Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity. In August the UN secretary-general and in September the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK released reports reiterating concerns about the country’s use of arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity. In March and December, the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly plenary session, respectively, adopted resolutions by consensus that “condemned in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” including denial of the right to religious freedom, and urged the government to acknowledge such violations and take immediate steps to implement relevant recommendations by the United Nations. A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) said there were 1,304 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities during the year, including 119 killings and 87 disappearances. The country in the past deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders. Reports indicated DPRK authorities released one foreign Christian in August. According to NGOs and academics, the government’s policy toward religion was to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences, while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information made arrests and punishments difficult to verify.
Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear their activities would be reported to the authorities. There were conflicting estimates of the number of religious groups in the country and their membership.
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. The United States cosponsored resolutions at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council condemning the government’s systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations. In October the Department of State submitted the Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea to Congress, the third biannual report to Congress identifying two entities and seven North Korean officials responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses or censorship. Since 2001, the country 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 22, 2017, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.2 million (July 2017 estimate). In a 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 800 Roman Catholics. The report noted Cheondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement, had approximately 15,000 practitioners. Consulting shamans and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The South Korea-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) reported that five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners in the country is considerably higher than reported by the authorities. UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000. In a 2012 report, Cornerstone Ministries International (CMI) stated that it was in contact with 37,000 churchgoers in the country. CMI estimated 10-45 percent of those imprisoned in detention camps were Christians. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides “Citizens shall have the right of faith. This right guarantees them chances to build religious facilities or perform religious rituals.” It further provides, however, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”
According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”
The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes or illegally keeps drawings, photos, books, video recordings or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution. Also according to HRNK, the law banning “superstitious activities” is specifically intended to prohibit fortune telling and enable the imprisonment of fortune tellers.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs.
Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs and North Korean defectors reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps.
The country has in the past detained foreigners allegedly engaging in religious work within its borders. Reports indicated that authorities released one foreign Christian in August.
The NKDB aggregated 1,304 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country during the year. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,304 cases, DPRK authorities reportedly detained 770 (59 percent), restricted movement of 133 (10.2 percent), killed 119 (9.1 percent), disappeared 87 (6.7 percent), deported or forcibly moved 48 (3.7 percent), and physically injured 44 (3.4 percent). The NKDB had recorded 1,247 such cases in 2016. According to a survey of 11,805 defectors from North Korea referenced in the NKDB white paper, 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country. Only 4.2 percent of 12,032 defectors said they had seen a Bible when they lived there, although survey data reflected a slight increase in recent years.
According to a South Korea-based NGO, evidence was discovered in 2016 that the organization said confirmed DPRK security entities actively targeted religious practitioners, including Christians and Buddhists and their networks. The NGO stated that the evidence also suggested security officials imprisoned and executed citizens suspected of religious involvement.
According to media reports, activists said DPRK agents killed Korean-Chinese Christian Pastor Han Choong Yeol in April 2016. The pastor operated a church in Changbai, Jilin Province in northeast China, and had provided aid to defectors from North Korea. DPRK authorities said South Korea was responsible for the killing. Radio Free Asia reported that on June 3, authorities in Hyesan City beat and arrested a 61-year-old man after he returned from visiting relatives in China. The man had reportedly attended Christian church services and was subsequently charged with espionage.
According to Washington, DC-based NGO North Korean Refugees in the USA, a North Korean defected in May after spending eight years in prison for attending church in China for four months. Reportedly, she was charged with practicing Christianity and learning of its “disgraceful nature.” During her imprisonment, authorities told her up to a dozen times a day to repent of her past and try to “wash” her mind. She reported six other women who were in prison for attending church were either beaten to death or died from diarrhea because they did not have access to medicine.
The Christian Post reported in April that Hye Jin Lim of the Seoul-based New Korea Women’s Union said Chinese police detained 17 North Korean orphan defectors, all minors, and repatriated them to North Korea. She said the North Korean security agents found out three of the 17 were Christians because they had “calluses on their knees, as they had been praying for a long time for God to help them.” Authorities reportedly sent them to a political prison camp – an illegal action, according to Lim, because children under the age of 18 should not have been sent to a political prison camp – while they sent the remaining 14 to a reeducation camp.
