarusian citizenship. On December 23, Lukashenka allowed Kondrusiewicz to return, following repeated intervention by the United States, EU member states, and the Vatican.
Religious community leaders condemned the authorities’ actions barring Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from the country. Bishop of the Pentecostal communities Leanid Varanenka stated on September 1 that Kondrusiewicz “raised his voice in defense of peace, mercy, and unity and in condemnation of violence, lies, and hatred. This is the spiritual, moral, and ethical duty of any clergy and does not represent political activity.”
On April 7, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused a request from Russia to extradite member of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Russian citizen Nikolai Makhalichev, who was subsequently released after being arrested during an identity check in Haradok, Vitsebsk Oblast, on February 21. Makhalichev applied for asylum on the day of his arrest, and the government later approved his request. He told the press that he was not aware of a criminal case opened against him in Russia in 2019 on charges of “organizing and financing an extremist organization,” allegedly based on his religious practice as a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified as “extremists” under Russian law.
Human rights defenders said they remained concerned about the authorities’ ability to apply charges arbitrarily for organizing, running, or participating in unregistered religious organizations. Authorities did not use this provision of law specifically against religious organizations during the year, but human rights organizations said they continued to view it as a threat against religious freedom.
Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from unfavored groups.
Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. During the year, authorities in Lida and Barysau rejected applications from communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses – two new applications in Lida and an appeal of a denied application in Barysau. In addition, OPRRNA denied two applications from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to register a mission.
Some minority religious groups stated that they did not apply for registration because their members feared harassment by authorities and did not want to submit their names, as required by the application process. Other minority religious groups preferred to negotiate registration and other concerns with local authorities, but few registration attempts were made during the year. Some communities said they decided to postpone their registrations until the end of the COVID-19 pandemic due to health concerns.
As of year’s end, the government had taken no action on a November 2018 UN Human Rights Committee recommendation that the state repeal mandatory state registration of religious communities.
Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of fear of prosecution and perceived government hostility. Some registered religious communities said they were reluctant to report restrictions because they feared drawing attention to themselves.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities granted permission on a regular basis to clergy who requested access to visit prisoners. Some clergy were denied permission to visit protestors who had been detained after the August 9 election. Many prisons maintained designated Orthodox religious facilities that Belarusian Orthodox clergy were occasionally allowed to visit through the year.
On September 16, a district court in Lida fined local resident Alyaksandr Shor 270 rubles ($100) for praying outside the Catholic Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. He was part of a group of residents who had gathered to pray there for the return of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from Poland.
On October 16, a court in Lida fined Roman Catholic and Polish community activist Irena Bernatskaya 810 rubles ($310) for an “unauthorized mass event” led by a group called “Mothers in Prayer,” in which participants gathered to pray for an end to violent actions by security forces outside the walls of the local Roman Catholic cathedral on August 12.
On October 21, Slutsk police dispersed a flower-laying ceremony by Slutsk residents to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. The traditional red and white carnations used for the commemorations matched the historical Belarusian national colors that the opposition and protestors adopted as their own and authorities opposed. Police arrived after approximately 12 to 14 persons placed the flowers near a Holocaust memorial. The small group left the area after a police detention van arrived. According to the organizer, the group did not plan a large rally and had not applied for permission to gather in advance. On October 26, at least four Slutsk residents were fined or were sentenced to 10 days in jail for participating in an “unauthorized mass event.”
On November 18, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued warnings to BOC spokesperson Father Syarhey Lepin and Catholic Bishop Yury Kasabutski. The two were rebuked for their Facebook criticism of authorities’ decision to destroy an unofficial memorial at the site of the beating of Raman Bandarenka, a Minsk resident who died on November 12 after he had been detained and sustained fatal injuries while in police custody. Lepin wrote, “What was the purpose of this diabolic trampling upon candle lamps and icons?” The General Prosecutor said the clergymen’s “statements were aggressive” and “increased tension in society [and] stirred up hatred against the government and hostility towards these social groups.” The warnings came after Lukashenka’s November 17 remarks that “we can’t tolerate this mockery” and his instructions to law enforcement authorities “to make legal assessments of the church officials’ words,” since “there will be no memorials heralding a civil war, as they say, in Minsk or elsewhere.” Lepin resigned as BOC spokesperson after the warnings.
On November 30, a court in Ivatsevichy in Brest Oblast tried Greek Catholic priest Vitali Bystrou for participating in an alleged “unauthorized mass event” in the city of Brest on October 25 and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. While police claimed Bystrou was among protesters holding red and white flags, the priest explained he was simply walking from the church to a train station in his religious clothing, which “is acceptable for my faith.”
On December 3, a court in Rasony District sentenced local Roman Catholic priest Vyachaslau Barok to 10 days in jail for propagating Nazi symbols. Barok, who is also a well-known blogger, posted a photograph of a red and green swastika (the colors of the official Belarusian flag that Lukashenka introduced in 2012) and an emblem with the slogan “Stop Lukascism” on his Instagram account, referencing Lukashenka.
On December 7, police in Vitsebsk arrested local resident Ala Raschinskaya, who had prayed for victims of political repression outside the Catholic cathedral on November 13, and sentenced her to 10 days in jail.
On December 8, authorities in Vitsebsk detained Greek Catholic priest Alyaksei Varanko, Roman Catholic priest Viktar Zhuk, and layman Alyaksei Karyakau for participating in “unauthorized mass events.” They were released the next day after a court dismissed their cases. In a retrial on December 24, the three were warned not to participate in such events in the future.
According to observers, the government continued surveillance of various Protestant denominations. The sources stated that government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials, including from the security forces, reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment.
Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to their perceptions that they could face intimidation or punishment.
Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. According to media accounts, the BOC was free to proselytize without restrictions on television and in print media as well as in public spaces. Unlike other religious groups, the BOC continued to participate in government-sponsored public events, such as rallies or celebrations, without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. For example, on July 3, the Belarusian Orthodox Metropolitan participated in the annual “Belarus Remembers” Independence Day commemoration along with Lukashenka, veterans, public officials, soldiers, civil society representatives, and Minsk residents. In addition, regional authorities often engaged BOC representatives in their events. On June 5, forestry officials in the town of Slonim and students and faculty of the Minsk Spiritual Seminary planted birch and pine trees, an event which the BOC reported was inspired and organized by Navahrudak Diocese archpriest Dimitri Syemukha.
The national government approved the importation of literature requested by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year.
After religious leaders called on the security forces to end violent action against peaceful protestors and urged a genuine national dialogue between Lukashenka and the opposition, state-run Radio Belarus One stopped the nationwide broadcast of the 40-minute Roman Catholic Sunday masses from the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Minsk, as well as a brief news summary from Vatican Radio on August 23. Roman Catholic leadership noted the importance of broadcasts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when believers chose not to attend services in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. The state-run Belarusian TV and Radio Company refused to air the annual December 25 Christmas message from the Roman Catholic Church without explanation. The television station did, however, stream the Roman Catholic midnight Mass on December 24.
Authorities continued to deny requests to give the Belarus-based Catholic radio station Radio Mariya a media broadcasting license that would supplement its internet broadcasting. The Ministry of Information denied Radio Mariya’s fifth application in April.
According to local religious groups, communities chose not to pursue many new purchases or rentals of properties as places of worship during the year, partially due to the political situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many communities reported that they did not believe that they faced impediments to purchases or rentals of sanctioned places of worship. Some religious communities with outstanding property cases continued to engage with the government and the legal system to resolve them. Converting residential property for religious use remained difficult. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups because they were less likely to own religious facilities, and they said they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.
Saint Simon and Helena Roman Catholic Church parish continued to use its existing church building (also known as the “Red Church”), even though it was owned by the government. During the year, Minsk city authorities billed the parish for costs related to 2018-2019 renovation work, in addition to monthly rent, utilities, and real estate and land taxes, which amounted to a total of 160,000 rubles ($61,600) for 2019. The parish continued to refuse to pay for the land tax, property tax, and renovation work. The parish in 2020 was billed 12,000 rubles ($4,600) monthly. On July 21, St. Simon and Helena Church community members launched a petition seeking the return of the building from the government and collected more than 5,000 signatures in support.
Because of its location in one of Minsk’s main protest sites, authorities occasionally restricted access to the Red Church or chased protesters into it. On August 26, riot police pushed peaceful protesters and journalists into the church and stood guard at the doors, effectively locking them in for approximately an hour. Many of those forced inside engaged in prayer until they were allowed to leave. The government changed the locks on the church’s doors the next day, leaving the parish with one set of keys. Authorities also reportedly cut electricity to the building during rallies outside the church on August 23-25. On August 26, the then-vicar general of the Minsk-Mahilyou Archdiocese, Bishop Yury Kasabutski, condemned the “unacceptable and illegal actions” of riot police and the government and called on authorities to investigate incidents and guarantee freedom of conscience and expression. On September 11, riot police blocked entrances into the church to prevent protesters from hiding inside and detained a number of protesters who fled there. Police reportedly did not detain worshippers or individuals in the church who were present to pray.
Representatives of the Roman Catholic, Belarusian Orthodox, and Protestant communities said authorities did not charge them fees for their religious events. In some cases, however, community leaders had to take personal responsibility for maintaining order and safety at such events. Observers stated that the system of reimbursements for security, medical, and cleaning services for organizers of mass events adopted in 2019 was not intended to prohibit regular worship, nor was it doing so in practice. There were fewer religious events in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. For the ones that were held, authorities did not charge fees, seek reimbursements, or implement other restrictions that had previously forced organizers to cancel similar events.
According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite Belarusian Orthodox priests to lecture to students, organize tours of Church facilities, and participate in Belarusian Orthodox festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.
On January 23, Lukashenka signed a decree allocating 1.2 million rubles ($474,000) from reserve funds to cover salaries of professors and employees, as well as stipends for students, of the Belarusian Orthodox seminaries. Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church said their schools did not receive any financial support from the government.
On March 26, the BOC and the Ministry of Education signed a 2020-2025 program of cooperation, noting the importance of continued engagement between the church and the government. The program included seminars, lectures, tours to BOC sites, and joint commemorations and celebrations.
Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations inconsistently, which affected the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. On September 2, OPRRNA on short notice canceled permission to work and preach for Father Jerzy Wilk, a Polish citizen and priest of St. Michael the Archangel Church in the village of Varapaeva in the Vitsebsk region. Wilk departed the country shortly afterwards after having served the community since 2003. While OPRRNA gave no explanation for the decision, representatives of religious communities continued to say that unofficially the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than rely on foreigners.
On September 29, Bishop Kasabutski denied allegations that the Roman Catholic Church was used by external forces for political purposes. In a sermon, he said the political allegations made by the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergei Naryshkin, as reported by the SVR press service on September 29, were “fake.” The bishop added that Naryshkin’s allegations that “the United States of America, the CIA, and other organizations are trying to use the Roman Catholic Church to undermine the state system in [Belarus]” were absurd and were “a lie that has nothing to do with the truth.” He said, “Today the Roman Catholic Church tells the truth about the situation in the country, denounces the violence, and calls for solidarity, unity, concord, peace and forgiveness,” adding, “This is how we probably prevent someone from implementing certain scenarios aimed at causing a split in our society and bloodshed.” The bishop also dismissed speculation about tensions in relations among various religious groups in the country. State media reported only Naryshkin’s allegations against the Catholic Church and not the bishop’s statements.
Roman Catholic bishops continued to state that foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including a lengthy government approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; visas often issued for only three to six months; and administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas. In August, however, local bishops reported that authorities renewed all requested visa applications that had been submitted or were pending review.
According to Forum 18, the government continued to refuse Klemens Werth, a Catholic priest from Russia, permission to engage in religious work. He was allowed to remain in Vitsebsk to continue building a new church, but since he was a foreigner, he was banned from celebrating Mass or otherwise serving.
During the year, Lukashenka repeatedly stated that the political unrest in the country had been supported and financed by Poland along with the Baltic states and the West more broadly. He said the Roman Catholic Church was involved. After authorities barred Archbishop Kondrusiewicz from reentering the country from Poland, Lukashenka stated on September 1 that the Archbishop, a Belarusian citizen, had received “instructions” while in Poland on how to “destroy” Belarus. On November 2, Lukashenka said, “The BOC is not bringing clergy from abroad, from countries foreign to our country, as it is being done by some other denominations. We cannot accept any clergy from Poland when Catholic Poland has taken such a [hostile] position against us. It is not normal.” He urged the Roman Catholic Church to train “more local clergy.”
During the year, the leaders of New Life Church in Minsk continued discussions with city authorities on its status and operations. The government froze the assets of the Church in 2010. The Church continued to use its building for religious purposes, but there were no developments regarding the asset freeze, which remained in place at year’s end.
Authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. The groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.
Speaking at a January 27 event to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Dapkiunas emphasized the importance of commemorating the Holocaust “in reiterating the moral, political, and social meaning of the call ‘Never Again,’” which, he said, was “a challenge that still faces humanity – one that demands continuous work.” The chairman of the House of Representatives, Uladzimir Andreichanka, joined world leaders at the January 23 World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, and the deputy chairman of the Council of the Republic, Anatoly Isachanka, attended the ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland.
On October 15, the Vitsebsk Jewish community, private donors from Russia, and local authorities unveiled a memorial honoring the 350-year-long history of the local Jewish population at the site of the Jewish cemetery in the village of Yanavichy in Vitebsk Oblast. Community members and local authorities also cleaned the cemetery and cataloged unearthed gravestones.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
An interreligious working group comprising the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized seminars and educational events, some of which were virtual due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. The theme for 2020 was “Religions in Belarus in the Period of Social Transformations.” The group held an in-person seminar on February 12 on spiritual development of the country’s society in the context of social justice. In April, the group held an interreligious youth forum that involved seminars dedicated to the “contribution of different religious communities in resolving environmental issues in the interest of Belarus’s sustainable development.” In June, the group organized a seminar targeting youth and discussing different faiths and new methods for the spiritual and moral upbringing of youth and children. On December 21, the group held an online seminar, “Religions in the Context of Innovations in Society and the Economy.”
Anti-Semitic comments appeared on social media and in comment sections of local online news articles, although it was not clear that all of the comments could be attributed to Belarusians.
The BOC continued its annual commemoration in honor of Hauryil Belastoksky (Gabriel of Bialystok), a child allegedly killed by Jews in Bialystok in 1690. The Russian Orthodox Church considers him one of its saints and martyrs, and the BOC falls under the authority of the Russian Church on traditional practices such as this. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern over the traditional memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, which states the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty” although a trial after the boy’s death acquitted the Jew who was charged with the crime. The BOC in recent years removed some anti-Semitic references about Belastoksky from its online materials and focused more on his role as a regional patron saint of children. Prayers for the commemoration reportedly continued to include anti-Semitic references, however.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with government representatives to discuss religious issues. Throughout the year, the Charge d’Affaires regularly engaged with officials at the highest levels of government on issues related to religious freedom, registration of religious communities, and anti-Semitism.
The U.S. Secretary of State and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom issued several public statements in support of Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, calling for authorities to allow him to return to the country to lead his religious community after being refused reentry from Poland.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Protestants, and minority religious groups as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups to learn about religious activities and discuss government actions that affected religious freedom. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups as well as government restrictions on registration and operations with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. Embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom on social media.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. In September, the federal government recognized the Belgian Buddhist Union, which first applied for recognition as a nondenominational philosophical community in 2008. An application for recognition by the Belgian Hindu Forum, submitted in 2013, remained pending. In December, the government suspended the recognition process for the Great Mosque of Brussels, citing intelligence that it had ties with the Moroccan intelligence agency. In September, the Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation in Kraainem, charging it with inciting discrimination and hatred after a former member said the congregation shunned him when he reported a case of sexual abuse. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that universities may ban religious symbols on campuses, specifically headscarves, prompting widespread criticism. In December, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a judgment that a Flemish law requiring the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, including kosher and halal slaughter, is consistent with EU law on religious freedom. The judgment followed a legal challenge by the Jewish and Muslim communities against the Flemish law and a similar one in Wallonia.
Unia (an independent government agency that reviews discrimination complaints) reported that in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 79 anti-Semitic incidents (compared with 101 in 2018) and 336 incidents (307 in 2018) against other religious groups, 86 percent of which targeted Muslims. Media reported in February that during the annual Aalst Carnival parade, there were anti-Semitic floats and caricatures, as well as marchers who appeared to be dressed as Nazi soldiers.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Office of the Prime Minister; at the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice; and with members of parliament to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders in Brussels and other communities to address anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment and to promote religious tolerance. In October, the Ambassador led a discussion on Muslim issues with academics, religious experts, and civil society leaders.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S government estimates the total population at 11.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent survey in December 2018 by the GESIS-Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences, 57.1 percent of residents are Roman Catholic, 2.3 percent Protestant, 2.8 percent other Christian, 6.8 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 0.6 percent Orthodox Christian, 0.3 percent Jewish, 0.3 percent Buddhist, 9.1 percent atheist, 20.2 percent “nonbeliever/agnostic,” and 0.5 percent “other.” A 2015 study by the Catholic University of Louvain estimated that 42.2 percent of Muslims reside in Flanders, 35.5 percent in Brussels, and 22.3 percent in Wallonia. According to Catholic University of Louvain sociologist Jan Hertogen, based on 2015 data, 24.2 percent of the Brussels population and 7.5 percent of the Antwerp population is Muslim.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of worship, including its public practice, and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be required to participate in any religious group’s acts or ceremonies or to observe the group’s religious days of rest, and it bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of clergy (according to law, to qualify clergy must work in recognized houses of worship and be certified by those religious groups), as well as those of representatives of organizations recognized by the law as providing moral assistance based on a nonconfessional philosophy.
The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation. Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. Discrimination based on Jewish descent is distinguished from discrimination against Jewish religious practices. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison. Courts have interpreted that an antiracism law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of nationality, race, skin color, ancestry, national origin, or ethnicity may be applied to cases of anti-Semitism.
The government officially recognizes Roman Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.
The law does not define requirements to obtain official recognition. The Ministry of Justice specifies the legal basis for official recognition. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection to parliament, which votes on the application. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend granting recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.
The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, such as an office composed of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of the religious curriculum in schools, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.
The federal and regional governments provide financial support for officially recognized religious groups. Federal government subsidies include direct payment of clergy salaries and pensions, while regions subsidize maintenance and equipment costs for facilities and places of worship, as well as clergy housing, and oversee finances and donations when the legal exemption amount is exceeded. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Parent religious groups distribute subsidies according to their statutes, which may also include salaries to ministers and public funding for renovation or facility maintenance. Unrecognized groups do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly. Three organizations outside of the recognized religious groups also receive subsidies by law: the Belgian Muslim Executive, the Belgian Buddhist Union, and the Secular Central Council.
There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to apply to obtain recognition and federal subsidies. To do so, a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, and certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from lower taxes but not government subsidies. Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.
There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Individuals wearing face coverings that cover all or part of the face in public are subject to a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($170). In addition, the penal code stipulates violators may be sentenced to a maximum of seven days’ imprisonment.
Outside of the Brussels region, which still allows ritual slaughter without stunning, the law prohibits the slaughter of animals without prior stunning. The legislation does not prevent halal and kosher meat from being imported from abroad.
By longstanding practice rather than law, the government bans the wearing of religious symbols by employees in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public. The ban does not apply to teachers of religion in public schools.
The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. All public schools offer religious or “moral” instruction oriented toward citizenship and moral values. Outside of Flanders, these courses are mandatory; parents in schools in Flanders may have their children opt out of such courses. Francophone schools offer a mandatory one-hour-per-week “philosophy and citizenship” course plus an additional one-hour mandatory course on either philosophy and citizenship or the recognized religions, based on a constitutional court ruling.
Schools provide teachers, clerical or secular, for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The degree of religious expression varies but must follow a principle of “neutrality.” Because “neutrality” is not defined explicitly in the constitution in the context of religious expression, most state-funded institutions follow one of two principles: “inclusive neutrality,” where individuals must remain neutral in their behavior but may wear religious symbols, or “exclusive neutrality,” where there is a total ban on religious attire and the education provided must also be neutral.
Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools (limited to schools operated by recognized religious groups), known as “free” schools, follow the same curriculum as public schools but may place greater emphasis on specific religious classes. Teachers at these religious schools are civil servants, and their salaries, as well as subsidies for the schools’ operating expenses, are paid for by the respective linguistic community, municipality, or province.
Unia is a publicly funded, independent agency responsible for reviewing discrimination complaints, including those of a religious nature, and attempting to resolve them through mediation or arbitration. The agency lacks legal powers to enforce resolution of cases but may refer them to the courts.
The federal justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and oversee their prosecution, including those involving religion, as a criminal act.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The federal government granted recognition on September 30 to the Belgian Buddhist Union, which applied as a group representing a nondenominational philosophy of life, rather than as a religious community. The Buddhist Union, which first submitted its application in 2008, had already been receiving a subsidy from the federal government before its recognition. An application for recognition from the Belgian Hindu Forum, submitted in 2013, remained pending, as did its application to receive a government subsidy. There were no other pending requests by religious groups.
Some observers continued to state that a number of mosques opted not to seek official recognition because they received sufficient foreign funding and preferred to operate without government oversight. Some observers stated the lengthy, bureaucratic process of obtaining recognition also acted as a deterrent. The stated government policy was to extend recognition to more mosques (which would make them eligible for government funding) to curb foreign, radical Islamic influence by reducing the mosques’ reliance on foreign funding and providing authorities with greater oversight.
According to local media, nine mosques in the Brussels-Capital region, including the Great Mosque of Brussels, which submitted its application in January, had pending recognition requests. Mustapha Chairi, the President of the Belgian Collective Against Islamophobia, stated that recognition was slowed by “political obstacles” and cited inefficiencies in the Ministry of Justice’s administrative process.
The Flemish government announced it was reinforcing its policy of conducting enhanced security screening against possible radicalization of imams or worshippers and against foreign influence at mosques, including by requiring all religious communities and places of worship to submit to a four-year probation period prior to official recognition. Then-Flemish regional Minister-President Liesbeth Homans, also of the New Flemish Alliance Party, questioned the existing recognition of some mosques and withdrew recognition of the al-Ihsaan Mosque in Leuven during the year. At year’s end, there were 87 recognized mosques: 39 in Wallonia, 27 in Flanders, and 21 in Brussels. The Belgian Muslim Executive estimated there were a total of 300 mosques in the country, both recognized and unrecognized.
In November, Flemish Minister for Social Affairs Bart Somers presented a bill in parliament to revise the recognition application process, as well as reopen religious communities’ applications for recognition that then-Regional Interior Minister Homans had suspended in 2017. The bill included the ban on foreign funding and influence, as well as the mandatory four-year probationary period that the Flemish government established as policy in the previous year. In a November interview with Flemish public television network VRT, Somers stated 50 to 100 local religious communities had pending applications for recognition, some dating back to the 2017 moratorium.
On December 4, Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne suspended the recognition process for the Great Mosque of Brussels, stating that, according to the country’s civilian intelligence, the mosque had ties with the Moroccan intelligence agency. He also said that all bodies of the Muslim Executive should reexamine and, as needed, replace their leaders because they were no longer representative of all Muslims living in the country, adding that “the same individuals continuously appear, whether in the Muslim Executive or in associated nonprofit organizations.” (The Muslim Executive is composed of four organs focused respectively on mosques, education, social issues, and imams, as well as the Council of Theologians and the Coordination Council for Belgian Islamic Institutions [CIB].) On December 5, the Belgian Muslim Executive, CIB, and Association for the Management of the Great Mosque released a joint statement condemning Van Quickenborne’ s announcement, saying it was “defamatory, insulting, and onerous to declare that our members are spies with interests abroad” and that the suspension violated freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.
According to Belgian online journal The Bulletin, one of the two major English-language, Brussels-based media outlets, the Ghent prosecutor filed a criminal case against the Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Kraainem, charging it with inciting discrimination against a person and a group on the basis of religious beliefs and inciting hatred or violence against a person and a group. According to the report, the prosecutor filed the charges after a five-year investigation based on a complaint by a former member of the congregation, Patrick Haeck, who said Jehovah’s Witnesses shunned him after he exposed a case of sexual abuse. A court held a preliminary hearing in September and scheduled a trial for February 2021.
The ban on face coverings remained unchanged despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Several police precincts, however, reported not enforcing the law. The Brussels Midi police department, for example, reported that it had asked its officers to “use common sense” and analyze situations on a case-by-case basis.
In June, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Haute Ecole Francisco Ferrer, a university in Brussels that had banned religious garments and symbols. The court stated that institutions of higher education had the authority to ban the wearing of religious symbols, specifically headscarves, on campus if they chose to do so, adding the ban violated neither constitutional law nor the European Convention on Human Rights. In July, more than 1,000 mostly female demonstrators gathered in the center of Brussels to protest the court’s decision. The ruling also sparked a social media campaign with the hashtags #HijabisFightBack and #TouchePasAMesEtudes (“Don’t Touch My Studies”). In response to the court’s ruling, some institutions of higher education used social media to announce that headscarves were allowed at their schools.
On December 8, in response to calls from the Jewish community, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, overturned a total ban on collective religious worship services that the government had instituted in October as a protective measure against COVID-19. The prohibition also applied to nonreligious gatherings. According to the council, the ban violated freedom of religion, “a fundamental right of a special nature,” and the right to profess faith collectively with fellow believers “is at the heart of freedom of worship.” The council called the ban “a disproportionate limitation of the freedom of worship” and asked the government to allow worship services again, within certain limits, by December 13. In response, the national government relaxed the measure to allow up to 15 persons to gather in places of worship.
In October, the municipal government of Charleroi opened a second request for public comment on an application to build a mosque in the city’s Lodelinsart neighborhood. Several town residents also voiced their disapproval of the mosque in an independent petition. The Charleroi government had approved the project with modifications in 2019 after receiving 119 complaints against the mosque during an initial public comment period. The city government did not indicate why it reopened the public comment period.
In Court-St-Etienne, the construction of a new mosque was underway and was expected to be finished by mid-2021. The project, whose construction resumed in February 2020 after a year-long pause, was being entirely financed through private donations. According to Abdelhafid Jellouli, the mosque coordinator, the delay was the result of a change in construction plans and delays in finding a new contractor. Local authorities approved the project in 2018 after four previous rejections.
On December 17, the Court of Justice of the European Union issued a judgment that a Flemish animal welfare law requiring the stunning of animals prior to slaughter, including halal and kosher slaughter, was consistent with EU law and did not infringe on the rights of religious groups. The court’s ruling ran counter to the recommendation in September of its advocate general, who had stated that “member states … cannot ignore the EU’s religious freedom protections.” Flemish Minister for Education, Sport, and Animal Welfare Ben Weyts tweeted that “the door is now open throughout Europe to a ban on slaughter without stunning” and called on religious communities to “turn the page.” The judgment followed a legal challenge to the Flemish law and to a similar law passed by the Wallonian regional government in 2019. At that time, the Belgian Constitutional Court had asked the Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion to confirm the two laws complied with EU law.
Following the ruling, President of the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations Yohan Benizri stated, “We plan to pursue every legal recourse to right this wrong.” In an official statement, the President of the Belgian Muslim Executive, Mehmet Ustun, expressed his disappointment with the judgment, stating, “The Court of Justice thus seems to give in to the growing political and societal pressure from populist movements which are waging a symbolic struggle against vulnerable minorities throughout Europe.”
A large slaughterhouse continued to operate in Brussels, where ritual slaughter was still permitted, but it could not accommodate all requests, particularly during religious holidays. The Brussels government, led by Minister-President Rudi Vervoort, had no policy on ritual slaughter and had stated it would wait for a final ruling before opening a debate.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported in October that the government planned to stop providing soldiers for security around synagogues in Antwerp as part of a broader drawdown of Operation Vigilant Guardian, the military’s domestic counterterrorism mission that provided protection for sensitive sites, such as embassies and certain Jewish community buildings. The Forum of Jewish Organizations of Flemish Jews stated, “The Jewish community needs more, not less, protection in these difficult times.” At year’s end, the soldiers remained in place, and the government had not announced a final decision on whether to end the program.
Police continued to offer a voluntary, day-long course, “The Holocaust, the Police, and Human Rights,” at the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, site of a Holocaust museum and memorial.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Media and NGOs, including Amnesty International, the Collective against Islamophobia in Belgium, and Unia, reported incidents of violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Muslims and Jews. Unia reported 79 anti-Semitic incidents – which it defined as incidents against Jewish persons rather than against Jewish religious practices and which it tracked separately – and 336 complaints of other religious discrimination or harassment in 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 101 anti-Semitic incidents and 307 other complaints in 2018. Approximately 86 percent of incidents targeted Muslims. There were five incidents against Christians, 11 against Jewish religious practices, and eight against nonbelievers. According to Unia, 30 percent of the incidents in 2019 involved speech in media or on the internet (54 percent of these involving Facebook postings); 29 percent concerned discrimination in the workplace; and 17 percent occurred in the education sector, where a majority (54 percent) of incidents involved restrictions or prohibitions on wearing of the hijab.
Unia reported 96 complaints of workplace discrimination based on religion in 2019, compared with 56 in 2018. The reported discrimination principally targeted Muslims.
In 2019, Unia and the Human Rights League submitted an injunction against the Brussels public transportation company, STIB/MIVB, for rejecting a job applicant who wore a headscarf. The woman had applied for two internal administrative positions and reported being rejected after communicating she wanted to wear a headscarf in the workplace. Unia did not indicate the outcome of this case.
Also in 2019, Unia and the Human Rights League took legal action against a fitness center in Liege that refused entry to a woman wearing a headscarf for what it stated were hygiene and security reasons. In another case, Unia filed a suit in 2019 against a fitness center in Brussels that told a Muslim woman after she had signed up for membership that it banned headscarves for security reasons. In February, the Brussels Court of First Instance decided in favor of the fitness center, ruling that prohibiting headscarves in sports for safety reasons was permitted, and that a sports headscarf did not meet the safety requirements.
Unia cited numerous instances of religious hate speech via social media in 2020. It also reported that in October, two individuals were sentenced to six months in prison and fined 800 euros ($980) for hosting a Facebook page called “Identitaires Ardennes” that contained anti-Muslim hate speech featuring messages, such as “Islam is a danger,” and “Halt the invasion – let’s kick them out.”
In February, the European Commission, Belgian academics, and New Flemish Alliance Party Chairman Bart De Wever criticized the annual Aalst Carnival for including open displays of anti-Semitism. An open letter by three professors from the universities of Ghent, Antwerp, and Leuven urged media not to show images of floats with Jewish caricatures, while the European Commission said the floats were “incompatible” with EU values. According to the Catholic News Agency, the carnival parade included “numerous apparently anti-Semitic caricatures and floats,” as well as marchers who seemed to be dressed as Nazi soldiers. One float displayed caricatures of Jews with ant features next to a label called “complaint ant,” a phrase that in Dutch resembles the term “Western Wall.” National and international press widely cited Aalst Mayor Christoph D’Haese as stating that the carnival was not anti-Semitic and that outside intervention was censorship. Then-Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, and Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz condemned the parade, with Katz calling it “hateful” and a “vitriolic anti-Semitic display” and “a hateful parade.” In December 2019, UNESCO removed the carnival, which included an anti-Semitic float in that year’s parade, from its intangible cultural heritage list because of what it said was the carnival’s “repetition of racist and anti-Semitic representations.”
According to the Times of Israel, on June 28, protesters at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Brussels chanted “Khaybar,” in reference to a battleground in Saudi Arabia where Muslims had defeated Jews in the seventh century. At least 100 men chanted, “Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning,” according to the Belgian League Against Anti-Semitism (LBCA). Joel Rubinfeld, the league’s president, characterized the chant as an “incitement of violence,” and the organization filed a complaint with police. The rally’s organizer, a nonprofit called the Belgo-Palestinian Association, condemned the chanting in a statement.
In August, newspaper Le Soir published a cartoon by Pierre Kroll showing a tourist bus with a balloon above the driver reading, “After the zoo, we shall go visit the coronavirus village,” while an Orthodox Jewish man without a mask rides a bicycle nearby as vultures hover above him. LBCA President Rubinfeld said the cartoon “again shows that Kroll obsessively returns to Jews in his works….” According to The Times of Israel, critics had accused Kroll of anti-Semitism in several of his previous cartoons.
In July, the Leuven Criminal Court sentenced a man in Keerbegen to one year in prison for inciting hatred and violence against the Jewish community and violating the antiracism law and the law against Holocaust denial. In 2019, Unia had filed a complaint against the man for decorating his home with Nazi paraphernalia and possessing anti-Semitic pamphlets.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials discussed continued anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment in meetings with representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister; the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Justice; and regional governments.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with religious leaders to discuss incidents of religious discrimination and ways to counter public manifestations of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment. They continued engagement with activists from the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities, including with leaders from the Consistory (official representatives of authorities for Jewish community matters with the government), the Muslim Executive, and the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium to promote interreligious understanding.
In reaction to the ECJ ruling that a Flemish law requiring the stunning of animals prior to ritual slaughter was consistent with EU law and did not infringe on the rights of religious groups, the Ambassador tweeted the following on December 17: “I am very disappointed in the European Court of Justice decision upholding a Flemish law that effectively bans kosher and halal slaughter, a core religious practice of Jews and Muslims. Religious freedom must be protected. I call on the Flemish government to reconsider its positions and accommodate the needs of all its religious communities. I will continue to work closely with Belgian authorities and the EU to advance religious freedom for all.”
In October, the Ambassador led a discussion on Muslim issues with academics, religious experts, and civil society leaders, raising awareness of freedom of religion issues and exchanging ideas on future projects.
The embassy awarded a grant to a Brussels-based NGO to organize a series of events, beginning in October and continuing into 2021, to raise awareness about China’s persecution of its Muslim Uyghur population. The events included a webinar examining Chinese propaganda in Belgium and two empowerment workshops for the local Uyghur community that taught local activists to lobby, communicate with the media, and establish and sustain publicity campaigns.
The embassy expanded an interfaith youth exchange program administered by the U.S. Department of State to include a virtual platform that launched in October for Belgian youth to engage with U.S. experts on various aspects of youth leadership. The platform included an interfaith element to enhance collaboration among religious groups in the country and, in turn, enhance religious freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and conscience. Religious groups may worship without registering, but registered groups receive benefits. The constitution recognizes Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s “traditional” religion, and the law exempts the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (BOC) from registration. In December, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began hearing an appeal by 14 Romani Muslims convicted in 2019 of spreading Salafi Islam, among other charges. Muslim leaders again said several municipalities denied permission to build new or rehabilitate existing religious facilities. The Evangelical Alliance and some other religious groups stated the government did not apply COVID-19 restrictions on religious groups equally, favoring the BOC. The European Court of Human Rights stopped the deportation of three Uyghur Muslims to China. In February, a Shumen court ruled the municipality’s ordinance restricting proselytizing was unconstitutional. A parliamentarian and member of the governing political coalition criticized the ruling, which was being appealed, calling Jehovah’s Witnesses a “dangerous sect.” In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the Sofia mayor’s ban on the annual march honoring Hristo Lukov, leader of a pro-Nazi organization in the 1940s, restricting the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque. The academy of sciences published a report, backed by several government ministries, denying the World War II-era government had sent Jews to forced labor camps but instead had tried to save them from the Nazis.
The Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) Shalom reported death threats, increased incidents of anti-Semitic hate speech in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and periodic vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and monuments. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported fewer instances of harassment and threats, attributing the change to COVID-19 restrictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses said some media continued to misrepresent their activities. Protestants stated media published information about members of their community who tested positive for COVID-19, while not doing so for members of any other religious group. An Alpha research survey issued in January of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers found rates of mistrust of Muslims was 26 percent, of Jews and Protestants 10 percent, and of Catholics 8 percent.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly discussed cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives supporting interfaith dialogue with government officials, including representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local governments. The Ambassador and embassy officials also met with minority religious groups and supported civil society efforts to encourage tolerance and stimulate interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 76 percent of the population identifies as Eastern Orthodox Christian, primarily affiliated with the BOC. The census reports Muslims, the second largest religious group, are approximately 10 percent of the population, followed by Protestants at 1.1 percent and Roman Catholics at 0.8 percent. Nearly 95 percent of Muslims reported being Sunni; most of the rest are Shia, and there is a small number of Ahmadis concentrated in Blagoevgrad. Orthodox Christians of the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Sri Chinmoy, and other groups together make up 0.2 percent of the population. According to the census, 4.8 percent of respondents have no religion and 7.1 percent did not specify a religion. According to a 2019 report by the think tank Agency for Social Analyses, 74 percent of individuals identify as Orthodox Christians, 10 percent as Muslims, 13 percent as atheists, and 3 percent with other religious traditions.
Some religious minorities are concentrated geographically. Many Muslims, including ethnic Turks, Roma, and Pomaks (descendants of Slavic Bulgarians who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule) live in the Rhodope Mountains along the southern border with Greece and Turkey. Ethnic Turkish and Romani Muslims also live in large numbers in the northeast and along the Black Sea coast. Some recent Romani converts to Islam live in towns in the central region, such as Plovdiv and Pazardjik. According to the census, nearly 40 percent of Catholics live in and around Plovdiv. The majority of the small Jewish community lives in Sofia, Plovdiv, and along the Black Sea coast. Protestants are widely dispersed. Many Roma are Protestant converts, and Protestants are more numerous in areas with large Romani populations. Approximately 80 percent of the urban population and 62 percent of the rural population identifies as Orthodox Christian. Approximately 25 percent of the rural population identifies as Muslim, compared with four percent of the urban population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states freedom of conscience and choice of religion or no religion are inviolable, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the state shall assist in maintaining tolerance and respect among believers of different denominations, as well as between believers and nonbelievers. It states the practice of any religion shall be unrestricted except to the extent its practice would be detrimental to national security, public order, health, and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others. It states no one shall be exempt from obligations established by the constitution or the law on grounds of religious or other convictions. The constitution also stipulates the separation of religious institutions from the state and prohibits the formation of political parties along religious lines or organizations that incite religious animosity, as well as the use of religious beliefs, institutions, and communities for political ends. The law does not allow any privilege based on religious identity.
The constitution names Eastern Orthodox Christianity as the country’s traditional religion. The law establishes the BOC as a legal entity, exempting it from the court registration that is mandatory for all other religious groups seeking legal recognition.
The penal code prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for persons attacking individuals or groups based on their religious affiliation. Instigators and leaders of an attack may receive prison sentences of up to six years. Those who obstruct the ability of individuals to profess their faith, carry out their rituals and services, or compel another to participate in religious rituals and services may receive prison sentences of up to one year. Violating a person’s or group’s freedom to acquire or practice a religious belief is subject to a fine of between 100 and 300 levs ($63-$190). If a legal entity commits the infraction, the fine may range from 500 to 5,000 levs ($310-$3,100).
To receive national legal recognition, religious groups other than the BOC must register with the Sofia City Court. Applications must include: the group’s name and official address; a description of the group’s religious beliefs and service practices, organizational structure and bodies and management procedures, bodies, and mandates; a list of official representatives and the processes for their election; procedures for convening meetings and making decisions; and information on finances and property and processes for termination and liquidation of the group. The Directorate for Religious Affairs under the Council of Ministers provides expert opinions on registration matters upon the court’s request. Applicants must notify the Directorate for Religious Affairs within seven days of receiving a court decision on their registration. Applicants may appeal negative registration decisions to the Sofia Appellate Court and, subsequently, the Supreme Cassation Court. The law does not require the formal registration of local branches of registered groups, only that branches notify local authorities, and local authorities enter them in a register. Local branches are not required to obtain registration from the local court. The law prohibits registration of different groups with the same name in the same location. The Directorate for Religious Affairs and any prosecutor may request that a court revoke a religious group’s registration on the grounds of systematic violations of the law. There are 203 registered religious groups in addition to the BOC.
Registered religious groups must maintain a registry of their clergy and employees, provide the Directorate for Religious Affairs with access to the registry, and issue a certificate to each clerical member, who must carry it as proof of representing the group. Foreign members of registered religious groups may obtain long-term residency permits, but for the foreign member to be allowed to conduct religious services during his or her stay, the group must send advance notice to the Directorate for Religious Affairs.