In August the UN secretary-general and in October the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK released reports reiterating concerns about the country’s use of arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity. In March and December, the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly plenary session, respectively, adopted resolutions by consensus that “condemned in the strongest terms long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations,” including denial of the right to religious freedom, and urged the government to acknowledge such violations of human rights and take immediate steps to end all such violations and abuses through the implementation of relevant recommendations by the United Nations. The annual resolutions again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the relevant conclusions and recommendations of the COI. The February 2014 COI final report concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded that, in many instances, the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended that the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable.
The COI report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat, as it challenged the official cult of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religion independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.
Defectors reported the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.
According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2017 report, “It is practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represents only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters, and only when the regime deems it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 11,730 refugees between 2007 and April 2016 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country.
Defectors reported that the ruling party prohibited members from practicing religion.
Juche, or “self reliance,” and Suryong, or “supreme leader,” remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cult of personalities of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment.
Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country.
While shamanism has always been practiced to some degree in the country, NGOs noted an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. These NGOs reported that government authorities continued to react by taking measures against the practice of shamanism. In October HRNK reported that at least one individual had recently been imprisoned for fortune telling and other “crimes.” Defector reports cited an increase in party members consulting fortune tellers in order to gauge the best time to defect.
According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated as of 2016 there were 121 religious facilities in North Korea, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Cheondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox Church. A 2014 government report also cited the existence of 64 Buddhist temples but said the temples had lost religious significance in the country and remained only as cultural heritage sites or tourist destinations. The 2015 KINU white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and noted that most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities nor saw Buddhist monks as religious figures.
The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and Life-Giving Trinity Russian Orthodox Church. Chilgol church was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, who was a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these five churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Reports from visitors taken to these churches to attend services when visiting Pyongyang reported local citizens in attendance appeared to have been brought in for the occasion, and they seemed to be observers rather than participants. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. One defector said when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals who they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them around each week when services were being held on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and allowing persons to attend church was that many of the attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches, and according to the 2017 KINU white paper, no Protestant or Catholic churches existed in the country except in Pyongyang.
KINU also reported in 2015 the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country such as the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), Korea Buddhist Federation, Korean Catholic Association (KCA), Korea Chondoist Central Guidance Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. The NKDB white paper also noted the existence of the Korea Orthodox Committee. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.
The government-established KCA provided basic services at the Changchung Roman Catholic Cathedral but had no ties to the Vatican. There also were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing anywhere in the country.
According to religious leaders who have traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at the Bongsu and Chilgol churches, although it was not known if they were resident or visiting pastors.
Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Life-Giving Trinity Russian Orthodox Church, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. Several of them reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.
In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2017 KINU report, however, while some Pyongyang residents had heard of them, most persons living outside Pyongyang were not aware of the existence of such family churches. Those who were aware of their existence were not able to identify them as places of worship. According to a survey of 11,967 defectors cited in the 2017 NKDB report, none had ever seen any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated that “family worship centers” may be part of the state-controlled KCF.
The COI report concluded that authorities systematically sought to hide from the international community the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.
According to KINU’s 2017 report, the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations stated they believed some members were genuinely religious, but they noted others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.
In August NK News, an independent news provider based outside the country, reported the government recently attempted to appear less hostile to Christianity by sending local clergy to international Christian seminars and publishing its own official translation of the King James Bible. In May NK News interviewed an official of the privately funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, who said he occasionally attended the local Protestant church in Pyongyang where the pastor’s sermon was “normally good” but often focused on progovernment politics. The official added he and his colleagues confined their worship to 6 a.m. prayers in a small university office.
The NKDB stated that officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports and airports to search for religious items as well as other items deemed objectionable by the government.
Little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion. There were no reports that members of government-controlled religious groups suffered discrimination, but the government reportedly regarded members of underground churches or those connected to missionary activities as subversive elements. Scholars said authorities meted out strict punishment to forcibly returned defectors, including those who had contact with Christian missionaries or other foreigners while in China.
The government reportedly allowed certain forms of religious education, including programs at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il-sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries related to Christian or Buddhist groups.
Christians were restricted to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies individuals on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime based on political opinion and religious views. The songbun classification system results in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. According to KINU, the government continued to view Christianity in particular as a means of foreign, Western encroachment. KINU again reported that citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year emphasizing ways to detect and identity individuals who engage in spreading Christianity.
The government reportedly was concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border of China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly tightened border controls in an effort to crack down on any such activities.
The government continued to allow some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations reported they were not allowed to proselytize; their contact with local citizens was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times. Some workers of such organizations reported being permitted to take their personal Bibles into the country.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to the fear that their activities would be reported to the authorities.
The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.
During the year, KINU reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated up to several hundred thousand Christians practicing their faith underground, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. Some defector reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks. The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.
Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely. According KINU, some foreign Christians who visited the country said church activities seemed staged, and added they witnessed the door of the church was closed when they attempted to visit without prior consultation.
According to KINU, defectors reported being unaware of any recognized religious organizations that maintained branches outside Pyongyang. Religious ceremonies such as for weddings and funerals were almost unknown.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence in the country. It used other mechanisms to address religious freedom concerns.
The United States cosponsored resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council in March and December that condemned the country’s “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.” The resolutions further expressed grave concern over the country’s denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and urged the government to take immediate steps to ensure these rights.
On October 26, the Department of State submitted the third biannual Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea to Congress. The report identified two entities and seven government officials as responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses or censorship. The report stated, “The government also maintains an extensive system of forced labor through its rigid controls over workers, and restricts the exercise of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association, religion or belief, and movement.”
The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. The United States has made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would significantly improve prospects for closer ties between the two countries. Senior U.S. government officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State and the Special Representative for North Korea Policy, met with defectors and NGOs that focused on the country, including some Christian humanitarian organizations.
Since 2001, the country 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 22, 2017, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution establishes Nepal as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another, and bans religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. In August the parliament passed a new criminal code, signed into law by the president on October 16, that reduces the punishments for “convert[ing]… the religion of another person” or for engaging in any act that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of others from six to five years’ imprisonment. The new criminal code, which is scheduled to be fully implemented in August 2018, also criminalizes the harming of the “religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or writing. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to own land or operate legally. In at least two locations, police arrested individuals from indigenous communities accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating NGOs, citing a 2016 directive by the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development instructing officials to deny the registration of NGOs that promote religious conversion. Christian and Muslim groups continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials. The government placed restrictions on Tibetans’ ability to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies. Muslims said they were able to participate in the Hajj. In March the government announced it would no longer recognize Christmas as a public holiday, a decision Christian groups said they interpreted as a reflection of anti-Christian sentiment. In November the government reversed the decision and reinstated the Christmas holiday for the year. Christian groups also reported Christian missionary hospitals and welfare organizations generally continued to operate without government interference.
An unknown assailant shot a Christian on April 16 (Easter Sunday) while the latter was returning home from his job at the Federation of National Christians Nepal (FNCN). Although FNCN concluded the attack was religiously motivated, the police stated they had not determined a motive for the attack or named any suspects as of September. On April 18, arsonists attacked the Assumption Roman Catholic Cathedral and the residence of its priests in Lalitpur. The residence, which housed several priests, sustained significant damage, but there were no injuries. As of the end of the year, police had not made any arrests, leading Christian leaders to question law enforcement’s willingness to conduct a thorough and fair investigation. Police filed charges against 28 individuals accused of participating in interreligious clashes during which two Muslims in the Banke District were killed in December 2016. Muslim leaders, however, expressed disappointment at the district court’s decision to grant the arrested individuals bail at a low amount. Christian leaders expressed concern about the emphasis placed by some politicians on the re-establishment of the country as a Hindu state, which they said had a negative impact on public perception of Christians. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other high-caste individuals continued to prevent persons of lower castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites.
Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and other government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the new criminal code, including the continued criminalization of conversion and new measures to criminalize proselytization. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, potential enforcement of the ban on conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. Following the shooting of the FNCN employee and the arson attack on the Assumption Cathedral, U.S. embassy officers met with police to urge them to investigate the cases thoroughly. Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the most recent taken, Hindus constitute 81.3 percent of the population, Buddhists 9 percent, Muslims (the vast majority of whom are Sunni) 4.4 percent, and Christians (the vast majority of whom are Protestant) 1.4 percent. Other groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Kirats (an indigenous religion with Hindu influence), animists, adherents of Bon (a Tibetan religious tradition), Jains, Bahais, and Sikhs. According to some Muslim leaders, Muslims constitute at least 5.5 percent of the population, mostly concentrated in the south. According to some Christian groups, Christians constitute 3 to 7 percent of the population. Many individuals adhere to a syncretic faith encompassing elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional folk practices, according to scholars.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares the country to be a secular state, and defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” The constitution stipulates every person has the right to profess, practice, and protect his or her religion. While exercising this right, the constitution bans individuals from engaging in any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or which “disturb the public law and order situation.” It also prohibits persons from converting other persons from one religion to another or disturbing the religion of others, and states violations are punishable by law.
On August 8, the parliament passed a new criminal code, signed into law by the president on October 16, which reduces the punishment for converting – or encouraging the conversion of – another person or for engaging in any act, including the propagating of religion, that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of any caste, ethnic group, or community, from six years to five years’ imprisonment. The law is scheduled to take effect in August 2018. It also stipulates a fine of up to Nepali Rupees (NPR) 50,000 ($490) and subjects foreign nationals convicted of these crimes to deportation. The new criminal code also imposes punishments of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to NPR 20,000 ($200) for harming the religious sentiment of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or writing.
The legal code does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. It is not mandatory for Buddhist monasteries to register with the government, but doing so is a prerequisite for receiving government funding for maintenance of facilities, skills training for monks, and study tours. A monastery development committee under the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development oversees the registration process. Requirements for registration include furnishing a recommendation from a local government body, information about the members of the monastery’s own management committee, a land ownership certificate, and photos of the premises.
Aside from Buddhist monasteries, all religious groups must register as NGOs or nonprofit organizations in order to own land, operate legally as institutions, or gain eligibility for public service-related government grants and partnerships. Religious organizations follow the same registration process as other NGOs and nonprofits, including preparing a constitution and furnishing information on the organization’s objectives, as well as details on its executive committee members. To renew registration, which must be done annually, organizations must submit annual financial audit reports and activity progress reports.
The law prohibits the killing, attempted killing, and instigation of killing of female and male cattle. Violators are subject to 12 years in prison for killing, and six years for attempted killing or instigation.
A 2011 ruling by the Supreme Court requires the government to provide protection for Christian groups carrying out funeral rites in the exercise of their constitutional right to practice their religion, but also states the government is not obligated to provide land grants for this purpose. There is no law specifically addressing the funeral practices of religious groups.
The constitution establishes the government’s authority to “make law to operate and protect a religious place or religious trust and to manage trust property and regulate land management.”
The law does not require religiously affiliated schools to register, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim religious schools must register as religious educational institutions with local district education offices (part of the Ministry of Education) and supply information about their funding sources to receive funding at the same levels as nonreligious public/community schools. Religious public/community schools follow the same registration procedure as nonreligious public/community schools. Catholic and Protestant groups must register as NGOs to operate private schools. Christian schools are not able to register as public/community schools and are not eligible for government funding. Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups may also register as NGOs to operate private schools, but are not eligible for funding in that case.
The law criminalizes acts of caste‑based discrimination in places of worship. Penalties for violations are three months to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of 1,000 to 25,000 NPR ($10 to $240), or both.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February the District Police Office in Parbat arrested five individuals for allegedly slaughtering an ox. A sixth accused person remained at large, according to police. The accused – all of whom are Dalit – said they did not kill the ox, and that the animal was dead when they found it. Police held the accused for 25 days during the initial investigation period before bringing the case to court. On March 8, the district court approved the police request for an extension of the period of legal custody and ordered the accused to return to jail pending further investigation. At year’s end, the individuals remained in custody awaiting trial. Dalit rights activists said they believed the accused were targeted because of their social status as Dalits.