The law requires the government to provide funding for all registered religious groups based on the number of self-identified followers in the latest census (2011), at a rate of 10 levs ($6) per capita to groups that comprise more than one percent of the population and varying amounts for the rest.
Registered groups have the right to perform religious services; maintain financial accounts; own property such as houses of worship and cemeteries; provide medical, social, and educational services; receive property tax and other exemptions; and participate in commercial ventures.
Unregistered religious groups may engage in religious practice, but they lack privileges granted to registered groups, such as access to government funding and the right to own property, establish financial accounts in their names, operate schools and hospitals, receive property tax exemptions, and sell religious merchandise.
The law restricts the wearing of face-covering garments in public places, imposing a fine of 200 levs ($130) for a first offense and 1,500 levs ($940) for repeat offenses.
The law allows registered groups to publish, import, and distribute religious media. The law does not restrict proselytizing by registered or unregistered groups. Dozens of municipalities, including the regional cities of Kyustendil, Shumen, Stara Zagora, and Sliven, have ordinances prohibiting door-to-door proselytizing and the distribution of religious literature without a permit. The ordinances in Stara Zagora and Kyustendil remained in effect despite a 2018 Supreme Administrative Court ruling that they were unconstitutional. Several municipalities, including Shumen, Kyustendil, and Sliven, prohibit unregistered religious groups from conducting any religious activities. Some municipalities prohibit religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children.
By law, public schools at all levels may, but are not required, to teach the historical, philosophical, and cultural aspects of religion and introduce students to the moral values of different religious groups as part of the core curriculum. A school may teach any registered religion in a special course as part of the elective curriculum upon request of at least 13 students, subject to the availability of books and teachers. The Ministry of Education and Science approves the content of and provides books for these special religion courses. If a public school is unable to pay for a religion teacher, it may accept financial sponsorship from a private donor or a teacher from a registered denomination. The law also allows registered religious groups to operate schools and universities, provided they meet government standards for secular education.
The Commission for Protection against Discrimination is an independent government body charged with preventing and protecting against discrimination, including religious discrimination, and ensuring equal opportunity. It functions as a civil litigation court adjudicating discrimination complaints and does not charge for its services. The commission’s decisions may be appealed to administrative courts. Upon accepting a case, the commission assigns it to a panel that then reviews it in open session. If the commission makes a finding of discrimination, it may impose a fine of 250 to 2,000 levs ($160-$1,300). The commission may double fines for repeat violations. Regional courts may also try civil cases involving religious discrimination.
The law establishes an independent ombudsman to serve as an advocate for citizens who believe public or municipal administrations or public service providers have violated their rights and freedoms, including those pertaining to religion, through their actions or inaction. The ombudsman may request information from authorities, act as an intermediary in resolving disputes, make proposals for terminating existing practices, refer information to the prosecution service, and request that the Constitutional Court abolish legal provisions as unconstitutional.
The penal code provides up to three years’ imprisonment for forming “a political organization on religious grounds” or using a church or religion to spread propaganda against the authority of the state or its activities.
The penal code prohibits the propagation or incitement of religious or other discrimination, violence, or hatred “by speech, press, or other media, by electronic information systems or in another manner,” as well as religiously motivated assault or property damage. Either offense is punishable by imprisonment for one to four years and a fine of 5,000 to 10,000 levs ($3,100-$6,300), as well as “public censure.” The propagation of “fascism or another antidemocratic ideology” is punishable by imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 5,000 levs ($3,100). Courts have found that Nazism falls within the purview of “antidemocratic ideology.” Desecration of religious symbols or sites, including places of worship or graves, is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 3,000 to 10,000 levs ($1,900-$6,300).
The law provides for restitution of real estate confiscated during the communist era; courts have also applied the law to Holocaust-related claims.
The law allows religious groups to delay until 2029 paying back outstanding revenue obligations incurred before December 31, 2018.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On December 10, the Plovdiv Appellate Court began proceedings involving 14 Romani Muslims, 12 of whom appealed their lower-court convictions on charges of supporting ISIS, assisting foreign fighters, and propagating Salafi Islam, characterized by the government as an antidemocratic ideology, and incitement to war. The prosecution appealed the sentences of 13 defendants to seek more severe punishments. In 2019, the Pazardjik District Court sentenced the group’s leader, Islamic preacher Ahmed Mussa, to 8.5 years in prison, while the rest of the men received prison sentences ranging from 12 to 42 months. The only woman in the group received a two-year suspended sentence.
Some religious groups complained of unequal treatment by the authorities during a COVID-19 state of emergency in effect from March 13 to May 13 when all indoor public gatherings were prohibited. Catholic, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and most Protestant churches switched to online services, while Muslims and Jews closed mosques and synagogues. BOC churches remained open, without penalty. In October, authorities initiated prosecution against Church of God-Bulgaria pastor Nikolay Vasilev, accusing him of holding an Easter service in Samokov in breach of the ban on public gatherings. According to press reports, more than 100 of the participants at the outdoor event received administrative fines. In a public declaration in April, the Evangelical Alliance stated the authorities’ actions against the Samokov church interfered in the internal affairs of a Protestant church in an attempt to disrupt its services and persecute its clerics and worshippers. According to Vasilev as well as videos from the event posted online, the organizers observed all required health measures, including maintaining appropriate physical distance and wearing masks. At year’s end, the trial had not been scheduled. The maximum penalty for a conviction is five years’ imprisonment and a 15,000-lev ($9,400) fine.
In February, the European Court of Human Rights ordered interim measures to stop the expulsion of three Uyghur Muslims who had been denied asylum in 2017 and were facing deportation to China. The State Agency for National Security ordered their expulsion in 2018 on national security grounds. NGOs reported the Uyghurs had already fled Bulgaria in 2019 to another European country.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said the legal requirement for reporting to the government the names and contact information of all clerics violated the freedom of nondeclaration of religious affiliation guaranteed by the constitution. The Church of Jesus Christ said the legal requirement for providing the government full access to the records of its clerics and personnel was a violation of privacy. The Papal Nuncio also said the requirement imposed a burden on the local Catholic community, which did not have enough staff.
In February, the Shumen Administrative Court determined that the provision in a Shumen municipality ordinance restricting proselytizing violated the country’s constitution but stated the provisions prohibiting religious activities inside cultural institutes, schools, and establishments for youth and children were an “adequate and proportionate measure to protect children.”
Dean Stanchev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition and part of the governing coalition, posted on social media his “outrage” at the court’s decision, describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “dangerous sect” and stating that the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) political party would continue to “fight against its [Jehovah’s Witnesses’] parasitic activities” in order to “clear them from public spaces and people’s homes.” At year’s end, both the municipality and Jehovah’s Witnesses had appealed the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court.
Contrary to previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses did not report any acts against their members while engaged in proselytizing. They attributed the change to reduced proselytizing due to COVID-19 restrictions. In February, the mayor of Dobrich and the local chief of police met with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses to apologize for a December 2019 incident in the city center, when police brought two proselytizing Witnesses to the local precinct and accused them of violating public order. The mayor and the police chief said the officers had acted out of ignorance and inexperience and committed to providing police with the necessary information to avoid further incidents.
In May, June, August, and December, the government allocated 10.2 million levs ($6.4 million) in funding for repair and maintenance of BOC facilities in Sofia, Varna, Krustova Gora, Rila, Shipka, and Koprivets. In June, the Council of Ministers said it would provide an annual subsidy of one million levs ($627,000) to the three monasteries under the BOC Patriarch’s jurisdiction.
In July, the Supreme Administrative Court overturned a lower court’s decision and ruled the Catholic Church did not owe property tax from a 2009 claim by Sofia Municipality, which had not recognized the religious status of two Catholic monasteries located in the municipality.
The Office of the Grand Mufti and regional Muslim leaders said several municipalities, including Sofia, Stara Zagora, and Haskovo, continued to reject, on what they said were nontransparent grounds, their requests to build new, or rehabilitate existing, religious facilities. In October, Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji raised the issue in a meeting with Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova, but by year’s end, the mayor’s office had not provided any information on the city’s continued rejections of the construction applications.
According to Razgrad Mufti Mehmed Alya, local public perception about restoring the landmark Makbul Ibrahim Pasa Mosque in Razgrad, which had been closed for nearly 50 years, to a functioning mosque shifted from negative to positive due to efforts by Regional Governor Gunai Husmen in the previous three years. In October, local authorities used a 2.3-million-lev ($1.44-million) grant from the national government to start renovating the mosque, which was listed officially as a cultural monument and therefore owned by the national government. New Mayor Dencho Boyadjiev agreed that the mosque could reopen for religious services after restoration, while the Muslim community, in turn, agreed that the mosque would be available for tourist visits when not in religious use.
The Office of the Grand Mufti said it was continuing to search for ways to litigate its recognition as the successor to the pre-1949 Muslim religious communities for the purpose of reclaiming approximately 30 properties, including eight mosques, two schools, two baths, and a cemetery seized by the former communist government. Pending a decision on who was the rightful successor to the Muslim religious communities, the courts continued to suspend action on all restitution claims by the Office of the Grand Mufti.
The national public school elective curriculum continued to provide three sets of classes at various grade levels in religious studies: one for Christianity, one for Islam, and one for all religions as ethical systems. In July, the Ministry of Education approved official school textbooks for students from first to fifth grade in the three programs that schools began using in the academic year. The Office of the Grand Mufti stated that some regional education inspectors attempted to persuade principals of schools offering an Islamic studies program to select members of their faculty to be trained as teachers for the program in order to replace teachers who were alumni of the High Islamic Institute. In November, the High Islamic Institute and the Office of the Grand Mufti commenced a project to retrain members of the Muslim community in pedagogical education as teachers of Islam.
In February, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld Sofia Mayor Fandakova’s ban on an annual march of right-wing extremists from across Europe to honor Hristo Lukov, the 1940s leader of the anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions. The mayor’s ban cited serious concerns that a torchlight march in downtown Sofia would disrupt public order and restricted the event to laying flowers at Lukov’s plaque in front of his house on February 22. In previous years, the Sofia Administrative Court had overturned the mayor’s banning of the march. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Democratic Bulgarian alliance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, NGOs, international organizations, and diplomatic missions had denounced the rally. On February 10, a Sofia prosecutor petitioned the Sofia City Court to deregister the rally organizer, Bulgarian National Union-Edelweiss, stating its activity violated individual rights; incited ethnic, racial, and religious hostility and homophobia; spread anti-Semitic propaganda; and undermined national integrity. At year’s end, the case continued in the Sofia City Court.
On January 17, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences organized a roundtable cohosted by the Ministry of Defense to present a report, Jews’ Labor Obligation during World War 2: Rescue Plan or Repressive Measure?, which denied that authorities forced the male Jewish population into labor camps in the early 1940s and stated that instead the Army Labor Corps drafted Jews as part of a government plan to save them from the Nazis. The Ministries of Education and Culture, VMRO, and several NGOs, such as the Bulgarian-Jewish Research Institute and the Independent Historical Society, supported the roundtable. Shalom criticized the event as “an alarming revisionist attempt to distort the history of the Holocaust” at all institutional levels. In a speech on January 30, Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva stated that sending Jews to labor camps during World War II was part of the “anti-Semitic repressive machine” established with anti-Semitic legislation.
In July, the municipal council in Blagoevgrad, at the request of Sunni Muslim community leaders, rejected a 10,000-euro ($12,300) donation from the Ahmadi Muslim Community to the city for general emergency relief assistance “in order not to legitimize the organization and its activity in the region.”
The national budget allocated 33.34 million levs ($20.92 million) to registered religious groups for current expenses, such as remuneration for their employees and clerics, education activities, and cemetery maintenance, as well as capital investments, such as construction and maintenance of religious facilities and related expenses, compared with 31.27 million levs ($19.62 million) in 2019. Of the 33.34 million, 27.2 million levs ($17.06 million) went to the BOC; 5.77 million levs ($3.62 million) to the Muslim community; 160,000 levs ($100,000) to Protestant denominations; and 70,000 levs ($43,900) each to the Catholic Church, AAOC, and the Jewish community. No other registered religious groups received government funding. Evangelical Alliance representatives again said Protestants did not receive their fair share of government funding, possibly because they were not represented by a single organization, even though their numbers exceeded one percent of the population.
According to NGOs, souvenirs exhibiting Nazi insignias and imagery continued to be widely available in tourist areas around the country and local governments lacked political will to deal with the problem. The National Coordinator for Combating Anti-Semitism stated that when alerted to them, the national government took steps to close vendors selling Nazi souvenirs.
In May, during Ramadan, President Rumen Radev met with Grand Mufti Mustafa Hadji. Both stated that government and religious institutions must promote solidarity, charity, and mutual assistance among the people.
In August, Shalom expressed concern regarding a statement by Defense Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, who invoked the name of a Jewish-American financier, saying that NGOs linked to him “want to take the power in order to introduce gay marriage.” Shalom stated that, while such statements did not mention the financier’s Jewish heritage, they “have a strong anti-Semitic character and suggest that Jews interfere in the social and economic affairs of countries in the world.”
In March, the Supreme Cassation Court found Boris Yachev, Member of Parliament from the United Patriots coalition, guilty of slander and ordered him to pay 3,000 levs ($1,900) to Jehovah’s Witnesses for a series of statements about them on his party’s SKAT TV that the court ruled “incite religious hatred and threaten to hinder [the religious group’s] activity.” The court overturned two lower court rulings that had found Jehovah’s Witnesses were not eligible to receive compensation for damages resulting from the statements. In his statements, which he made in 2014, Yachev vowed to use his position in parliament to “restrict the unhindered invasion by [religious] emissaries of Bulgarian cities and villages,” describing Jehovah’s Witnesses as “one of the most dangerous and arrogant sects” that needed to be restricted by legal means.
Deputy Foreign Minister Georg Georgiev served as the national coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, publicly denouncing hate speech and anti-Semitism. On November 9, Georgiev commemorated the Kristallnacht anniversary, saying he is proud to be “part of a common cause for ensuring an environment free of any forms of hate speech” by remembering the lessons of history. On December 23, Georgiev denounced the defacement of Plovdiv Synagogue’s front gate with graffiti reading “Israel=Nazis,” calling it a “repulsive,” “undignified,” and “barbarian” act. He stated, “It is essential for every democracy to allow the free expression of political and civilian views, but not by vandalizing, insulting, and violating others’ rights.”
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In August, Shalom received a threat via email of a bomb at the synagogue in Plovdiv. In November 2019, Shalom received an emailed death threat from Black Front, an organization Shalom described as white supremacist. Authorities were investigating both threats.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued to appear regularly on social networking sites, in online media articles, and in the mainstream press, and anti-Semitic graffiti, such as swastikas and offensive inscriptions such as “dirty kikes,” appeared regularly in public places. Jewish community leaders also expressed concern regarding what they said was an increasing trend of anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda and graffiti.
On December 16, Sofia University fired Mihail Mirchev, a part-time professor, after its ethics commission found his lectures included negative ethnic stereotypes. The firing came after Shalom and other NGOs protested that Mirchev’s lectures featured racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic content such as, “Is it possible that Bulgaria could turn into a Jewish country if they, being fewer than one percent, own the state, the capital, the media, and the art?” Mirchev said his words had been taken out of context. In November, prior to Mirchev’s dismissal, Shalom’s criticism of him generated numerous anti-Semitic commentaries such as, “Jews can only learn from a heavy hand and a bullet in the back of the head.”
In November, Shalom notified Sofia Municipality about anti-Semitic and racist posters put up all around Sofia by activists of the Nationalist Social Club 131. In June, Shalom stated organizations such as Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity and Military Union-Bulgarian National Movement “Shipka” were spreading online propaganda stating Jews were involved with the COVID-19 pandemic in order to provide “a deadly pseudo-antidote” aimed at “mass extermination of people.” After authorities issued a summons to Revived Bulgaria-Bulgarian National Unity leader Lyudmila Kostadinova informing her that she would be held criminally liable if she continued, the messaging stopped.
According to Jewish community leaders, incidents of vandalism continued, including damaging Jewish graves and painting swastikas and offensive graffiti. For example, in January, vandals broke tombstones and damaged fences in the Jewish cemetery in Shumen. In June, vandals defaced a playground and the facades of adjacent houses in Sofia with 56 swastikas. At year’s end, authorities had not identified any suspects in either incident.
On February 26, Sofia University withdrew honorary degrees it had awarded to Hans Frank, Bernhard Rust, Ewald Robert Valentin von Massow, and Eduard Kohlrausch between 1933 and 1940, complying with a petition from the Bulgarian Association of Holocaust Survivors and Their Children indicating the recipients had been members of the German Nazi Party. According to a university statement, its honorary doctors should not be persons “connected with a hateful ideology or involved in crimes.”
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 58 percent of Bulgarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it seventh of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported negative media characterizations of them again declined but that some local online media outlets, such as Konkurent, Blitz, and Utro, continued to misrepresent the group’s activities and beliefs. On April 21, local Ruse media Utro described Jehovah’s Witnesses as “the most dangerous sect in the world” and advised its readers to avoid any contact with the group. Unlike in previous years, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported no cases of hostility or harassment against their members by nongovernment officials, which they attributed to the COVID-19-related restrictions that forced them to switch to online gatherings.
In June, the Evangelical Alliance protested to health authorities that a number of media publications released personal information, such as names and addresses, about members of the Protestant community, including pastors, who tested positive for COVID-19. The alliance stated, “Such information has never been released regarding persons of the Orthodox, Muslim, Catholic, Judaic, Armenian, or any other faith,” and asked health authorities to check whether they had disclosed the information to media. Information as to who released the information was unavailable at year’s end.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ reported three instances of harassment of missionaries in Varna and Sofia in the first 11 months of the year, a number comparable to the previous year. In 2018, there were 13 instances involving physical assault and harassment against members of the Church.
In June, BOC Metropolitan Ioanikiy called for the removal of a plaque from Sozopol’s main street commemorating the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run. In a letter to the local government, the Metropolitan stated that many countries considered the Sri Chinmoy Center a “totalitarian religious community” that “degrades the family institution, attacks Christians, and undermines the prestige of the Holy Orthodox Church.” Municipal councilors from the ruling GERB political party in Sozopol expressed support for the Metropolitan’s call to remove the plaque. At year’s end, the plaque, inaugurated by the mayor and the chair of the municipal council, remained in place.
In May, the Supreme Cassation Court refused to review the appeal of the Sri Chinmoy Center against the lower-instance Sofia City Court’s decision dismissing the organization’s claim against Desislava Panayotova, Director of the Center for Religious Research and Consultations and Chief Editor of the webpage of the BOC’s Holy Synod, for discrimination. Panayotova described in a 2008 media article the Sri Chinmoy Center as a “dangerous sect” that operates illegally and spreads “unhealthy religious teachings.”
In January, Alpha Research published a survey of Orthodox Christians and nonbelievers/atheists on their attitudes toward religious minority groups which found 3.4 percent of respondents hated, and 5.6 percent feared, Muslims; two percent hated, and 0.4 percent feared, Jews; 1.5 percent hated, and 2.6 percent feared, Protestants; and 0.5 percent hated, and 0.6 percent feared, Catholics. The rates of mistrust of various groups – which the survey’s authors interpreted as reluctance to openly disclose hatred – were: of Muslims, 25.8 percent; Jews, 10.4 percent; Protestants, 10 percent; and Catholics, 7.6 percent. While the average rate of acceptance of a person of a different religion in one’s neighborhood or working environment was approximately 50 percent, only 3.2 percent of respondents would consider marrying a Muslim, 6.3 percent a Jew, 8 percent a Protestant, and 11.7 percent a Catholic.
On February 14, Regional Mufti of Plovdiv Taner Veli hosted the annual Tolerance Coffee, gathering representatives of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, local government officials, foreign diplomats, and representatives of civil society. According to the press release from the Mufti’s office, the event commemorated a 2014 attack on the local Cumaya Mosque and was intended to improve relations among religious groups and to prevent the future occurrence of such attacks.
The National Council of Religious Communities, whose members include representatives of Bulgarian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, continued to serve as a platform for the largest religious groups to organize joint events and defend a common position on religious issues, such as legislative proposals, political statements, and actions by others, and religiously motivated vandalism. In February, members of the council participated in working meetings of the Muslim Denomination and the Central Israelite Religious Council, in which the host groups presented their faiths and ongoing projects. On February 10, the council conducted an interfaith discussion in Sofia on each of its member group’s views on divine revelation. The council substantially curtailed activity soon thereafter due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued discussions with representatives of the Directorate for Religious Affairs, Office of the Ombudsman, Commission for Protection against Discrimination, and local government administrations about cases of religious discrimination, harassment of religious minorities, and initiatives to support interfaith dialogue. In February, the Ambassador discussed religious tolerance during a visit to Vidin with Mayor Tsvetan Tsenkov.
Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the BOC, National Council of Religious Communities, Office of the Grand Mufti, Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Catholic, Protestant, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Muslim, and Jewish communities to discuss religious discrimination, restitution of religious properties, and legislative proposals restricting foreign funding. Embassy officials also met with human rights groups, such as the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Inforoma Center, to discuss these issues.
The Ambassador discussed religious tolerance, support for interfaith dialogue, and opposition to persecution with the Grand Mufti in January. In February, the Ambassador visited the mosque in Vidin, which was under renovation with U.S. funding, where she discussed interfaith dialogue and mutual support with Regional Mufti Necati Ali and Orthodox Metropolitan Daniil. In March, the Ambassador discussed with the Papal Nuncio the Catholic community’s concerns regarding the funding of religious groups and new administrative requirements under the law, such as providing the government with contact information on clerics and other staff.
The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. On October 2, President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a broad set of policies to combat “Islamist separatism,” which he described as a “methodical organization” to create a “countersociety” in which Islamists impose their own rules and laws on isolated communities, and defend state secularism against radical Islam. Among the measures in a draft law to be taken up by parliament, which Macron said were directed against radical Islamists that undermined French values rather than at Muslims broadly, were ending foreign financing of imams and abolishing unaccredited schools. On November 2, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced the government had closed 43 mosques for extremism since May 2017. Catholic Church officials criticized government COVID-19 restrictions that, they said, inordinately affected religious groups. In May, the country’s highest administrative court ordered an end to the ban on religious gatherings, calling freedom of worship a fundamental right. In November, the same court denied an appeal by Catholic bishops to overturn a new government prohibition on masses after a new wave of COVID infections. In June, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of a law against online hate speech that parliament had enacted in May as part of the government’s plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. In June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the government had violated the free speech rights of Palestinian activists advocating for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. In January, demonstrators in Paris protested a 2019 court ruling that the killer of a Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, in 2017 was not criminally responsible. Jewish groups protested the Paris prosecutor’s decision not to charge a man with anti-Semitism after he painted swastikas on a landmark Paris street. President Macron and other government officials condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy security forces to protect religious and other sensitive sites.
There were instances of religiously motivated crimes and other abuses, including killings, attempted killings, assaults, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. On October 29, a Tunisian man killed three Christian worshippers in a church in Nice. In October, a teenage Chechen Muslim refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty after he showed his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a discussion on freedom of expression. In September, a Pakistani man stabbed two persons outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, shortly after the magazine had republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Although 2020 statistics on anti-Christian incidents were not yet available, most incidents involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) reported 235 incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 154 in 2019. The Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) reported 339 anti-Semitic incidents – a decrease of 50 percent compared with the 687 in 2019 – including a violent assault on a Jewish man and desecration of Jewish cemeteries. In October, authorities charged two women with assault and racist slurs for stabbing two women wearing Islamic headscarves. A January survey for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found 70 percent of Jewish respondents said they had been the targets of at least one anti-Semitic incident in their lifetimes. In the same survey, 47 percent of Jewish and non-Jewish respondents (and two-thirds of Jews) said the level of anti-Semitism in the country was high.
The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American presence posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Interministerial Delegation to Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH). The Ambassador designated combating anti-Semitism as one of four key “pillars” of enhanced embassy outreach. The Ambassador and embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and religiously motivated hate crimes, such as projects bringing together youth of different faiths and roundtable events with religious leaders, and regularly used social media to convey messages highlighting issues pertaining to religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate).
Because the government does not collect religious or ethnic data on the population, there is no official count of the numbers of persons belonging to different religious groups. A report released in January by the Observatory for Secularism, a government-appointed commission, based on a poll conducted in cooperation with polling company Viavoice, presented estimated figures of persons who identify as part of a religion or feel tied to a religion. According to the report, whose figures are consistent with other estimates, 47 percent of respondents identify as Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 2 percent Buddhist, 1 percent Jewish, 1 percent Christian Orthodox, and 1 percent other religious groups; 34 percent said they have no religious affiliation and 8 percent preferred not to respond. The observatory’s 2019 report estimated there are 140-150 thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses and 150-300 thousand Hindus. In a separate question about religious belief, 35 percent said they are believers, 29 percent nonbelievers or atheist, 17 percent agnostic, and 12 percent indifferent. Most observers, including the observatory in its 2019 report, estimate the number of Muslims in the country at three to five million.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and shall respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,800) and imprisonment for one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($55,200-$92,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($55,200). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. In order to qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order. Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. To apply for tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association. In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the Ministry of Interior, 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status. The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently. Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website. Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition. Under the law, the Church of Scientology has the status of a secular and not a religious association. Parliamentary reports (most recently in 1996) have labelled Scientology as a “cult,” and multiple Scientology officials have been convicted of crimes in the country.
The law states, “Detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They may practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find that comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. A place of worship that has been closed may remain closed beyond the six-month maximum if it does not replace its chief cleric and/or management. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($9,200). On December 17, parliament voted for the extension of the legislation until the end of July 2021.
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($180) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($36,800) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.
The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross. The prohibition applies during working hours and at the place of employment.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the Interior Ministry, and the country’s President, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The Prime Minister appoints the Chief Rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories (the administrative governance bodies of these groups) in Alsace-Moselle, and the Interior Minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches (Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine) in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The Overseas Department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Protestant Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine, and Judaism) is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state. Elsewhere in the country, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools. According to the education code, religious instruction is allowed but optional in government-subsidized private schools. Students are not required to attend religion classes, and other activities are available for students who opt out.
Missionaries from countries not exempt from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from nonexempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law criminalizes the BDS movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During his October 29 emergency visit to Nice, shortly after a Tunisian national entered the Basilica of Notre Dame and stabbed three Catholic worshippers to death, President Macron offered his condolences to the country’s Catholics and urged people of all religions to unite and not “give in to the spirit of division.” In a November 7 national memorial, Prime Minister Jean Castex paid tribute to the three victims. Castex said, “We know the enemy. Not only is he identified, but he has a name: It is radical Islamism, a political ideology that disfigures the Muslim religion by distorting its texts, its dogma, and its commands.” He concluded, “We will not allow the France that we love to be disfigured.”
On October 19, Interior Minister Darmanin ordered a six-month closure of the mosque in Pantin, a suburb of Paris, following the October 16 beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on freedom of expression. The mosque’s imam had posted on social media calls to retaliate against Paty for showing the cartoons. The mosque appealed the Minister’s decision before the Montreuil administrative court, which on October 27, validated the government’s decision to close the mosque. The court ruled authorities had committed no “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms” in temporarily closing the mosque “for the sole purpose of preventing acts of terrorism.”
On August 30, Junior Minister for Citizenship Marlene Schiappa reported that since February 2018, when it launched a nationwide program to counter “Islamism and communitarianism,” the Ministry of Interior had closed 210 restaurants and cafes (mostly kebab restaurants), 15 places of worship, 12 cultural establishments, and four schools. According to Schiappa, those establishments, which the government did not specifically identify, “were gathering places to organize Islamist separatism.” Independent online investigative website Mediapart requested the list of closed sites through the Administrative Documents Access Commission (Commission d’acces aux documents administratifs, CADA), an independent government agency providing administrative documents and public records. In December, CADA upheld the Ministry of Interior’s decision not to make public specific names of institutions.
On November 2, Interior Minister Darmanin announced at the National Assembly that the government had closed 43 mosques since May 2017. The Ministry of the Interior reported that, as of December 29, it was in the process of investigating for closure 76 mosques, including 16 in the Paris region, because of suspected separatism. The al-Kawthar Mosque in Grenoble reopened in August 2019 after the legal maximum closure period of six months.
On February 18, President Macron, together with his Ministers of Interior, Housing, Youth, and Sports, visited the eastern city of Mulhouse to introduce a plan, which would require parliamentary approval, to fight “Islamist separatism.” Macron said “political Islam” had no place in the country and stressed national unity. He proposed specific measures, including an end to the practice of foreign-financed imams, referring to the 300 imams whom foreign governments had sent to the country, adding they would be replaced by French-trained imams. According to Macron, the strategy aimed to reduce Islamist influence in sensitive neighborhoods and to abolish structures, such as unaccredited schools that paralleled or replaced government structures and undermined state secularism. In public schools, Macron proposed abolishing foreign language and culture programs taught by individuals appointed and/or funded by foreign governments. Macron also announced the reinforcement of oversight of foreign-funded religious sites.
Further to his February announcement, on October 2, President Macron introduced the outlines of a draft law that he said aimed to counter “Islamist separatism.” The government introduced the full draft law in December, and parliament was scheduled to consider it in 2021. Macron reaffirmed state secularism, calling it “the cement of a united France,” and said, “What we must attack is Islamist separatism.” Macron stated that all religious practice must comport with the law. He said, “Islam is a religion … that is being infected by radical impulses,” adding, “External influences … have pushed these most radical forms,” citing their effect on Wahabism, Salfafism, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Macron described Islamic separatism as a project “…serving as a pretext for teaching principles which are not in accordance with the Republic’s laws,” in which Islamists impose their own rules and laws on isolated communities and negate national “principles, gender equality, and human dignity.” Macron stated his campaign targeted radical Islamists and not Islam or Muslims and that he offered an “inclusive message” to millions of Muslims who were integrated “full citizens.” He added, “Our challenge today is to fight against this abuse that some perpetrate in the name of religion, by ensuring that those who want to believe in Islam are not targeted.”
Prior to this speech, President Macron, Prime Minister Castex, and Interior Minister Darmanin held consultations with the CFCM on September 16, 25, and 26 to present the government’s plan. The CFCM stated it was in agreement with the President’s measures.
Jehovah’s Witness officials reported one case in which authorities interfered with proselytizing during the year. On February 8, municipal police in Erstein, Bas-Rhin Department, citing a municipal decree, prohibited Jehovah’s Witnesses from engaging in door-to-door activity. Jehovah’s Witnesses sent a letter to the mayor, referencing the laws recognizing their right to proselytize, but did not indicate they received a response.
Between March 16 and May 11, the government implemented a nationwide lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic that included a ban on religious gatherings and worship and door-to-door proselytizing. While the government lifted restrictions on freedom of movement on May 11, it extended the ban on gatherings in places of worship – except for funerals which it limited to 20 persons – and gatherings with more than 10 persons until June 2. The Catholic Church was the most vocal in expressing opposition to these measures.
On April 28, after then-Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told the National Assembly religious services would not resume before June 2 (although churches remained open for individual prayer), the Bishop’s Council of the Catholic Church responded that the continuing measures did not incorporate its proposal to resume religious services with social distancing measures in place. On April 30, then-Interior Minister Christophe Castaner met with Archbishop Eric de Moulins Beaufort, president of the Conference of Bishops of France, to discuss Catholic concern. Bishop of Nanterre Matthieu Rouge publicly criticized the government’s restrictions, which he said fell disproportionately on religious groups, stating that many shops and some museums were allowed to reopen on May 11. He called the delay for churches a sign of “anti-clericalism” or “anti-Catholic orientation” in the presidency. While expressing disappointment with the restrictions, Archbishop de Moulins Beaufort said Catholic officials would “adapt.”
In a May 18 ruling, the Council of State – the country’s highest administrative court – ordered the government to lift within eight days the ban on religious meetings, calling it a “disproportionate measure.” The council, responding to a lawsuit brought by NGOs and individuals, said such a ban on freedom of worship caused “serious and manifestly illegal damage.” The council highlighted that the government had previously authorized public gatherings of up to 10 persons in other settings and that a complete and total ban on worship was “disproportionate to the objective of preserving public health.” The ruling stipulated freedom of worship was a fundamental right that “includes among its essential components the right to participate collectively in ceremonies, in particular in places of worship,” and that the government’s decree “constitutes a serious and manifestly unlawful interference with it.” On May 23, the government issued a decree allowing services to resume.
On April 21, President Macron held a virtual meeting with religious leaders to thank them for implementing COVID-19 safety measures and celebrating religious holidays, including Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, “without gatherings” and to express the need to continue the collaboration.
On April 19, armed police interrupted a Mass at Saint-Andre de l’Europe, a Catholic church in Paris, to enforce social distancing. The police did not fine the priest or others involved with having the Mass go forward. The Mass had been scheduled to be broadcast later that weekend. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said police entered the church armed, an act he described as generally not permissible unless there was a threat to public order. He compared the COVID-19 climate to the World War II occupation of France.
Police fined the priest of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, a church under the authority of the Society of St. Pius X, 135 euros ($170) for conducting an Easter Vigil Mass with approximately 40 attendees.
On October 30, authorities reintroduced measures restricting freedom of movement, religion, and worship to combat a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Places of worship remained open for individual prayer during the second nationwide lockdown, but authorities did not permit worship services, only authorizing funeral services attended by a maximum of 30 persons and weddings attended by a maximum of six persons. Five bishops announced on November 2 they had lodged appeals with the Council of State to demand the ban on masses be lifted, stating that the most recent COVID-19 restrictions violated freedom of worship and were disproportionate in relation to other COVID-19 lockdown measures. On November 7, the Council of State rejected the bishops’ appeal. The ruling judge stated churches remained open, despite not being able to hold services, and that Catholics could go to a church near their homes, provided they carried the necessary paperwork. Priests were also allowed to visit persons in their homes, and chaplains to visit hospitals. The judge also stated current rules would be the subject of review by the government by November 16 to evaluate their pertinence and proportionality. On November 26, Prime Minister Castex announced only 30 persons at a time would be allowed at prayer services inside places of worship and with stringent sanitary measures.
In October, members of the Church of Scientology reported that the Court of Montreuil overturned the 2019 municipal decree by the mayor’s office in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, refusing a permit allowing the Church to renovate a building it had purchased in the municipality for the purpose of converting it into its headquarters and a training center. According to the Scientologists, the court found that “the mayor had exercised his powers for a purpose other than the preservation of the safety and accessibility of the premises.” The court ordered the government to pay the Church of Scientology damages (amount as-yet unspecified). The municipality of Saint-Denis announced its intention to appeal the decision, and the case was pending at year’s end.
A May 10 article in The Washington Post reported that “many Muslims, religious freedom advocates, and scholars see a great deal of irony” that the French ban on face coverings such as burqas remained in effect despite the country’s adoption of mask requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the year, there were no reports of police enforcing the face covering ban or of protests or public comment concerning the ban by Muslim groups. French media rejected the premise of the article. Newspaper Le Figaro, for example, called it “a misunderstanding and a mistake,” adding that the “antiburqa” ban did include exceptions for health, professional, or legislative requirements and that COVID-19 mask requirements were compatible with the law.
In a December 3 interview, Interior Minister Darmanin said the country had deported 66 radicalized foreign Islamists since the end of September. The 66 were part of a list of 231 foreigners on the FSPRT (fichier des signalements pour la prevention de la radicalisation a caractere terroriste) – a list of individuals suspected of radicalization – under orders of deportation. Darmanin also traveled in early November to Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, Malta, and Algeria to meet counterparts and discuss means to reinforce cooperation to fight terrorism and the return of their suspected radicalized nationals. According to the Ministry of Interior, approximately 300 imams, or 70 percent of all imams in the country, were trained in foreign countries such as Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria.
The government maintained the deployment of security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic sites and other places of worship. Following the October 29 terrorist attack at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, President Macron announced an increase, from 3,000 to 7,000 troops across the country, in domestic counterterrorism patrols under the Ministry of Defense’s Operation Sentinel. On October 30, Defense Minister Florence Parly told the Defense Council the deployment would focus on protecting schools and places of worship.
On September 25, following a terrorist attack in which two persons were wounded in a stabbing near the former headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Interior Minister Darmanin announced the kosher supermarket that was targeted by a coordinated attack after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 “will now be permanently guarded.” Darmanin also announced he had ordered extra protection of Jewish sites for Yom Kippur. On September 27, Darmanin visited a synagogue in Boulogne-Billancourt, a western suburb of Paris. During the visit, he said, “Jews remain the target of Islamist attacks,” adding that the government had mobilized more than 7,000 police and soldiers to protect Jewish places of worship on Yom Kippur.
On December 16, the Special Criminal Court delivered its verdict on the terrorism trial related to the January 2015 terrorist attacks, finding all 14 defendants guilty of providing support to the three deceased terrorists who carried out the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, police in Montrouge, and a kosher supermarket. They received sentences ranging from four years to life in prison. The court dropped terror qualifications for six of the defendants, convicting them instead of providing material support without knowledge of the terrorist intent. Three of the defendants, including Hayat Boumeddiene (the wife of one of the shooters, Amedy Coulibaly) were tried in absentia. At least one defendant expressed his intent to appeal the court’s decision.
On October 29, following investigative work by the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs and the Louvre and d’Orsay Museums, the government restituted to the heirs of Marguerite Stern seven paintings stolen by the Nazis in Paris during World War II.
At year’s end, the Paris Appeals Court had not issued a ruling in the case of Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four persons and injuring 40. In 2018, investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Diab and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed the case’s dismissal, and the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. Upon his release, Diab returned to Canada, where he remained at year’s end.
On October 13, during a meeting with administrators of the guidelines in the country’s schools and colleges, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer promised to support teachers, pupils, and parents who exposed breaches of the country’s law on secularism in schools, including wearing religious symbols. His comments came after the Ministry of Education reported 935 infringements of the secularism law between September 2019 and March 2020. Middle schools for 11- to 15-year-olds accounted for 45 percent of incidents, while primary schools accounted for 37 percent. More than 40 percent of violations were in the form of religiously motivated insults or other verbal aggression, while 15 percent involved the wearing of religious symbols, such as a crucifix, veil, or turban.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the penitentiary system employed Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, and Buddhist chaplains. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
The government continued to implement its 2018-20 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism, which had a strong focus on countering online hate content. The government said it would assess the results of the plan in 2021. On June 18, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of a new law against online hate speech, adopted by parliament on May 13, that was part of the 2018-20 plan. The “Avia Law,” introduced at the direction of then-Prime Minister Philippe, required online platforms to remove, within 24 hours, material they determined to be hateful content based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion; language trivializing genocide or crimes against humanity; and content deemed sexual harassment. Social media companies faced fines up to 1.25 million euros ($1.53 million) if they failed to remove the content within the required timeframes. The Constitutional Council ruled these provisions of the law infringed on freedom of speech and were “not appropriate, necessary, and proportionate.” Parliamentary committees were drafting replacement legislation at year’s end.
On June 10, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the country had violated Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights when it convicted a group of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for incitement to economic discrimination. The group had distributed leaflets calling for a boycott of Israeli products as part of the BDS movement in 2009 and 2010. While France’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, had upheld the conviction, the European court ruled the activists’ actions were forms of political expression, protected by the human rights convention. In a final judgment on September 11, the court ordered the government to pay a total of 101,000 euros ($124,000) in damages to the group. The government had three months to appeal the court’s decision or make the payment but did not do either. At year’s end, the fine remained unpaid.
On January 4, several thousand demonstrators gathered in Paris and a number of other cities to protest the December 2019 court ruling that deemed Kobili Traore “criminally not responsible” for Sarah Halimi’s killing in 2017 because he was under the influence of cannabis at the time of the attack. On January 23, during his visit to Israel, President Macron criticized the Paris Appeals Court ruling. In a January 27 statement, Chantal Arens, the senior judge of the Court of Cassation, and Prosecutor General Francois Molins responded to Macron, stating, “The independence of the justice system, of which the president of the Republic is the guarantor, is an essential factor in the functioning of a democracy.” At year’s end, Traore was held in a psychiatric hospital. The case was pending at the Court of Cassation.