According to press reports, the District Police Office in Gorkha arrested four persons in August for slaughtering a cow. At year’s end the accused – three of whom are from the Chepang indigenous community and one from another indigenous Janajati community – remained in detention.
The government did not enforce the ban on converting others, according to Christian groups and legal experts. Christian groups have interpreted this ban as including a prohibition on proselytizing. Human rights lawyers and leaders of religious minorities expressed concern that the constitution’s and new criminal code’s continuation of the ban on conversion could make religious minorities subject to legal prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of their religious practices, and also vulnerable to persecution for preaching, public displays of faith, and distribution of religious materials. Human rights experts also expressed concern that a provision in the criminal code banning speech or writing harmful to others’ religious sentiments could be misused to settle personal scores or target religious minorities arbitrarily.
On September 22, a high court annulled the conviction of four Christians who had been sentenced in December 2016 to five years in prison and fined 50,000 NPR ($490) for “witchcraft” and “violence.” The group had been praying for a mentally troubled woman and allegedly holding her against her will, although the woman testified that she had not been mistreated or held captive.
According to the Jhapa district attorney’s office, the criminal case against four suspects accused of detonating small homemade explosive devices at three churches in Jhapa District in September 2015 continued. All four suspects were released on bail and remained free while the criminal case was pending. Police continued to search for three additional suspects; there were no additional arrests made as of year’s end.
According to legal experts and leaders of religious minority groups, the constitutional language about protecting the “age-old religion” and the prohibition on conversion were intended by the drafters to mandate the protection of Hinduism. Minority religious leaders said that some politicians’ emphasis on re-establishing the country as a Hindu state continued to negatively affect public perception of Christians and Christianity. (The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007 when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.)
Throughout the year, political leaders and members of the parliament, including senior members of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), the country’s fourth largest political party, made speeches calling for the re-establishment of the country as a Hindu state. In April the RPP leadership released its election manifesto, which called for strong legal action to be taken against those accused of killing cows. The party leadership also stated its intention to ban forced, organized, and planned religious conversion achieved by financial rewards or false promises.
In March the Election Commission of Nepal (ECN) rejected the inclusion of a call for a return to a Hindu state in the RPP’s party statute. In response, the RPP launched a series of public protests and introduced a constitutional amendment bill on March 9 demanding the word “secular” in the constitution be replaced with the words “Hindu state with complete religious freedom.” Christian leaders privately stated the RPP-led protests and proposed amendment aimed to influence the ECN to retract its decision on the RPP’s party statue and to gauge broader political support for abandoning secularism. In April the ECN reversed its decision on the RPP’s party statute, and the RPP ended its protests. The RPP never formally brought up the amendment bill for parliamentary discussion due to a perceived lack of support in the parliament, according to some RPP politicians, but Christian leaders expressed concern that support for a return to a Hindu state was gaining momentum.
Some Muslim leaders continued not to accept converts to Islam, saying it would violate the law according to their interpretation. Instead, they continued to recommend that individuals who sought to convert travel to India to do so.
The Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development continued to implement its June 2016 directive to all District Development Committees to deny the registration of any NGO that preaches or promotes religious conversion. Christian groups reported the directive has limited their ability to register and operate as NGOs or nonprofits. Christian groups said District Development Committees continued to occasionally ask organizations to remove religious words from their entity names and advised religious leaders registering organizations to remove their religious titles (e.g. Father, Reverend) from registration documentation to secure registration. Christian leaders expressed fears the new guidelines could potentially limit the establishment of churches, which must be registered as NGOs. Some Christians interpreted the directive as an attempt to push Christian NGOs out of the country.
In March the government led by then-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (“Prachanda”) announced it would no longer recognize Christmas as a public holiday. In November the government reversed the decision and reinstated the Christmas holiday for this year, reportedly under pressure from religious minorities. The government had made the same announcement in March 2016, which it stated was part of an effort to reduce the large number of public holidays, but reversed the decision on Christmas Eve under pressure from Christian groups. Although the government said it would continue to provide holiday leave for Christians working in the government, those working in the private sector would not be entitled to the day off as in some past years. Christian groups noted that the government continued to recognize dozens of Hindu holidays and a number of Muslim and Buddhist holidays, and stated they interpreted the decision as a reflection of growing anti-Christian sentiment in the country.