On September 17, prosecutors opened an investigation into the song lyrics of Freeze Corleone, a rapper who was accused by several officials and organizations of promoting anti-Semitism. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said Corleone was being investigated for “inciting racial hatred” based on the content of his songs and videos posted online. Frederic Potier, the interministerial delegate (head) of DILCRAH, had earlier reported the rapper to the public prosecutor’s office after identifying what he characterized as nine illegal passages in his music. In his lyrics, Corleone declared that he “arrives determined like Adolf in the 1930s,” that he does not “give a damn about the Shoah,” and that “like Swiss bankers, it will be all for the family so my children can live like Jewish rentiers.”
On July 28, police arrested Alain Bonnet, also known as Alain Soral, on charges of incitement of hatred against Jews and actions that “endanger the fundamental interests of the Republic” after comments he made on his website, Equality and Reconciliation. At the end of September, the Paris Appeals Court sentenced Soral to pay 134,400 euros ($165,000) to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) as punishment for releasing Salvation Through The Jews, a work by Leon Bloy (died 1917) that the court found to be anti-Semitic. On October 6, the court sentenced Soral to a 5,400 euro ($6,600) fine for blaming Jews for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Soral was convicted four times in 2019, following previous violations for Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic insults, and publishing an anti-Semitic video.
The Paris prosecutor’s October 14 decision to prosecute a man for vandalism rather than anti-Semitism for spray-painting dozens of large red swastikas along Paris’s landmark Rue de Rivoli the weekend of October 10-11 sparked protests among members of the Jewish community. The prosecutor’s office stated there was no legal basis for charging the man with a crime aggravated by religious or racial hatred and that “the damage was committed without specifically targeting buildings identified as being linked to the Jewish community.” In a tweet, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) expressed “total incomprehension,” asking, “How can you spray 20 swastikas without being prosecuted for anti-Semitism?” Dorothee Bissacia-Bernstein, the lawyer representing LICRA in the case, tweeted after the decision, “Major moment of indignation and anger yes. Stupefaction.” Leader of the far-left France Unbowed Party Jean-Luc Melenchon criticized the “lamentable” decision. The suspect, a man from the country of Georgia, remained in pretrial detention. His trial was rescheduled and remained pending at year’s end.
On January 27, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of National Education and Youth, and Armin Laschet, German Plenipotentiary for Cultural Affairs under the Franco-German Cooperation Treaty, visited the Shoah Memorial in Paris. In public remarks, they stated the fight against racism and anti-Semitism was and would remain a priority of educational cooperation between the two countries.
On January 9, then-Interior Minister Castaner, then-Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, and then-Junior Minister for the Interior Laurent Nunez attended a CRIF-organized memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where five years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other persons hostage.
On July 10, Interior Minister Darmanin attended the Shabbat service at the Great Synagogue of Paris. “The Jews of France had to suffer many unspeakable acts. Attacking the Jews of France, is attacking the Republic,” he said at the end of the visit.
On July 19, Secretary of State for the Armed Forces Genevieve Darrieussecq held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in which 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “There is no space for ambiguity, the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup is an issue belonging to France,” Darrieussecq said in her statements, adding, “Two dangers lie in wait for us and must constantly be fought: oblivion and hatred. It is because the Nation knows where it comes from, looks at its past without ambiguity, that it will be intractable in the face of racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination.”
President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions, including a February 19 visit to the Shoah Memorial; the March 19 commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 Judaism Day observance. On April 26, as the country held private or virtual ceremonies (because of COVID-19 restrictions) for the thousands of persons deported to Nazi death camps during World War II, President Macron tweeted, “Seventy-five years on, we have not forgotten.” On the same day, Secretary of State for the Armed Forces Darrieussecq laid a wreath at the Shoah Memorial and the Memorial of the Martyrs of The Deportation in central Paris.
On July 26, Interior Minister Darmanin participated in a tribute for Father Jacques Hamel, the Catholic priest killed in an attack for which ISIS claimed responsibility at his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in 2016. In his remarks, Darmanin said Father Hamel was “killed by the Islamist barbarism,” and “killing a priest is like trying to assassinate a part of the nation’s soul.”
On July 29, Interior Minister Darmanin visited Douaumont Cemetery at the Verdun battlefield to pay tribute to Muslim soldiers who died for the country during World War I. Speaking in front of the graves, he warned against “any deviation of the spirit … that evokes the purported incompatibility between the fact of [religious] belief and being a republican.” He added, “The [French] Republic does not prefer any religion, does not combat any religion.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government postponed the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams whom it has regularly hosted to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The CFCM reported 235 registered incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 154 in 2019. The Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) reported a total of 339 anti-Semitic incidents, of which 295 were threats and 44 violent acts, compared with 687 total incidents in the previous year. Statistics on anti-Christian incidents were not yet available; most of these incidents involved vandalism of churches and cemeteries.
On October 29, a man entered the Basilica of Notre Dame in the southern city of Nice and killed three Catholic worshippers with a knife. Local press reported one of the two women killed was “practically decapitated.” Municipal police intervened, shooting and seriously injuring the attacker. The attacker, according to local press reports, said, “Allahu Akbar (God is great),” repeatedly as he was being arrested and taken to the hospital. The man was identified as Brahim Aouissaoui, an asylum seeker from Tunisia who entered France in early October. The national counterterrorism prosecutor’s office was treating the attack as a terrorist incident. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
On October 16, an 18-year-old Muslim Russian refugee of Chechen ethnicity, Abdoullakh Anzorov, beheaded a French middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Paty had shown his students Charlie Hebdo’s 2012 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on freedom of expression; Paty advised students they could turn away if they did not want to see the images. Police shot and killed Anzorov soon after Paty’s killing and charged 10 other persons, including an imam, with assisting him. President Macron visited the school where Paty had worked, calling the incident “a typical Islamist terrorist attack” and stating that “our compatriot was killed for teaching children freedom of speech.”
On October 18, media reported two women stabbed two other women wearing Islamic headscarves and tried to rip off their veils near the Eiffel Tower in 2019. The women were charged with assault and racist slurs. The main suspect was placed in pretrial detention while the second was released on bail, legal sources reported.
On August 6, two men shouted anti-Semitic insults and assaulted a Jewish man, stole his watch, and beat him unconscious in the hallway of his parents’ apartment building in Paris. Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti tweeted, “I know the immense emotion that besets the entire Jewish community. It is the emotion of the whole nation and of course mine.” Authorities charged the two men with violent theft motivated by religious reasons and placed them in pretrial detention on August 28. At year’s end, a trial had not been scheduled, and the two men remained in detention.
In January, a 16-year-old student in the Lyon region received death threats and withdrew from school due to security concerns after she posted a vulgar anti-Islam video that led to national controversy. The student appeared on television and defended her right to blaspheme, saying her comments came in response to a vulgar online attack on her sexual orientation by a Muslim. The government provided her police protection, and President Macron defended her, telling newspaper Le Dauphine Libere that children needed to be “better protected” against “new forms of hatred and harassment online,” adding, “The law is clear: we have the right to blaspheme, to criticize, to caricature religions.” In the ensuing public debate, however, public personalities and officials made a range of statements criticizing the girl for hate speech or defending her right to free speech and French secularism. Abdallah Zekri, general delegate of the CFCM, told Sud Radio that he was against the death threats, but that “who sows the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.” CFCM president Mohammed Moussaoui, in the CFCM’s official response, said, “Nothing can justify” death threats.” Then-Justice Minister Belloubet, in comments she later acknowledged as “maladroit,” called the death threats unacceptable but characterized the video as “an attack on freedom of conscience.”
On May 14, the Paris prosecutor indicted the two suspects in the 2018 killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll on charges including intentional homicide and targeting the victim based on religion. On July 10, investigative judges affirmed the prosecution of the suspects on charges of murder “of a vulnerable person, committed because of the victim’s religion.” The two individuals remained in pretrial detention and a trial date had not been set at year’s end.
Authorities charged a man with “extortion on account of religion” with aggravated circumstances following an August 26 incident in Strasbourg in which an individual assaulted a young artist hired by the city to decorate a public building for wearing a t-shirt with “Israel” printed on it. After ordering the artist to leave the site, the assailant stole a spray-paint can and wrote on the pavement, “Interdit aux juifs et aux salopes” (“Jews and sluts forbidden”). Both the victim and a local Jewish association filed a complaint. On November 30, the Strasbourg Criminal Court sentenced the assailant to six-months’ imprisonment and ordered him to pay 500 euros ($610) in compensation to the victim and 1,000 euros ($1,200) to antiracist groups that had also filed a lawsuit.
On May 26, Agence France Presse and other media reported security forces arrested a man, identified only as Aurelien C., in the central city of Limoges. The security forces said they suspected the man, a former member of both the military and the Yellow Vest protest movement, was planning an attack against the Jewish community. On social media, Aurelien C. had posted white supremacist conspiracy theories and both anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic comments, while glorifying terrorists such as the 2019 Christchurch and 2011 Oslo attackers. On May 12, the Antiterrorism National Prosecutor’s Office reportedly began investigating him for “association of criminal terrorist wrongdoers.” In his home, investigators reportedly found incendiary tools that could be used as mortars. He had researched when Jewish religious sites would reopen in his town. Aurelien C. had previously been arrested in December 2018 and convicted of illegal arms possession.
In September, two men carried out an armed robbery against a man wearing a Star of David in a suburb of Paris and called him a “dirty Jew.” The victim was reportedly an Arab convert to Judaism. One of the robbers, identified only as Mohammed, received a one-year jail sentence.
Also in September, a court in Brest sentenced a man to two months in prison for calling a woman at an office where the man collected his welfare check a “dirty Jewess” and performing a Nazi salute in December 2019.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported six incidents during the year. In one case, they reported a man punched a Jehovah’s Witness in the face while he was evangelizing in Le Petit Quevilly, a suburb of Rouen, on March 1. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with police. At year’s end, authorities had not filed charges.
The Jewish Agency for Israel reported in June approximately 2,000 persons began the process of emigrating to Israel in the previous month, compared with 200 in May 2019.
On January 20, the AJC released a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in partnership with the Fondapol think tank. The survey, which polled 505 French Jews between October 14 and November 19, 2019, found that 70 percent said they had been the target of at least one anti-Semitic incident in their lifetime, 64 percent had experienced anti-Semitic verbal abuse at least once, and 23 percent had suffered physical abuse on at least one occasion; 10 percent said they had been attacked several times. The poll found 37 percent refrained from using visible Jewish symbols, 25 percent avoided revealing their Jewish identity in the workplace, and 52 percent had considered leaving the country permanently. Overall, 44 percent said the situation for French Jews was worse than a year earlier, 11 percent said it was better, and 42 percent said it was unchanged. Among respondents aged 18-24, 84 percent had been the target of at least one anti-Semitic act, 79 percent had experienced verbal abuse, and 39 percent had suffered physical aggression. Jews self-identifying as “religious” felt the most vulnerable; 74 percent said they had been a target of at least one act of verbal abuse. Anti-Semitic incidents occurred most frequently on the street and in schools. Fifty-five percent said they had been insulted or threatened, and 59 percent said they had been physically abused on the street. In schools, 26 percent said they had suffered physical abuse and 54 percent had experienced verbal abuse. In the workplace, 46 percent said they had experienced anti-Semitic verbal abuse.
The poll also questioned 522 non-Jewish citizens. Of this total sample of 1,027 Jewish and non-Jewish persons, 73 percent (and 72 percent of Jewish respondents) considered anti-Semitism a problem that affected all of society; 47 percent (and 67 percent of Jews) reported the level of anti-Semitism in the country was high, while 27 percent (and 22 percent of Jews) said it was low. Fifty-three percent of non-Jews, but 77 percent of Jewish respondents, said they had the feeling that anti-Semitism in the country was increasing.
A poll of youths conducted by IFOP, carried out on September 4-9 and released on September 13, showed 87 percent of respondents had heard about the Holocaust and 95 percent had heard about the gas chambers; 80 percent reported learning these facts at school. One in 10 students said it was impossible to teach about the Holocaust in their class (among the reasons cited was a refusal by some students to listen to the lesson), and 21 percent cited criticisms from other students during lessons about the subject. The survey also revealed the influence of Holocaust denial on online video platforms and social media networks; nearly one in three (29 percent) respondents said they had already read or viewed content questioning the existence of the Holocaust. Of these, 57 percent had encountered denial theories on YouTube and 40 percent on Facebook.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 52 percent of French respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important” but ranked it the lowest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the Prime Minister, released on June 18, included the results of an Ipsos poll conducted in November 2019 and involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,323 residents over the age of 18. The results were almost identical to a poll Ipsos conducted a year earlier. According to the more recent poll, 34.2 percent (1.8 percent fewer than in 2018) of respondents believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 18.6 percent (1.4 percent fewer than the previous year) thought Jews had too much power in the country. The poll found 35.5 percent (29 percent in 2018) of respondents had a negative image of Islam, and 44.7 percent (44 percent in the previous year) considered it a threat to national identity. The commission’s report again cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as women wearing a veil (45.5 percent).
In June, during an antiracism protest in Paris attended by 15-20,000 persons, a video of at least one man repeatedly shouting “Dirty Jews” at a counterprotesting white identity group went viral. Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited CRIF as stating that anti-Semites had infiltrated the protest, “using a noble cause, the fight against racism, to spread hatred against Jews and Israel.” According to the report, CRIF President Francis Kalifat asked, “How can this type of incitement be shouted again and again without people reacting and demanding that those people leave?”
According to press reports, April Benayoum, runner-up in the 2021 Miss France competition, became the subject of “a torrent” of anti-Semitic comments on social media after revealing that her father was Israeli during the televised competition on December 19. One message read, “Hitler forgot about this one.” On December 20, Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted that he was “deeply shocked” and promised law enforcement would investigate the incidents. Others, including the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the Israeli embassy in Paris, and the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, also denounced the comments. The Paris Prosecutor’ Office opened an investigation on December 21.
Facebook confirmed on August 3 it had banned French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala from its platforms for repeatedly violating its policies by posting anti-Semitic comments and for his “organized hatred.” In June, YouTube also banned Dieudonne, who had more than one million followers on Facebook and 36,000 on Instagram. Elisabeth Moreno, the Minister in Charge of Gender Equality, Diversity, and Equality of Opportunities welcomed the bans, tweeting, “All forms of speech inciting hatred and racism must be banned on social media.” Dieudonne was convicted multiple times for hate speech, including anti-Semitism. In October, in contravention of COVID-19 confinement orders, Dieudonne held an unauthorized gathering near Strasbourg attended by approximately 300 supporters, where he repeated the same anti-Semitic comments and spread disinformation relating to Jews about the pandemic.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency cited other instances of disinformation blaming Jews for COVID-19. For example, in March, a caricature of a Jewish former Health Minister, Agnes Buzyn, showing her poisoning a well, was shared tens of thousands of times on social media. Alain Soral posted on YouTube that the virus was being used by “the luminary community, which we are forbidden to name … to weaken French people by the sheer weight of the death toll.” According to the agency, Soral’s post was viewed 406,000 times. The same report cited Marc Knobel, a historian with CRIF, as stating, “…the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that Jews will be blamed whenever there’s an epidemic, be it today or 1347.”
On January 5, vandals damaged several headstones, burial vaults, and a memorial to a young child deported to Auschwitz at the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country, located in Bayonne. The cemetery contained Jewish burial sites dating to the late 17th century. The president of the Bayonne/Biarritz Jewish community condemned the desecrations, stating, “When it comes to attacking the dead, I don’t think there is anything more cowardly.”
On August 7, unknown persons set fire to the Omar Mosque in Bron, a suburb of Lyon. President of the regional CFCM Kamel Kabtane denounced the act. He had said previously the country trivialized anti-Muslim speech and acts. Regional and religious leaders, such as Interior Minister Darmanin and Mohammed Moussaoui, President of the Union of Mosques of France, expressed solidarity against the suspected arson and stated the country was experiencing a “rise of hatred.” They called for the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate and address these issues.
A fire broke out at the Essalam Mosque in the city of Lyon on August 12, only days after the suspected arson at the Omar Mosque in Bron. The mayor of Lyon’s 2nd Arrondissement, Pierre Oliver, condemned the burning of the mosque, which a preliminary investigation suggested was also the result of arson. Hackers also changed the website link to the Essalam Mosque on the Google Maps site to a pest control site.
On April 15, the president of the Turkish Cultural Association (ACTS) of Saint-Etienne discovered a death threat written on the association door that he called “clearly Islamophobic.” Saint-Etienne Mayor Gael Perdriau expressed support for all ACTS members. The mayor highlighted the group’s societal contributions, including a recent donation of masks to nursing staff at the local teaching hospital.
On January 19, unknown individuals in Bordeaux and Talence defaced eight churches and two Catholic schools with graffiti. Several of the “tags” referred to pedophilia. Archbishop of Bordeaux Jean Paul James expressed his “profound sadness in the face of such acts,” condemned “this form of violence against Christians,” and offered to support “those who felt injured by these … obscene insults.” A police investigation was ongoing.
On April 22, members of the far-right group Generation Identitaire projected pictures denouncing calls to prayer onto the facade of the Grand Mosque of Lyon. The text read, “Lyon, Strasbourg, Marseille, Germany, Spain. Stop! The song of the muezzin will not resonate in Europe. Generation Identitaire.” The group claimed responsibility on Twitter. Marine Le Pen, president of the National Rally Party, had also publicly complained to the Interior Ministry about the Grand Mosque of Lyon’s daily broadcasts of the calls to prayer.
The hashtag #sijetaitunjuif (If I were a Jew) trended on Twitter France on May 18 before the company took it down, following condemnation by officials and Jewish and antihate organizations. The hashtag originated with six coordinated individual users and was amplified by other users and groups who deployed it with anti-Semitic smears and references to the Holocaust. The author of one of the original tweets, a 16-year-old boy, told media outlet BFM he had posted the material “to see if people would defend Jews.” Twitter France told BFM it took the hashtag off its list of trending topics for violating the company’s hate speech rules.
On June 23, anti-Semitic graffiti and drawings were found on campaign posters for Lyon Metropolis President David Kimelfeld. Also on June 23, anti-Muslim stickers were found on campaign posters of Nordine Gasmi, the Vaudais Independent Party mayoral candidate, in nearby Vaulx-en-Velin. Kimelfeld denounced the graffiti, and local Member of Parliament Thomas Rudigoz called the anti-Semitic tags “despicable,” saying they recalled dark times in the country’s history.
In the early hours of July 26, a mosque in the southwestern French city of Agen was vandalized with graffiti that included a swastika and obscene messages. Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted supported for Agen’s Muslim community and condemned “hateful actions that are contrary to the values of the Republic.” Agen Mayor Jean Dionis du Sejour denounced the vandalism as “absolutely unacceptable … insulting [and] senseless.”
Anti-Islam graffiti was discovered on September 2 on the walls of a mosque in the southwestern city of Tarbes, according to media reports. The incident occurred on the opening day of the trial for the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted, “These acts have no place in our Republic.” Regional officials, including the president of the Occitanie Region and the prefect of the Hautes-Pyrenees Department, also publicly condemned the act. Mayor of Tarbes Gerard Tremege visited the site and said he was “outraged by these heinous acts of desecration.” The CFCM also expressed “firm condemnation” and “full solidarity and total support to the faithful and officials of the mosque.”
On October 2, the Association of Jewish Students tweeted a video of a kosher restaurant in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris that had been vandalized with many swastikas and the words “Hitler was right” spray-painted on furniture and walls.
The Nour El Mohamadi Mosque in central Bordeaux was vandalized on October 14 and October 20. Unknown individuals broke exterior windows and defaced it with graffiti that included Celtic crosses and the phrase “Mahomet = Lache” (Mohammed = Coward). Interior Minister Darmanin asked local authorities to put the mosque under police protection, stating on Twitter, “Such actions are unacceptable on the soil of the Republic.” A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end. Mosque Vice President Abdelaziz Manaa noted a recent increase in anti-Muslim hostility: “There are people who insult us from the street … but now, we feel that it is getting worse. We’ve never had insults against the Prophet.”
On January 10, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with police after they found a graffito, “God kills,” on the door of a Kingdom Hall in Paris on January 10. At year’s end, law enforcement had not identified any suspects.
On April 17, the Angouleme criminal court found an 18-year-old man guilty of, but not responsible for, desecrating numerous graves in a Christian cemetery in Cognac in 2019. A psychiatric evaluation of the man before his trial concluded his judgment was impaired at the time of the incident. The court ordered his emergency hospitalization in a specialized center following the verdict.
Authorities closed the case against Claude Sinke, who died on February 26, before the case could go to trial. Sinke was arrested and charged with attempted murder after he allegedly shot and injured two Muslim men and set fire to the door of a mosque in Bayonne in 2019.
At year’s end, there was no information available on the status of a case involving four men arrested in 2019, who were part of a larger group of approximately 10 men alleged to have beaten and robbed a Jewish driver for a ride-sharing company. At the time, authorities said they considered the anti-Semitic nature of the attack to be an aggravating circumstance.
Authorities were still investigating a case from 2019 in which they charged a man with attempted murder and degrading a place of worship after he crashed his car into a mosque in Colmar. According to some press reports, the man was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which might lead to dismissal of the case.
On September 9, the G9, a Lyon-based interfaith group, founded following terrorist attacks in 2015 with the aim of promoting understanding among religious groups and fighting against violent extremism, wrote an open letter with calling for fraternity after multiple acts of vandalism at places of worship. In the letter, entitled “More than ever determined to work for the Common Good,” the G9 challenged citizens and authorities to be vigilant and create strong connections wherever possible.
The Council of Christian Churches in France, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to meet four times a year, twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador designated combating anti-Semitism as one of four key “pillars” of enhanced embassy outreach. Coupled with the embassy’s broad campaign supporting religious freedom, the Ambassador and other staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs actively pursued opportunities to engage on fighting anti-Semitism and bolstering religious freedom and tolerance with relevant government officials, including at the religious affairs offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and DILCRAH. Topics discussed included religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, the BDS movement, Holocaust-related compensation, and bilateral cooperation on these issues.
Staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs met regularly in person and virtually with religious community leaders, activists, and private citizens throughout the country to discuss issues of discrimination and to advocate tolerance for diversity. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and interfaith dialogue and tolerance with senior Christian, Muslim, and Jewish representatives and NGOs such as Coexister and AJC Europe. They also hosted meetings with representatives from CRIF, the Israelite Central Consistory of France (the main Jewish administrative governance body), the CFCM, and the Paris Great Mosque, Catholic priests, and Protestant representatives working on interfaith dialogue.
The Ambassador and embassy personnel engaged regularly with senior Israeli embassy representatives on efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in the country. Embassy officials closely monitored the official government position on the BDS movement and anti-Semitic incidents. In February, senior embassy officials visited the Quatzenheim Jewish cemetery in Alsace, where vandals had desecrated 90 Jewish graves with anti-Semitic images and slogans in 2019. The local newspaper covered the visit to the cemetery with local leaders, and the embassy amplified the event on its social media platforms to bring visibility to the issue and to publicly express U.S. support for the fight against anti-Semitism.
While much of the embassy’s planned outreach was curtailed or significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the embassy, APPs, and consulates general continued to reach out to religious communities, especially through virtual programs.
The embassy continued to support Coexister, a local association promoting interfaith dialogue and social cohesion, with funding assistance for the association’s Interfaith World Tour. Four young interfaith representatives concluded an eight-month world tour in 2019-20 to meet with interfaith leaders in 18 countries, including the United States. The team was producing a documentary film about the tour to be used for presentations at French public schools and conferences with the aim of deepening awareness of, and interest in, international initiatives on interfaith dialogue.
A new embassy-supported program against extremism and anti-Semitism with local NGO Insitut Hozes (founded by a past participant in an embassy-sponsored exchange program in the United States) began on December 28 to support interfaith “boot camps” to create shared experiences for Jewish and Muslim teenagers in the Paris suburbs, groups that rarely have opportunities to interact. The aim is for the groups to then work together to organize community service activities and act as a force of positive change in their communities.
In May, an embassy-sponsored webinar engaged civil society leaders, including those representing religious minorities, on combating religiously and ethnically motivated terrorism, as well as discrimination and violence targeting religious and ethnic minorities.
In July, the embassy organized a virtual encounter between representatives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Holocaust memorials and museums around France to share best practices in engaging young people on the lessons of the Holocaust.
The consulate general in Strasbourg hosted a meeting in February with senior embassy officers for local government, law enforcement, religious, and civil society leaders to discuss collaboration opportunities to fight growing anti-Semitism across the region. Breakfast was followed by a visit of one of the embassy officers with local community leaders to the Quatzenheim Jewish cemetery, where vandals had desecrated and painted swastikas on gravestones in 2019.
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (March-April), the consulate general in Strasbourg consulted with the Jewish Consistory to assess growing disinformation among extremist groups that the Jewish population had caused the pandemic. In September, the consulate general hosted an interfaith lunch with key local government, civil society, and religious authorities to discuss the continued rise in anti-Semitic acts in the eastern part of the country, as well as issues of radicalization and violent extremism among the Muslim community.
In September, the APP in Lyon invited five religious leaders of the G9 group to discuss their collective editorial in national newspaper Le Parisien after two mosques and one Christian library in the region were vandalized that same month. During the meeting, the APP representative discussed the concerns of local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders over President Macron’s proposed antiseparatism measures, particularly related to the issue of foreign trained imams.
The made-for-television film “RAMDAM,” supported by APP Bordeaux and written with an imam and a past embassy-sponsored visitor to the United States, aired on French television in May. The fictional film, showcasing the daily stories, struggles, and triumphs of a local imam, blended humor, compassion, and current topics aimed at presenting a more nuanced view of Muslim communities.
In April, the Consul General in Marseille attended an online commemoration ceremony in memory of the persons deported from the Camp des Milles internment camp during WWII. In August, the new Consul General visited the Camp des Milles, where she laid a wreath and spent the day touring the site with its director, meeting with survivors and local residents.
In September, the APP in Rennes hosted a meeting with regional representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities, as well other civil society representatives. The Principal Officer facilitated an exchange of ideas and perspectives on the impact of current issues, including the COVID-19 epidemic, on different communities. Jewish and Muslim representatives reiterated their commitments to maintaining their positive existing relationships and ongoing dialogue on areas of shared interest.
The embassy regularly amplified messages from the Secretary of State and Department of State on religious freedom via embassy social media platforms in French and in English. The embassy also complemented information supplied by the Department of State with original content in French, for example by marking the International Day of Religious Freedom and condemning antireligious, mostly anti-Semitic acts, such as the killing of Samuel Paty. Embassy social media outreach highlighted the importance of religious freedom as a core American value and demonstrated how France and the United States worked together on the issue.
The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tolerance and Diversity Institute (Tolerance Institute) stated that prosecutors continued to fail to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes. NGOs criticized the government during the COVID-19 state of emergency between March 22 and May 22 for allowing the GOC exceptions from restrictions on in-person religious services while not responding to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on applying restrictions. The government did not approve the registration application of any new religious group. It rejected the application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. Parliament again failed to pass legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law under which the GOC received exclusive tax and property privileges. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Religious leaders criticized parliament for passing amendments in May that grant only the GOC ownership rights to state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Following the December 2019 election of Mufti Adam Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, AMAG education department head Rezo Mikeladze, AMAG press center head Otar Nadiradze, and two other leaders within the organization resigned, and Mikeladze made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the State Security Service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Mikeladze and Nadiradze subsequently rejoined AMAG. The Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches and some Muslim groups reported continued difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. NGOs continued to state there was bias in public schools favoring Georgian Orthodox religious teachings, although the government took some steps to involve human rights groups in the textbook selection process. NGOs and some religious groups continued to criticize legislation that excluded some religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from receiving compensation for damages suffered during the Soviet era.
According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russia-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto authorities in both areas continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses could continue to rent space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia. Both the GOC and the Russian Orthodox Church formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox clergy from entering the occupied territory. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, religiously motivated crimes declined compared to 2019 due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity. During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared with 44 cases in 2019. The Public Defender’s Office received seven complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination during the year, compared with 19 complaints in 2019. Two of these complaints involved violence. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) obtained convictions for two individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance, and a case against a third was pending at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said attacks against members declined because the group, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach or door-to-door evangelism. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight incidents against the group, its members, or Kingdom Halls, including one involving violence, compared with 20 in 2019. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared to prior years in classifying crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as motivated by religious intolerance. The Public Defender’s Office and religious minorities continued to state there was widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. The NGO Media Development Foundation documented 20 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media by media figures, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 in 2019. In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili said the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church “have no merit.” In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told a news outlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the main source of COVID-19 in the city of Zugdidi. In December, the Tolerance Institute condemned as anti-Semitic a sermon by Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli in which he referred to nonbelievers as “a lineage of infidels.” The Georgian ambassador to Israel said Gamrekeli’s words had been misinterpreted, and the GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior Church leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In November, the Secretary of State met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi to discuss the promotion and protection of religious freedom. The embassy continued to support long-term programming to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and promote greater integration.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church at 2.9 percent. The remaining 3 percent includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups, such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Russian Orthodox Church, Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azeris are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast; both groups are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in the south-central region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the Armenian Apostolic Church and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Reliable information from the Russia-occupied regions in Georgia continued to be difficult to obtain. According to a census conducted in 2016 by the de facto Abkhaz authorities, there were 243,000 residents of Russia-occupied Abkhazia. A survey conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent as Muslim, 8 percent as atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent as followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.
According to a 2015 census conducted by de facto South Ossetian authorities, there were 53,000 residents of Russia-occupied South Ossetia. The majority of the population practices Orthodox Christianity; other minority groups include Muslims and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the Church shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the Georgian Orthodox patriarch, exemption of Church clergy from military service (although by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted), and a consultative role in government, especially in state education policies. The concordat states that some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies. There is currently no implementing legislation for the concordat.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a legal entity of public law (legal entity) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities” (a term not clearly defined by law), and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for legal entity status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.
To register as a legal entity, the law specifies a religious group must have a historic link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.
The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books, and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states only the GOC may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the forest code granting the Church ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization; the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by a fine, correctional work (community service) for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and the damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, the offender may face up to five years in prison.
According to a 2010 Ministry of Justice decree, accused and convicted individuals may meet only with spiritual representatives of the GOC and registered religious organizations. Prison regulations state prisoners have the right to possess and use religious literature and objects of worship.
Although the law states that public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions, pending additional legislation, and authorizes the state to pay for Georgian Orthodox religious schools. The law states that students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals on school grounds “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, although they are free to add subjects, including religious studies, if they wish.
The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.
By law, the PGO, which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the Public Defender’s Office serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions and Council of Ethnic Minorities. The Council of Religions has a mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue among various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair, and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration. It produces an annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country that includes policy recommendations.
The State Inspector Service, a separate investigative body from the PGO, investigates crimes such as torture, degrading treatment, and abuse of power and abuse of office perpetrated by representatives of law enforcement and public officials if they are committed by use of force or violate the personal dignity of a person and involve discriminatory elements or features, including religious motives. Following the investigation, the service refers these cases to the PGO for prosecution. Since its creation in May 2019, the service has not received any information on a religiously motivated crime.
SARI’s mandate is to promote and ensure peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. Its stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for government consideration, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI may issue nonbinding recommendations to relevant state institutions regarding approval of applications for the construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations. SARI distributes government compensation to the GOC and to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as legal entities for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Tolerance Institute again stated that the MOIA generally correctly applied the appropriate articles of the criminal code in most cases and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve. The institute stated, however, that the PGO continued to fail to determine whether an individual was a “victim” of a crime under law (i.e., a person who has incurred moral, physical, or material damage as a result of a crime) and to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to the public’s and religious groups’ adherence to government-imposed restrictions, public religious activity declined. NGOs said SARI was unresponsive to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on restrictions relating to in-person religious services, while it granted the GOC exceptions to or not did not enforce restrictions, thereby enabling the Church to continue hosting in-person religious services, including Orthodox Easter services on April 19.
The NAPR did not register any new religious organization as a legal entity during the year. It rejected the registration application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. The NAPR found the group’s legal documentation was insufficient and requested additional documentation. As of year’s end, the group’s registration process remained suspended pending presentation of additional materials.
Most prisons continued to have Georgian Orthodox chapels and areas for prayer. Muslims were allowed to pray in their cells or prayer areas and to possess Qurans and prayer rugs. According to SARI and Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisoners had access to counseling and services for their religion upon request. The government provided accommodation for the dietary restrictions of Muslim and Jewish prisoners. During religious holidays, prisoners were exempt from fulfilling their regular duties.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, many religious issues, such as tax exemptions and restitution issues, continued to lack a clear legislative framework. SARI and some religious groups’ representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said they remained in favor of drafting a new, broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and members of other religious groups, including some individuals from the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, remained opposed, arguing such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase its leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.
Parliament failed to take action during the year to amend the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups, despite a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that the law was unconstitutional and mandating parliament make legislative changes to either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018.
On May 13, the Constitutional Court announced its decision that the case brought by nine religious organizations claiming the GOC’s exclusive property tax exemption on land used for noneconomic purpose violated the constitutional provision guaranteeing equality before the law had merit and would be admitted for substantive consideration. The court had not started this review at year’s end.
On February 20, the Constitutional Court heard arguments on whether to accept for substantive consideration a case brought by nine religious organizations challenging restrictions on the rights of religious organizations other than the GOC to purchase or exchange state-owned property. As of year’s end, the court had not reached a decision.
The Tolerance Institute and other NGOs criticized as unconstitutional and discriminatory amendments passed in May to the Forest Code that granted only the GOC ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to favor and influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of AMAG’s religious leader and selectively transferring land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. A number of Muslim groups remained critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization. Following the December 25, 2019, election of Mufti Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, head of the AMAG education department Mikeladze resigned and made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the state security service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Three other leaders – press center head Nadiradze, advisor to the mufti Temur Gorgadze, and publishing house head Gela Gogitidza – also resigned. During the year, Mikeladze and Nadiradze returned to AMAG, and Mikeladze continued to hold senior offices in the education department. Mikeladze and Nadiradze made no statements addressing their departure or return.
At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on the Armenia Apostolic Church’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as the GOC’s property a church that the Armenian Apolstolic Church claimed to own since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian Apostolic Church continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. As of year’s end, SARI had not officially responded to any of the Armenian Church’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The Armenian Apostolic Church said the only communication from SARI during the year was SARI chairman Zaza Vashakmadze telling the group the issue was “under consideration.” The Church reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The Church also stated it had not petitioned NAPR during the year to register them as Church-owned property. SARI said the Armenian Apostolic Church had not provided sufficient evidence of ownership but that it was in communication with the Church and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.
Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions regarding construction of mosques. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period and, in some cases, said the existing mosques were former Georgian Orthodox houses of worship that had been converted during the Ottoman and Persian empires or were constructed during those periods on land where Georgian Orthodox houses of worship had once stood. AMAG reported that when the government transferred state-owned mosques, it only did so for AMAG to use for a 49-year or unlimited period; the government did not transfer full ownership of the property or land.
The Kutaisi Court of Appeal held hearings in February and July on the Batumi city government’s appeal connected to its 2017 decision to deny the local Muslim community a permit to build a mosque but did not reach a decision by year’s end. In 2019, the Batumi City Court ruled that the Batumi city government had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The lower court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Batumi city government rescinded the 3,000 lari ($920) fine it had imposed in 2017 for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land, pending the outcome of the appeal. The NGO Human Rights Education Monitoring Center (EMC) described the status of the case as “frozen.”
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 1.91 million lari ($584,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, compared with 2.3 million lari ($703,000) in 2019.
As of year’s end, the Supreme Court failed to act on a 2018 EMC appeal of a lower court ruling that the MOIA had not discriminated against Muslims when it failed to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school that was under construction in Kobuleti, near Batumi, in 2014. The vandalism followed anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim protests concerning the school. As a result of the protests, the local municipality refused to connect sewage and water systems. In 2018, a lower court ruled the municipality had to connect the school to utility services, but the municipality took no action, and the boarding school remained incomplete as of year’s end, without water and sewage services.
Tolerance Institute representatives continued to state that religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to have direct involvement in public institutions, such as schools, under the concordat, the government did not define clear legal structures for it to do so. Prior to schools being closed in February due to COVID-19 restrictions, NGOs and non-Georgian Orthodox organizations, such as the EMC, reported Georgian Orthodox clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government shifted the majority of schools to online instruction, and there were no reports of religious discrimination in schools during the year. The Tolerance Institute stated that students were also hesitant to report cases of religious discrimination in schools for fear of reprisal from fellow students, teachers, or school officials. The institute also reported the process for selecting textbooks became more inclusive, with the Ministry of Education inviting human rights experts to review the content for discriminatory or biased language that favored the GOC.
During the year, the Tolerance Institute represented two Seventh-day Adventist university applicants who, due to their religious beliefs, could not take entrance examinations on Saturday and were denied a date change by the government. The institute filed suit with the Tbilisi City Court, and the court ruled that the government was obligated to reschedule the examination to accommodate the applicants’ religious beliefs. The court stressed the importance of freedom of religion and respecting the needs of religious minorities in the context of the right to equality. The Equality Department of the Public Defender’s Office issued a general proposal to the Ministry of Education, based on information provided by the Tolerance Institute, recommending the ministry take into account the needs of religious minorities. Although the applicants successfully passed the examinations and enrolled in university, the case remained pending at year’s end, as the Tolerance Institute asked the court to find that the ministry had discriminated against the applicants because of their religion and to award “symbolic compensation” of one lari (22 cents) for “moral damage.”
During the year, the government through SARI allocated 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC and 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) to approved non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities to provide partial compensation for damage caused during the totalitarian Soviet regime. The 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) was distributed as follows: 2.20 million lari ($673,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 600,000 lari ($183,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 300,000 lari ($91,700) to the Jewish community. SARI said the remaining one million lari ($306,000) would be distributed among the religious communities “later.” This was a decrease from the 2019 amounts: 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($841,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 550,000 lari ($168,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($245,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs and religious groups continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation, and they questioned the criteria the government used to select which groups received compensation.
The MOIA Department of Human Rights conducted eight training sessions during the year – five total in Tbilisi and Batumi and three online. At these events, it trained 139 MOIA employees on aspects of religious discrimination and hate crimes. Fifteen employees completed the ministry’s remote learning course on hate crimes investigation.
In October, the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions produced its annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country. The report identified areas needing improvement and made specific recommendations in the following categories: legislative regulation of freedom of religion; crimes motivated by intolerance; state policy on freedom of religion; property issues; border crossing by religious groups; the import of religious literature; police conduct in areas with ethnic and religious minorities; education; reflecting diversity; confronting hate speech and anti-Western propaganda; and the role of the media. During the October conference to discuss the report’s recommendations, many NGO and religious leaders said they were disappointed that the council’s recommendations were similar or identical to those it had made in past years, with no improvement or progress on the issues identified.
The Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russia and outside the administrative control of the central government. Reliable information from those regions continued to be difficult to obtain. According to the “constitution” adopted in Abkhazia, all persons in the region are equal before the law regardless of religious beliefs and everyone has the right to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. It forbids the formation of associations or parties or activities that incite religious discord. The “constitution” of South Ossetia guarantees freedom of conscience and faith but states, “Orthodox Christianity and traditional South Ossetian beliefs represent one of the foundations of the national self-awareness of the Ossetian people.”
The Russian Orthodox Church and the GOC both formally recognized the Orthodox churches in Abkhazia as well as in South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto authorities continued to restrict Georgian Orthodox clergy’s accessing these areas. According to media reports from online news outlets, such as Netgazeti and Resonance Daily, as well as experts on the region, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, while others wished to subordinate them to the Russian Orthodox Church, and still others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
De facto authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses continued be able to rent space for kingdom halls in Abkhazia.
Representatives of the GOC remained unable to travel to or conduct services in Russia-occupied Abkhazia, including in the majority-ethnic Georgian Gali District. According to GOC representatives, the district’s ethnic Georgian population continued to have to travel to Tbilisi-administered territory to celebrate religious holidays.
The government and GOC continued to say the de facto authorities damaged historical Orthodox religious buildings in an attempt to erase Georgian cultural heritage, but they did not cite specific examples.
According to GOC representatives, de facto authorities allowed the GOC to conduct services in South Ossetia, although the de facto authorities said such services were illegal. There were Georgian Orthodox churches in the ethnic-Georgian-majority district of Akhalgori. SARI again reported it was not allowed to enter the occupied territory. It said it was unable to monitor houses of worship in South Ossetia and that the status of most properties in the territory was unknown. According to a report from Amnesty International released in 2019, residents in and outside of South Ossetia were impeded from visiting a number of churches and cemeteries within South Ossetia located near the administrative boundary line with the rest of Georgia because of the threat of detention by Russian guards. The report said residents were unable to visit the village cemetery in Kveshi and were impeded from visiting eight other cemeteries in South Ossetia near the administrative boundary line.
GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia continued to pressure the Orthodox churches in the territory to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to government-imposed COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity, crimes committed against religious groups declined compared with 2019. The MOIA investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared to 44 cases in 2019. These included three cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites (compared with 10 in 2019), four cases of persecution (compared with 10 in 2019), and five cases of damage or destruction of property (compared with eight in 2019).
The Public Defender’s Office reported it received seven complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, compared with 19 in 2019. Two of the complaints involved violence; the office did not give further details on these cases. The office stated that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.
The PGO reported it prosecuted three individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance. Two of these individuals were convicted of domestic violence committed due to religious intolerance, and the third case remained pending at year’s end. The PGO reported that in one case, a man slapped his wife during an argument on March 8 because she refused to visit her son’s gravesite due to her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. On April 23, the Samtredia District Court found the man guilty of domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor and due to religious intolerance, and sentenced him to an 18-month conditional prison sentence. On June 19, on appeal, the Kutaisi Appellate Court increased the man’s conditional prison sentence to two years. On March 1, a man threatened to shoot two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were proselytizing in his apartment building if they did not stop their religious activity and leave the building. The PGO charged the man with persecuting an individual for engaging in religious activity with the aggravated circumstance of threat of violence, and the case was pending trial at the Tbilisi City Court at year’s end.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were fewer attacks against members compared to prior years because the group, in response to COVID-19 restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach, including door-to-door evangelism. At year’s end, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared with 20 in 2019. Of the reported incidents, one involved physical violence, four involved vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and three involved interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses said police sent one of the cases to the PGO for prosecution. Police were still investigating the seven others at year’s end. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared with prior years in classifying crimes as being motivated by religious intolerance, especially in cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As of year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on a 2019 case in which an individual verbally insulted, then physically attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. The victim required medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip, and officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health.”
Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property.
Representatives of the Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.
Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishment of places of worship and religious schools.
The Media Development Foundation documented 30 instances during the year of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 such incidents in 2019.
In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili told the news website Georgia and the World, “As soon as this terrible epidemic [of COVID-19] has spread to all continents, all countries should have started intensified praying, but unfortunately, the reverse has happened. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church closed their churches, prohibited praying; although their prayers have no merit anyway, as in the 11th century they swerved from Orthodoxy and embarked on the road of sacrilege.”
There were instances, particularly in Western Georgia, of anti-Islamic rhetoric that took the form of anti-Turkish rhetoric and opposition to perceived “foreign influence.” On February 16, Alliance of Patriots party member Giorgi Kasradze criticized the perceived foreign influence of Turkish Muslims on the country, saying on TV Obiektivi, “They [Turkish Muslims] have tried many times to stage various provocations in this region, including building an Azizie Mosque in the center of Batumi, but 15,000 [Georgian] Muslims, altogether 70,000 people, of whom 15,000 were Muslims, resisted construction of a mosque by Turkish money.”
In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told the news outlet Sakinpormi, “In Zugdidi [City] the main source of coronavirus is the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you noticed how they are concealing this information? Can you imagine the fuss if this disease were spread from the Church congregation? That is the problem – 90 percent of Georgian television networks are belligerent enemies of the Georgian nation, Orthodoxy, and the Georgian state! A national boycott to this offspring of Satan.”
On December 20, Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Gamrekeli delivered a sermon that included a story about the fourth-century saint Ambrose of Milan. In the story, Saint Ambrose argued against punishing those responsible for a pogrom against the Jewish community on the grounds that Jews had not been held fully responsible for killing Christ, desecrating the Holy Land, or blasphemy. In the sermon, Gamrekeli referred to modern-day Jews as individuals who, under the guise of free speech, defamed the Church, and said, “This is not defined by ethnicity – this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” On December 28, the Tolerance Institute issued a statement saying, “Despite the fact that the Bishop refers to the story of Ambrose of Mediolanum, in this context he repeats the narratives of the ‘generation/lineage of infidels’ and ‘fighters against the Church’ in reference to the Jewish people. We consider that citing this particular example and calling Jewish people these derogatory terms (even though attributing them to the life of the saint) reinforces anti-Semitic sentiments and stereotypes today.” In response to the Tolerance Institute’s statement, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the Metropolitan’s statement, saying his words had been misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable, and the Metropolitan said in the sermon the lessons from the parable should not apply to one ethnicity. The GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the government, including SARI, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the President’s adviser on national minorities, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups. They also continued to meet with the Public Defender’s Office and officials in its Tolerance Center to discuss discrimination against religious groups and stress the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs involved with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, the Tolerance Institute, and the 21st Century Union, to discuss interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the promotion of religious freedom for all.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials visited the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders, including from the Sunni and Shia Muslim and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox communities. In these meetings, embassy officials advocated interfaith understanding, dialogue, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC members on multiple occasions. In her meetings, she stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.
In November, the Secretary of State met with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi and discussed promoting and protecting religious freedom.
The embassy conducted a virtual program for a multiethnic group of young professionals under an exchange program focusing on inclusion, diversity, and equality. The program highlighted, among other things, the importance of freedom of religion. The embassy supported a number of religious freedom projects, including a discussion on human dignity and the GOC that brought together clergy and staff of the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate and public figures, nongovernmental human rights organizations, and scholars studying theology and religion with the goal of increasing awareness of human rights within the Church community. Another project aimed to encourage religious leaders of all faiths to promote democracy and foster civic engagement in their communities. The embassy’s English language programs in Marneuli, Akhalkalaki, and Ninotsminda targeted 25 socially disadvantaged students from religious minority groups.
The embassy continued to support the Tolerance Center and the Council of Religions programs that brought together leaders from different faith communities to monitor and advocate for religious freedom and raise public awareness about discrimination faced by religious and ethnic minorities. The embassy supported the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center’s “Improving Human Rights Conditions for Marginalized Groups through Strategic Litigation” project to protect the rights of minority religious groups through strategic litigation, field work, advocacy, and awareness-raising with regard to problems such as discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds in relations with state and private persons, unequal treatment in the recognition of property and construction rights, and hate crimes.
In September, the embassy announced a cultural preservation award to restore the Jvari Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox monastery near Mtskheta (the former capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Iberia) and one of the country’s most iconic cultural sites.
The embassy regularly used social media to highlight meetings with government officials, religious groups, and civil society and events promoting religious tolerance.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion. The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters. Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits. Federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups and mosques. Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members. Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees. Senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and acts. In September, Chancellor Angela Merkel described anti-Semitism as an attack on the dignity of individuals that “must be fought decisively” – ideally with education, but with the full strength of the criminal law system when necessary. Government officials responded to revelations of right-wing, anti-Semitic chat groups within police and the military by demanding investigations and dismissing those involved. Two additional state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, bringing the total number of states with such commissioners to 15 (out of 16), in addition to the federal Jewish life and anti-Semitism commissioner. In October, the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 30.5 million euros ($37.4 million) in 2021 and provide an additional 564 million euros ($692 million) over the next two years to help Holocaust survivors cope with the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a Sukkot celebration for students at the Hohe Weide Synagogue in Hamburg on October 4, a man wearing a military-style uniform struck a Jewish student in the head with a shovel, leaving the victim with a serious head injury. Police arrested the attacker, and a criminal trial was pending. Authorities including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht, and Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher condemned the attack. There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents. These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Federal crime statistics for 2019 cited 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, an increase of 13 percent from 2018. Seventy-two of those crimes involved violence. Federal crime statistics attributed 93.4 percent of anti-Semitic crimes in 2019 to the far right. In November, Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein stated anti-Semitism was emerging as a common theme among groups of widely differing political backgrounds that were gathering to protest pandemic lockdown measures. From mid-March to mid-June, the Research Center for Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS), which is partially government-funded, registered anti-Semitic incidents at 123 separate demonstrations against restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The head of the Central Council of Jews said to the media in May that right-wing protesters were using anxieties stirred up by the pandemic to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on the internet. Demonstrations also occurred expressing anti-Muslim sentiment.
The U.S. embassy and five consulates general assessed the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance; expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts; and advocated for more law enforcement and other resources to prevent violent attacks on religious communities. A senior embassy official met with the federal commissioner for global freedom of religion at the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in September. Consuls General met with state-level government representatives and anti-Semitism commissioners. The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 80.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Unofficial estimates based on the census and figures provided by religious groups indicate approximately 27 percent of the population is Catholic and 25 percent belongs to the EKD – a confederation of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and United (Prussian Union) Protestant regional churches. Other Protestant denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, Baptist communities, and nondenominational Christians, account for approximately 2 percent of the population. Orthodox Christians represent 1.9 percent of the population.
According to the most recent government estimates, approximately 5.7 percent of the population is Muslim, of which 75 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alevi, and 7 percent Shia; the remainder includes Alawites (70,000), Ahmadis (35,000), and Sufis (10,000). Intelligence officials estimate there are approximately 12,150 Salafi Muslims in the country. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely; the Central Council of Jews estimates it at 94,771, while other estimates place the number at approximately 190,000 when including Jews who do not belong to a specific Jewish community. According to the secular NGO Religious Studies Media and Information Service (REMID), Buddhists (270,000); Jehovah’s Witnesses (167,000); Hindus (100,000); Yezidis (100,000); members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) (40,000); Sikhs (10,000-15,000); and members of the COS (3,400) together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. All of REMID’s estimates are based on members who have registered with a religious group. According to the nonprofit Research Group Worldviews Germany, approximately 39 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or belongs to religious groups not counted in government statistics.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience, freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, and freedom to practice one’s religion. It also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions nor be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools, and parents have the right to decide whether their children receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and permits groups to organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and to provide religious services in the military, hospitals, and prisons.
The General Act on Equal Treatment has been in force since August 2006. The purpose of the act is to prevent or stop discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation.
The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence, inciting hatred, or taking arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare. The prohibition and penalties apply equally to online speech. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
By law, social media companies with more than two million registered users in the country must implement procedures to review complaints and remove or block access to illegal speech within seven days of receiving a complaint and within 24 hours for cases considered “manifestly unlawful.” Noncompliance may result in fines of up to 50 million euros ($61.3 million). Unlawful content includes actions illegal under existing criminal code, such as defamation of religions and denial of historic atrocities.
The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups – such as the COS – as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled that the government must remain neutral toward a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.
Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Those applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence they are a religious group through their statutes, history, and activities.
A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes (8 percent of income tax in Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, 9 percent in the other states) on members, who must register their religious affiliation with federal tax authorities. Each state collects the tithes on behalf of the religious community through the state’s tax collection process, separately from and in addition to income taxes. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service. PLC status also allows for benefits, including tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status that provide public services, such as religious schools and hospitals. In addition, due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to pre-1919 Germany, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.
According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.
Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices. Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, however, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.
According to a 2015 ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply. The states of Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen, and Lower Saxony do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality. Berlin’s Neutrality Law bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, and law enforcement staff but, as of 2020, not for primary and secondary school teachers. In Lower Saxony, judges and prosecutors may not wear religious symbols or clothing in the courtroom. Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.
Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving, including by a niqab. Infractions are punishable by a 60-euro ($74) fine.
According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.
All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or those without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state granting them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to ensure the curriculum is in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary by state) express an interest. Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein also offer some religious instruction in Islam. In most federal states, Muslim communities or associations provide this instruction, while in Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state does. In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction is offered for all students by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.
Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states, those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all states.
The government provides annual payments to Holocaust victims and their descendants, and regularly expands the scope of these programs to broaden the eligibility requirements.
In January and again in July, the Baden-Wuerttemberg Free Democratic Party (FDP) requested an examination of whether Jehovah’s Witnesses fulfilled the conditions for PLC status in that state. In both instances, the state education ministry affirmed there was no reason to revoke the status. In August, the FDP’s speaker for religious affairs once again urged the ministry to review the group’s eligibility for PLC status due to its prohibition of blood transfusions for children. Jehovah’s Witnesses have held PLC status in all states since 2017.
In March, the federal government established a cabinet committee to combat right-wing extremism and racism. The committee drew up a catalog of 89 concrete measures, many of which aim at combating anti-Semitism. The federal government stated it would provide more than one billion euros ($1.23 billion) for the projects between 2021 and 2024.
In June, Federal Family Minister Franziska Giffey launched a network to provide government resources and foster connections between educational institutions and research centers working to combat anti-Semitism. The federal government stated it would support a new anti-Semitism competence center with two million euros ($2.5 million) over the next four years.
In July, more than 60 scientists, academics, writers, and artists wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel warning of an “inflationary, factually unjustified, and legally unfounded use of the term anti-Semitism.” They expressed concern about the suppression of “legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy” and castigated Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein for distracting attention from “real anti-Semitic sentiments.”
In September, speaking at the 70th anniversary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Chancellor Merkel spoke of her “grave concern” over the increasingly open expression of anti-Semitism in the country. She described anti-Semitism as an attack on the dignity of individuals that “must be fought decisively” – ideally with education, but with the full strength of the criminal law system when necessary.
In September, the NRW interior ministry suspended 29 police officers for participating in a right-wing extremist chat group, and some faced criminal investigation. The group shared extremist propaganda, including photographs of Adolf Hitler. The interior ministry also ordered an inspection of the affected police station, and it created a new position to specifically monitor right-wing extremism across the NRW police force.
In April, the NRW commissioner for anti-Semitism published the first NRW anti-Semitism report, which indicated 310 anti-Semitic crimes were registered in NRW in 2019, of which 291 were motivated by right-wing ideologies. The crimes ranged from verbal abuse to physical injury; all cases resulted in criminal investigations. In June, the NRW commissioner announced she was establishing an office to monitor and independently investigate anti-Semitic crimes that would allow victims to report anonymously in part in an effort to increase the reporting of cases.
During the year, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg established state-level anti-Semitism commissioner positions, leaving Bremen as the only state without one. The responsibilities and functions of the position vary by state but generally include developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs. In 2018, Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner Klein urged all states to establish anti-Semitism commissioners because the distribution of powers in the country’s federal system provided the states with greater authority to combat anti-Semitism.
In February, the Frankfurt general prosecutor’s office established a commissioner for combating anti-Semitism. In addition to evaluating anti-Jewish aspects of crimes, the person will serve as point of contact for domestic and foreign authorities.
In January, Hesse inaugurated a new office for reporting anti-Semitic incidents as part of a 2019 state initiative to establish a more comprehensive approach to countering online hate speech and harassment.
In February, the Bremen Senate extended its cooperation with the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial to police officers trained at the College of Public Administration. Among other activities, Yad Vashem teaches a course to police trainees on the history of the Jewish community in Bremen. The course brings trainees to main historical Jewish community sites as well as to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Yad Vashem also led trips to the Warsaw ghetto and to Israel; 18 trainees joined the trip to Israel.
More than 1,000 artists signed an open letter against the 2019 Bundestag decision to designate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic, calling it a restriction of the right to boycott, a violation of democratic principles, and encouragement of a “climate of censorship.” They joined concerns by the heads of some German cultural institutions who argued the resolution might hinder their work. Numerous Bundestag members rejected the accusations, stating the resolution by no means banned dialogue or criticism. They also said that no tax funds should be used for BDS initiatives. State Minister for Culture Monika Gruetters said, “It is part of the Federal Republic of Germany’s raison d’etre to protect Israel’s right to exist. It follows that the federal government does not actively support organizations or projects that question Israel’s right to exist, even within the framework of cultural funding.”
In July, rap musician Farid Bang collaborated with Duesseldorf Mayor Thomas Geisel on a video promoting COVID-19 distancing measures. The state commissioner for anti-Semitism in NRW criticized the choice due to what he described as Bang’s frequently misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and violent lyrics, saying “This would be a wrong sign for Jewish life in this country.” The story received national publicity, and the video was taken down after one week.
In July, the Federal Constitutional Court confirmed a six-month prison sentence for Sascha Krolzig, federal chairman of the far-right party Die Rechte (The Right). Krolzig published an article calling a prominent member of the Jewish community an “insolent Jewish functionary” and praising the “exemplary and reliable men of the Waffen-SS.” Krolzig was convicted for sedition in February, based on inciting hatred against Jews and the use of National Socialist vocabulary.
In July, the Moenchengladbach public prosecutor’s office brought sedition charges against a man suspected of distributing the anti-Semitic manifesto of the 2019 Halle synagogue attacker online. The case was pending as of December.
In August, Lower Saxony’s Jewish community expressed concern after police officer Michael F. from Hanover, who was responsible for designing the security plans for Lower Saxony’s Jewish synagogues and community centers, drew parallels between restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 and National Socialism during his speech at a demonstration against the restrictions. The officer was suspended from duty in August. “Anyone responsible for the safety evaluations of Jewish facilities in the police force must be above reproach, not indulging in some abstruse, conspiracy-theoretical nonsense,” said Franz Rainer Enste, the state’s anti-Semitism commissioner.
In February, NRW Minister-President Armin Laschet visited Israel and expressed assurances that Germany would take decisive action against anti-Semitism, racism, and extreme right-wing violence. He said, “I am ashamed that 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we are experiencing this again in Germany.” Upon his return, Laschet received the Israel Jacobson Prize from the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany in recognition of his contribution to liberal Judaism and the strengthening of Jewish life in NRW.
In May, Bavarian Justice Minister Georg Eisenreich and Anti-Semitism Commissioner Ludwig Spaenle presented anti-Semitism guidelines for legal workers to help better identify anti-Semitic incidents.
According to reports from the federal Office for Protection of the Constitution (OPC – domestic intelligence agency) and Scientology members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Saxony-Anhalt continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. At least four major political parties – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), Social Democratic Party (SPD), and FDP – continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership. “Sect filters,” signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors. The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members.
At the September session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the President of the European Office of the Church of Scientology for Public Affairs and Human Rights requested Germany stop using “sect filters” and called on the president of the Human Rights Council to launch an investigation into the religious freedom violations that, he said, the country’s executive powers continue to perpetrate against Scientologists.
Following the country’s April 30 ban on all Hizballah activities, police raided mosques in Berlin, Bremen, and NRW. Police had previously placed the mosques under surveillance due to what they stated were their pro-Hizballah sympathies and links with extremist groups. In May, police searched the official rooms of the al-Mustafa community in Woltmershausen in Lower Saxony as well as the private residences of community leaders, alleging a close association of al-Mustafa with Hizballah.
Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor numerous Muslim groups, including the terrorist groups ISIS, Hizballah, and Hamas as well as groups such as Turkish Hizballah, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg, the Muslim Brotherhood, Milli Gorus, and various Salafist movements. Hamburg opposition parties and civil society actors continued to advocate an end to Hamburg’s formal relationship with the “Islamic Center,” which they described as an important Iranian regime asset.
In May, the OPC in Saxony reported it was monitoring two mosques that it said were dominated by Salafists.
Groups under OPC observation continued to say that OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and that this constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.
Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July, and consistent with its commitment to prioritize the fight against anti-Semitism, it organized an online conference November 18 on combating anti-Semitism and hate speech, and two weeks later, the council unanimously approved a declaration mainstreaming the fight against anti-Semitism across all policy areas. The council also published the largest survey ever conducted among European Jews on their perceptions and experiences of anti-Semitism.
In August, the federal labor court awarded a Muslim computer scientist approximately 5,200 euros ($6,400) in compensation for religious discrimination. In 2017, the plaintiff had insisted on wearing her headscarf in class as part of an interview for a position in the public school service and was subsequently denied a job. The rejected applicant said this was religious discrimination and sued for compensation under the General Equality Act. The Berlin Labor Court dismissed the claim, but the Berlin-Brandenburg Regional Labor Court upheld it, referring to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2015 that stated that rejection of female applicants wearing headscarves must be justified by a concrete threat to the peace of the school. Berlin appealed but lost at the Federal Labor Court, which saw the Berlin position as “a disproportionate interference with freedom of religion.” The court called upon Berlin to amend its neutrality law that forbids civil servants from wearing religious clothing and symbols.
In February, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that a Muslim law clerk could be prohibited from wearing a headscarf during court proceedings. In its ruling, the court said the judiciary’s obligation to observe complete neutrality outweighed the clerk’s freedom of religion rights. The clerk sued Hesse state in 2017 for not permitting her to follow court proceedings from the bench, lead courtroom sessions, or take evidence from witnesses while she was wearing a headscarf.
In May, the Lower Saxony state parliament amended the law to prohibit judges and prosecutors from wearing religious symbols or clothing in the courtroom. State Justice Minister Barbara Havliza said that it was necessary in view of the increasing diversity in society and important for the perceived neutrality of the judiciary.
In April, the Rhineland-Palatinate state government forbade students in primary and secondary schools from full-face veiling at school (i.e., wearing a niqab or burqa). In July, Baden-Wuerttemberg did the same. For both states, the ban on full covering did not apply in higher education. Teachers in both states had already been forbidden from full-face veiling at school.
In February, an administrative court in Hamburg overturned a school’s ban on niqabs, ruling that state law does not allow educational authorities to impose such a ban. The court said the 16-year-old who challenged the ban had the right to “unconditional protection” of her freedom of belief. The Hamburg state minister of education said he would seek to change the law, because “only if students and teachers have a free and open face can school and lessons function.”
In September, the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster overturned a 2018 decision by an administrative court which banned a local mosque’s outdoor amplification of the call to prayer in the town Oer-Erkenschwick. Local residents said this was a noise disturbance. In its ruling, the Muenster court compared the call to prayer with the sound of church bells. During the COVID-19 lockdown, some mosques in NRW received temporary permission to conduct calls to prayer via loudspeaker.
In June, the Lower Saxony Higher Administrative Court ruled a Muslim teacher denied employment for wearing a headscarf could assert a claim for compensation through the General Equal Treatment Act.
In February, a district court ordered a fitness studio in Oststeinbek to compensate a Muslim client 1,000 euros ($1,200). The studio had prohibited the woman from exercising with a headscarf, citing insurance reasons. The woman brought legal action based on the General Equal Treatment Act.
In September, the Karlsruhe Labor Court ruled the Protestant Regional Church in Baden discriminated against an atheist applicant who had unsuccessfully applied for a secretarial position in 2019. The court ordered the Church to pay compensation of 5,000 euros ($6,100) for illegally asking the applicant about her religious beliefs.
According to a May survey of state-level education ministries, more than 900 schools in the country offered Islamic religious instruction. Almost 60,000 students took part in Islamic religious instruction in the school year 2019-20, an increase of 4,000 from the previous year. Since 2017-18, approximately 35 schools have added Islamic religious instruction.
In October, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 30.5 million euros ($37.4 million) in government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 524 million euros ($642.9 million) in 2020 to 554.5 million euros ($680.4 million) in 2021. The government also agreed to provide an additional 564 million euros ($692 million) over the next two years to help financially struggling Holocaust survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government contributed 13 million euros ($15.9 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international group researching the history and culture of German Jewry.
State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state government contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD totaled approximately 570 million euros ($699.4 million). The union said it calculated its estimate based on budgets of the 16 states. The Humanistic Union advocates the abolition of state church privileges such as faith-based religious education as a regular school subject, collection of church taxes, and other financial aid.
In July, the Federal Supreme Court rejected the appeals of seven men who had been fined by a lower court in 2019 for wearing yellow vests marked “Sharia Police” and patrolling the streets of Wuppertal in 2014 looking for “non-Muslim” behavior. They had been charged with wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion. A regional court acquitted them in 2016, but the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the acquittal in 2018.
The government continued the German Islam Conference dialogue with Muslims in the country. The dialogue’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and – in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country – further develop partnerships between the government and Muslim organizations. The conference held a video discussion on imam training with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on November 10. Participants discussed initiatives to promote imam training, including imam employment in congregations, religious instruction in public schools, and pastoral care in public institutions, especially prison and military chaplaincies. The Interior Minister discussed the Independent Expert Group on Anti-Muslim Hostility, established in September, which focuses on distinguishing between criticism of religion and hostility toward Muslims.
In May, the Bundestag unanimously approved a bill authorizing rabbis to serve as military chaplains, performing pastoral services for the approximately 300 Jewish soldiers in the Bundeswehr (federal army). The Bundesrat, the chamber representing the federal states, also approved the bill in July. The selection of up to 10 rabbis was scheduled to begin in autumn. The country’s Conference of Orthodox Rabbis welcomed the action as “an important signal, especially in times…when there is again fertile ground for anti-Semitism, hate from the far right, and conspiracy theorists.” The federal government also said it was developing plans to authorize Muslim chaplains for the approximately 3,000 Muslims serving in the Bundeswehr, but the Central Council of Muslims Chair Aiman Mazyek said in a July interview that the government had not yet taken any concrete steps. In December, the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg appointed police rabbis for the first time in its history, one for the Jewish Religious Community of Wuerttemberg, and one for the Baden region. Their tasks included raising awareness of Jewish issues among police officers.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and held the organization’s chairmanship during 2020.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During a Sukkot celebration for students at the Hohe Weide Synagogue in Hamburg on October 4, an individual wearing a military-style uniform struck a Jewish student in the head with a shovel, leaving the victim with a serious head injury. Police arrested the attacker, a 29-year-old male with Kazakh roots residing in Berlin. Authorities, including Foreign Minister Maas, Minister of Justice Lambrecht, and Hamburg Mayor Tschentscher, condemned the attack. The case was awaiting court prosecution at year’s end.
On December 21, the gunman who attacked the Halle synagogue and killed two individuals on Yom Kippur 2019 was sentenced to life imprisonment with subsequent preventative detention. The court found the attacker “severely guilty” of two counts of murder; 51 counts of attempted murder for his attack on the synagogue; several counts of attempted murder for his attack on a kebab shop, bystanders, and police officers; incitement; Holocaust denial; grievous bodily harm; and negligent physical injury. The verdict cited the attacker’s lack of remorse and expressed desire to reoffend as support for issuing the maximum sentence.
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes committed during 2019 (the most recent statistics available), including 72 incidents involving violence. This represented a 13 percent increase from the 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes reported in 2018, of which 69 were violent.
The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents increased from 48 in 2018 to 56 in 2019. In May, Interior Minister Seehofer stated, “Right-wing extremism, racism, and anti-Semitism…continue to represent the greatest threat to security in Germany. We have every reason to proceed with the greatest vigilance here.” According to the report, membership in right-wing extremist parties such as the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party increased from approximately 5,500 persons in 2018 to 13,330 in 2019. The report noted, however, this rise was entirely due to the reclassification of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany Party’s youth organization as well as its far-right faction formerly known as “The Wing” as extremist.
In May, the Ministry of Interior presented its annual report on politically motivated crime, which stated there were 41,177 such crimes in 2019, a 14.2 percent increase from 2018. Police registered 8,585 crimes motivated by racism or xenophobia, which encompasses religion, a 5.8 percent increase.
RIAS, to which victims may report anti-Semitic incidents independent of filing charges with police, reported 1,253 incidents in the states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Bavaria, and Schleswig-Holstein in 2019. RIAS reported 410 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of 2020, comparable to the 404 incidents over the same period in 2019, despite the stringent COVID-related restrictions on public life. This included 26 incidents involving violence or threatened violence (down from 33), 58 examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, and 301 examples of malicious behavior, such as giving the Nazi salute. RIAS used categories different from official police statistics and included anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. According to RIAS, the largest motivating factor for anti-Semitic attacks was right-wing political ideology.
From mid-March to mid-June, RIAS registered anti-Semitic incidents at 123 separate demonstrations against restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Incidents included positive references to Nazis, including comments by protest organizer Attila Hildmann that Adolf Hitler was “a blessing” in comparison to Angela Merkel and the use of anti-Semitic conspiracy myths, including the assertion that Jews were responsible for unleashing the virus.
Lower Saxony’s government recorded 172 anti-Semitic crimes in 2019, up from 127 in 2018. The Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania government counted 34 such crimes for the first half of 2020, up from 18 during the same time period in 2019. Alexander Rasumny of RIAS attributed the increase to two factors: first, he said, every attack potentially triggers another attack, and second, the culture of political and social debate had become more “brutalized” in Germany than in other countries.
In 2019 (most recent data available), the Ministry of Interior registered 950 incidents targeting Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers. This was an increase from the 910 incidents in 2018. The ministry classified 90.1 percent of these incidents as right-wing extremism. Other recorded incidents included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street.
A Hildesheim resident was arrested on June 5, suspected of planning attacks against Muslims and mosques, according to prosecutors. Police found weapons at his apartment and “data files with radical right-wing contents.” The suspect had said in an online chat that he wanted to carry out an attack similar to the 2019 mosque attacks in New Zealand and “kill Muslims.” The Celle prosecutor general’s office brought charges against the 21-year-old defendant on suspicion of incitement and of preparing a serious act of violence endangering the state. His trial began in December and was continuing at year’s end.
The Ministry of Interior counted 128 anti-Christian incidents in 2019, including 16 cases involving violence. The ministry classified 30 percent of these incidents as motivated by right-wing ideology and 21 percent as motivated by left-wing ideology.
In March, the NRW Department of the Interior released information showing the number of politically motivated attacks on Jews, Muslims, and Christians rose significantly in 2019. Offenses against Jews quintupled since 2018, from seven to 35, attacks against Muslims almost tripled from 15 to 42, and offenses against Christians more than doubled from four to nine. A total of 42 suspects were identified, the vast majority of whom were German citizens and had right-wing backgrounds.
In January, a boy found a homemade explosive device near the access area of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial site in Thuringia. Due to the proximity to the memorial, the State Security Service was also involved in the investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end.
On July 9 in downtown Munich, four individuals followed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Brodman and shouted insults at him. Brodman called police, who were unable to locate the perpetrators. The offenders reportedly insulted the rabbi in English and spoke among themselves in Arabic. Bavaria’s Anti-Semitism Commissioner Spaenle expressed concern that several eyewitnesses had not intervened on the rabbi’s behalf.
In July, as yet unidentified suspects left severed pig heads in front of the Islamic Cultural Center in Greifswald on two separate occasions. As of December, police were investigating.
According to media reports, women who wore the hijab continued to face employment discrimination.
In October, a Brandenburg road construction company rejected an applicant because he was a practicing Muslim. The managing director sent the applicant a rejection notice in which he wrote, “Islam is not compatible with the constitution.” He confirmed this with the local public media, adding “I cannot employ practicing Muslims because there would be unrest.” Brandenburg police told the applicant that he could report an offense like this, because denying employment on the basis of an applicant’s religion contravenes the General Equal Treatment Act.
On January 4, the Leipziger Volkszeitung reported that local construction companies had declined orders for the construction of a mosque in Erfurt because they feared their involvement would precipitate attacks on their vehicles by opponents of the mosque. One businessman said he had lost orders in the past after his involvement in the construction of a mosque was made public.
There were several reported incidents of arson in churches. In three separate incidents in February, March, and May, unknown individuals set fire to church bulletins, a Bible, and an altar at a church in Krefeld. Unknown individuals damaged a window in a church in Neuenkirchen while attempting to start a fire in August. In September, unknown persons broke a window and unsuccessfully attempted to set a church on fire in Wolgast. Police began investigations of all the cases, which were pending as of December.
In July, unknown perpetrators desecrated a memorial site for the survivors of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. No suspects could be identified, and investigations by local authorities were ongoing as of December.
In February, unknown persons vandalized a mosque in Emmendingen, Baden-Wuerttemberg with swastikas and rightwing slogans. Local police said they believed the incident was related to a series of similar acts of vandalism in February.
In April, a restroom in a Jewish-owned restaurant in Frankfurt was vandalized with anti-Semitic and Nazi images. As of December, state police were investigating.
In August, an Israeli-owned bar in Berlin was attacked by arsonists, according to police. A RIAS representative said the bar had been a target of anti-Semitic attacks in the past. In the incident, graffiti including a Star of David and numbers linked to the slogan of the Hitler Youth organization were found in the bar. As of December, police were investigating the incident.
In January, police arrested two individuals in the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in the town of Geilenkirchen. The police stated the pair knocked over more than 40 gravestones in the cemetery and defaced some of the graves with blue paint.
In June, unknown individuals vandalized Alevi Muslim graves in Ludwigsburg, Baden-Wuerttemberg. As of December, local police were investigating.
In October, a piece of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah was removed from its case at the Tiferet Israel synagogue’s doorpost in Berlin, defaced with swastikas, and replaced. Foreign Minister Maas tweeted, “It simply hurt to see something so disgusting” and called for the crime to be solved quickly and those responsible punished. As of December, state police were investigating.
In April, unknown individuals damaged the door and windows of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) mosque in Cologne. The same night, vandals smashed the windows of a DITIB administrative building in Cologne. Local politicians condemned the act. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker said she rejected all kinds of violence against religious facilities. As of December, police were investigating.
In August, an accomplice in a 2019 incident in which a bloody pig’s head, plastic bags filled with blood, right-wing extremist slogans, and swastikas were found in front of the Arrahman Mosque in Moenchengladbach, was sentenced to eight months’ probation. As of December, the main suspect’s trial was still pending.
The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly. “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church continued to investigate “sects and cults” and publicize what they considered to be the dangers of these groups. On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views continued to warn the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing the groups.
In May, the University of Duisburg-Essen, Bielefeld University, and the Mercator Foundation published a joint study on the attitudes of young people in NRW towards Islam. The study concluded that, although the majority of young people supported diversity, rejected discrimination, and had knowledge about Islam, stereotypes and prejudice remained widespread.
The far-right group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden, although media reports indicated significantly fewer demonstrators than in previous years. Approximately 300 to 400 supporters continued to join PEGIDA rallies, even after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The demonstrations were approved by authorities contingent upon participants adhering to mask and social distancing requirements. Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings.
On December 14, the Dresden District Court fined PEGIDA’s founder and organizer, Lutz Bachmann, 4,200 euros ($5,200) for incitement and slander. Bachmann had denounced Muslims as “murderer Muslims” and “rapist Muslims.”
After the Dresden City Council’s October, 2019 declaration of a Nazi emergency, mainstream parties as well as grassroots organizations worked together to counteract right-wing extremism. The Dresden chapters of the CDU, the SPD, and the Greens formally formed a cross-party alliance against the extreme right in February.
In April and May, some protesters at demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions in Stuttgart and Berlin wore yellow Stars of David to indicate their opposition to mandatory vaccines, equating the anti-COVID lockdown to Nazi-era persecution of Jews. Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews, said to the media on May 11 that right-wing protesters were using anxieties stirred up by the pandemic to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and other far-right preaching on the internet. Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner Klein said anti-Semitic sentiments were regularly part of protests against the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. In June and July, respectively, Munich and Wiesbaden banned the Star of David symbol at COVID-19 protests. Ahead of a November protest in Frankfurt, the city banned the display of the Star of David alongside slogans such as “unvaccinated,” “vaccination sets you free,” “Dr. Mengele,” or “Zion.”
On August 1, a rally supported by neo-Nazi groups drew more than 20,000 protesters in Berlin to demand an end to coronavirus restrictions. The rally was called a “Day of Freedom” by its organizers, the Stuttgart-based Querdenken 711 (“Thinking Outside the Box”) group. According to RIAS observers, some participants displayed anti-Semitic slogans, while others compared the government’s anti-COVID restrictions to Nazi regulations. Police charged the rally organizer for failure to comply with social distancing rules.
An estimated 23 churches continued to use bells bearing Nazi symbols and inscriptions. In January, a Protestant church in Thuringia replaced a bell with Nazi symbols after the Association of Protestant Churches in Central Germany (EKM) agreed to replace all such bells. The EKM also offered financial support to local churches to cover the cost of new bells.
In February, seven students at a police academy in Baden-Wuerttemberg were expelled for exchanging chat-group messages that included anti-Semitic and Nazi content.
From late 2018 through 2020, more than 85 threatening letters with right-wing extremist content, sometimes including anti-Semitic content, were sent to politicians, journalists, and other prominent figures. Many of the most visible targets were Muslim women. Among the recipients were the heads of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Personal, nonpublic data gained from police computers appeared in some letters. In September, a Frankfurt police officer was arrested in connection with the case. Investigations continued as of year’s end.
In February, one week after a man killed nine persons with migrant backgrounds at two shisha bars (hookah lounges) in Hanau, a mosque in Hanau received an anonymous threatening letter that made direct reference to the attack. As of December, police were investigating.
In February, mosques in Essen, Unna, Bielefeld, and Hagen received bomb threats by email and were evacuated. No bombs were detected. A DITIB representative said the anonymous bomb threats were signed by the right-wing Kampfgruppe 18 group and were politically motivated.
In February, the Pew Research Center published its findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 72 percent of German respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it in the middle of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy and the five consulates general continued to engage closely with authorities at all levels of government regarding responses to incidents of religious intolerance, although due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online and remote engagements often substituted for face-to-face meetings and special events related to religious freedom issues. Embassy and consulate officials met regularly with a wide variety of federal and state parliamentarians to discuss religious freedom issues.
Embassy and consulate representatives met with members and leaders of numerous local and national religious and civil society groups about their concerns related to tolerance and freedom of religion. Topics of discussion with Jewish groups included concerns about what they characterized as the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism throughout the country and concern that right-wing groups have exacerbated anti-Semitism. Embassy and consulate representatives also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with the Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant churches; the Central Council of Muslims; the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers; the Central Council of Jews in Germany; the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany; the World Uyghur Congress; Alevi Muslims; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and human rights NGOs.
On January 27, the Leipzig Consul General participated in a Holocaust commemoration event hosted by the local Jewish community and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Erfurt, Thuringia. He discussed the consulate’s efforts to educate local youth on the Holocaust, for example by planning to bring a Simon Wiesenthal Center exhibition on Jewish history to Leipzig.
The embassy and consulates worked closely with Jewish communities, especially in eastern Germany, to provide small grants in support of programs promoting religious tolerance to leading NGOs countering violent extremism related to religion and anti-Semitism.
In August, the consulate in Leipzig supported the 20th Yiddish Summer Weimar in Thuringia, one of the world’s leading summer programs for the study and presentation of traditional and contemporary Yiddish culture. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the concerts and workshops took place outdoors in public spaces in Weimar, Erfurt, and Eisenach, attracting a broader audience than usual.
In February, consulate officers in Duesseldorf met with the chief administrator of the Jewish Community in Cologne. The discussion focused on the experience of the Jewish community across the country and public outreach planning for the 2021 festival “1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany.”
On December 4 and 5, the embassy organized a virtual teacher academy on “Jewish-American Life and Culture” that engaged German and American experts with 70 teachers from across the country. The program offered tools and content for the classroom to elevate coursework that combats anti-Semitism beyond a simple recounting of history. The conference reached an indirect audience of hundreds of teachers and approximately 10,000 to 14,000 of their students nationwide.
The embassy and consulates actively promoted religious freedom and tolerance through their social media channels, utilizing Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to highlight the engagement of senior embassy officials on the issue. For example, on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Halle synagogue, the embassy published a statement on its social media accounts that said “we remember the victims of this senseless tragedy, and stand firm in our resolve to confront, condemn, and stop anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism.” The postings reached large audiences.
Read A Section: Hong Kong
China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau
The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.
Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.
The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.
There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”
The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. If a state of emergency is proclaimed, the rights may not be limited based solely on religion.
On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.
Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both, provided they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Dafa Association is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it may establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.
The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.
The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.
Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.
The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.
An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.
Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.
The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.
Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.
Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”
In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, “When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”
Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.
During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.
In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.
Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.
In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.
Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.
In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.
Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.
Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.
In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”
Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.