The government placed restrictions on Tibetans’ ability to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies and conduct other private ceremonies with cultural/religious significance, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Tibetan leaders said they continued to mark certain anniversaries considered politically sensitive, such as Tibetan Uprising Day, with small, quiet prayer ceremonies within Tibetan settlements. Abbots of Buddhist monasteries reported monasteries and their related social welfare projects generally continued to operate without government interference.
On June 3, the local ward office in Budhanilkantha, Kathmandu, evicted the tenants of a house from which they had operated the Protestant Shiloam Tupek church for nine years, giving the tenants three days to vacate the government-owned property. According to Christian leaders, the government had allowed the tenants to use the land for several decades. On June 5, the local ward office destroyed the house, reportedly so the government could construct a public school. Christian leaders demanded the government investigate the incident and provide compensation to the tenants and church management; however, authorities had not investigated or paid compensation by year’s end.
Muslim leaders said Muslims continued to be able to participate in the Hajj. A Central Hajj Committee, made up of representatives of political parties, mosques, and civil society, under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs, continued to coordinate and facilitate logistics for the Hajj for all participating Muslims. The government paid for 18 committee members, compared to 10 in 2016, to travel to Saudi Arabia to carry out their work.
Christian leaders said the government-funded Pashupati Area Development Trust continued to prevent Christian burials in a common cemetery behind the Pashupati Hindu Temple in Kathmandu, while allowing burials of individuals from non-Hindu indigenous faiths. According to Christian leaders, the government continued its inconsistent enforcement of the court ruling requiring protection of congregations carrying out burials. Protestant churches continued to report difficulties gaining access to land they had bought six years prior for burials in the Kathmandu Valley in the names of individual church members. They stated local communities continued to oppose burial by groups perceived to be outsiders, but were more open to burials conducted by Christian members of their own communities. As a result, they reported, some Protestants in the Kathmandu Valley continued to travel to the countryside to conduct burials in unpopulated areas.
Catholic leaders reported almost all Catholic parishioners continued to choose cremation due to past difficulties with burials. Many Christian communities outside the Kathmandu Valley said they continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, conduct burials in public forests, or use land belonging to indigenous communities for burials. They also said they continued to be able to use public land for this purpose.
Muslim groups stated individuals in the Kathmandu Valley continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, but local Hindus sometimes refused to sell them land. In the southern Terai region, which is home to many Muslim-majority communities, Muslim groups said they had not encountered such problems.
According to Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups, the government continued to permit them to establish and operate their own community schools. The government provided the same level of funding for registered religious schools as for public schools, but private Christian schools continued not to receive government funding. Although religious education is not part of the curriculum in public schools, some public schools displayed a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on their grounds.
According to the Department of Education, which is the executive office within the Ministry of Education, 879 madrassahs were registered with district education offices, an increase from 765 from the previous year. The number of gumbas (Buddhist centers of learning) registered with the Department of Education rose from 82 in 2016 to 110 during the year. The Department had 97 gurukhuls (Hindu centers of learning) registered during the year, up from 83 in the previous year.
Some Muslim leaders stated as many as 2,500 to 3,000 madrassahs continued to be unregistered. Some Muslim leaders expressed concern that some unregistered madrassahs are promoting the spread of less tolerant interpretations of Islam. According to religious leaders, a large number of madrassahs as well as Buddhist and Hindu schools continue to be unregistered because school operators hope to avoid government auditing and the Department of Education’s established curriculum. They said some school operators also wished to avoid the registration process, which they characterized as cumbersome.
Many Christian leaders said missionary hospitals, welfare organizations, and schools continued to operate without government interference, although others reported increased scrutiny when registering as NGOs. They said the government usually did not expel foreign workers for proselytizing, but missionaries reported they attempted to keep their activities discreet. Many foreign Christian organizations had direct ties to local churches and continued to sponsor clergy for religious training abroad.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were several reports of attacks on religious minorities. On April 16, an unidentified individual shot Santosh Khadka, an employee of the FNCN, while he was driving home from work in Lalitpur in the Kathmandu Valley. The victim survived. FNCN leaders concluded the attack was religiously motivated because it occurred on Easter Sunday, and the organization had received phone calls warning its staff to stop converting persons. The FNCN and other Christian representatives publicly called on the government to hold the perpetrators accountable and provide adequate security for the country’s Christian population. At year’s end, police continued to investigate the case but had not named any suspects or determined a motive for the attack. Christians said the incident had increased their fears of further attacks.
On April 18, arsonists attacked the Assumption Roman Catholic Cathedral, also in Lalitpur. According to church leaders who reviewed CCTV footage of the attack, several persons entered the church compound carrying containers of gasoline, which they used to set two motorcycles and a sports utility vehicle on fire. Although the building, which housed several priests, sustained significant damage, there were no injuries. Damage to windows and doors indicated the perpetrators – who left a note condemning religious conversion – also attempted to break into the church, but were unsuccessful. Christian leaders stated their belief that the attack, when coupled with the shooting of the FNCN employee, represented an effort to foment panic among the Christian community. They also expressed concern about police willingness to investigate the case thoroughly.
Hindus and Muslims clashed on October 1 in Banke District and on October 2 in Bardiya District, injuring more than 30 persons.
Police in Banke District filed charges in December 2016 against 28 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim clashes that led to the killing of two Muslims earlier that month. Twenty-five who were apprehended and arrested were subsequently released over the course of several months on bail of between 25,000 and 50,000 NPR ($240 and $490), pending their trial in the district court, which had not started as of the end of the year. Three other accused individuals remained at large. In October police arrested one of the accused, and the court released the individual on bail shortly thereafter. The remaining two fugitives remained at large. Muslim leaders expressed disappointment in the court’s decision to grant what they stated was a low amount of bail for murder charges. Separately, the District Administration Office granted one million NPR ($9,800) to each of the families of the deceased.
Minority religious leaders expressed concern about the rise of Hindu nationalism and its implications for religious harmony.
Some leaders of religious minority groups stated some converts to other religions, including Hindus who had converted to Christianity, remained willing and able to state publicly their new religious affiliation. Christian leaders also reported that a number of converts to Christianity tried to conceal their faith from their families and local communities, mainly in areas outside of Kathmandu.
According to NGOs, Hindu priests and local high-caste residents continued to prevent Dalits, as members of a lower caste, from entering temples, and sometimes prevented them from performing religious rites and participating in religious festivals. In June media reported an attack on a Dalit for entering a temple in Saptari District. The victim, who suffered a broken arm among other injuries, stated police were slow to investigate the incident and take action against the perpetrators. According to police, the case was ongoing in the district court at year’s end.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and other government representatives expressed concerns to senior government officials and political leaders over restrictions on freedom of religion, including the rights to convert and to proselytize, posed by provisions in the constitution and the new criminal code. They continued to highlight the ways in which anticonversion laws could be used to arbitrarily restrict the right to the freedoms of religion and expression. Embassy officers and visiting senior U.S. government officials also raised concerns with government officials about the government’s restrictions on Tibetan Buddhists conducting peaceful religious activities.
Following the shooting of Santosh Khadka of the FNCN and the arson attack on the Assumption Roman Catholic Cathedral, embassy officers met with police to urge them to conduct thorough investigations of both cases. Embassy officers also met with Khadka, leaders from the Assumption Church, and representatives of religious minorities in Kathmandu and throughout the country to discuss challenges they faced in the practice of their religion. Embassy officers and other U.S. government representatives discussed with civil society and religious groups their concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebration of religious holidays, the prohibition against conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians.
Embassy officers continued to address religious diversity and tolerance in speaking engagements with the general public. The embassy also continued to provide financial assistance for the preservation and restoration of religious sites, including three Buddhist chhortens and several Hindu temples. The embassy also continued to promote religious tolerance in a program for underprivileged youth, including Muslims and Tibetan refugees, in Kathmandu.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief. It is a crime to engage in public speech inciting religious hatred. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (NIHR) and municipal antidiscrimination boards continued to address individual complaints of discrimination, such as the denial of internships or employment to female Muslim students who refused to remove their headscarves. The government implemented its national action plan to counter discrimination, which included specific measures to counter anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment. Local governments provided security to all Jewish institutions and, upon request, to Islamic institutions. Amsterdam authorities replaced on-site police surveillance of more than 30 Jewish cultural sites with cameras. The leader of the Political Calvinist Party (SGP) and the Israeli Ambassador filed complaints against a member of The Hague City Council for making anti-Semitic statements about Israeli students visiting parliament.