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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau
The constitution and other laws prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religion and worship. The law requires religious groups and faith-based organizations (FBOs) to obtain legal status before beginning operations. It also calls for legal representatives of FBOs and preachers with supervisory responsibilities to hold academic degrees. During the year, the government allowed a small number of the more than 6,000 churches, mosques, and other places of worship that had remained closed since 2018 for violating health and safety standards or noise pollution ordinances to reopen after they made required infrastructure improvements. Government officials stated that time and resource constraints prevented many religious groups from bringing their places of worship into compliance with government requirements during the year. Civil society and religious leaders noted that the required improvements were often prohibitively expensive for religious groups of modest means (which constituted the majority), and that the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic had depleted their financial resources. Following engagement with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the government amended the law and eliminated a requirement that civil servants and teachers swear an oath of allegiance to the country as a condition of employment. Jehovah’s Witnesses had long sought this change on the grounds that the oath requirement violated their religious beliefs.
Religious leaders stated numerous faith-based groups and associations contributed to greater understanding and tolerance by participating in interfaith meetings, organizing activities under the auspices of an interfaith religious leaders’ forum, and collaborating on community development projects.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives engaged the government to discuss the FBO law and its implementation. Embassy representatives consulted with religious groups and FBOs on continued challenges in meeting government requirements for reopening places of worship. Embassy representatives also urged the government to communicate clearly to religious groups the infrastructure improvements that were required and allow flexibility in working to reopen places of worship. The Ambassador and embassy representatives also discussed with religious organizations the impact of COVID-19 on their communities and how they could help communities deal with challenges posed by the pandemic. The embassy engaged religious groups virtually and emphasized the importance of interfaith dialogue and mutual support, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2012 census, the population is 44 percent Catholic; 38 percent Protestant, including Anglican, Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and evangelical Christian churches; 12 percent Seventh-day Adventist; 2 percent Muslim; and 0.7 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses. Several other small religious groups, together constituting less than 1 percent of the population, include animists, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community consisting entirely of foreigners. Approximately 2.5 percent of the population holds no religious beliefs. The head office of the Rwanda Muslim Community (RMC) stated Muslims could constitute as much as 12 to 15 percent of the population. The majority of Muslims are Sunni, with a small number of Shia (200-300), according to the RMC. While generally there are no concentrations of religious groups in certain geographic areas, a significant number of Muslims live in the Nyamirambo neighborhood of Kigali.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, worship, and public manifestation thereof even when the government declares a state of emergency. Exercising these rights may be subject to limitations to ensure respect of others’ rights and good morals, public order, and social welfare. The constitution bars political parties based on religious affiliation. The penal code stipulates religious discrimination is punishable by five to seven years in prison and fines of 100,000 to 1,000,000 Rwandan francs ($110 to $1,100).
Under the law determining the organization and functioning of FBOs, which include religious groups and nongovernmental organizations associated with religious groups, any organization, umbrella organization, or ministry that intends to begin operations must obtain legal status from the Rwanda Governance Board (RGB). According to the law, an FBO must submit the following to obtain legal status: an application letter addressed to the RGB; notarized statutes governing its organization; the address of its head office and the names of its legal representative and deputy, their duties, full address, and criminal records; a document certifying the legal representative and deputy were appointed in accordance with its statutes; a brief notarized statement explaining its doctrine; a notarized declaration of the legal representatives of the organization of consent to the responsibilities assigned to them; notarized minutes of the group’s general assembly that established the organization, approved its statutes, and appointed members of its organs; a notarized document describing the organization’s annual action plan and source of funding; a document indicating the building that meets the requirements of the building code of the area of operation; a letter issued by district authorities agreeing to collaborate with the organization; a partnership document issued by an umbrella organization of the organization’s choosing; and proof of payment of a nonrefundable application fee. The law states the RGB must either issue a certificate of legal personality within 60 days of the date of receipt of the application or, in case of denial, send a written notice explaining the reasons for the denial within 30 days of the date of receipt of the application. Under the law, FBOs that already held legal personality as of September 10, 2018, when the current law was passed, were not required to reapply but had to harmonize their functioning and statutes with the current law and submit the revised statutes to the RGB within 12 months of the law’s enactment.
Under the law, if the RGB denies an FBO’s application for legal status, the group may reapply when the reason for denial no longer exists.
The law stipulates that preachers with supervisory responsibilities must possess a degree in religious studies from an institution of higher learning or any other degree with a valid certificate in religious studies issued by a recognized institution. The law also requires that an FBO’s legal representative hold a degree from an institution of higher learning. The law states that persons required to hold an academic degree shall have five years from the date of the law’s enactment to comply with the requirement.
The law establishes fines of one to two million francs ($1,100 to $2,100) and imprisonment from one to two years for any individual who obstructs the practice of religious rituals. The law also prohibits public defamation of rituals, symbols, and “religious cult objects.” The penalty is imprisonment for a term of not less than 15 days but less than three months and a fine of 100,000 to 200,000 francs ($110 to $210), or only one of these penalties.
The law regulates public meetings and states that any person who holds a meeting or demonstration in a public place without prior authorization is subject to eight days’ to six months’ imprisonment, a fine of 100,000 to 1,000,000 francs ($110 to $1,100), or both. Penalties increase if the illegal meeting or demonstration is found to have threatened security, public order, or health. The law states that religious sermons must be delivered in designated facilities that meet the requirements of the law and that if an FBO intends to organize a special public gathering, it must seek authorization from the competent authority.
Under the law, FBOs are prohibited from causing noise pollution. Offenders are subject to a fine of 100,000 to 1,000,000 francs ($110 to $1,100), and repeat offenders are subject to increased fines and up to one month’s imprisonment. By law, groups may not use their faith, religious practices, and preaching to jeopardize national unity, peace and security, public order and health, good morals, good conduct, freedom, or the fundamental rights of others.
Students in public primary school and the first three years of secondary education must take a survey class on world religions, ethics, and citizenship. The Ministry of Education establishes the curriculum. The law does not specify either opt-out provisions or penalties for not taking part in the class. The law allows parents to enroll their children in private religious schools.
The government subsidizes some schools affiliated with religious groups. A presidential order guarantees students attending any government-subsidized school the right to worship according to their beliefs during the school day, as long as their religious groups are registered in the country and the students’ worship practices do not interfere with learning and teaching activities. The order does not stipulate any procedure for arranging special accommodations.
The law states FBOs may give their opinions on social or faith-related matters but may not engage in political activities to gain political power, organize debates to support political organizations or political candidates, or use any other means to support candidates for any public office.
Every foreign missionary must have a temporary resident permit and a foreign identity card. Specific requirements to obtain the permit (which is valid for two years and renewable) include a signed curriculum vitae, an original police clearance from the country of prior residence, an authorization letter from the parent organization, and a fee of 100,000 francs ($110).
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, many places of worship remained closed because they failed to make government-mandated infrastructure improvements to address health and safety standards or noise pollution ordinances. Government officials stated that these requirements were necessary to protect the health of worshippers and said that while some places of worship had been closed, religious organizations were not prohibited from operating. They stated that time and resource constraints prevented many religious groups from bringing their places of worship into compliance with government requirements during the year, and added that many religious groups made arrangements to worship elsewhere until they could make improvements to their facilities. Of the 8,760 places of worship that were closed in 2018, the government reported 2,016 were allowed to reopen as of December 2019 after making required improvements. An additional 215 places of worship were allowed to reopen during the year after making required improvements.
Civil society and religious leaders reported that most places of worship that were not in compliance in 2019 continued to be out of compliance during the year and thus remained closed. They stated the required improvements were often prohibitively expensive for organizations of modest means (which constituted the majority) and that the economic effects of COVID-19 had left them with limited resources to make improvements.
Religious leaders said the same requirements applied to places of worship in both urban and rural areas and that the government applied the same infrastructure improvement requirements in urban and rural areas without regard for the level of economic development in the area. Religious leaders raised concerns that long-term closures of places of worship would negatively affect education and economic development in their communities because FBOs and religious groups often sponsored schools and provided access to finance through lending groups or banking services.
Media reported several cases in which local officials broke up groups that had gathered to pray in homes or in caves in contravention of COVID-19-related government prohibitions on mass gatherings, including those for religious purposes. In July, the government announced that places of worship could resume holding services after implementing COVID-19 preventive measures and obtaining approval from local authorities. Government officials stated that the government coordinated closely with religious leaders to develop guidelines on hand washing, physical distancing, and other safe practices that would allow for the resumption of services. Government and religious group representatives reported that many groups resumed services in line with these guidelines, although some groups in rural areas found meeting the requirements difficult.
In August, the government eliminated a requirement in the law mandating that civil servants and teachers swear an oath of allegiance to the country as a condition of employment. Jehovah’s Witnesses had long sought this change on the grounds that the oath requirement violated their religious beliefs and constituted a major barrier to employment. The amended law requires an oath only for elected offices. Jehovah’s Witnesses noted parliamentary debate on the issue featured parliamentarians advocating for the law to be changed to make it more inclusive of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Government officials presiding over wedding ceremonies generally required couples to comply with the legal requirement that they take a pledge while touching the national flag, which ran counter to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious beliefs. The government sought to accommodate Jehovah’s Witnesses by allowing them to request modified wedding ceremonies without the flag pledge, although many couples reportedly faced delays arranging a ceremony with that special accommodation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses students faced sporadic challenges with respect to military and patriotic activities and certain religious services at school. Although the law protects students’ rights not to participate in these activities, Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that some school administrators of both public and religious schools were not aware of or did not enforce those protections.
Civil society leaders reported that the government pressured prominent religious leaders to be “positive” personalities and refrain from making statements in conflict with government policies.
Muslim community leaders stated that they maintained a collaborative relationship with the National Police and continued to work to combat extremism and radicalization in the Muslim community. Leaders said that they conducted training throughout the year to educate young Muslims about the dangers of extremism.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religious leaders said numerous religious groups and associations contributed to greater religious understanding and tolerance by participating in interfaith activities and collaborating on public awareness campaigns. During the year, the Rwanda Religious Leaders Forum (RRLF), an organization under the joint leadership of the Grand Mufti of Rwanda and Protestant, Catholic, Anglican, and evangelical Christian leaders, continued to pursue its stated aim of strengthening interfaith collaboration on education, combating gender-based violence, and promoting socioeconomic development, unity, and reconciliation. The RRLF also made public statements advocating for reopening places of worship after the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown and worked with the government to develop parameters under which religious services could resume.
Observers said religious organizations played a crucial role in meeting the humanitarian needs of poor and vulnerable citizens most affected by COVID-19.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy representatives continued to engage with government officials and religious organizations on the FBO law and its implementation. Embassy representatives discussed the law with government officials and encouraged the government to maintain clear channels of communication with religious groups and FBOs. Embassy representatives urged the government to be flexible in the application of government regulations and to work with religious groups and FBOs to reopen places of worship. Embassy representatives closely monitored whether COVID-19-related enforcement of public health directives affecting religious groups were applied consistently across all parts of society.
The embassy hosted interfaith discussions focused on religious diversity and how faith groups could help their communities cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. In October, the Ambassador hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives of Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Protestant, and Muslim communities. The groups discussed the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance and highlighted the benefits of interfaith cooperation for the country.
The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution states “religious associations shall be separate from the state” and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons younger than the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. The government continued to detain and prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusal to serve in the military. In some cases, there were allegations of physical abuse. Jehovah’s Witnesses have unsuccessfully sought registration since 2007, and some adherents have claimed harassment by authorities. In April, a Shohmansur district court in Dushanbe convicted independent journalist Daler Sharifov of “inciting religious hatred,” sentencing him to one year in prison. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at Hanafi Sunni mosques. Government officials continued to take measures to prevent individuals from joining or participating in religious organizations identified by authorities as extremist and banned, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region for membership in banned “extremist organizations.” In March, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had arrested 154 individuals suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. In August, a Sughd Region court sentenced 20 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood to between five and seven years of prison for their membership in a banned organization. Law enforcement agencies continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or support of groups banned by the government, including groups that advocated for Islamic political goals and presented themselves as political opponents to the government, according to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Authorities continued a pattern of harassing men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including hijabs. According to international NGOs, the CRA levied heavy fines on four Protestant churches between August 2019 and January 2020 for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik without prior CRA approval, as required by law. The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview. The government noted its intent to reschedule a visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the religious situation in the country and make suggestions to address concerns. The visit planned for 2020 did not take place due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government on a frequent basis during in-person meetings, virtual gatherings, and calls to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers raised concerns regarding the participation of women and minors in religious services, restrictions on the religious education of youth, the situation facing Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and harassment of those wearing religious attire.
In 2016, the country was 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, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to local academics, the country is more than 90 percent Muslim, of whom the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region, located in the eastern part of the country.
The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox. There are small communities of evangelical Christians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and nondenominational Protestants. There also are smaller communities of Jews, Baha’is, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares the country a secular state and “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.” According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies. Since October 2007, the government has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses for carrying out religious activities contrary to the country’s laws, such as refusing obligatory military service.
The establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of constitutional order or organizing of armed groups is prohibited. The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” that encourages religious enmity. In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.
The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.
The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power. This definition includes inciting religious hatred.
The law prohibits individuals from joining or participating in what it considers to be extremist organizations. The government maintains a list of “extremist organizations” that it alleges employ terrorist tactics in an effort to advance Islamic political goals, including the National Alliance of Tajikistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT).
The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion. The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.
The law defines a religious association as any group composed of persons who join for religious purposes. A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, as well as spreading religious beliefs. To register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons older than the age of 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming the adherents of their religious faith have lived in a local area for five years. The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with their home addresses and dates of birth. The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage. A religious association must provide information on its houses of worship, which includes religious centers, central prayer houses, and religious educational institutions. The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.
The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law. To operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.
A religious organization provides for religious education and the spreading of religious faith. Types of religious organizations include the Republican Religious Center, central Friday mosques, central prayer houses, religious education entities, churches, and synagogues. Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters. They may be district, municipal, or national organizations.
A religious community, unlike a religious organization, is not a legal entity. Its members gather to conduct other religious activities, which are not defined by law. For example, individuals gather for joint prayer, attend funeral prayers, and celebrate religious holidays. Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and other places of worship. A religious community functions on the basis of a charter after registering with the CRA, and the nature and scope of its activities are determined by the charter. A religious community must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in its charter.
The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charters, and it assigns the CRA responsibility for issuing fines for such activities. The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration or reregistration; violating provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association. For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 406 to 580 somoni ($36-$51), heads of religious associations 1,160 to 1,740 somoni ($100-$150), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 5,800 to 11,600 somoni ($510-$1,000). For repeat offenses within one year of applying first fines, penalties are increased to 696 to 1,160 somoni ($61-$100) for individuals, 2,320 to 2,900 somoni ($200-$260) for heads of religious associations, and 17,400 to 23,200 somoni ($1,500-$2,000) for registered religious associations. If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.
The law allows restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion deemed necessary by the government to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of the foundations of constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country. In addition, religious organizations annually must report general information about worship, organizational, educational, and outreach activities to the state, and the state must approve the appointments of all imams.
The Law on Freedom of Conscience (the Law) stipulates that no party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as representing state ideology. The Law also asserts that the state maintains control over religious education to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.
The Law broadly empowers the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies. In addition to approving the registration of religious associations, organizations, and communities, the CRA maintains a broad mandate that includes approving the construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.
The CRA oversees activities of religious associations, such as the performance of religious rites, and the development and adoption of legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations. Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, property lists, expenditures, numbers of employees, wages and taxes paid, and other information upon request by the CRA.
The Freedom of Conscience Law recognizes the special status of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life. This status is aspirational, however, and does not have any specific legal bearing.
The Freedom of Conscience Law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations: mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines. It regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques that may be registered within a given population area. The government allows “Friday mosques,” which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, to be located in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time mosques,” which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000. In Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000. The Law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city and makes other mosques subordinate to it.
Mosques function according to their charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population. The Law states the selection of chief-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers), and imams (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in five-time mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA must approve imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque. Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.” The CRA disseminates recommended talking points for Friday sermons drafted by the Islamic Center. Individual imam-khatibs can modify or supplement the talking points, and, according to the CRA, there is no penalty for noncompliance.
The Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and observations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, including limiting the number of guests, and it controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals. The statute also states that mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions. This statute also bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and 40th day after a death. Traditional sacrifices are permissible during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha.
According to the Law on Regulation of Traditions and Celebrations, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language and national dress.” According to customary (not official) interpretation, “national dress” does not include the hijab, although it does include a traditional Tajik form of covering a woman’s head, known as ruymol. The Code of Administrative violations (the Code) does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.
The Law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials containing religious content after receiving CRA approval. Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises that produce literature and material with religious content. Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it. The Code allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without CRA permission. According to the Code, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,740 to 4,060 somoni ($150-$360) for individuals; 2,900 to 8,700 somoni ($260-$770) for government officials; and 5,800 to 17,400 somoni ($510-$1,500) for legal entities, a category that includes all organizations. According to the Code, producing literature or material containing religious content without identifying the name of the religious organization producing it entails fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) and confiscation of the material.
The Law on Parental Responsibility for Education and Upbringing of Children prohibits individuals younger than the age of 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship. Individuals younger than 18 may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance. The statute allows individuals younger than 18 to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.
The Law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to meet the Ministry of Education and Science’s statutory requirements. In practice, however, such permission is usually not granted because madrassahs are not able to meet the ministry’s requirements relative to classrooms, qualified teachers, and curriculum. Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates. Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charter and if licensed by the government.
With written parental consent, the Law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside mandatory school hours. According to the Law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum. As part of the high school curriculum, students must take general classes on the “history of religions.” The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.
According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn. The Law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family. The Law also restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent. To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a degree in religious studies domestically and receive written consent from the CRA. The Code stipulates fines of 2,900 to 5,800 somoni ($260-$510) for violating these restrictions.
The Law on General Military Duty and Service requires men to serve one year in the armed forces if they have a university degree and two years if they have not graduated from a university. This same statute allows for alternative service, although the government has yet to adopt implementing regulations that specify acceptable forms of alternative service.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
In January, authorities charged independent journalist Daler Sharifov with “inciting racial and religious hatred.” According to international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, police raided his apartment in January and confiscated religious books and materials and his computer. In February, the Prosecutor General’s Office said that Sharifov had published more than 200 articles and notes containing extremist content aimed at inciting religious intolerance. According to government religious experts, Sharifov published a treatise extolling the Muslim Brotherhood movement and jihadist ideology. In April, a Shohmansur district court sentenced Sharifov to a one-year prison term.
In November, Forum 18 reported that authorities arrested Rustamjon Norov, a 22-year-old Jehovah’s Witness, in the northern city of Khujand for refusing military service on grounds of conscience. Prosecutors accused him of falsifying his medical history to evade military service, which he denied. Norov had offered to perform alternative civilian service. He filed an appeal, which was dismissed on October 28, according to Forum 18. At year’s end, he was in pretrial detention in Khujand.
On April 2, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that a military court in Dushanbe sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Jovidon Bobojonov to two years in a labor camp, beginning in January, for refusing compulsory military service, rejecting his offer of alternative service, according to Forum 18. On November 1, Bobojonov was freed by the 2020 nationwide amnesty decree signed by President Emomali Rahmon. In October 2019, enlistment officers had forcibly put Bobojonov on a train to an assigned military unit. According to Forum 18, Bobojonov was tortured while in the unit, transferred to prison in Dushanbe in January, and lost his appeal of his sentence in April. In 2019, government and military authorities denied that Bobojonov had the right to claim conscientious objection, stating that although the Law on General Military Duty and Service referred to the possibility of alternative service, there was no alternative in practice because the government had not defined acceptable forms of alternative service. The authorities said Bobojonov’s refusal to serve therefore was a crime and that the actions of enlistment officers were lawful. The Dushanbe’s military prosecutor’s office stated that Bobojonov was given the option to serve in construction battalion that did not carry arms but refused.
Another Jehovah’s Witness, Shamil Khakimov, remained in prison at year’s end, serving five-and-a-half years for “inciting religious hatred,” with his release scheduled for May 2024, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives. The Sughd Regional Court dismissed his appeal on October 26. Khakimov also received a three-year ban on proselytizing once he is released from prison.
In July, Forum 18 reported a climate of impunity for security officials accused of torture in the country, citing lack of official action on allegations of torture from Nilufar Rajabova, Bobojonov, and other prisoners detained or arrested in connection to their religious beliefs.
Authorities continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting banned extremist organizations. International NGOs continued to state that some of these organizations were considered to be potential political opponents of the government but in fact had never advocated for or participated in acts of violence. Local and international human rights organizations continued to say that the government “intimidates and arrests” opposition figures on the pretext of combating terrorism and extremism.
In January, Forum 18 reported that Khayriddin Dostakov had been arrested at Dushanbe Airport upon his return from visiting relatives in Russia. According to Forum 18, police questioned him about whether he had become a Shia Muslim or spread Shia beliefs and beat him and used electric shocks on him in prison. On August 25, authorities dropped all criminal charges and released Dostakov from custody after an eight-month detention.
On January 20, Radio Ozodi, the Tajik-language outlet of RFE/RL, reported that law enforcement officials had arrested approximately 70 alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization banned in the country since 2006. On March 20, according to RFE/RL, Prosecutor General Yusuf Rahmon said that law enforcement officials had identified 314 individuals and arrested 154 of them, including the 70 mentioned in January, for their suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to a June 8 RFE/RL report, Imam-Khatib Muhammadsayid Akramov and three of his brothers were convicted by the Khatlon regional court of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They reportedly were in custody for approximately four months prior to the trial, at which point their sentences were suspended and they were released.
On July 7, the Supreme Court began considering criminal cases against 116 alleged Muslim Brotherhood members, including 114 Tajik citizens and two Egyptian citizens. The defendants were charged with financing terrorist activities, making extremist statements, and organizing extremist activities. At year’s end, the Supreme Court continued prosecuting these cases.
The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region, most of whom had received religious education abroad, for membership in banned extremist organizations.
In January, RFE/RL reported that a district court in Dushanbe sentenced Sadriddin Mulloyev, a member of Jamaat Tabligh, a Salafist movement banned by the government, to 12 years in prison for terrorism and extremism activities. Authorities had arrested Mulloyev in September 2019 after he returned to the country in response to a government amnesty program, according to Forum 18. Forum 18 said in January that Mulloyev had served an earlier prison term, from 2008 to 2013, for being a member of the same movement.
On November 12, according to his relatives, State Committee for National Security (GKNB) officers detained Sirojiddin Abdurahmonov, widely considered to be the leader of the Salafi movement in the country. Although law enforcement agencies did not comment on Abdurahmonov’s arrest, RFE/RL cited an anonymous judiciary source in reporting that a Dushanbe court authorized his detention. Abdurahmonov’s relatives told RFE/RL that authorities confiscated the cleric’s computer and religious texts at the time of his arrest. He was previously arrested in 2009 on charges of inciting religious hatred but released from prison in 2013 following an amnesty. He remained in detention at year’s end.
Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council that prohibited women from praying at mosques. Ismaili Shia women were permitted to attend Shia services in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and Dushanbe.
The CRA stated that it did not receive any new applications for registration from non-Islamic religious associations during the year. The CRA reported that there remained 66 registered non-Islamic religious organizations, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the Baha’i Faith.
In its October census, the government included a question on religious identity for the first time since 1937. According to Forum 18, some religious groups expressed fear that census answers could be used to target individuals and organizations because of their faith. Government officials were unclear on why the question was included, according to Forum 18. The Statistics Agency, responsible for conducting the census, stated the data was solely to collect demographic information and that it would publish the results in 2022.
NGOs reported continued government restrictions on imam-khatibs and imams, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies.
In a 2019 submission to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), which international observers stated remained factual, HRW stated the government “severely curtails freedom of religion or belief, proscribing certain forms of dress, including the hijab for women and long beards for men.” While there remained no legal prohibition against wearing a hijab or a beard, NGOs reported authorities continued to discourage “nontraditional or alien” clothing. In a 2019 submission to the UN, the NGOs Human Rights Vision Foundation, Eurasian Dialogue Institution, and the Tajik Freethinkers Forum said official media stigmatized and persecuted religious women and that local police and ruling party activists organized surprise public inspections of women wearing hijabs, requiring them to remove the headwear. The NGOs also said female patients wearing hijabs were refused treatment in public health clinics and faced restricted access or were denied entrance to educational establishments and administrative buildings. Local women were permitted to cover their hair in a ruymol, in which the scarf covers a woman’s hair and is tied in the back.
On January 22, RFE/RL reported that a court in Dushanbe denied Nilufar Rajabova’s appeal after she was fined 550 somoni ($49) for insulting a law enforcement official. According to December 2019 press reports, she accused Dushanbe police of insulting her and threatening her after she was detained, along with two dozen others, in a raid targeting women wearing hijabs. She told Forum 18 that she had also been hit by an officer, falling and injuring her spine as a result.
On February 13, Hilolbi Qurbonzoda, the chairwoman of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, said during a press conference that the issue of women wearing hijabs would not be sensitive if it were not for terrorist attacks involving women wearing hijabs in other countries. Qurbonzoda added that the international community was taking steps to protect state interests and some countries had already adopted rules on women wearing hijabs. Qurbonzoda said it is important for Tajik women to keep their identity and not be confused with Arab women.
In August, RFE/RL reported that Vanj District officials said a group of individuals protested against being forced to shave, since officials in that area regarded beards as a foreign intrusion on local culture or a sign of religious extremism. Vanj District chairman Jabbor Qosim told RFE/RL that he would hold discussions with these individuals to look into their complaints.
The government mandated that anyone wishing to study religion abroad should receive government approval and should study at a government-approved religious institution.
In July, CRA chairman Davlatzoda said 3,901 citizens who had been illegally studying abroad at religious educational institutions had returned home over the previous 11 years. Some of these individuals reportedly returned involuntarily. The government sometimes sent these students to government boarding schools for secular reeducation. For example, on September 16, a member of the banned IRPT told RFE/RL that his 15-year-old son was “being held hostage” at a boarding school for children who misbehave. Mahmadzarif Saidov, who lives in exile in Europe, said that his son had been studying at a Bangladeshi madrassah when he was detained in Dubai and returned to the country in 2019. He said authorities had placed him in a special boarding school and prohibited contact with relatives. A district government source told RFE/RL on September 16 that Saidov’s son had been “brainwashed” at the madrassah for nearly four years and needed time to receive a secular education.
In its 2019 review (the most recent) of the government’s adherence to its commitments under the ICCPR, which international observers stated remained accurate, the UNHRC stated that it remained concerned “that interference by the State in religious affairs, worship, and freedom of religion and the ensuing restrictions… are incompatible with the Covenant.” The UNHRC identified these restrictions as including: (a) interference with the appointment of imams and the content of their sermons; (b) control over books and other religious materials; (c) the requirement of state permission for receiving religious education abroad; (d) the prohibition against entering a mosque for those younger than 18 years of age; (e) the regulations regarding the registration of religious organizations; (f) the regulations on wearing clothes during traditional or religious celebrations and the prohibition of certain attire in practice, such as the hijab; and (g) restrictions imposed on Christian religious minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.
A planned visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to assess the government’s actions as they pertain to religious practice did not occur due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At year’s end, the government was coordinating with the special rapporteur to reschedule the visit once conditions permitted.
According to Forum 18 in March and Voice of the Martyrs in May, between August 2019 and January 2020, the CRA fined four Protestant churches 7,000 to 11,000 somoni ($620-$970) each for arranging translation of the Bible into Tajik. One congregant told Forum 18 that these fines were “huge,” given that the average monthly collection in some churches was only 500 somoni ($44). The CRA denied the NGO report, stating that translation of religious literature does not fall under its purview.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided. Individuals said they were more comfortable discussing abuses of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or restrictions on religious freedom.
The NGO Open Doors 2021 World Watch List report, which covers events in 2020, stated that because the country’s ethnic identity is directly tied to Islam, Christians who have converted from Islam face criticism by family, friends, and community.
Leaders of some minority religious groups continued to state their communities enjoyed positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, who, they said, did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregations. Other minority religious group leaders stated that converts from Islam experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In separate meetings throughout the year with the Foreign Minister, Deputy Foreign Minister, CRA senior representatives, and other government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to raise concerns regarding restrictions on minors and women participating in religious services, the situation of Jehovah Witnesses in the country, and restrictions on the religious education of youth. Embassy officers also raised the issue of harassment of women and men for religious dress and grooming.
Because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the embassy did not host any in-person public events dealing with freedom of religion issues. Embassy officials had limited engagements in virtual formats with civil society, NGOs, and religious leaders from Christian organizations on the issue of religious freedom.
U.S. officials emphasized with government representatives the importance of steps to ameliorate restrictions on freedom of religion through national legislation and with regards to alternative service. U.S. embassy officers sought amnesty for conscientious objectors and prisoners of conscience. Embassy officials also discussed with religious leaders how they conducted services during the pandemic amid closures of religious associations, such as mosques and churches throughout the country, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Since 2016, Tajikistan has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” 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 the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions as required in the important national interest of the United States.
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.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 82.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the Turkish government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members are 0.2 percent of the population, while the most recent public opinion surveys published in January 2019 by Turkish research firm KONDA suggest approximately 3 percent of the population self-identifies as atheist and 2 percent as nonbelievers.
Leaders of Alevi foundations estimate Alevis comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population; Pew Research Center reporting indicates 5 percent of Muslims state they are Alevis. The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population.
Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia), 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines), and 16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs), 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits), and 10,000 Baha’is.
Estimates of other groups include 7,000-10,000 members of Protestant denominations, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians, up to 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians, and fewer than 1,000 Yezidis. There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Maronite Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) estimates its membership at 300 individuals.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship. It stipulates individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion, and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion,” or “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.
The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters. According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam; educate the public about religious issues; and administer mosques. The Diyanet operates under the Office of the President, with its head appointed by the President and administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties. The Diyanet has five main departments, called high councils: Religious Services, Hajj and Umrah Services, Education, Publications, and Public Relations. While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.
There is no separate blasphemy law, but the penal code provides punishment for “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs. The law criminalizes “insulting values held sacred by a religion.” Insulting a religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.
The penal code prohibits religious clergy from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.
Although registration with the government is not explicitly mandatory for religious groups to operate, registering a group is required to request legal recognition for places of worship. Gaining legal recognition of a place of worship requires permission from the municipalities for the construction or designation of a new place of worship. It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the central government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law.
Interfering with the service of a religious group is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison. Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to recognized religious groups.
The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.
Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection. A government policy allows individuals to pay a fee of 37,070 Turkish lira ($5,000) instead of performing full military service; however, they are required to complete a three-week basic training program. Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and, if convicted, could be subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.
The leadership and administrative structures of religious communities do not have a legal personality, leaving them unable to directly buy or hold title to property or press claims in court. Communities rely on separate foundations or associations governed by individual boards to hold and administer assets and property.
A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law. Non-Muslim citizens direct these longstanding foundations; 167 continue to exist, the majority of which are associated with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities. In practice, a religious group formed after the 1935 law may successfully apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious. There are six Protestant foundations (four existing before the passage of the 1935 foundation law), 36 Protestant associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.
The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all foundations, and it assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational charter. There are several categories of foundations, including those religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.
If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to rule it is no longer operational and transfer its assets to the state. Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close foundations by decree.
A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties, as well as from donations. The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level.
Several religious communities have formally registered corresponding associations. Associations must be nonprofit and receive financial support only in the form of donations. To register as an association, a group must submit an application to the provincial governor’s office with supporting documentation, including bylaws and a list of founding members. A group must also obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior as part of its application if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is a founding member; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of its residence permits. If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change them to meet the legal requirements. Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials for actions deemed to violate the organization’s bylaws. A court order may close an association, and the Ministry of Interior may temporarily close an association or foundation and apply to a court within 48 hours for a decision on closure. Otherwise, the government may close associations and foundations by decree under a state of emergency. The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.
By law prisoners have the right to practice their religion while incarcerated; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship. According to the law, prison authorities must allow visitation by clergy members and allow them to offer books and other materials that are part of the prisoner’s faith.
The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public and private schools at all levels starting with fourth grade, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction, which falls under the authority of the Office of the President. Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through 12. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. Atheists, agnostics, Alevis or other non-Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Yezidis, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card are rarely granted exemptions from the classes. Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.
The government issues chip-enabled national identity cards that contain no visible section to identify religious affiliation. The information on religious affiliation is recorded in the chip and remains visible to authorized public officials as “qualified personal data” and protected as private information. Previously issued national identity cards, which continue in circulation, contain a space for religious identification with the option of leaving the space blank. These older cards included the following religious identities as options: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, No Religion, or Other. Baha’i, Alevi, Yezidi, and other religious groups with known populations in the country were not options.
According to labor law, private- and public-sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on religion. Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court. If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the reversal of the employment decision.
According to media, in January, the Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a 13.5-month sentence against Sevan Nisanyan, a self-exiled ethnic Armenian citizen of Turkey, for publishing “offensive” words against the Prophet Muhammad that could provoke hostility. While referencing the country’s penal code, the court further justified its decision by citing a 2005 European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruling in the case of publishing company I.A. versus the Government of Turkey, stating that religious statements that could be viewed as a “cheap attack” should be avoided. One member of the court opposed the sentence, stating that while Nisanyan’s writing humiliated Muslims, there was no concrete evidence that breaches of public peace had occurred.
According to media reports, Cemil Kelik, a religious culture and ethics teacher at a high school in Istanbul, continued to teach after authorities reinstated him in a remote city in May. In 2019, Kelik was fired after comparing the morals of atheists and deists to those of “self-professed” Muslims and saying headscarves were not obligatory in Islam.
On May 20, police detained and arrested Banu Ozdemir, a former official from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, and charged her with “insult and inciting hatred among the people” after she retweeted a video of a mosque in Izmir that had been hacked to play the Italian leftist revolutionary song “Bella Ciao” from its speakers. The prosecutor requested three years’ imprisonment and released Ozdemir. The court acquitted her in December.
On July 16, the opposition daily newspaper Sozcu reported police arrested Muhammed Cevdet S. in Istanbul for insult and inciting hatred among the people by sharing social media posts that included caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. There were no further developments at the end of the year.
In January, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), police arrested and charged with membership in a terrorist organization a Syriac Orthodox priest, Father Sefer Bilecen (also known as Father Aho) and two other Syriacs, reportedly for offering bread and water in 2018 to members of the designated terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who visited the 1,500-year-old Mor Yakub Monastery in Mardin Province. The next hearing was scheduled for January 2021.
The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, overseen by separate governing boards, to hold and control individual religious properties.
In January 2019, the ECtHR ruled the government had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for freedom of assembly and association, because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. The court ruling required the government to pay six members of the congregation in Istanbul a total compensation of 8,724 euros ($10,700). Compensation could include legal assistance and legal and court registration fees; by year’s end there was no information available nor indication on whether the government had compensated the six individuals, and no disclosure of any government payments.
The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations.
In June, the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation issued a press statement saying it was “increasingly difficult for foreign Protestant clergy serving in Turkey to be resident.” According to the Protestant Church Association headquartered in Ankara, it did not attempt to register any church during the year. Both groups reported no progress on registration requests made in previous years.
Multiple Protestant church representatives continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in registering places of worship. Church representatives said they were obliged to continue meeting in unregistered locations for worship services because local officials did not approve registration applications and continued to impose zoning standards on churches, including minimum space requirements not imposed on mosques. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, which they permitted to build worship facilities in malls, airports, and other smaller spaces. Additionally, some Protestant churches reported local authorities did not allow them to display crosses on the exterior of their buildings.
In June 2019, a local court in Bursa approved an application by the Protestant community in Bursa to start a foundation. At year’s end, the government still had not responded to a request by the Protestant foundation to allow long-term use of a church renovated in 2018 using government funding. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations continued to share the building, owned by the GDF for more than 10 years.
The government continued to provide incarcerated Sunni Muslims with mesjids (small mosques) and Sunni preachers in larger prisons. Alevis and non-Muslims did not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons; however, clergy of other religious groups were permitted to enter prisons with the permission of the public prosecutor to minister to their adherents as long as doing so was not considered a threat to a facility’s security.
The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and did not recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship. In March 2018, the head of the Diyanet had said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis. On January 13, the municipal council of Izmir granted seven Alevi cemevis the status of house of worship. On January 16, an Istanbul municipal council assembly approved the provision of free services to cemevis in line with other municipality and government treatment of other places of worship.
In November, a parliamentarian from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party addressed an inquiry to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, reporting that Alevi residents of Hardal village in Sivas Province opposed government plans to convert a historic mansion containing Alevi inscriptions and belonging to an Alevi association into a mosque. The ministry did not respond to the inquiry by year’s end.
The GDF continued its restoration of the Surp Giragos Armenian and Mar Petyun Chaldean Churches, both in Sur District, Diyarbakir. During the year, the government again did not pay restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.
During the year, the government did not return properties seized in previous decades; it last returned 56 properties in 2018 to the Syriac community. Representatives from various communities said they continued to pursue property returns through the appropriate legal and government channels. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to report these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Due to their legal status, recognized religious foundations were eligible to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.
Religious communities, particularly Alevis, continued to raise concerns regarding several of the government’s education policies. At year’s end, the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ECtHR ruling that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECtHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to Alevi religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECtHR decision, but Alevi groups stated the material was inadequate, and in some cases, incorrect. They also continued to call on the government to implement the ECtHR decisions.
Non-Sunni Muslims and nonpracticing Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives dealing with different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as Muslim. The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups, including Alevis and members of Christian denominations, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups, such as some educational texts referring to Alevi beliefs as mysticism. In February 2019, the Konya Regional Administrative Court ruled the changes made in the compulsory religion course curriculum did not eliminate violations to educational freedom, as ruled by the ECtHR in 2013. In June 2019, the Istanbul 12th Regional Administrative Court accepted an Alevi parent’s appeal for his son’s exclusion from the compulsory religious course. The case was still pending at year’s end.
According to the Diyanet, it had 128,534 employees at year’s end, with women constituting 18 percent of its workforce. The Diyanet expanded its program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. On September 9, the Diyanet appointed 922 additional employees to public university dormitories. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms and provide the Diyanet’s provincial muftis with performance reviews every six months.
The government continued to provide funding for public, private, and religious schools teaching Islam. It did not do so for minority schools the government recognized under the Lausanne Treaty, except to pay the salaries for courses taught in Turkish, such as Turkish literature. The minority religious communities funded all their other expenses through donations, including from church foundations and alumni.
The government continued to permit Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government continued to classify legal migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive diplomas from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. According to a representative of the Syriac Orthodox community, the community continued to operate a preschool, but there were not enough older students to warrant creating a kindergarten-through-grade 12 school.
In February, media reported parents petitioned to stop the conversion of Ismail Tarman Middle School into an imam hatip school, a vocational religious school intended in principle to train government employed imams. The parents successfully argued that five imam hatip schools were available in their district and won four court decisions in their favor to prevent the conversion. The Ministry of National Education, however, did not adhere to the court decisions of two local administrative and two regional administrative courts, and the school continued to operate as an imam hatip school through year’s end. According to media, some parents of students criticized the practice of converting some nonreligious public schools into imam hatip religious schools. The country’s 2020 investment program in the general budget included the government’s associated priorities, with 460 million lira ($61.96 million) allocated for new imam hatip schools, compared with 30 million lira ($4.04 million) for new science schools.
Many public buildings, including universities, continued to maintain small mosques. In 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued a regulation requiring every new school to have an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported the approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country were insufficient to meet demand. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.
Several Alevi foundations again requested the end of a continuing program that takes school children ages six to 13 to local mosques for religious instruction during their two-week winter break. The voluntary Ministry of National Education program begun in 2018 for 50,000 children drawn from each of the 81 provinces continued for a third year, with approximately 10,000 children participating during the year. Alevi representatives said they objected to the program because students not participating could be “singled out” for not participating and as being different from the other students.
On January 12, BirGun, a newspaper associated with the political opposition, reported the Ministry of Education started a pilot program introducing Islamic religious classes to preschool students in three provinces. According to media, these classes taught children to associate positive adjectives to images displaying adherence to Islamic tradition, such as women wearing the hijab, while negative adjectives were associated with uncovered women. The government responded that the examples cited were not comprehensive and not representative of the material.
According to media, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in July again called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clergy in the country, stating the continued closure interrupted a tradition of instruction dating back centuries to the historical roots of the school as a monastery. A 1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure. Amendments to the constitution in 1982 allowed for the establishment of private institutions of higher education but also placed significant restrictions on the institutions, and the seminary was not permitted to reopen and operate under its traditions and preferences.
In September, Sozcu reported that the Diyanet had acquired an historic tuberculosis hospital on the same island as the shuttered Halki Seminary with plans to open an Islamic educational center.
The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy within the country. Protestant churches reported the inability to train clergy in the country made their communities dependent on foreign clergy. Local Protestant church representatives raised concerns that the government’s reported deportation of or ban on entry for foreign clergy members hurt their community’s ability to instruct local clergy unable to travel abroad for training.
Multiple reports continued to state these Protestant communities could not train clergy in the country and therefore relied on foreign volunteers to serve them in leadership capacities. Local Protestant communities stated they aimed to develop indigenous Turkish leaders in their congregations because it was becoming increasingly difficult to rely on foreign volunteers; however, they faced difficulties because they could not operate training facilities in-country. Community sources also said some of the deportations and entry bans during the year targeted foreign-citizen members of the community who had lived legally as long-term residents in the country for decades and who previously had not experienced any immigration difficulties. On June 16, the Istanbul Protestant Church Foundation issued a press release stating, “It is with great sadness we must inform you that since 2019, it has been made increasingly difficult for foreign Protestant clergy serving in Turkey to be resident in our country.” According to community members, these immigration procedures also affected a local community’s ability to raise funds for local churches because foreign clergy members attracted individual donations and support from church communities in their countries of origin. Some individuals with entry bans or resident permit denials requested review of their immigration status through the country’s legal system. None of the cases reached conclusion by year’s end and could take several years to resolve due to the complexities of, and backlog in, the judicial system, according to media reports.
Monitoring organizations and media outlets, including Middle East Concern, International Christian Concern, World Watch Monitor, Mission Network News, and Voice of Martyrs, continued to report entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country. In December 2019, the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for Migration Management announced that as of January 1, the government would deny extension requests to long-term residents for tourist purposes in the absence of another reason to request a residency permit (i.e., marriage, work, study). Observers reported that through July, there were 54 pending immigration court cases, including residency permit denials and entry bans, of which 19 were new cases. Recipients of bans and denials most frequently cited security codes that denoted “activities against national security” and “work permit activities against national security.” Several religious minority ministers conducted religious services while resident in in the country on long-term tourist residence permits. While similar measures occurred in previous years, multiple groups said they perceived a significant increase in the number of removals and entry bans during the year.
Members of religious communities continued to report that the inability to hold elections for the governing boards of their foundations remained an impediment to managing their affairs. They said when board members died, retired, or left the country, foundation boards had a more difficult time fulfilling their duties and ran the risk of eventually not functioning without new members. If they reached the point of no longer functioning, the government could then declare the foundation defunct and transfer its properties and other assets to the state.
The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so. The government’s position remained that the Ecumenical Patriarch was only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011 stopgap solution intended to widen the pool of candidates eligible to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in that city, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens.
The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ to remove its volunteers and international staff from the country remained in effect throughout the year. In 2018, the Church cited safety concerns as the reason for the removal. According to local members, some followers stayed away from church because they feared retribution and discrimination. Some said they had lost their jobs, including in the public sector, because of their faith, and they experienced difficulties in finding new employment.
The government paid partial compensation to the Alevi Cem Foundation in Turkish lira, based on the 2017 euro exchange rate, amounting to 39,010 euros ($47,900) after the ECtHR rejected the country’s appeal to reduce the 54,400-euro ($66,700) compensation it was obligated to pay the Alevi Cem Foundation in February 2019. The Cem Foundation filed a court case to receive the remainder of compensation and interest. The case continued at year’s end. The Cem Foundation took the government to the ECtHR in 2010 for discrimination for not paying the electric bills of Alevi places of worship, a service provided for mosques. The government appealed for a fee reduction to 23,300 euros ($28,600). In November 2018, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled cemevis are places of worship and therefore should receive the same benefits as Sunni mosques, including being exempt from paying utility bills. Alevi organizations continued to call on the government to comply with the ruling.
The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 128,469 Sunni personnel at the end of the year, compared with 104,814 in 2019. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.
On July 24, the government changed the status of Hagia Sophia, which had become a mosque in 1453 and then a museum in 1935, back again to a mosque, and the Ayasofya Mosque held its first Islamic prayer since 1935. In July, President Erdogan said, “Like all our mosques, its [Hagia Sophia’s] doors will be open to everyone – Muslim or non-Muslim. As the world’s common heritage, Hagia Sophia with its new status will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way.” Ibrahim Kalin, the presidential spokesperson, said the country would preserve the Christian icons in the building. In a televised address to the nation in July, President Erdogan said, “I underline that we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage,” and he added, “It is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide for which purpose Hagia Sofia will be used.”
Following the government’s announced plan to reconvert Hagia Sophia to serve as a mosque, on June 30, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I stated, “The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians around the world,” and he called for Hagia Sophia to remain a museum. A June 25 Washington Post article cited the Ecumenical Patriarch as saying the intended reversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque left him “saddened and shaken.” On June 20, a group of Turkish Catholic bishops stated they “would like Hagia Sophia to remain a museum.” In a tweet on June 13, Armenian patriarch Sahak Masalyan endorsed the idea of restoring Hagia Sophia’s status as a place of worship, advocating that there also be a space for Christians to pray. After inaugural prayers on July 24, Hagia Sophia no longer required an entrance fee and remained accessible to all visitors.
On July 28, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed and UN Special Rapporteur for Cultural Rights Karima Bennoune wrote a joint letter to President Erdogan expressing concern that “the transformation of the Hagia Sofia may set a precedent for the future change in status of other sites, which will have an overall negative impact on cultural rights and religious harmony,” and that the transformation of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque “may violate the right of people of diverse religions and backgrounds, and nonreligious people, to benefit from access to, and use of, the sites.” The letter also requested the government explain any measures it would take “to preserve the historical and cultural traces of religious minorities, to promote tolerance and understanding of religious and cultural diversity, including in the past, and to promote the equality of all persons, including members of religious minorities.”
After a 2018 Council of State ruling deferred to the Cabinet the decision to reopen Chora Museum as a mosque, the Office of the President announced on August 21 the museum would be reopened as a mosque on October 30. The opening was deferred and did not occur by the end of the year because of continuing restoration. The museum, famed for its mosaics and frescos depicting Christian imagery, was originally constructed and repeatedly renovated as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior in the fifth century and then converted into the Kariye Mosque in 1511 before becoming a museum in 1945. According to the progovernment Yeni Safak media outlet, the Council of State determined the 1945 decision to designate the structure as a museum was illegal because it violated the charter of the foundation that owned the then-mosque; the charter stated the building would serve indefinitely as a mosque. Many local Muslims stated they welcomed President Erdogan’s decision to reconvert the museum into a mosque.
The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant Christian sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, and the House of the Virgin Mary, near Selcuk. The government granted the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate permission to hold its annual August 15 service at the Sumela Monastery Museum near Trabzon for the first time since suspending services in 2015 for restoration.
The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and kill its pastor in 2013 continued through year’s end.
The country continued to host a large diaspora community of ethnic Uyghur Chinese Muslims. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continued to seek the forcible repatriation of some Uyghur Muslims from Turkey; however, local Uyghur community sources said they knew of no cases of deportations of Uyghurs to the PRC during the year. Government officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, reaffirmed their commitment not to return Uyghurs to China. On December 31, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu stated, “Until now, there have been requests for returns from China related to Uyghurs in Turkey. And you know Turkey hasn’t taken steps like this.”
Turkish human rights associations and multiple news sources reported on July 2 that Ankara police disbanded a demonstration organized by the Democratic Alevi Association in remembrance of the 1993 arson attack on Hotel Madimak in Sivas, which killed 33 Alevi intellectuals and two hotel staff. According to the Turkish Human Rights Association, police detained and later released seven demonstrators.
According to media reports, the governor’s office of Tunceli Province began to develop Munzur Springs, an Alevi place of worship in eastern Tunceli, as a recreational and commercial area. On September 22, excavation teams began construction on the site. “We consider this undertaking an attack on our places of worship and urge officials to revert this error,” said Dersim Research Center, an organization devoted to protecting the Munzur Springs, in an official statement. In July, authorities granted permission for hunting a limited number of mountain goats in eastern Tunceli despite public outcry against it. Endemic to the Munzur Valley National Park, mountain goats are considered sacred among local residents, according to representatives of the Dersim Center. According to media reports, in June 2019, the Ovacik District Governorate sent a letter to the muhtars (village leaders) of eight villages in the district ordering them to evacuate as soon as possible due to the villages “being in a natural disaster zone.” The district is home to many Alevis and their religious sites. According to media reports, the villages were scheduled for removal because the government had awarded a Canadian-Turkish mining consortium rights to conduct exploratory mining in Munzur National Park – a spiritual area for the Alevis containing many holy sites. The letter did not specify when the villages were to be evacuated; as of year’s end, there was no public update on the case.
The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and to fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet’s most recent published statistics, there were 89,259 mosques in the country in 2019, compared with 88,681 Diyanet-operated mosques in 2018. Although Alevi groups were able to build some new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction and maintenance, with some instances of municipalities providing this support.
Construction of the new Syriac Orthodox church, St. Efphrem (Mor Efrem), in Istanbul continued, with completion expected in 2021. Once completed, it will be the first newly constructed church since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. To date, the approximately 18,000-member Syriac Orthodox community in Istanbul has used churches of other communities, in addition to its one current church, to hold services.
According to news reports, for the third year in a row, the annual Mass took place at the historic Armenian Akdamar Church near Van, in the east of the country, this time officiated by the newly elected Armenian patriarch. Authorities canceled annual services between 2015 and 2017, citing security concerns arising from clashes between the military and the PKK.
Government funding for daily and weekly newspapers published by minority religious communities remained pending at year’s end. In 2019, the government allocated a total of 250,000 lira ($33,700) for minority publications.
Jewish citizens again expressed concern about anti-Semitism and security threats. According to members of the community, the government continued to coordinate with them on security issues. They said the government measures were helpful and the government was responsive to requests for security.
In December, President Erdogan issued a statement wishing a Happy Hanukkah to the country’s Jewish citizens and “the entire Jewish community around the world.” He emphasized that everyone should be able to “practice their beliefs and traditions freely without any discrimination, regardless of their religion, language, or ethnic origin.” Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu met with the Chief Rabbi and other Jewish community leaders via video conference to wish them Happy Hanukkah.
In April and September, President Erdogan again sent messages to the Jewish community celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The messages described cultural and social diversity and the symbol of “a culture of love and tolerance” as the country’s most important asset.
Renovations continued on the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Izmir, scheduled to reopen in early 2021 as both a synagogue and a museum. According to Izmir Jewish community leaders, the synagogue would form part of a “Jewish Museum” project to include several other Jewish sites nearby, some of which still required reconstruction. The project received funding from the municipal government and through international grants.
Ankara University and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs co-organized a Holocaust Remembrance Day event at the public university on January 31, with the participation of local Jewish community leaders, diplomats, government officials, academics, and students. Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Ersoy was the government’s keynote speaker. Joined by the university’s rector, government speakers highlighted the country’s history of helping Jews escape Nazi persecution and its status as a cosponsor of the 2005 UN resolution designating January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Chief Rabbi of Turkey Ishak Haleva, other leaders of the Jewish community, and high school students took part in the event. In February, the government for the fifth consecutive year commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to a press report, on March 20, the body of Simoni Diril, the mother of a Chaldean Catholic priest, was located two months after unidentified persons abducted Diril and her husband, Hurmuz Diril, who was still missing. Diril’s body was found near her village in southeastern Sirnak Province. According to CSW, the couple had received threats from Turkish and Kurdish residents. According to one witness, members of the PKK abducted the couple, while others said government-affiliated groups were responsible for the abduction. According to media reports, police continued to investigate the abductions, as well as the killing of Simoni Diril, through year’s end. In March, CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas urged authorities to expedite efforts to secure Humuz Diril’s release, as well as “take extra measures to protect the Christian minority, and tackle hate speech, anti-Christian sentiments, and all forms of religious discrimination in Turkey.”
Some converts to Christian Protestant groups from Islam or from Christian Orthodoxy continued to report social shunning within their family, among friends, and at their workplaces following their associates’ discovery of the conversion, according to local community members.
On August 15, progovernment news site A Haber released an editorial entitled, “Who is Joe Biden, is he a Jew?” The news site published the editorial in response to Biden’s December 2019 statements about the country in an interview published by The New York Times.
News outlet An Haber Ajansi reported that on June 18, an Istanbul prosecutor rejected a complaint of hate speech filed by the president of Arnavutkoy Alevi Cemevi, Yuksel Yildiz. Yildiz filed the complaint in 2018 after a middle school teacher from the public Arnavutkoy Cumhuriyet Middle School said food prepared by Alevis should not be eaten, and he continued to explain that if one has eaten from the hand of an Alevi, one should consult an imam. The accused religious studies teacher admitted making these statements, and the school dismissed him. The prosecutor, however, rejected the legal complaint because the teacher’s actions did not “present a clear and imminent threat to public safety.”
On September 28, independent news website Duvar reported that a car convoy staged a rally in support of Azerbaijan in front of the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate, in Istanbul’s Kumkapi District. The convoy occurred after the outbreak of hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan around Nagorno-Karabakh in September.
In October, unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” Police launched a criminal investigation of the incident that was continuing at year’s end.
According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship and cemeteries continued, including a growing number of instances of vandalism of Christian cemeteries, while no instances were reported in 2019. In February, media outlets reported 20 of 72 gravestones in the Ortakoy Christian Cemetery in Ankara were destroyed. Another incident occurred in Trabzon, where a grave was destroyed in the cemetery of the Santa Maria Church. 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. According to a news report in June, unknown perpetrators vandalized a monument commemorating Alevis killed in 1938. In May, according to media reports, an unidentified man tore the cross from the gate of the Armenian Surp Krikor Lusaravic Church in Kuzguncuk District, Istanbul. Police reportedly opened an investigation of the incident.
Some news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and the genesis and spread of COVID-19. In an article appearing in the Jewish publication Avlaremoz (Judeo-Spanish for “Let’s talk”), members of the Jewish community expressed concern regarding the proliferation of pandemic conspiracies blaming Jews. In March, Nesi Altaras, an Avlaremoz editor, told the Jerusalem Post, “The pandemic has just fueled the fire of pre-existing Turkish antisemitism and conspiracy theories about Jews.”
Anti-Semitic rhetoric continued in print media and on social media throughout the year. According to a Hrant Dink Foundation project on hate speech released in December 2019, there were 430 published instances in 2019 of hate speech depicting Jews as violent, conspiratorial, and a threat to the country, compared with the 899 published instances in 2018. The foundation did not release a report for 2020. A reader’s letter published in the newspaper Yeni Akit stated Jewish residents in Istanbul trained street dogs to bite Muslims and repeated historic accusations of blood libel. Some commentators criticized the letter as ridiculous, and Mustafa Yeneroglu, a parliamentarian formerly with the ruling AKP party, denounced the content as “the language of the Nazis,” according to multiple media reports.
On March 18, Ahval reported that Fatih Erbakan, the head of the Renewed Prosperity Party, said on March 6, “While there is no hard proof, Zionism could very well be behind the coronavirus.” A video also circulated online showing bus passengers blaming the spread of COVID-19 on Jews and Israel.
On May 11, the self-described conservative magazine Gercek Hayat published an editorial showing a diagram that listed the Turkish Chief Rabbi, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Armenian Apostolic Patriarch as “servants of the Fethullah Gulen organization,” considered a terrorist group by the government. The editors stated that key minority religious community leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Chief Rabbi Haleva, the former Armenian Patriarch, and Pope John Paul II, were “coconspirators” of the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization.” Several religious leaders condemned these statements, warning the statements could incite violence and the desecration of religious sites.
In September, progovernment daily newspaper Sabah published an opinion piece criticizing the U.S.-led Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The article included several anti-Semitic characterizations, including stating the deal was “masterminded by those who have omnipotent control across the globe.”
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 82 percent of Turkish respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They underscored the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups.
U.S. officials also reinforced religious freedom issues, including religious education, in private meetings with government officials. They sought government representatives’ responses to specific claims of religious freedom concerns raised by local religious communities and explored how best to collaborate between the governments of the two countries to protect and respect religious freedom.
On June 25, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom called on the government to maintain Hagia Sophia as a museum, stating on Twitter, “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.” On July 1, the Department of State issued a press release stating it was “disappointed by the decision to change the status of the Hagia Sophia,” and looked forward “to hearing plans . . . it remains accessible without impediment for all.” On July 24, following a meeting of the President and Vice President with head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Archbishop Elpidophoros concerning the reconversion of Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque, the Vice President tweeted, “America will stand firm with the Greek Orthodox Church in the call for Hagia Sophia to remain accessible as a source of inspiration and reflection for every person of every faith.”
U.S. government officials urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups and raised the issue of property restitution and restoration. Embassy staff continued to press for the restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.
The Secretary of State and other senior U.S. government officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki and allow all religious communities to train clergy in the country. On July 30, the Ambassador and Istanbul Consul General visited Halki to demonstrate continued interest in the reopening of the seminary. In January, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Halki.
On June 24, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom recognized Turkey for calling out the PRC for its repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. Embassy officials at the highest level met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials during the year to discuss the country’s continued support for Uyghurs in the face of Chinese pressure.
During a November trip to Istanbul, the Secretary of State met with religious leaders, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop Paul Russell, the Holy See’s envoy to Turkey. He also visited St. George’s Cathedral and the Rustem Pasha Mosque.
On December 1 and 3, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom virtually convened international prominent faith leaders from Islam, Christianity, and Judaism for the second meeting of the Abrahamic Faiths Initiative focused on countering hate speech, protecting holy sites, and engaging the public. Representatives from the country’s religious community attended.
In August, the Ambassador traveled to the city of Edirne to visit Muslim and Jewish historic sites and to demonstrate the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
On January 31, the Ambassador attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ankara University with senior host government officials and the leadership of the country’s Jewish community.
Due to COVID-19 and subsequent country and mission restrictions, senior U.S. embassy and consulate general officials had limited physical engagement with religious community contacts and places of worship, but they regularly engaged virtually and to the extent possible in person with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns and promote interreligious dialogue. Officials from the embassy and consulates general engaged with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Church of Jesus Christ religions, among others, throughout the country. The embassy and consulates general used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to emphasize the importance of the inclusion of religious minorities, including messages under hashtags such as #DiniOzgurluk (religious freedom), on designated days that recognized and underscored the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and human rights.
The constitution provides for the freedom of religion and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution guarantees the separation of government and religion and stipulates that religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs. The law on religion requires all religious organizations, including those previously registered under an earlier version of the law, to reregister regularly with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in order to operate legally. According to religious organizations, government security forces continued to severely restrict the importation of religious literature, and it remained difficult to obtain places of worship. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, as of the end of the year, 11 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service; several were sentenced to prison terms of one year to two years. The government continued not to offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. The government registered one new religious organization, and six religious organizations amended their charter during the year. According to local religious communities and international advocacy groups, members of some registered and unregistered Christian organizations continued to face official and unofficial harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. The government continued to appoint all senior Muslim clerics and scrutinize or obstruct religious groups attempting to purchase or lease buildings or land for religious purposes.
Religious leaders and others again stated they were reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Numerous citizens stated that the government’s suspicion of religion continued to be mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even “excessive” expressions of religion could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported societal prejudices against religious groups that were not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox.
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and other U.S. government officials expressed concern about religious freedom issues, including the legal status of conscientious objectors, the factors that determined Turkmenistan’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern, the ability of religious groups to register or reregister, and restrictions on the import of religious literature. Multiple times during the year, the embassy requested that President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors. In January, the Ambassador and other embassy officials, along with ambassadors and senior officials from European embassies, met with 10 minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedom, including challenges of reregistration, the inability to import religious literature, and the lack of places of worship.
Since 2014, Turkmenistan 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, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, the country is 89 percent Muslim (mostly Sunni), 9 percent Eastern Orthodox, and 2 percent other. There are small communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, Roman Catholics, members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and evangelical Christians, including Baptists and Pentecostals.
Most ethnic Russians and Armenians identify as Orthodox Christian and generally are members of the Russian Orthodox Church or Armenian Apostolic Church. Some ethnic Russians and Armenians are also members of smaller Protestant groups.
There are small pockets of Shia Muslims, consisting largely of ethnic Iranians, Azeris, and Kurds, some located in Ashgabat, with others along the border with Iran, and in the western city of Turkmenbashi.
According to the Israeli embassy, approximately 200 Jews live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and for the right of individuals to choose their religion, express and disseminate their religious beliefs, and participate in religious observances and ceremonies. The constitution separates the roles of government and religion, stipulating religious organizations are prohibited from “interference” in state affairs or carrying out state functions. The constitution states public education shall be secular in nature. It provides for the equality of citizens before the law regardless of their religious preference.
The law requires all religious organizations, including those that had registered previously, to reregister with the MOJ in order to operate legally in the country whenever the organization changes its address or amends its legal charter. In practice, however, religious groups have a de facto requirement to reregister approximately every three years. The law permits only the registration of those religious organizations that have at least 50 resident members older than the age of 18. The law defines a religious organization as a voluntary association of citizens affiliated with a religion, organized to conduct religious services and other rites and ceremonies as well as to provide religious education and registered in accordance with the country’s legislation. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are 132 religious organizations in the country, drawn from Muslim, Christian, and other faith groups; most (109) are Muslim.
According to the law, the State Commission on Religious Organizations and Expert Evaluation of Religious Information Resources (SCROEERIR) is responsible for helping registered religious organizations work with government agencies, explaining the law to representatives of religious organizations, monitoring the activities of religious organizations to ensure they comply with the law, assisting with the translation and publication of religious literature, and promoting understanding and tolerance among different religious organizations. The law states SCROEERIR must approve all individuals appointed as leaders of religious organizations, although the law does not specify the procedures for obtaining the required approval. SCROERRIR operates under the leadership of the Grand Mufti, who is appointed by the government, as are all other senior Muslim clerics. The Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers for education, health, religion, sports, tourism, science, new technologies, and innovation oversees SCROEERIR’s work. The chairman of SCROEERIR is also the chairman of the Department for Work with Religious Organizations of the Cabinet of Ministers. One member of SCROEERIR is from the Russian Orthodox Church.
To register, organizations must submit to SCROEERIR their contact information; proof of address; a statement requesting registration signed by the founders and board members of the organization; two copies of the organization’s charter; the names, addresses, and dates of birth of the organization’s founders, and pay a registration fee of ranging from 100 to 800 manat ($29 to $230), based on location of registration and other factors. Once SCROEERIR endorses an application for registration, it is submitted to the MOJ, which coordinates an interministerial approval process involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Security, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and other government offices. According to government procedures, the MOJ may additionally request the biographic information of all members of an organization applying for registration. The law states that leaders of registered religious organizations must be citizens who have received an “appropriate religious education,” but it does not define that term. Each subsidiary congregation of a registered religious organization must also register, and the registration process is the same as that which applies to the parent organization.
The tax code stipulates registered religious organizations are exempt from taxes.
The law states the MOJ will not register a religious organization if its goals or activities contradict the constitution or if SCROEERIR does not endorse its application. The law does not specify the standards SCROEERIR uses to make that determination. The law assigns the Office of the Prosecutor General to monitor the compliance of a religious organization with the constitution. The law specifies a court may suspend the activities of a religious organization if it determines the organization to be in violation of the constitution; that suspension may only be overcome if the organization submits documentation satisfying the court that the activities that led to suspension have been stopped. The law also states that grounds for dissolution of a religious organization include activities “that violate the rights, freedoms, and lawful interests of citizens” or “harm their health and morale.”
The administrative code covering religious organizations delineates a schedule of fines for conducting activities not described in a religious organization’s charter.
Unregistered religious organizations and unregistered subsidiary congregations of registered religious organizations may not legally conduct religious activities; establish places of worship; gather for religious services, including in private residences; produce or disseminate religious materials; or proselytize. Any such activity is punishable as an administrative offense by fines ranging from 100 to 2,000 manat ($29 to $570), with higher fines for religious leaders and lower fines for lay members.
The law states MOJ officials have the right to attend any religious event held by a registered religious organization and to question religious leaders about any aspect of their activities.
The administrative code stipulates penalties of from 200 to 500 manat ($57 to $140) for officials who violate an individual’s right of freedom to worship or right to abstain from worship, but this has not been enforced in practice.
The criminal and administrative codes provide punishment for the harassment of members of registered religious organizations by private individuals. According to the administrative code, obstructing the exercise of religious freedom is punishable by a fine of from 1,000 to 8,700 manat ($290 to $2,500) or detention of from 15 days to one year of “corrective labor,” which involves serving in a government-assigned position in a prison near one’s home or at a location away from one’s home. If an obstruction involves a physical attack, the punishment may entail up to two years in prison. According to the criminal code, the fine is calculated as five to 10 times an individual’s average monthly wages (4,350 to 8,700 manat or $1,200 to $2,500).
The law allows registered religious organizations to create educational establishments to train clergy and other religious personnel after obtaining a license to do so. The Cabinet of Ministers establishes the procedures for obtaining a license. The law also states individuals teaching religious disciplines at religious educational establishments must have a theological education and must carry out their activities with the permission of the central governing body of the religious organization and the approval of SCROEERIR.
Local governments have the right to monitor and “analyze” the “religious situation” within their jurisdiction, send proposals to SCROEERIR to change or update legislation on religious freedom, and coordinate religious ceremonies conducted outside of religious buildings.
The law allows local governments, with the approval of SCROEERIR, to make decisions regarding the construction of religious buildings and structures within their jurisdiction.
Under the criminal code, polygamy carries penalties of up to two years of labor or fines of 17,400 to 26,100 manat ($5,000 to $7,500).
The law prohibits the publication of religious literature inciting “religious, national, ethnic, and/or racial hatred,” although it does not specify which agency makes this determination. SCROEERIR must approve imported religious literature, and only registered religious organizations may import literature. Registered religious organizations may be fined for publishing or disseminating religious material without government approval. The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 200 to 2,000 manat ($57 to $570), for producing, importing, and disseminating unauthorized religious literature and other religious materials.
Religious instruction is not part of the public school curriculum. The law allows registered religious organizations to provide religious education after school to children for up to four hours per week with parental and SCROEERIR approval, although the law does not specify the requirements for obtaining SCROEERIR’s approval. Persons who graduate from institutions of higher religious education, and who obtain approval from SCROEERIR, may provide religious education. According to the law, citizens have a right to obtain religious education, although obtaining religious education in private settings such as residences is prohibited, and those offering religious education in private settings are subject to legal action. The law prohibits unregistered religious groups or unregistered subsidiary congregations of registered religious organizations from providing religious education. The administrative code sets out a detailed schedule of fines, ranging from 100 to 500 manat ($29 to $140), for providing unauthorized religious education to children.
The constitution states two years of military service are compulsory for men older than the age of 18. Although service in noncombat roles is allowed, the government does not offer civilian service alternatives for conscientious objectors. Refusal to perform the compulsory two-year service in the armed forces is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison or two years of “corrective labor.” In addition, the state withholds part of the salaries of prisoners sentenced to corrective labor in an amount designated by the court. Salary deductions range between 5 to 20 percent. The law states no one has the right for religious reasons to refuse duties established by the constitution and the law. Until the age of 27, individuals may be convicted each time they refuse compulsory military service, potentially resulting in multiple convictions in their lifetimes.
The constitution and law prohibit the establishment of political parties on the basis of religion, and the law prohibits the involvement of religious groups in politics.
The law does not address the activities of foreign missionaries and foreign religious organizations. The administrative code, however, bans registered religious organizations from receiving assistance from foreign entities for prohibited activities.
The law requires religious groups to register all foreign assistance with the MOJ and to provide interim and final reports on the use of funds. The administrative code provides a detailed schedule of fines of up to 10,000 manat ($2,900) on both unregistered and registered religious groups for accepting unapproved funds from foreign sources.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Military-age Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to be arrested and imprisoned for refusing military service; five were arrested and imprisoned during the year. As of the end of the year, 11 Jehovah’s Witnesses conscientious objectors were imprisoned for refusing military service, compared with 10 at the end of 2019.
According to the human rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, early in the year, the Dashoguz Provincial Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Kamiljan Ergashov and Vepa Matyakubov to two years in prison for refusing compulsory military service. This was reportedly the second conviction for Matyakubov, who was first convicted in 2017, placed under house arrest, and forced to forfeit 20 percent of his salary. His older brother, Dovran, was imprisoned twice for conscientious objection, first in December 2010 and again in December 2012. Matyakubov’s sentence included a statement from SCROEERIR that “the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not officially registered in Turkmenistan.”
According to Forum 18 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website, brothers Eldor and Sanjarbek Saburov were sentenced to two years and imprisoned in August for their conscientious objection to military service. Forum 18 reported that both lost their appeal to the Dashoguz Provincial Court on September 1 and faced a sentence of corrective labor because both had been charged with the same offense previously (Sanjarbek in 2016 and Eldor in 2017).
According to Forum 18, in September, Myrat Orazgeldiyev, a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was sentenced to one year in prison for conscientious objection by a district court in Mary Province.
Forum 18 also reported that in May, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of 19 current or former imprisoned conscientious objectors.
According to Forum 18, in March, the Lebap Provincial Court fined a homeowner 200 manat ($57) and confiscated his computer for hosting a gathering to celebrate Christmas in 2019. In February, secret police from the Ministry of National Security reportedly raided a home in Dashoguz Province where local Christians were meeting. All the participants were taken to the police station and the home owner was later fined 200 manat ($57). That same month, local police reportedly raided another house in Dashoguz Province where a group of Protestants was attending a housewarming celebration. All those present were taken to the police station and forced to write statements indicating they had attended an illegal religious meeting. In January, police summoned a group of women to make statements and give fingerprints following a raid on their Christmas 2019 gathering in a village in Lebap Province. There were no further developments in this case by year’s end.
Forum 18 also reported that in Lebap Province in February, officials banned state employees – including those working in education, culture, health, the military, and the police – from attending Friday prayers in mosques. The employees were warned that if they were seen in mosques they would be fired from their jobs. Officials also banned them from praying at their place of work.
In its report covering 2020, NGO Open Doors ranked the country on its World Watch List of countries where Christians are persecuted. The NGO said the government imposed many restrictions on church life and Christians are highly susceptible to police raids, threats, arrests, and fines unless they are part of a registered church. According to local religious community members and international advocacy groups, members of some Christian organizations faced harassment, raids, and house searches, usually as a result of attempting to gather for purposes of communal worship. They reported that security services interviewed members of religious organizations and demanded they provide information on their communities’ activities. Some members also reported that security officials interrogated their friends and family members, asking about the members’ religious activities. Christian groups reported that Turkmen who converted from Islam experienced government scrutiny and were subject to discrimination. For example, the groups reported converts were denied government jobs or fired from jobs based on their religion.
Unregistered groups stated their members were subject to arrest for “unlawful assembly,” in addition to fines stipulated by law. Members of these groups said they continued to practice discreetly, mostly in private homes, and could do so as long as neighbors did not file complaints with local authorities.
Representatives of registered Christian groups said some government officials continued to require them to obtain approval to carry out routine religious activities, such as weekly services, as well as social and charitable activities, including summer camps for children. Some groups sought official approval of such activities, even if they did not believe that approval was required, in order to assure the events would not be disrupted.
Religious groups continued to report the government prevented or severely limited the importation of and access to religious literature; even the few groups who were successful in importing literature complained about the restrictive procedures. Although by law registered religious groups were allowed to import religious literature, they said the government’s opaque procedures made it extremely difficult. The Quran remained unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, although many individuals kept a Soviet-era copy in Arabic or Russian in their homes. Few translations were available in the Turkmen language. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said SCROEERIR allowed the import of 240 religious books during the year.
Members of various religious groups reported that the government and state-affiliated enterprises continued to interfere in the purchase or long-term rental of land and buildings for worship or meeting purposes. Some of the groups reported that landlords feared government reprisal if they leased properties to be used as places of worship. Some groups reported that they had secured properties only to have the landlords renege on the contacts after being instructed by the government. Other groups stated that attempts to purchase land or property to use as places of worship were stymied by intentional government obfuscation or flat-out denial. Registered and unregistered religious groups reported continued difficulty in renting space for holiday celebrations from private landlords, which they attributed to landlords’ concerns about potential government disapproval.
The theology faculty in the Turkmen State University history department in Ashgabat continued to be the only university-level members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. The Ministry of National Security reportedly continued to vet student candidates for admission to this program. The state-approved Islamic theology program remained the only course of study available. Women remained banned from the program.
On February 21, President Berdimuhamedov attended the opening of a 3,000-person-capacity mosque in Turkmenabat, Lebap Province. After the tour, he hosted a communal meal with government officials, Muslim leaders, and local business leaders.
According to members of the Protestant community, clergy in Protestant organizations continued to receive their religious education abroad or via distance learning.
The government continued its practice of approving the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics. The Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups continued to be financed independently; the government was not involved in appointing their leadership, but the senior Russian Orthodox priest was required to be a Turkmen citizen.
The government continued its practice of denying visas to foreigners suspected of conducting or intending to conduct missionary activity. Religious groups able to obtain religious visitor visas for foreign religious speakers said the government continued to grant such visas for very short durations and required the groups to complete burdensome paperwork. As in previous years, the government did not report the number of religious visitors it allowed into the country, nor did it report the number of visa applications of foreign religious visitors it had denied. Pro-government media reported positively on the visit of a Russian Orthodox Archbishop in February, before borders were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Minority religious groups said persons who were not Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox continued to report harassment, such as public shaming, by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Members of registered Christian groups continued to report hostility from acquaintances due to their religious affiliation. Religious leaders and others stated they continued to be reluctant to speak out publicly about religious freedom issues out of fear of harassment, ostracism, or public shaming by their family members, friends, and neighbors. Numerous citizens continued to state that the government’s suspicion of religion was often mirrored in the private sector, and that membership in a minority religious organization or even outward expressions of religion, such as how one wears a headscarf or religious symbol, could result in the loss of employment or employment opportunities. Some members of minority religious groups reported continued societal prejudices against religious groups that were not part of the Sunni Muslim majority.
Persons who joined non-Sunni Muslim or Russian Orthodox religious groups reported continuing societal criticism. Ethnic Turkmen who converted from Islam received more societal scrutiny than non-Turkmen converts and continued to be ostracized at community events, especially in rural areas, according to representatives of religious minority groups.
According to Christian community leaders, Muslims who converted to Christianity faced pressure from families, friends, and local communities to return to their former faith. In its report covering 2020, Open Doors said Christians who come from Muslim backgrounds experienced intense pressure to deny their faith.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador, embassy representatives, and U.S. government officials continued to express concerns about issues of religious freedom in the country. These included the legal status of conscientious objectors, Turkmenistan’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern, the ability of religious groups to register or reregister, and easing restrictions on the importation of religious literature. The Ambassador, personally in meetings, and the embassy, via diplomatic notes, requested that President Berdimuhamedov pardon all Jehovah’s Witnesses imprisoned as conscientious objectors.
In January, the Ambassador and other embassy officials met with representatives of 10 minority religious groups to discuss their challenges in the face of a restrictive environment for religious freedom. Several other ambassadors and senior embassy officials from European countries also took part. Representatives from religious organizations spoke about challenges of reregistration, the inability to import religious literature, and the lack of places of worship.
Since 2014, Turkmenistan has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Turkmenistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the “important national interest of the United States.”
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church. The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion. The Emergency Coronavirus Bill was amended in March in response to concerns from Muslim and Jewish advocacy groups that the bill would permit cremation of COVID-19 victims “against the wishes of the deceased.” In January, the Welsh government announced plans to make relationships, sexuality, and religion a mandatory part of the curriculum for all students over the age of five by 2022. In September, Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Rehman Chishti resigned from his position as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Religious Freedom. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce was appointed his successor in December. In July, Imam Qari Asim, the Deputy Chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, was appointed independent advisor to propose a working definition of Islamophobia. On the one-year anniversary of the March mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, the government announced that funding for the Places of Worship Scheme, which provides physical security measures to Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu places of worship, would double from the previous year to 3.2 million pounds ($4.37 million) in 2020-2021. In April, the government provided 14 million pounds ($19.13 million) via a nongovernmental organization (NGO) to provide security at Jewish institutions, including schools and synagogues. In January, the Scottish government announced 500,000 pounds ($683,000) to fund security at places of worship. In January, the government renewed its commitment to the founding principles of the 2000 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (Stockholm Declaration). To mark International Holocaust Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the UK government announced a one-million pound ($1.37 million) grant to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to help preserve the site of the former concentration camp. The main political parties and party members continued to face numerous accusations of religious bias. The Conservative Party faced allegations of anti-Muslim incidents, with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) submitting a dossier of 150 cases of alleged anti-Muslim incidents by party members to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The party announced it would conduct a review into how complaints were handled and the EHRC accepted the party’s terms of reference for the investigation, but the MCB criticized the scope of the inquiry. In October, the EHRC released a report calling on the Labour Party to reform its handling of allegations of anti-Semitism within the party. In light of his negative reaction to the report, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from both the wider Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party and was forced to sit as an independent MP, a first for a former leader. While his wider-party membership was later reinstated in November, he continued to serve as an independent MP. In December, the Labour Party published a plan to implement the EHRC’s recommended reforms.
The government reported a 5 percent decline (from 8,566 to 7,203 offenses) in religiously motivated hate crimes in England and Wales in the 2019-2020 period compared to the same period one year prior. This was the first period of decline in religiously motivated hate crimes since 2012-2013. Where the perceived religion of the victim was recorded (in 91 percent of cases), 50 percent (3,089 offenses) of religious hate crime offenses targeted Muslims, and 19 percent (1,205 offenses) targeted Jews. The annual report of the NGO Community Security Trust (CST) recorded 1,668 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, an 8 percent decline from 2019, yet still the second-highest ever annual figure recorded by the organization. Among the incidents were 97 assaults and three incidents classified as “extreme violence.” (Due to privacy laws, CST did not provide details on cases of extreme violence.) There were a further 1,399 incidents of nonviolent abusive behavior. CST recorded 634 anti-Semitic online incidents, a 9 percent decline from the previous year. In September, the NGO Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which monitors anti-Muslim activity, released its annual report for 2018. The report disclosed 3,173 reports of anti-Muslim hate incidents in 2018, including 1,891 recorded by police. This was the highest number since the NGO’s founding in 2011. Several religiously motivated conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic circulated online. According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society think tank, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories included claims that Jews used global lockdowns to “steal everything.” Both Jewish and Muslim communities were vilified by media commentators such as Katie Hopkins, who alleged that Muslims were flouting lockdown restrictions and spreading COVID-19 by continuing Friday prayers at mosques.
U.S. embassy and consulate staff engaged with government officials, political parties, and religious groups to advance religious freedom issues, with a strong emphasis on digital engagement and use of social media in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. In May, the Ambassador, along with the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, gave remarks at virtual iftars, which were part of the largest such series in the UK, entitled #RamadanatHome. In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual meeting with representatives of the Jewish community, and separately, with Labour Leader MP Sir Keir Starmer, to discuss the Labour Party’s plan to confront the issue of anti-Semitism within the party. In April, the Ambassador spoke to the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues to extend his best wishes for Passover and to show support for the British Jewish communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in May, the Ambassador called Dr. Ahmad al-Dubayan of the Central London Mosque to commemorate Ramadan and discuss how the Muslim community was faring, given COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on gatherings. In December, a senior embassy official delivered remarks and conducted a virtual candle lighting in honor of Diwali, in partnership with the Hindu Forum of Europe. In January, a senior embassy official represented the United States at the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and met with Trustees of the Holocaust Day Memorial Trust. To mark National Religious Freedom Day in January, the consulate general in Belfast hosted an interfaith dialogue. Throughout the year, the embassy’s social media messaging on international religious freedom reached approximately 400,000 persons.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 65.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Census figures from 2011, the most recent, indicate 59.3 percent of the population in England and Wales is Christian. Of the remaining population, 4.8 percent identified as Muslim; 1.5 percent Hindu; 0.8 percent Sikh; 0.5 percent Jewish; and 0.4 Buddhist. Approximately 25 percent of the population reported no religious affiliation in the 2011 census, and 7 percent chose not to answer. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate there are 137,000 members in the country, and the Baha’i community estimates it has more than 7,000 members.
According to the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey, an annual survey conducted by the independent National Center for Social Research, 52 percent of those surveyed UK-wide described themselves as having no religion, 12 percent as Anglican, 7 percent as Catholic, and 9 percent as belonging to non-Christian religious groups. The survey showed 6 percent of individuals identified as Muslim, less than 0.5 percent as Jewish, and 3 percent as “other non-Christian.”
The Muslim community in England and Wales is predominantly of South Asian origin, but it also includes individuals from the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as a growing number of converts of British and other European descent. Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists are concentrated in London and other large urban areas, primarily in England.
Census figures for Scotland in 2011 indicate 54 percent of the population is Christian, comprising the Church of Scotland (32 percent), Roman Catholic Church (16 percent), and other Christian groups (6 percent). The Muslim community constitutes 1.4 percent of the population. Other religious groups, which together make up less than 1 percent of the population, include Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists. Persons not belonging to any religious group make up 36.7 percent of the population, and the remainder did not provide information on religious affiliation.
A 2017 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found 58 percent of those surveyed did not identify with any religion, 18 percent identified as part of the Church of Scotland, 10 percent as Roman Catholic, 11 percent as other Christian, and 2 percent as non-Christian.
Census figures from Northern Ireland in 2011 indicate 41.5 percent of the population is Protestant – consisting of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (19 percent), Church of Ireland (14 percent), Methodist Church in Ireland (3 percent), and other Protestant groups (6 percent) – and 41 percent Roman Catholic. Less than 1 percent of the population belongs to non-Christian religious groups, and approximately 10 percent professes no religion; 7 percent did not indicate a religious affiliation.
In his 2019 ‘Sectarianism in Northern Ireland’ report, Ulster University Professor Duncan Morrow found there is a “clear statistical trend towards a change in the religious minority-majority structure of Northern Ireland.” His research illustrates a consistent decline of Protestants in all 26 district council areas of Northern Ireland since 2001, contrasted with an increased Catholic population in 19 of 26 council areas in the same time period. Morrow’s analysis of 2011 census figures also illustrates this trend is likely to continue. Census figures show a Protestant majority in the over-60 age bracket and a Catholic majority in the under-20 age bracket. Professor Paul Nolan of Queen’s University Belfast stated based on current statistical trends, there will be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland by 2021, when the next census will be conducted.
Census figures from Bermuda in 2010 cite 22 religious groups in the population of 71,000; 78 percent identifies as Christian, including 16 percent Anglican, 15 percent Roman Catholic, 9 percent African Methodist Episcopal, and 7 percent Seventh-day Adventist. Approximately 2 percent identifies with other religious groups, including approximately 600 Muslims, 200 Rastafarians, and 120 Jews. Approximately 20 percent did not identify with or state a religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have state religions. Legislation establishes the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church, but it is not dependent on any government body or the Queen for spiritual matters or leadership.
The Human Rights Act 1998 protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” The Human Rights Act reaffirms the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 9, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society.”
As the supreme governor of the Church of England, the monarch must always be a member of, and promise to uphold, that Church. The monarch appoints Church of England officials, including lay and clergy representatives, on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Crown Appointments Commission. Aside from these appointments, the state is not involved in the Church’s administration. The Church of Scotland is governed by its General Assembly, which has the authority to make the laws determining how it operates.
Blasphemy and blasphemous libel remain criminal offenses in Northern Ireland under common law. To date, however, there have been no convictions for blasphemy or blasphemous libel there. Northern Ireland Humanists continues to run a campaign to repeal blasphemy laws originating from the 1888 Law of Libel Amendment Act and the 1819 Criminal Libel Act, which remain in force in the region. These laws prohibit “composing, printing or publishing any blasphemous libel or any seditious libel tending to bring into hatred…any matter in Church or State.”
In England and Wales, the law prohibits religiously motivated hate speech and any acts intended to incite religious hatred through the use of words or the publication or distribution of written material. The law defines religious hatred as hatred of a group because of its religious belief or lack thereof. Police are responsible for investigating criminal offenses and for gathering evidence; the Crown Prosecution Service, which is an independent body and the main public prosecution service for England and Wales, is responsible for deciding whether a suspect should be charged with a criminal offense. The maximum penalty for inciting religious hatred is seven years in prison. If there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with any crime, it is a “religiously aggravated offense” and carries a higher maximum penalty than does the underlying crime alone.
Blasphemy is an offense under common law in Scotland. It is a crime against public order and decency and has two aspects: whether an individual’s spoken or written words against God or religion occurred, and the words are spoken or written with intent to cause disorder. The law relates only to Christianity and is punishable by fines or imprisonment or both. The law requires courts to consider the impact of religious bias when sentencing.
Northern Ireland does not have specific hate crime laws, but current legislation allows for increased sentencing if offenses are judged to be motivated by hostility based on religion, among other aggravating factors.
By law, the General Register Office for England and Wales governs the registration and legal recognition of places of worship in England and Wales. A representative of the congregation, for example, a proprietor, trustee, or religious head, must complete and submit an application form and pay a fee of 29 pounds ($40) to a local registrar. The General Registrar Office typically provides registration certificates to the local superintendent registrar within 20 working days. The law also states buildings, rooms, or other premises may be registered as meeting places for religious worship upon payment of a fee; the General Register Office for England and Wales keeps a record of the registration, and the place of worship is assigned a “worship number.” Registration is not compulsory, but it provides certain financial advantages and is also required before a place of worship may be registered as a venue for marriages. Registered places of worship are exempt from paying taxes and benefit from participating in the country’s Gift Aid program. Gift Aid allows charities to claim back the 25 percent basic rate of tax already paid on donations by the donor, boosting the value of a donation by a quarter. The law only applies in England and Wales and does not cover the Church of England or in Wales.
The law requires religious education (RE) and worship for children between the ages of three and 18 in state-run schools, with the content decided at the local level. Specialist schoolteachers, rather than religious groups, teach the syllabus. Parents may request to exempt their children from RE, and in England and Wales, students may opt out themselves at age 14, although religious worship continues until students leave school at either age 16 or 18. State schools that are not legally designated as religious require the RE curriculum to reflect “Christian values,” be nondenominational, and refrain from attempts to convert students. It must also teach the practices of other principal religions in the country. Students and teachers, unless they are employed by faith-based schools, may decline participation in collective worship, without prejudice. All schools not designated as religious, whether private or state-run, must maintain neutrality in their interpretation of the RE syllabus and must avoid presenting one faith or belief as greater than another.
State schools in England and Wales that are not legally designated as religious are required to practice daily collective prayer or worship of “a wholly or mainly…Christian character.” Schoolteachers lead these assemblies; however, parents have the legal right to request their children not participate in collective prayer or worship. The law permits sixth form students (generally 16- to 19-year-olds in the final two years of secondary school) to withdraw from worship without parental permission or action. State schools not designated as religious are free to hold other religious ceremonies as they choose.
The government requires schools to consider the practices of different religious groups when setting dress codes for students. This includes wearing or carrying specific religious artifacts, not cutting hair, dressing modestly, or covering the head. Guidance from the Department of Education requires schools to balance the rights of individual students against the best interests of the school community as a whole; it acknowledges schools could be justified in restricting individuals’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs when necessary, for example, to promote cohesion and good order.
In Scotland, only denominational (faith-based) schools practice daily collective prayer or worship; however, religious observance at least six times per year is compulsory in all Scottish schools. Religious observance is defined as “community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community.” Examples of religious observance include school assemblies and events to recognize religious events, including Christmas and Easter. Parents may make the decision to opt out their children from this requirement, but children may not make this decision themselves.
In Bermuda, the law requires students attending state schools to participate in collective worship, characterized by educational officials as reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but it prohibits worship “distinctive of any particular religious group.” At the high school level, students are required to take a course that explores various religions until year 9 (ages 11-14); in years 10 and 11 (ages 15-16), courses on religion are optional.
There are two faith-based private schools in Bermuda that operate from kindergarten through high school. One follows the guidance of the North American division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The other follows principles of the Catholic Church.
The government determines whether to establish a faith-based school when there is evidence of demand, such as petitions from parents, religious groups, teachers, or other entities. If a faith-based school is not oversubscribed, then the school must offer a place to any child, but if the school is oversubscribed, it may use faith as a criterion for acceptance. Nonstate faith-based schools are eligible to claim “charitable status,” which allows for tax exemptions.
Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support, with approximately 90 percent of students attending Protestant or Catholic schools. Approximately 7 percent of school-age children attend religiously integrated schools with admissions criteria designed to enroll equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children without the intervention of the state, as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds. Students of different faiths are able to attend Protestant or Catholic schools but tend to gravitate toward the integrated schools. These integrated schools are not secular but are “essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none.” RE – a core syllabus designed by the Department of Education, Church of Ireland, and Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist Churches – is compulsory in all government-funded schools, and, “The school day shall include collective Christian worship whether in one or more than one assembly.” All schools receiving government funding must teach RE; however, students may request to opt out of the classes and collective worship. Catholic-managed schools draw uniquely on the Roman Catholic tradition for their RE, while other schools may draw on world religions.
An estimated 30 sharia councils operate parallel to the national legal system. They adjudicate Islamic religious matters, including religious divorces, which are not recognized under civil law. Participants may submit cases to the councils on a voluntary basis. The councils do not have the legal status of courts, although they have legal status as mediation and arbitration bodies. As such, rulings may not be appealed in the courts.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion or belief” or the “lack of religion or belief” and requires “reasonable” religious accommodation in the workplace for employees. The EHRC – a body sponsored by the Department of Education’s Government Equalities Office – is responsible for enforcing legislation prohibiting religious discrimination. The EHRC researches and conducts inquiries into religious and other discrimination in England, Scotland, and Wales. The Minister for Women and Equalities appoints the members. If the commission finds a violation, it may issue a notice to the violator and seek a court order to enforce the notice. The EHRC receives government funds but operates independently. The Northern Ireland equivalent to the EHRC is the Equality Commission.
In Northern Ireland the law bans discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in employment; however, schools may be selective on the grounds of religion when recruiting teachers. In the rest of the country, the law prohibits any discrimination, including employment discrimination, based on religious belief, unless the employer can show a genuine requirement for a particular religion.
Citing a limited broadcast spectrum, the law prohibits religious groups from holding national radio licenses, public teletext licenses, more than one television service license, and/or radio and television multiplex licenses, which would allow them to offer multiple channels as part of a single bundle of programming.
Twenty-six senior bishops of the Anglican Church sit in the House of Lords as representatives of the state Church. Known as the Lords Spiritual, they read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play a full role in the work of the upper house.
The law requires visa applicants wishing to enter the country as “ministers of religion” to have worked for at least one of the previous five years as a minister and to have at least one year of full-time experience or, if their religion requires ordination, at least two years of part-time training following their ordination. A missionary must also be trained as such or have worked previously in this role.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On March 23, Muslim and Jewish advocacy groups issued statements in response to proposed burial measures in the Emergency Coronavirus Bill ahead of its debate in the House of Commons. The draft bill allowed designated local authorities to disregard the section of public health legislation designed to “prevent a local authority from being able to cremate a body against the wishes of the deceased.” Religious groups, including the Muslim Engagement and Development advocacy group and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, strongly criticized the bill, which they said would give medical professionals the ability to override the religious beliefs of the deceased and their families in regard to the treatment of their body after death. Labour MP Naz Shah proposed an amendment to the bill intended “to ensure if local authorities reach their capacity, they do not proceed to cremate the deceased from faith backgrounds automatically” without appropriate consultation. In response, the government agreed to amend the bill to reflect Shah’s concerns, negating the need for a vote.
On January 21, the Welsh government announced that relationships, sexuality, and religion will be compulsory for all children over the age of five as part of the new “Curriculum for Wales Framework,” being developed and refined before use in schools in 2022. On March 12, Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced the establishment of a Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) working group to agree on topics to be covered by schools and to prepare detailed guidance on the proposed changes. The working group includes key stakeholders, teachers, teachers unions, and faith organizations, and is cochaired by the government and regional consortia. Religious objections include concerns that children will be taught values that contradict their parents’ beliefs or religion, such as LGBTQI+ relationships, constituting an erosion of parental rights. Expressing concerns surrounding the lack of detail on what will be in the RSE curriculum and at what age children will learn various aspects, religious groups stated that young children should be allowed a childhood free of “sexualization.” Humanists UK and the National Secular Society supported ending of the right to withdraw children from classes, in principle. They argued that religious worldviews must be taught impartially before the right to withdraw is removed.
In September, MP Rehman Chishti resigned from his position as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which he had held for one year. Chishti said his resignation was not related to differing views on religious freedom, but instead on his opposition to economic legislation dealing with internal markets. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce was appointed to the role in December. Bruce is also vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Groups including Humanists UK and the Council of Christians and Jews expressed concerns over Bruce’s previous support of mandatory prayer in schools and hope that the government would not pursue a Christians-only agenda.
In July, Imam Qari Asim, Deputy Chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, was appointed independent advisor to propose a working definition of Islamophobia after an existing definition came under question for potentially undermining freedom of speech. The Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group was established in 2012 to develop and implement proposals to address anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. The group is made up of representatives from Muslim communities, independent experts, academics, and a range of government departments, including the Attorney General’s Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), and the Home Office. The Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group did not agree on a working definition by year’s end. Separately, the London Metropolitan University became the first UK university to adopt the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ working definition of Islamophobia in November. The APPG’s definition states, “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expression of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”
On February 25, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanists Group (APPHG) published a report entitled “Time for Reflection: A report of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group on religion or belief in the UK Parliament.” The report called for parliamentary prayers to be replaced with a “time for reflection”; for the House of Commons Speaker to consider introducing additional forms of religious and pastoral support alongside that already provided by the Anglican chaplain; and for an end to automatic seats in the House of Lords for Anglican bishops. The report highlighted the exclusive nature of “Prayers,” a parliamentary tradition to open the day’s proceedings, which also serves as a way to obtain a seat for the day, since these are not formally reserved. The report argued that MPs who chose not to participate in the religious prayers could miss out on seats in the parliamentary chambers for key debates including during the Prime Ministers Questions and the Budget sessions. The report also revealed details of nine cases in which bishops in the House of Lords changed the outcomes of votes, including two votes that directly benefited the Church of England.
Timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attacks, on March 15, the government’s Home Office announced that during 2019-2020, the Places of Worship Scheme provided 1.6 million pounds ($2.19 million) to fund physical security measures at 27 mosques, 13 churches, five Sikh gurdwaras, and four Hindu temples. This was the highest level of funding for the scheme since it was established in 2016. The government announced that funding for the period covering March 2020-2021 would be doubled to 3.2 million pounds ($4.37 million).
The government simultaneously launched an eight-week public consultation period, from March 15 to June 28, to improve the government’s response to religiously motivated hate crimes at places of worship. Consultation results were not published at year’s end.
On April 1, the Home Office granted the CST 14 million pounds ($19.13 million) for the Jewish Community Protective Security Grant to cover protective security at Jewish institutions, including schools and synagogues.
In 2019, the government simplified the application system for the Places of Worship security funding scheme by commissioning a central contractor to install physical security measures. Applicants were no longer required to show they had already experienced a hate crime, and became eligible to apply if they showed they were vulnerable to hate crime. Associated faith community centers were also eligible to apply. The Chair of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group welcomed the developments and said, “The simplified process will hopefully make it even easier for mosques to improve their security and will go some way in building community confidence.”
In January, the Scottish government announced 500,000 pounds ($683,000) of funding for security at places of worship. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf and Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell announced the new scheme on Holocaust Memorial Day during a visit to a synagogue in Glasgow. Yousaf said the government was committed to ensuring “safety and security for our faith communities” and he hoped the “scheme will provide reassurance to all faith communities and their places of worship that hate crime and prejudice will not be tolerated.”
On January 19, the government renewed its commitment to the founding principles of the 2000 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (Stockholm Declaration). As part of the commemorations to mark the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration, and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration and extermination camps, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for Human Rights, represented the country at an International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) meeting held to adopt a renewed commitment. Lord Ahmad said, “It is important that we reaffirm our collective commitment to combatting prejudice and intolerance, and pledge to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust that they will never be forgotten.”
On January 27, to coincide with International Holocaust Memorial Day, the government announced a one-million pound ($1.37 million) grant to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation endowment fund to help preserve the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In a statement, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “The government is supporting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation because we must never forget history’s darkest moment, and we must educate future generations so it can never be repeated.” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said, “The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish countrymen and women.” Separately, the City of London committed 300,000 pounds ($410,000) to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to support the preservation of the gas chambers, crematoria, barracks, and other exhibits.
In January, the royal family and members of the cabinet marked Holocaust Remembrance Day via social media. Additionally, Prince Charles delivered a speech at the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, on January 23. At the event to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, Prince Charles warned, “Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart” and, with lessons of the Holocaust still “searingly relevant,” he called on the 40 world leaders in attendance to be “fearless in confronting falsehoods” and violence.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust hosted a remembrance service at which Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William spoke. The Prime Minister said, “I feel a deep sense of shame that here in Britain – in 2020 – we seem to be dealing with a resurgence of the virus of anti-Semitism – and I know that I carry responsibility as Prime Minister to do everything possible to stamp it out.” He also committed to constructing the National Holocaust Memorial and Education Centre, which was announced in 2015 but remains in planning stages. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and cities and towns across the United Kingdom also hosted Holocaust Memorial Day events, with many focusing on this year’s theme, “Stand Together,” to promote interfaith engagement.
The pastoral needs of prisoners were addressed, in part, through chaplains paid for by the Ministry of Justice, rather than by religious groups. All chaplains worked as part of a multifaith team, the size and breakdown of which was determined by the size of the prison and the religious composition of the prisoner population. Prison service regulations stated that “…chaplaincy provision must reflect the faith denomination requirements of the prison.”
The military generally provided adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith. There were approximately 240 recruited chaplains in the armed forces, all of whom were Christian. The armed forces also employed five civilian chaplains as full-time civil servants to care for Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim recruits. During the year, the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Policy Board reviewed how chaplain services were provided to minority religious groups and was considering the use of suitable chaplains in the reserve forces.
In January 2019 (the latest data available), there were 6,802 state-funded faith-based schools in England, representing 34 percent of all state-funded mainstream schools and serving approximately 1.9 million students. Church of England schools were the most common type among primary schools (26 percent); Roman Catholic schools were the most common at the secondary level (9 percent). Additionally, at the primary and secondary levels, there were 72 “other Christian,” 36 Jewish, 25 Methodist, 14 Islamic, six Sikh, five Hindu, and two multifaith state-funded faith-based schools. There were 370 government-funded denominational schools in Scotland: 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian, and one Jewish. The government classified schools with links to the Church of Scotland as nondenominational.
The Conservative Party faced allegations of anti-Muslim sentiment. In March, the MCB submitted a dossier of 150 cases to the EHRC that catalogued alleged anti-Muslim incidents attributed to members of the Conservative Party, increasing pressure on the EHRC to launch a formal investigation. The dossier was in addition to 150 cases submitted in 2019, making a total of 300 cases. The submission catalogued evidence of what the MCB stated were anti-Muslim comments and actions by hundreds of party activists, local councillors, MPs, and advisors to the Prime Minister. Examples include MP Sally Ann Hart, who in 2017 posted on Facebook a claim by an anti-Islamist activist that a women’s march had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood to promote the “Muslim agenda.” Hart publicly apologized for her comments.
In May, the EHRC dropped plans for an inquiry into “Islamophobia” in the Conservative Party after the party announced it would conduct its own review of how complaints were handled. On May 12, the party established the terms of reference for the investigation, which were formally supported by the EHRC. The party confirmed that the review would examine the “nature and extent” of complaints of anti-Muslim statements by party members since 2015 and would also consider what sanctions could be taken against members who quit the party before being investigated. Furthermore, the investigation would consider allegations of discrimination relating to all “protected characteristics” in the 2010 Equalities Act, including not only religion, but also age, race, sexual orientation, and disability.
The MCB criticized the scope of the inquiry. On May 12, MCB Secretary General Harun Khan said, “By restricting the terms to an inquiry merely into the complaints received, the party is choosing to summarily dismiss all the issues of the toxic culture of racism that have been raised by the Muslim Council of Britain.” MP Amanda Milling, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, said that having the terms of reference agreed upon was a positive step forward. She said the party is “committed to this investigation, to ensure that any abuse that is not fit for public life is stamped out.”
In September, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Hope Not Hate political action group found that 47 percent of Conservative Party members surveyed in July believed Islam is “a threat to the British way of life.” The poll of 1,213 Conservative Party members found that more than 33 percent believed that Islamist terror attacks reflected a widespread hostility towards Britain among the Muslim community, and that 58 percent thought “there are no-go areas in Britain where Sharia Law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter.” However, 53 percent of those asked thought it was wrong to blame all Muslims for the actions of a violent minority. Former Conservative Party Chair Baroness Warsi said, “This latest poll is further evidence that the party has a real and serious issue with racism directed at Muslims.”
Media reported in October that Rakhia Ismail, the former ceremonial mayor of the London district of Islington, resigned from the Labour Party and joined the Conservative Party, citing the anti-Muslim sentiment she experienced within Labour as her reason for leaving.
In January, all five Labour Party leadership candidates signed the “Ten Pledges to End the Anti-Semitism Crisis,” a document prepared by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The 10 pledges included an agreement to resolve outstanding cases, to reform the party disciplinary process to ensure complaints were properly handled, and to engage the British Jewish community on a way forward. The move was criticized by the left-wing paper Morning Star and far-left Labour members, who said it was wrong for an outside body to interfere in the party’s leadership election. In a parallel deputy leadership contest, two candidates – Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgnon and Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler – refused to sign the declaration.
After winning the Labour Party leadership election on April 4, Sir Keir Starmer used his victory speech and his first op-ed as leader in The Sunday Times to apologize publicly to the British Jewish community concerning previous allegations of anti-Semitism on the part of Labour Party leaders and members. On April 7, both Starmer and newly elected deputy leader Angela Rayner held a virtual meeting with representatives of Jewish community organizations to discuss ways to repair the party’s relationship with the British Jewish community. In a joint statement, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the NGO CST, and Jewish Labour welcomed Starmer’s commitment, describing it as a “good start,” and praising him for achieving “in four days more than his predecessor did in four years.” Starmer also outlined a plan to rid the party of anti-Semitism and rebuild trust between Labour and the Jewish community.
In July, newly appointed Labour Party General Secretary David Evans formally apologized and settled a defamation case brought by seven whistle-blowers who appeared in a 2019 BBC Panorama documentary accusing the party of mishandling cases of anti-Semitism. The whistleblowers had previously sued the Labour Party for attempting to undermine their reputations after it released a statement referring to them as “disaffected former staff” with “personal and political axes to grind.”
In October, the EHRC completed an 18-month investigation and published its final report into complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. The report found the party had allowed “unlawful harassment,” political interference in the party’s complaints process, and a lack of education and training for staff handling the complaints process. Targeted recommendations included commissioning an independent process to handle anti-Semitism complaints; implementing clear rules and guidance to prohibit and sanction political interference in the complaints process; publishing a comprehensive policy and procedure setting out how anti-Semitism complaints will be handled; commissioning and providing education and training for all individuals involved in the anti-Semitism complaints process; and monitoring and evaluating improvements to ensure lasting change. In addition to the targeted recommendations that the EHRC has a legal mandate to enforce, the commission urged changes to both the party culture and its processes.
The EHRC report heavily criticized the former party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and found that the party breached the Equality Act by committing “unlawful harassment” in several cases in which Labour MPs were found to have used “anti-Semitic tropes and suggesting that the complaints of anti-Semitism were fakes or smears.” A case cited in the report involved former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said “the Israel Lobby,” which aimed “to undermine Corbyn’s leadership,” was responsible for allegations of anti-Semitism against fellow Labour MP Naz Shah. Livingstone later resigned from the party. The EHRC found a further 18 “borderline cases” involving local councillors, election candidates, and branch officials. It also noted several incidents of political interference by the Leader of the Opposition’s Office in addressing complaints of anti-Semitism. The EHRC’s report provided recommendations, and the watchdog requested that the Labour Party submit an implementation plan.
During a press briefing following the release of EHRC’s report, Labour Party leader Starmer said an action plan would be submitted to the EHRC before year’s end, apologized formally to the Jewish community and Jewish Labour party members, and provided assurances that Labour accepted the report without qualification. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn released his own statement decrying anti-Semitism, but he suggested the findings of the report were “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and media. Party leaders subsequently suspended Corbyn from the Labour Party and removed him from the Parliamentary Labour Party, forcing him to sit as an independent MP – a first for a former leader. Corbyn contested the suspension and his wider-party membership was subsequently reinstated, but he continued to sit as an independent MP at year’s end.
British Jewish organizations and some Labour figures welcomed the EHRC report, while expressing concern about existing conditions within the Labour Party. The Campaign Against Antisemitism said, “The EHRC’s report utterly vindicated Britain’s Jews, who were accused of lying and exaggerating, acting as agents of another country, and using their religion to ‘smear’ the Labour Party.” In December, Labour published the anticipated action plan for tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks. The plan was developed within six weeks of the EHRC report’s publication and sent to Parliament on December 10, after the National Executive Committee, Labour’s ruling body, unanimously agreed. The plan commits the party to establish an independent complaints process by December 10, 2021 and to deal with the backlog of existing anti-Semitism complaints. Labour also committed to establish an advisory board of Jewish members and develop educational material on anti-Semitism. The EHRC approved the plan before publication.
In January, Conservative Party Councillor in Dudley, Colin Elcock, was suspended indefinitely from the party and was removed from the Conservative Group of councillors after tweeting that Islam was “domination not integration,” and asking if people in Iran were “all on the dole.” Council leader Patrick Harley described the comments as “inappropriate” but did not rule out a return for Elcock.
Also in January, media criticized Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, for approving the publication of a cartoon in 2006 that depicted the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb under his turban on The Spectator website at a time when he had “overall responsibility” for the website. In February, Andrew Sabisky, an advisor to the Prime Minister, resigned after media uncovered a 2014 book review of Tatu Vanhanen’s Ethnic Conflicts, in which Sabisky questioned whether the growing Muslim population in the UK should be met with violent resistance.
On February 3, The Jewish Chronicle reported that a Labour member was expelled from the party for accusing television presenter Rachel Riley of “prostituting” her Jewish heritage. Bob James, from North Wales, was suspended from the party in March 2019 over a series of tweets aimed at Riley that included the claim that her campaign against anti-Semitism under Corbyn was “poisoning the memory of your ancestors.” He also tweeted, “Judaism is a religion but what Israel does in the name of God is pure Satanic.” The Jewish Chronicle commended Steve Cooke, a member of the Stockton North Labour Party and a party political education officer, for being “instrumental in demanding the party launch an investigation into Mr. James’s conduct.” According to the article, during the disciplinary process, it emerged that James had been subject to an earlier complaint over social media posts in which he said, “Israel is using the Holocaust as an excuse for murder.” A party source confirmed that James had been expelled and commented, “Under the previous administration, some complaints weren’t dealt with adequately,” and “Since Jennie Formby became General Secretary [in 2018], we’ve used a comprehensive, central complaints system.”
In late June, the Labour Party removed MP Rebecca Long-Bailey from her position as Shadow Education Secretary for tweeting her support for an interview that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric. Individuals described as party moderates praised Long-Bailey’s dismissal, but those characterized as more leftist within the party criticized the move.
In August, Care NI, a Christian charitable organization, stated that since 2015, 601 cases of criminal damage to religious buildings had occurred in Northern Ireland, one every three days. Care NI called for the Places of Worship security scheme to be introduced in Northern Ireland, the only region of the UK where it did not apply.
The Northern Ireland Humanists group continued to publicly call for the repeal of the region’s blasphemy laws, passed in 1891 and 1888. All major political parties supported repeal except for the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which stated, “Anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation did not provide adequate protection for Christians.”
During the year, the Scottish Parliament agreed to support the principles of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, and the legislature’s Justice Committee was scrutinizing and amending the legislation at year’s end. The bill would repeal Scotland’s blasphemy laws. However, the National Secular Society warned that the replacement legislation risked creating a more wide-ranging definition of blasphemy, describing the bill as a “de facto clampdown on freedom of expression.”
In June, Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long announced that new hate crime legislation, including measures covering hate crimes based on religion, would not be brought forward for at least two years. An independent review into hate crime legislation, including religious hate crime, concluded in November, with 34 recommendations made to improve support for victims, widen the range of protections, as well as opportunities for restorative justice. Northern Ireland Justice Minister Long welcomed the review report, stating the recommendations will help to strengthen and update Northern Ireland’s hate crime legislation.
In July, the Christian Institute, a nondenominational Christian charity dedicated to the “furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom,” criticized the hate crime legislation review and said the report would propose extending the definition of hate crime to apply to religious practitioners opposed to same-sex marriage ceremonies. In September, the Northern Ireland Office confirmed that legislation passed in July providing for religious same-sex marriages also included equality law protections, which shield religious bodies and officiants from charges of discrimination against same-sex couples should they refuse to officiate.
In July, the legal regulations required to hold the next census in England and Wales on March 21, 2021 were passed into law. Humanists UK raised concerns, arguing that “What is your religion?” is a leading question, as it presumes respondents have, or should have, a religion. Humanist UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Public Policy Richy Thompson said, “We are hugely disappointed that the ONS [Office for National Statistics], despite its own admission that the Census religion question is leading, has chosen to continue with it for the 2021 Census.” He said “Census data is used across the country to determine religion or belief provision in public services; from school places, to hospital services, to the provision of public services.” Humanists UK conducted a public outreach campaign to ensure that individuals identifying as nonreligious understood they should mark the “no religion” box when responding.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to Home Office figures for the 12 months ending in March, there were 6,822 recorded offenses of religiously motivated hate crimes in England and Wales, a 5 percent decrease from the previous year (7,203 in 2018/19). This marked the first decrease in religious hate crimes since the year ending March 2013, when there was a 1 percent drop. There was no breakdown by type of crime. Where the perceived religion of the victim was recorded (in 91 percent of cases), 50 percent (3,089 offenses) of religious hate crime offenses targeted Muslims, and 19 percent (1,205 offenses) targeted Jews. Of the other offenses where perceived religion was recorded, 9 percent (531 offenses) targeted Christians, 3 percent (202 offenses) Sikhs, and 2 percent (114) Hindus. According to Tell MAMA, a national project that records anti-Muslim hate crimes, figures rose sharply in March 2019 immediately following the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand. Tell MAMA recorded 95 incidents in the week following the attack; in a typical week the total was 30-35.
In Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) reported 660 religiously motivated crimes in the 12 months ending in March, a 24 percent increase from the 529 crimes recorded in the same period in 2018-19. The COPFS cautioned against making direct comparisons with previous data sets due to a change in methodology.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) reported 15 religiously motivated hate crimes committed in 41 incidents during 2019-20, a decrease from 22 crimes reported in the previous period. The PSNI additionally reported 622 sectarian crimes, described as religion being among the motivating factors, in 640 incidents during 2019-20.
The CST recorded 97 violent anti-Semitic assaults during the year, a 39 percent decrease from the 158 reported in 2019. The report noted that this was unsurprising, given that COVID-19 pandemic restrictions greatly reduced social interactions. An additional three incidents were classified by CST as “extreme violence,” meaning the incident involved potential grievous bodily harm or a threat to life, compared to one such recorded incident in 2019. There were 72 incidents of damage and desecration of Jewish property; 1,399 incidents of abusive behavior, including verbal abuse, graffiti, social media, and hate mail; 85 direct anti-Semitic threats; and, 12 cases of mass-mailed anti-Semitic leaflets or emails. Of the 72 incidents of damage and desecration of Jewish property, 45 (63 percent) involved damage to the homes and vehicles of Jewish people, compared to 53 percent in 2019. All of the listed totals were lower than those recorded over the same period in 2019. Approximately two-thirds of the 1,668 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded in the Greater London and Greater Manchester administrative regions – which are home to the two largest Jewish communities in the UK. The CST recorded 941 anti-Semitic incidents in Greater London, a decrease of 1 percent compared with 2019. The CST recorded a decrease of 31 percent in anti-Semitic incidents in Greater Manchester. The CST reported that the decrease in reported incidents was likely correlated with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but might also be due to lapses in information sharing between CST and the Greater Manchester Police. CST observed a broader geographical spread of anti-Semitic incidents in 2020 than in 2019. Elsewhere in the UK, CST recorded at least one anti-Semitic incident in 42 of the 43 national police regions. Several of the incidents were reported to CST by police via a national data-sharing agreement.
In July, Heshmat Khalifa, a trustee of the country’s largest Muslim charity, Islamic Relief Worldwide, stepped down after media reported his Facebook postings from 2014 and 2015 described the President of Egypt as a “pimp son of the Jews,” and Israeli authorities as “grandchildren of monkeys and pigs.” The entire board of the organization resigned in August when media reported that Khalifa’s successor, Almoutaz Tayara, and senior director Tayeb Abdoun had also posted anti-Semitic and pro-Hamas content online. Following the revelations, the Charity Commission initiated a compliance review that was ongoing at year’s end.
An attacker stabbed the muezzin of the London Central Mosque during prayers at the mosque premises on February 20. The victim survived the attack and was treated for non-life threatening wounds. London’s Metropolitan Police confirmed the attack would not be treated as a terror-related incident. The assailant, Daniel Horton, was apprehended by worshippers until police arrived. Witnesses to the attack said the assailant had been praying behind the muezzin before the attack and that he had attended the mosque previously. In response to the attack, the Muslim Council of Britain stated, “It is deeply concerning that this has happened. Given other recent attacks elsewhere, many Muslims are on edge.” Prime Minister Johnson tweeted that he was “deeply saddened,” and that his “thoughts are with the victim and all those affected.” Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced that the Metropolitan Police would be “providing extra resources in the area,” adding, “Every Londoner is entitled to feel safe in their place of worship.” On October 12, Horton, who had converted to Islam and had been attending the mosque in recent years, pleaded guilty to charges of wounding with intent and possession of an offensive weapon. No motive has been established for the stabbing; however, when arrested, Horton told police officers, “This is not a religious attack and is not a racist attack.”
In January, a 17-year-old from northeast England was sentenced to six years and eight months for planning terrorist acts between October 2017 and March 2019, becoming the youngest person in the UK to be convicted for this crime. In November 2019, following a six-week trial, he was found guilty of planning terrorist acts, disseminating a terrorist publication, possessing an article for a purpose connected to terrorism, and three counts of possessing documents useful to someone preparing acts of terrorism. During his sentencing, the court heard of his “admiration” for Adolf Hitler and fixation on the Columbine high school massacre. His attorneys argued that the defendant was autistic, citing a psychiatric assessment in which a doctor stated that the defendant’s “cognitive age was significantly affected by his disability.” At sentencing, the judge described the defendant as a “highly intelligent” boy who had “contempt for Jewish people, black people, gay people, and disabled people.” The teenager was also sentenced to five years’ parole after his release.
On October 2, the Birmingham Crown Court convicted a 17-year-old of plotting neo-Nazi terrorist acts between April and September 2019. The individual, who was a member of the neo-Nazi group Feuerkrieg Division, was found guilty for researching how to create a firearm capable of “smashing heads.”
On January 13, a Muslim woman was assaulted outside a youth center in East London. The assailants physically assaulted the victim and pulled her hijab while shouting anti-Muslim slurs. The assault was reported to Tell MAMA and the Metropolitan Police.
On January 16, a teenager who was found guilty of committing an anti-Semitic attack on a bus in March 2018 was sentenced to a four-month youth rehabilitation program, ordered to write a letter of apology to the victim, and fined 100 pounds ($140) in compensation to the victim. The incident took place on a bus in Muswell Hill, North London, when the adolescent was 14 years old. The youth lit the victim’s hair on fire, and when confronted by the victim, asked, “Are you Jewish? You can’t be Jewish because you don’t have horns. Do Jews keep money under their caps?” The teenager also threatened to beat up the victim and destroy his laptop. The teenager pled guilty to racially and religiously aggravated common assault at Highbury Corner Youth Court. He expressed remorse and was required to complete eight hours of “activities” and one-to-one behavioral sessions with educational staff.
In August, a man in a pub in Leeds was recorded making anti-Semitic comments to a Jewish student. The victim, Danielle Greyman, said the altercation began over COVID-19 pandemic regulations on social distancing when the man questioned, “Are you Jewish?” Greyman then began recording on her cell phone. The man, Stephen Smith, appeared on video saying the victim “looks like a Jew,” that he is “German,” and then said, “We should have gassed the lot of you.” A spokesman for West Yorkshire police told press police were summoned to the pub following “a report of a hate crime.” In September, the UK Lawyers for Israel reported Smith received a criminal caution and was required to “attend offence related sessions” to address his behavior.
On January 23, several Jewish pedestrians were verbally abused in Stamford Hill, North London. The incident, in which a man screamed “Hitler did a great job in Auschwitz by killing all the Jews,” was reported by Stamford Hill Shomrim, the Jewish volunteer neighbourhood patrol.
Throughout the year, several “sticker” campaigns targeted Armagh in Northern Ireland and Liverpool in the northwest of England. On January 30, the PSNI responded to calls complaining of anti-Islam stickers in Armagh. The stickers depicted a skull and crossbones that included the phrase “No Islamic Takeover,” followed by an email address and website for the Neo-Nazi group “Combat 18.” In February, stickers allegedly from the “Hundred-Handers” white supremacist group were placed around St. Helens, near Liverpool. The stickers, found in public spaces including a bus station, featured captions such as “This is our land,” “No to Halal,” other anti-Muslim messages and anti-Semitic messages. Local police stated that the incident was being investigated as a racially aggravated hate crime. In August, Hope Not Hate stated that Sam Melia, a former member of a number of far-right organizations who had become a supporter of the government-proscribed organization National Action, was behind “Hundred Handers,” which it said “was an anonymous network seeking to provide a faceless avenue for far-right activism.” In October, similar stickers were found on street furniture across Liverpool. The stickers included anti-Semitic messaging such as “Britain is under occupation,” written across a Star of David and, “They are sexualising your CHILDREN.”
Several religiously motivated conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic circulated online. According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society think tank, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories included claims that Jews used global lockdowns to “steal everything,” that Jewish public leaders used the crisis “to test the population’s willingness to comply,” and that Israel had developed a vaccine but was withholding it from other nations. Both Jewish and Muslim communities were vilified by media commentators such as Katie Hopkins, who alleged that Muslims were flouting lockdown restrictions and spreading COVID-19 by continuing Friday prayers at mosques. In July, the independent government advisory Commission for Countering Violent Extremism published a report in the wake of increased accounts of extremists exploiting the crisis to sow division among religious groups in the UK. The commission found that British far right activists and neo-Nazi groups were promoting antiminority narratives by encouraging users to deliberately infect minority groups, including Jewish and Muslim communities.
In late January, venues in Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Birmingham, Newport, Milton Keynes, and London cancelled events associated with U.S. evangelical Christian preacher Franklin Graham’s tour. The Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow cancelled his appearance following pressure from its primary shareholder, Glasgow City Council. Referencing what they said was Graham’s preaching against Islam and LGBTQI+ people, Green Party Member of the Scottish Parliament Patrick Harvie commented that for “Glasgow’s biggest publicly owned venue” to provide a “platform of hatred” would be “an offence against the values that make this city so great.” An online petition started by a Church of Scotland minister stated that hosting the preacher would “have the real potential of alienating a large number of the population that they serve.” The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) then began legal proceedings against the venue, stating that the decision discriminated against the preacher’s Christian following. The BGEA asked the Glasgow Sheriff Court to grant an interim order requiring the venue to hold the event; however, the venue refused to respond and the court case did not proceed.
In January, Port Vale Football Club (FC) soccer player Tom Pope was widely criticized on social media for posting an anti-Semitic tweet predicting the course of a hypothetical Third World War: “We invade Iran then Cuba then North Korea then the Rothchilds [sic] are crowned champions of every bank on the planet – the end.” Port Vale FC published the following statement from Pope: “Following the reaction to my response on Twitter about the Rothschilds, I was unaware of any link between the Rothchild [sic] family and the Jewish community. If I have caused offence to anyone, I’d like to apologise enormously as this was never my intention.” The UK Footballing Association (FA) found Pope guilty of an aggravated breach of its regulation on abusive speech and sentenced him to a six-game ban and a 3,500-pound ($4,800) fine.
In July, music artist Wiley made a series of anti-Semitic comments on Twitter, including: “Listen to me Jewish community Israel is not your country I’m sorry….The Star of David that’s our thing.… Some people have gotten too comfortable on lands that don’t belong to them”; “There are 2 sets of people who nobody has really wanted to challenge #Jewish & #KKK;” and “Jewish people are the law….Work that out.” His tweets were widely criticized, and Twitter’s initial lack of action was followed by a 48-hour boycott of the platform by many leading journalists and politicians. Wiley’s tweets were reported to the Metropolitan Police as potential hate speech, and both Twitter and Facebook banned him for violating policies on hateful content. The rapper’s Jewish then-manager, John Woolf, later “cut ties” and said he no longer represented the artist. Wiley later rejected the claims of anti-Semitism, saying, “My comments should not have been directed to all Jews or Jewish people.” He went on to apologize for “generalizing” and said he wished to “apologise for comments that were looked at as anti-Semitic.”
In October, women’s lifestyle magazine Grazia fired its “Diversity Champion,” author and blogger Stephanie Yeboah, for posting anti-Semitic comments. Yeboah tweeted on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau: “There have been bigger and more horrific genocides. They happened to brown people, though, so I guess it doesn’t matter, huh?” Other tweets included, “Every Jew has an attic but not every attic has Jews,” and “AUSCHWITZ Gas Chamber Music LMAO SMH.” Yeboah issued an apology that suggested her intention was to “highlight the lack of visibility surrounding many genocides,” but she acknowledged she “ended up diminishing the seriousness of the tragedies that the Jewish community have faced.”
In late August, sectarian rioting between Catholic and Protestant groups took place in Glasgow. A police officer was left with hearing loss and burns after being struck by a firework thrown during the rioting. On October 13, a Protestant man was sentenced to 16 months in prison for throwing the projectile, which was intended to disrupt an Irish Republican march.
In July, the Sikh Federation withdrew a threat of legal action against the Scottish government after receiving assurances that Sikhs would be listed as a distinct ethnic group on Scotland’s 2022 census. According to the Sikh Federation, the push for designation of Sikhs as an ethnic group was motivated by the fact that “ethnic group categories defined in the census” are used by public bodies in different sectors in Scotland to meet their legal duties under “equalities legislation,” whereas religious group categories are not.
On January 26, a swastika and a Celtic cross were painted on a Caribbean food shop in Greenwich, in southeast London, while another Celtic cross, the Star of David, and the word “Jews” were written across the facade of a Barclay’s bank half a mile away. The leader of Greenwich Council, Danny Thorpe, condemned the “totally appalling and horrific” messages, adding that local residents were “worried and upset” but that the community would come together. The Greenwich council quickly removed the graffiti, and the Metropolitan Police opened an investigation. On February 4, more than 150 members of the local community staged a rally against anti-Semitism and racism. One of the organizers told the local newspaper that the incident was not “just an attack on the Jewish and West Indian communities, it is an attack on all of us.”
COVID-19 pandemic regulations greatly limited opportunities for interfaith collaboration from March through the end of the year. In January, faith and belief communities came together to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Chelsea FC hosted a Holocaust Remembrance reception on January 15 to unveil a commemorative mural painted on the Chelsea stadium by British-Israeli street artist Solomon Souza commemorating soccer players imprisoned in Auschwitz. The event brought together prominent members of the Jewish community, parliamentarians, and players and leading figures from the Chelsea organization. In January, Chelsea became the first sports team in the world to formally adopt the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism. Five other Premier League clubs subsequently adopted the IHRA definition: West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Burnley, and Brighton.
Throughout the year, a number of universities adopted the IHRA definition; however, several from the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, fell short of adopting the working definition in its entirety, despite pressure from the government to do so before the year’s end. In September, freedom of information requests submitted by the Union of Jewish Students found that only 29 of 133 higher education institutions had done so. In October, Secretary for Education Gavin Williamson wrote to vice chancellors stating it was “frankly disturbing” that not all had adopted the IHRA definition and accused them of “dragging their feet.” Williamson warned that the Office for Students could take regulatory action against the noncompliant, which could include suspending funding streams. Speaking to the House of Commons Education Select Committee in October, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said she wanted “every university to adopt this definition.” An end-of-year tally by the Union of Jewish Students found that 48 of the 133 higher education institutions had adopted the IHRA definition.
In commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust ran a school project entitled “75 Memorial Flames.” The trust encouraged schools, organizations, and community groups to submit designs featuring a flame. More than 300 groups from across the country registered for the project, which aimed to bring persons from all backgrounds together to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Seventy-five memorial flames were chosen by an expert panel of artists, Holocaust survivors, and the CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Olivia Marks-Woldman. Of the final 75 designs, only one was from a Jewish school.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews hosted a roundtable discussion in January, bringing together representatives from across the Jewish community to meet Dolkun Isa, the President of the World Uyghur Congress. The Board of Deputies Vice-President Amanda Brown said, “In the week that we are marking International Holocaust Memorial Day,” it is “intolerable that the Uyghur Muslims are being persecuted on this scale.” She added, “It is the responsibility of all of us in the Jewish community to stand up and make our voices heard in their support.”
On March 3-5, the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, an interfaith organization, hosted a two-day interreligious conference entitled “Towards a Christian Theological Understanding of Inter-religious Participation: Challenges, Risks, and Opportunities.” The conference focused on situations in which members of faith communities cross the boundaries between their traditions to engage in the practices of other traditions, or to share in ritual activity with members of other faiths. In September, representatives from the Catholics Bishops Conference said that a number of interfaith initiatives occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. These consisted mainly of information sharing, in addition to working together to ensure that charitable efforts continued throughout the pandemic.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy and consulate staff engaged with government officials, political parties, and religious groups to advance religious freedom issues, with a strong emphasis on digital engagement and use of social media, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. In June, the Ambassador spoke with Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer to discuss the party’s plan to confront anti-Semitism. Throughout the year, embassy officials met counterparts from the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office; the Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Lord Sir Eric Pickles; the government’s Independent Special Advisor on Anti-Semitism, Lord Mann; and the Honorary President of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Lord Polak, in addition to Members of Parliament and advisors.
Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from a wide variety of religious groups and initiated engagement with organizations such as Humanists UK in an effort to broaden understanding of and messaging on freedom of religion and belief.
Staff from the consulate general in Belfast maintained regular contact with a wide range of religious leaders in Northern Ireland, conducting regular visits to diverse places of worship, as well as convening formal and informal gatherings to discuss religious freedom, tolerance, and the shared societal challenges faced by their communities.
On January 27, a senior embassy official represented the United States at the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony, held to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The official met with current and past Trustees of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. The Ambassador also used social media to mark the date.
In April, the Ambassador had a telephone conversation with Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to pass on his best wishes for Passover and to show support for local Jewish communities during the difficult time of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, the Ambassador called Ahmad al-Dubayan, Director General of the London Central Mosque, to commemorate Ramadan, discuss how the local Muslim community was coping with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and to underline the U.S. commitment to promoting religious freedom.
In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual meeting with representatives of Jewish community organizations to discuss the Labour Party’s plan to confront the issue of anti-Semitism within the party.
In May, the Ambassador and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom gave remarks during a virtual iftar co-hosted by the Naz Legacy Foundation as part of its #RamadanAtHome series, the largest virtual iftar series in the UK. Other speakers included prominent faith leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic communities, as well as the Church of England. Approximately 19,000 viewers viewed the Ambassador’s remarks on the importance of promoting international religious freedom on platforms including Zoom, Facebook, and British Muslim TV. Aggregate audience figures for #RamadanAtHome totaled 76,700 livestream viewers, and globally more than 300,000 watched highlight videos on social media.
In December, a senior embassy official delivered remarks at a virtual Diwali celebration convened by the Hindu Forum of Europe. He said that despite “being faced with the difficulties of COVID-19, we saw people across our communities roll up their sleeves and get to work…to find new ways to celebrate.” The senior embassy official said that the continuation of celebrations this year was a powerful reflection of the real spirit of Diwali, the spirit that light triumphs over darkness, and that such celebrations are “a reminder for all faiths – and none – that even during the darkest times, we will continue to find light and hope and joy in each other.” The senior official also conducted a virtual candle lighting. The event included remarks from interfaith and secular leaders from across Europe. To mark National Religious Freedom Day, the Ambassador tweeted a quote from the President. The consulate general in Belfast hosted an interfaith dialogue on January 16. The event convened a diverse group of Northern Ireland’s religious leadership representing the region’s Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic communities to discuss shared concerns. Participants welcomed the U.S. initiative fostering interfaith dialogue.
To mark International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy created and tweeted a video highlighting the U.S. commitment to the promotion of religious freedom. The video included remarks made by the President and the Secretary of State. The video was viewed 3,285 times and was displayed on social media feeds more than 20,493 times.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. Throughout the year, the government consulted with international legal scholars regarding draft updates to the law on religion, and on August 6, it officially requested a joint opinion from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. On October 12, the OSCE end Venice Commission issued their joint opinion, stating that while the draft provided some improved protections, it also allowed the government to maintain strict and excessive control over religion and religious freedom. It also stated, “The Draft Law should be substantially revised in order to ensure its full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human dimension commitments.” At year’s end, the draft remained under discussion in parliament. The government announced that during the year, it released or reduced the sentences of 243 prisoners detained on religious charges. Some activists and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives said the government continued ill treatment of prisoners, including physical abuse, and in some cases sought to extend the prison terms of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or participating in Islamic activity not sanctioned by the government. The government did not provide the number of individuals in custody at year’s end, but it reported that criminal cases were filed against 38 persons for membership in groups or participation in “banned religious extremist activities.” It also reported it initiated 22 criminal cases regarding the “smuggling of banned religious material.” Of the two bloggers detained by police in 2019, one was given a three-year prison sentence. The other received five years’ probation, but in his work as a religious activist broke the terms of his probation and in late November, received a five-year prison sentence. Media reported the government continued to block access to some websites containing religious content, including a Jehovah’s Witnesses site and the site of the international religious freedom organization Forum 18. The government maintained a list of illegal websites it stated were linked to Islamic extremist activity. In August, the government further streamlined procedures for registering religious organizations, but religious groups said the current law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register. The government registered eight churches; according to religious groups, there were 17 known churches that still wished to register. Several religious freedom advocates said the majority of the Christian churches registered during the year had predominantly ethnic Russian or Korean membership rather than ethnic Uzbek membership. Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. According to religious freedom advocates and media, controversy over government policies on beards and the wearing of hijabs continued. In August, a court sentenced five men to up to 11.5 years in prison and three men to restricted movement after the group discussed their religious beliefs. The Ministry of Interior released a public statement saying minors could freely pray at mosques when accompanied by their parents, siblings, and other close relatives
Activists and private individuals continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly those from a Muslim background, against religious conversion. Some members of non-Islamic religious minorities said social stigma against conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials, forcing relatives to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to conduct funerals with Islamic religious rites. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials met with senior government officials to raise concerns about imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and allowing children to participate in religious activities. Embassy officials urged the government to ensure that changes to the draft law on religion follow the recommendations of international experts as well as take into account public views. In February, the Secretary of State visited the country and met with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders to solicit their views on the state of religious freedom. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of virtual engagements with senior government officials throughout the year during which he raised the status of the country’s draft religion law and the registration of religious organizations and places of worship as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and to release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. Throughout the year, embassy officials maintained contact with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included the registration of minority religious groups, religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.
On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Uzbekistan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Uzbekistan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006 to 2017 and was moved to a Special Watch List in 2018 and 2019.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According the Uzbekistan government, the population as of October 2020 was close to 34 million. According to U.S. government estimates, 88 percent of the population is Muslim, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates 96 percent of the population is Muslim. Most Muslims are Sunni of the Hanafi school. The government states that approximately 1 percent of the population is Shia of the Jaafari school, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand. Approximately 2.2 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, compared with 3.5 percent in 2019; according to reports and statistics; this number continues to decline with the emigration of ethnic Russian and other Orthodox persons. The government states that the remaining 1.8 percent of the population includes small communities of Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists. According to members of the Jewish community, the Jewish population – a mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardic (Bukharian) – Jews, numbers fewer than 10,000. Of those, approximately 6,000 Ashkenazi and fewer than 2,000 Bukharian Jews live in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley. The Jewish population continues to decline because of emigration.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that everyone shall have the right to profess or not to profess any religion. According to the constitution, these rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society. The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality. The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.
The law on religion details the scope of and limitations on the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief. The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.
Various provisions of the law on countering violent extremism deal with individuals’ security, protection of society and the state, preservation of constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the country, keeping the peace, and multiethnic and multireligious harmony. The law provides a framework of basic concepts, principles, and directions for countering extremism and extremist activities. By law, extremism is defined as the “expression of extreme forms of actions, focused on destabilizing social and political situations, a violent change in the constitutional order in Uzbekistan, a violent seizure of power and usurping its authority, [and] inciting national, ethnic or religious hatred.”
According to regulations, a website or blog may be blocked for calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice, the government may block websites or blogs without a court order.
Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal. The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are unregistered groups, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.” It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups. It is a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four to eight million som ($380-$760) to organize or participate in an illegal religious group. The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups, with penalties of up to three years in prison. The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups. Charges against alleged members of religious extremist groups may include the stated offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.
By law, all religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice. The law states a religious group may carry out its activities only after the ministry registers it. The law lists a series of requirements, including having a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration; presenting a membership list of at least 100 citizens who are 18 or older; and providing a charter with a legal, physical address to the local Ministry of Justice branch.
Religious groups applying to register in a specific locality require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), the local government (khokimiyat), and the neighborhood (mahalla) committee. Groups must submit “letters of guarantee” from the regional branches of the Ministry of Construction, the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Service, and the Department of the State Fire Safety Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The law requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to register. The law also requires that khokimiyats concur with the registration of groups in their areas and that the group present notification from khokimiyat authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements, including obtaining authorization certificates from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and the local mahalla committee. After checking the submitted certificates, khokimiyats grant registration permission and send the documents to the CRA for review. By law, the Ministry of Justice may take one to three months to review a registration application and may approve or deny the registration or cease review without issuing a decision.
The law states registered religious groups may expand throughout the country by registering new locations, maintaining buildings compliant with fire and health codes, organizing religious teaching, and possessing religious literature.
The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered. The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy. Individual Muslim clergy members receive accreditation from the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.
The CRA oversees registered religious activity. The Council for Confessions under the CRA includes ex officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups. It discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.
The government must approve religious activities outside of formal worship as well as religious activities intended for children younger than 16 without parental permission.
The law requires registered religious organizations to inform authorities 30 days in advance of holding religious meetings and other religious ceremonies at the group’s registered address(es). The administrative code requires all registered religious organizations to seek permission from local authorities and then inform the CRA and Ministry of Justice representative 30 days before holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies occurring outside of a group’s registered building(s), including activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region. Unregistered groups are prohibited from organizing any religious activity.
The law punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of, religious groups without state permission. The law also criminalizes the unauthorized facilitation of children’s and youth meetings as well as literary and other study groups related to worship. The administrative penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 9,215,000 to 18,430,000 som ($880 to $1,800) or up to 15 days’ imprisonment.
Under the law, state bodies, including mahalla committees, as well as nonstate and noncommercial public organizations have wide-ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police. These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring compliance of rights of citizens with religious freedom, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.
The law prohibits all individuals, except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations, from wearing religious attire in public places. The government does not generally enforce this section of law; individuals may appear in public places in religious attire, with the exception of schools at all levels, both public and private.
The law prohibits proselytizing and other missionary activities. The criminal code punishes proselytizing with up to three years in prison and proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission.
The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute religious materials. The law requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications. Such materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world.
The administrative code punishes the “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (4,460,000 to 22,300,000 som, $430 to $2,100) for individuals. The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage (11,150,000 to 33,450,000 som, $1,100 to $3,200). The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.” Courts issue fines under the administrative code. In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages. The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage (22,300,000 to 44,600,000 som, $2,100 to $4,300) or “corrective labor” of up to three years for individuals who commit these acts subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code. In practice, punishments under the criminal code for violations involving religious literature are rarely applied.
The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publication. Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks are subject to criminal prosecution and face prison terms ranging from five to 20 years. According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution.
The law provides for a commission, entitled The Special Commission for Preparation of Materials on Clemency, to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. Another commission, The Commission on Clemency, reviews the petitions of persons who “mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” This commission may exonerate citizens from all criminal liability. Citizens are exempted from criminal liability if they have not undergone military training, participated in terrorism financing, or distributed information promoting terrorism.
The law prohibits private teaching of religion. It limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors. Children may not receive religious education in public schools except for some classes providing basic information on world religions or “lessons of enlightenment” (the study of national culture) in the curriculum.
Religious education establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the Ministry of Justice and receiving the appropriate license. Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education recognized by the state and authorization to teach. These provisions make it illegal for laypersons to teach others any form of religion or for government-approved religious instructors to teach others outside the confines of an approved educational institution.
The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction. Ten madrassahs, including one for women, and a Russian Orthodox and a Protestant seminary have official approval to train religious personnel and provide secondary education. The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education.
The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and registered for a license with the government. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he may subsequently become an imam. According to government officials, clerics from various religious groups who obtained their qualifications abroad may officiate within licensed premises.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, the government consulted with international legal scholars regarding draft updates to the law on religion, and on August 6, it officially requested a joint opinion from the OSCE and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. On October 12, the OSCE and the Venice Commission issued their opinion, stating that while the draft provided some improved protections, it also allowed the government to maintain strict and excessive control over religion and religious freedom. It also stated, “The Draft Law should be substantially revised in order to ensure its full compliance with international human rights standards and OSCE human dimension commitments.” In particular, it cited the mandatory registration of religious activity and religious organizations; unnecessary requirements for registration; the continuation of censorship on religious materials and bans on religious expression; excessive discretion by government officials that would allow for discrimination; and interference with a religious organization’s right to autonomy. At year’s end, the draft remained under discussion in parliament.
According to a prominent human rights defender, the draft law was not much different from the previous law because it “continues to ban all exercise of freedom of religion without state permission, bans teaching about religion without state permission, continues censorship by the government of all materials about religion, and bans the sharing of religion.”
NGO representatives said the government continued the severe physical abuse of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or of participating in Islamic activity that was not sanctioned by the government. In February, media reported that NGO workers had submitted a complaint to the human rights ombudsman – who may investigate complaints from detainees and the public – regarding the abuse of religious prisoner Amirbek Khodzhaev, imprisoned in a penal colony in Navoi Region. According to Khodzhaev’s mother, authorities stripped him naked, placed him in a “butterfly” position with his hands behind his head at the neck and shoulder blades, then handcuffed and beat him. The NGO also reported officials abused prisoners during Ramadan, preventing them from fasting by forcibly pushing food in their mouths. According to the media report, the ombudsman’s office did not take the complaints seriously.
On January 8, Ibrokhim Kholmatov, who served a prison term from 2000 to 2002 for “association with Hizb ut-Tahrir,” was arrested at his home and later charged with aiding and abetting extremism. According to religious freedom activists, Kholmatov was subjected to “strong psychological pressure” by authorities and was not permitted to see his family. The family told activists that authorities provided little information about the charges against him and said they were not permitted to see him.
Civil society groups continued to express concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad and failed to distinguish between nonviolent religious beliefs and ideologies supporting violence.
On May 28, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had arrested several members of the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir in the cities of Andijon and Namangan as well as in the Tashkent and Surkhandarya Regions. The ministry did not say how many persons were arrested but stated the individuals had previously served prison sentences for participating in the group’s activities and were continuing to spread extremist ideas after being released. The ministry said it seized literature containing extremist language and initiated a criminal investigation. The government did not provide information regarding the total number of persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities or on persons belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations who were serving prison sentences. In 2018, the most recent year for which the government provided information, 1,503 prisoners remained in detention for these crimes. NGO representatives said they could not independently verify these numbers.
The government reported it did not arrest any citizens on religious grounds during the year. It said, however, that 18 criminal cases were filed against 38 persons on the basis of membership or participation in banned religious extremist activities. It also reported it had initiated 22 criminal cases regarding “smuggling of banned religious material.” Some religious freedom activists said that security services had fabricated the charges against the detainees to make a “show” of being tough on religious extremism. One prominent human rights lawyer stated that authorities based the charges on incoming messages to the detainees’ phones that were related to the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir even though authorities knew the detainees themselves did not write or respond to the messages.
Religious activists reported many religious prisoners continued to face “extensions” of their sentences when prison officials brought new charges, accusing inmates of involvement in extremist groups or other crimes. The new charges resulted in new sentences, and many individuals whose original sentences had ended years before were consequently still imprisoned.
In five separate instances during the year, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev released or reduced the sentences of a total of 616 prisoners, 243 of whom had been detained on violations of the law on religion. In an August 1 government video announcing one of the planned releases, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that 4,500 prisoners had been released or pardoned since the death of former President Islam Karimov in 2016, including 1,584 religious prisoners; of these, 1,215 were released and 369 received reduced sentences. Since the August 1 announcement, new releases on August 27 and December 7 brought the total number of religious prisoners released or receiving reduced sentences since 2016 to 1,710.
On November 27, blogger Tulkin Astanov, who in 2019 was sentenced to five years’ probation after posting online discussions about a wide range of religious themes, including calls to allow women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques, was rearrested, tried, and sentenced on the same day for breaking parole terms that restricted him from leaving Tashkent. His lawyer stated that an inspector with the Uchtepa police probation group summoned Astanov the morning of November 27, and his three-hour trial took place that evening. He was immediately sentenced to five years in prison by the Uchtepa District Criminal Court and transferred to a penal colony in Bukhara on December 1 or 2. His lawyer said Astanov had traveled to the Buvayda district of Fergana and Chinaz City (Sirdarya Region) during his probation period, breaking the terms of his previous parole, but Astanov’s family told the BBC Uzbek service they believed he was sentenced again for his activity promoting religious freedom. Following the sentencing, the Tashkent Department of Internal Affairs issued a statement saying, “He introduced himself as an advocate for victims of government agencies, persuaded them to provide defamatory and biased information about law enforcement, and posted the material on the internet.” The Tashkent City Criminal Court heard his appeal on December 22 but upheld the verdict.
According to a religious freedom activist, Rustambek Karimov, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2019 alongside Astanov for posting religious-themed content online, continued to serve his sentence in a penal colony.
Local authorities closed popular blogger Adham Atajanov’s restaurant following his February meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. Atajanov, whose pen name is “Abu Muslim,” reportedly used the earnings from his restaurant to produce online religious freedom content on his website Islamonline.uz and his Facebook page, which had almost 264,000 followers. Atajanov said that in the past, he had frequently criticized government policies on religious issues and had faced no repercussions or backlash. He said that immediately following his meeting with the Secretary, however, authorities shut off the gas to his restaurant, resulting in its closure. Authorities cited unpaid bills and other violations, despite evidence his bills were paid and he was in compliance with regulations. Gas service was eventually restored and the restaurant reopened, but Atajanov suffered significant financial loss as a result of the shutdown.
Other Islamic media platforms very similar to Atajanov’s remained active without government interference, including a private, well-known Muslim channel on YouTube (Azon.tv) with 268,000 subscribers, a private Facebook page with almost 110,000 followers (Azon), and the privately owned radio station, Azon.fm.
Media reported that on March 31, Alimardon Sultonov, a trauma surgeon at Ellikkala Central State Hospital in the northwestern Republic of Karakalpakstan, called the local medical emergency service to ask whether there were any COVID-19 cases in Karakalpakstan. Five local government officials then appeared at the hospital to question Sultonov, who was known for posting his views on Muslims’ freedom of religion and belief on social media. The officials asked Sultonov if he was in possession of religious texts, and he confirmed he had Islamic texts on his computer. Officials confiscated the computer and opened a criminal case against him, placing him under house arrest and charging him with spreading false information on COVID-19 lockdown measures. He was also charged with the “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of religious literature.” On November 23, the Ellikalansky District Court in the Karakalpakstan Republic sentenced him to 14 months of house arrest, including time served. Sultanov filed an appeal, and a hearing was scheduled for January 7, 2021.
On August 14, media reported that the Tashkent City Criminal Court sentenced five Muslim men to up to 11.5 years in prison and restricted the movement (including limits on driving and participating in public gatherings as well as placing them under house arrest and requiring them to comply with curfews) of three other Muslim men who discussed their faith on social media. Prosecutors accused the eight men of downloading extremist sermons and other terrorism-related offenses.
On March 12 and April 29, the Supreme Court ruled in two instances that two websites (najot.info and hizb-uzbekiston.info) as well as 43 online profiles, channels, and pages on Facebook, YouTube, and the messaging app Telegram were promoting extremism. The court ruled that the materials and content of these sources were prohibited from entering or being manufactured, distributed, or possessed in the country.
The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations. The government reported that at year’s end, the following organizations were defined as banned: Akramites, Islamic Movement of Turkestan, Islamic Jihad Group, Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, al-Jihad, al-Qa’ida, World Jihad Foundation, Muslim Brothers, Zamiyati Islomi Tablig, Jamaat-e-Islami-i-Pakistan, Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization, East Turkestan Islamic Movement, Boz Kurd, Abu Saif Group, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, Islamic State, Tavhid va Jihad, Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhariy, Jamoat-e-Ansarulloh, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jihadists, and Nurchists. The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not an infringement on religious freedom, but rather were a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and the incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.
According to media and the government, the ban on private religious instruction continued to result in the government’s detaining and fining members of religious communities. The ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faith or to exchange religious ideas. Some Muslims said religious discussions continued to be considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or for teaching religious principles in private. The government reported that as of October 1, it had shut down 20 hujras (illegal private schools that provide Islamic education) and had found more than 50 persons “administratively liable” (fined them) for illegal religious education.
In July, the Samarkand Regional Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued a press release reporting on the raid of an illegal hujra. According to the report, a man was illegally teaching recitations from the Quran to a group of seven students, ranging in age from nine to 17. Officers confiscated seven religious books and seven notebooks, all written in Arabic. The government did not report if any charges were filed.
Media reported that on March 4, police in Margilan, Fergana Region, raided the home of a retired public school teacher. Police confiscated from her and her female students Arabic-language Qurans and Islamic textbooks published in the country. Media did not report whether authorities filed any charges against them.
The government sometimes restricted access to websites, including those of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Forum 18. The government maintained a list of illegal websites it said were linked to Islamic extremist activity.
While the draft law on religion remained under parliamentary consideration, the government reported it had attempted to streamline the registration process for religious groups pending approval of the new law. Activists said, however, the government did not evenly apply the streamlined registration guidelines throughout the country, and that the CRA helped some religious groups obtain mahalla approval, but not others. The draft law on religion contained language removing the requirement for mahalla approval in the registration process, but the current law continued to require it.
According to the CRA, at year’s end, the country had 2,293 registered religious organizations representing 16 different faiths, compared with 2,280 registered religious organizations and 16 faiths in 2019. Muslim religious groups operated 2,071 Sunni mosques (compared with 2,065 in 2019), four Shia mosques, 15 Muftiates, and 13 education institutes. The 190 registered non-Muslim groups included 38 Orthodox churches (the same as in 2019), five Catholic churches, 60 Pentecostal churches (up from 56 in 2019), 24 Baptist churches, 10 Seventh-day Adventist churches (one more than in 2019), four New Apostol churches (one more than in 2019), two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian Apostolic churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple. The Bible Society of Uzbekistan was also registered.
During the year, the government registered eight churches, the same number as in 2019: the “Agape” Full Gospel Church in Tashkent on July 6; the New Apostolic Church in Fergana region on July 20; a Seventh-day Adventist Church in Samarkand on August 7; the “Hope” Full Gospel Church in Nukus on August 12; the “Salt of the Earth” Full Gospel Church in Almalyk on August 12; the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church in Sirdarya on August 13; the “Light of Truth” Full Gospel Church in Gulistan on August 29; and Farovon Hayot (formerly Ahli Kitob) in Tashkent on November 16. In October, Shia Muslims in Bukhara submitted paperwork to register a Shia mosque in the city. According to religious groups, there were 17 known churches that still wished to register.
Many religious group representatives continued to report they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, especially the requirement for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration and the requirement that 100 members must apply for registration in a specific locality. They said their inability to register made them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.
As in previous years, the Ministry of Justice explained denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities (including the mahalla). Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurances the government would approve their registration application. Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members. In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.
According to some Christian groups, many churches again attempted to register but remained unregistered at year’s end. In Tashkent, these included Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostal Life Water Church, Pentecostal Source of Life Church, and Pentecostal New Wave Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls also remained unregistered in Urgench, Fergana, Bukhara, Samarkand, Nukus, and Karshi. The Pentecostal Full Gospel churches in the cities of Khanabad, Kungrad, Chimbay, Gulistan, and Jizzakh remained unregistered, along with two in the city of Nukus. Several religious freedom advocates said the majority of the Christian churches registered in the year were not ethnic Uzbek, but ones whose members were mostly of Russian or Korean ethnicity.
Jehovah’s Witnesses again stated that, because the government considered illegal any religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of the one registered religious building in Chirchik, the group remained a potential target for harassment and mistreatment, although they stated no raids occurred during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said the group’s one registered site in Chirchik did not adequately meet their needs because their numbers were growing. They also said the group had repeatedly attempted to register in seven districts of the country, but the government had rejected their application at the mahalla level, the first step in the registration process. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a cessation appeal with the Supreme Court in 2019, which was denied on February 20 but not transmitted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses until October 5. On January 27, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Committee regarding six of the seven cases of unsuccessful registrations. At year’s end, the UN Human Rights Committee had not responded.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the Ministry of Justice, together with the State Tax Committee and the Ministry of Finance, conducted a special audit of the only registered Kingdom Hall, located in the city of Chirchik, from November 23 until December 11. Church representatives said one possible reason for the audit could have been the group’s charitable activities. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Chirchik said they had received $24,000 from Jehovah’s Witnesses offices in New Zealand to help church members and their families with food and protective supplies. The church reported that it successfully helped approximately 600 persons in seven regions with the funds. Church representatives said the government audit concerned them and they believed officials were seeking a way to require reregistration of the church’s charter, which they said could lead to registration problems for their only legally registered location.
The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools. The government continued to forbid any religious symbols, including skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs. Reportedly, however, one private school for girls allowed students to wear hijabs.
Religious freedom advocates stated that in the beginning of the year, there were reports that some schools and universities prevented the attendance of females wearing hijabs. In August, lawyer Abduvhid Yakubov filed a case with the Constitutional Court to annul a 2018 Cabinet of Ministers resolution that stated students should wear “modern uniforms,” stating the ruling was unconstitutional. School and university administrations used the 2018 resolution as the basis for banning hijabs. On September 16, the Constitutional Court dismissed Yakubov’s complaint, stating it was unfounded. Yakubov did not appeal the court’s decision.
Religious activist Fayzullaev Isakhon reported authorities arrested and charged him with the illegal distribution of religious information and held him for 10 days following a May 19 Facebook post critical of the local government in Fergana. The Regional Administrative Court of Fergana District stated the writings were those of Shuhrat Kayumov, a well-known, recently deceased journalist and “Honored Artist of Uzbekistan.” The writings were composed of religious material about the Prophet Mohammad that Kayumov had sent to his friend Isakhon via Telegram on March 29. During his detention, authorities forcibly shaved Isakhon, removing a beard he had worn for 20 years.
On September 24, media outlet Podrobno.uz reported a case in which a passerby filmed police harassing women wearing hijabs on Ghuncha Street in the Shaykhantakhur district of Tashkent. Police were recorded pushing women into a police bus. According to authorities, they were attempting to reduce the number of pedestrians who were not wearing masks. Observers told media, however, that police often monitored this neighborhood and frequently targeted men with long beards and women wearing hijabs.
According to the CRA and Muslim religious leaders, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muftiate. Religious leaders said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services. The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.
In February, President Mirziyoyev issued a decree establishing the Ministry for the Support of the Mahalla and the Family. The new ministry was tasked with ensuring close cooperation between state-level governments and local mahallas on issues of women, family, and social structures, thereby more formally linking the government and mahalla actions, including those involving religious matters.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports from minority religious groups that children were prevented from attending community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents. On August 2, the Ministry of Interior publicly clarified that minors could attend mosque to pray when accompanied by their parents, siblings, and other close relatives after restrictions on general worship imposed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak were lifted. Previously, there had been a de facto ban, first enforced under the country’s late first President, Islam Karimov, according to al-Jazeera Television.
According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques. The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions and were not assigned registered imams.
Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups said they continued to experience particular difficulties conducting religious activities in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan because most non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status in the region. With the addition of a newly registered Pentecostal church, there were two Christian churches in a region of two million persons, the other belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church.
In August, media reported the historic Ashkenazi Jewish Synagogue Beth Menachem in Tashkent was in danger of being demolished. A real estate developer had sued the synagogue, wanting to build a multistory building on its site. After the Jewish community publicized the case, the government stepped in to assist; on August 5, the Tashkent Interdistrict Economic Court ruled in favor of the synagogue, and the developer dropped its suit during the hearing. The CRA published a statement from Jewish community leader in Tashkent Arkadiy Isakharov in which he thanked the Tashkent khokimiyat and the CRA for their assistance in resolving the matter.
According to Christian religious leaders, many Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them potentially vulnerable to police harassment and abuse because such gatherings remained illegal.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports from religious leaders or activists of authorities filming participants of religious services.
Unlike in previous years, Catholic Church leaders did not report surveillance of Catholic masses.
The government stated that prisoners had the right to practice any religion or no religion. According to human rights activists, including a prominent former religious prisoner and current human rights defender, some prisoners continued to tell family members they were not able to observe religious rituals conflicting with the prison’s schedule of activities. Such observances included traditional Islamic morning prayers. While some activists reported this situation had improved, others said it had not. According to human rights activists, authorities forbade all prisoners from observing religious holidays, such as Ramadan, including by fasting. Although some prison libraries provided copies of the Quran and the Bible, family members continued to state that authorities did not allow some religiously observant prisoners access to religious materials.
The government continued to limit access to Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission. There were no reports the government entered the homes of members of any religious group in search of illegal religious material.
The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority. According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in secondhand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.
According to the CRA, it continued to block the importation of some Christian and Islamic literature.
Throughout the year, religious activist Adham Atajanov (pen name Abu Muslim) reported the CRA had not responded to his repeated requests for official review and permission to publish his interpretations of five books on Islam. In October, Atajanov said he had received permission to publish two of the books, with three remaining under consideration.
The government continued to allow only the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA: the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, the Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.
The Bible Society of Uzbekistan reported that during the year, Christians could easily request a Bible from them in three languages, English, Russian, and Uzbek, and that Christians were no longer required to fill out paperwork to obtain a Bible.
During the year, the government-controlled Muftiate continued to operate a call center created in 2019 and staffed by religious experts, which allowed citizens to call in and ask general questions pertaining to Islam.
The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites. The government prohibited Islamic religious institutions from receiving private funding other than for construction and repairs. While the government allowed some private funding, it did not permit funding from foreign governments. The International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, established in 2018, continued to provide the country’s religious education institutions (universities and madrassahs) with academic experts, teachers, and mentors. It also worked to improve the research and professional skills of scholars; educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith, and kalam (Islamic doctrine); and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach. The government reported that 1,692 persons were studying at the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan. Of these, 1,462 students were pursuing a bachelor’s degree, 187 a master’s degree, and 43 a doctoral degree.
The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.
At year’s end, there were three public Islamic training academies to prepare clerics in the country: the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Samarkand Higher School of Hadith Studies, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara. The number of madrassahs for secondary education increased from nine to 10 after a new one opened in the Surkhandarya Region. Additionally, two Christian seminaries continued to function. According to official figures, 2,299 persons were studying at the Islamic universities and madrassahs (compared with 1,984 in 2019), 50 at the Orthodox seminary (compared with 41 in 2019), and 12 at the Protestant seminary (compared with 20 in 2019). Sources reported that COVID-19 restrictions reduced enrollment, particularly of international students from the region.
Umrah regulations also required pilgrims to apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats. The CRA used the khokimiyats’ lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah. Between January and February, before COVID lockdowns went into effect, 28,000 pilgrims traveled for the Umrah, compared with 21,419 in 2019.
Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles. The government did not report how many Qurans were made available for hotels. Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and qiblas, used by Muslims to indicate the direction of Mecca. Many airports and train stations maintained small prayer rooms on their premises.
Civil society observers and religious freedom activists continued to report that authorities allowed Muslims to celebrate Ramadan openly, but they said COVID-19 restrictions affected the number of public iftars, and authorities urged citizens to celebrate the holiday at home.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Activists and human rights groups continued to report social pressure among the majority Muslim population against conversion from Islam. Religious community members said ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity risked harassment and discrimination. Some said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials and that Muslims in the community forced them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or allowed burials only with Islamic religious rites.
Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of individuals being attacked or harassed for their conversion to a minority faith.
Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to state they faced societal scrutiny and discrimination.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
On February 2, the Secretary of State met with religious leaders representing Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities to solicit their views on the state of religious freedom in the country. In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, the Ambassador and other embassy officials and senior officials from the Department of State, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, raised religious freedom concerns with the country’s leadership. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials met with multiple senior government officials, including the President, Foreign Minister, and officials from the National Human Rights Center and the CRA, and raised concerns about the ability of children to attend mosques with their parents, imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, the draft law on religion, and bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups. The embassy used social media to raise issues of concern but also to highlight achievements, such as the country’s removal from the Special Watch List and the government’s public clarification that minors could attend mosque if accompanied by their parents.
The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of engagements with the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador of Uzbekistan to the United States, raising the status of the country’s draft religion law and of the registration of religious organizations and places of worship, as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and to release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. Religious freedom issues were also on the agenda for the annual bilateral consultations, held on November 20, with the main topics being the draft law on religion, continuing the registration of religious organizations (including Jehovah’s Witnesses), and the number of religious prisoners still imprisoned by the government. Several Department of State senior officials, including the Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, also raised religious freedom points in their meetings.
At various levels of government and in different forums, U.S. officials continued to urge the government to amend the religion law to allow members of religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship and to relax requirements for registering faith-based organizations. They continued to press the government to provide protection for public discourse on religion and remove restrictions on the importation and use of religious literature, in both hardcopy and electronic versions. They also raised the difficulties religious groups and faith-based foreign aid organizations faced with registration and with authorities’ limiting their access to religious literature. The U.S. government supported the implementation of the country’s religious freedom roadmap and the drafting of legislation overhauling the law on religion as concrete steps to enhance religious freedom. The U.S. government urged the government of Uzbekistan to seek a joint opinion on the draft law on religion from the OSCE and Venice Commission.
Embassy representatives frequently discussed individual religious freedom cases with foreign diplomatic colleagues to coordinate efforts on monitoring court cases.
Throughout the year, and despite COVID-19 restrictions, embassy officials maintained contact with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included the registration of minority religious groups, religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.
In its public outreach and private meetings, the embassy again drew attention to the continuing inability of certain Christian groups to register houses of worship, of evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses to discuss their beliefs openly in public, and of Muslim parents to take their children to mosque or educate them in their faith. Embassy officials and visiting U.S. government officials continued to meet with representatives of religious groups and civil society and with relatives of prisoners to discuss freedom of conscience and belief. Embassy engagement included meetings with virtually all major religious denominations in the country, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptist groups, Jewish leaders, Muslim scholars, and religious freedom activists.
On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State removed Uzbekistan from the Special Watch List, determining that it no longer engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Uzbekistan had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern from 2006 to 2017 and was moved to a Special Watch List in 2018 and 2019.