The government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported hundreds of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents in 2016, the most recent year for which data were available. Most incidents included verbal or written harassment or insults, threats, and vandalism. There were also several cases of violence and instances of discrimination. An EU survey found 72 percent of Muslims believed religious or ethnic discrimination was widespread in the country. An NGO called for measures to stop anti-Semitic chanting at soccer matches and expressed concern about the common use of “Jew” as a term of insult. Two nationalist groups regularly staged protests against Islamic institutions. Members of religious groups and NGOs engaged in activities and conducted outreach programs to counter prejudice against Jews and Muslims.
The U.S. embassy in The Hague and consulate general in Amsterdam emphasized to government officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, parliamentarians, and police in formal meetings and informal conversations, support for refugees of all faiths, the importance of integration for newcomers, and the value of interfaith dialogue. Embassy and consulate general representatives discussed religious freedom issues with different faith communities and civil society activists and pursued public outreach to youth, academics, and women to increase interfaith understanding and tolerance. The embassy also discussed religious tolerance with refugees.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 17.1 million (July 2017 estimate). In a 2014 survey by the government’s Statistics Netherlands, 49 percent of the population declared no church affiliation, 24 percent self-identified as Roman Catholic, 7 percent as Reformed, 6 percent as Calvinist, 3 percent as other Protestant denominations, 5 percent as Muslim, and 6 percent as “other,” including Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, and Bahai.
Most Muslims live in urban areas and are of Turkish, Moroccan, or Surinamese background. The Muslim population also includes recent immigrants and asylum seekers from other countries, including Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Tel Aviv University’s Stephen Roth Institute, a research institute, and the Council of Europe estimate the Jewish population at approximately 30,000. A 2008 report of the Scientific Council for Government Policy identified a Hindu population of between 100,000 and 215,000, of whom approximately 85 percent are of Surinamese descent and 10 percent of Indian descent. The Buddhist community has approximately 17,000 members, according to a 2007 report by the governmental Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP), the latest estimate available.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and provides for the freedom of individuals to profess their religion or belief, individually or in community with others, without affecting their responsibilities under the law. The constitution allows the government to restrict the exercise of religious beliefs outside of buildings or enclosed spaces to protect health, for traffic safety, or to prevent disorder.
The law makes it a crime to engage in public speech that incites religious hatred, and provides a penalty of imprisonment for up to two years, a fine of up to 8,100 euros ($9,700), or both. To qualify as hate speech, the statements must be directed at a group of people; the law does not consider statements targeted at a philosophy or religion, such as “Islam” as opposed to “Muslims,” as criminal hate speech.
The law permits employees to refuse to work on Sundays for religious reasons, but employers may deny employees such an exception depending on the nature of the work, such as employment in the health sector. Members of religious communities for whom the Sabbath is not Sunday may request similar exemptions.
The law does not require religious groups to register with the government. If the tax authorities determine the groups meet specific criteria, they grant the groups exemptions from all taxes, including income, value added, and property taxes. Under the tax law, institutions must be “of a philosophical or religious nature,” contribute to the general welfare of society, and be nonprofit and nonviolent to qualify for tax exemptions.
A number of national institutions, including the Council of State and the NIHR, are responsible for reviewing complaints of religious discrimination. Additionally, the NIHR advises the government on issues involving religious discrimination.
Local governments appoint antidiscrimination boards that work independently under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations. These local boards provide information on how to report complaints and mediate disputes, including those pertaining to discrimination based on religion. Acceptance of mediation decisions by parties involved in disputes is voluntary.
The government provides funding to religious schools, other religious educational institutions, and religious health-care facilities. To qualify for funding, institutions have to meet government educational standards as well as minimum class size and health-care requirements. The constitution stipulates that standards required of religious or ideology-based (termed “special”) schools, financed either in part or fully by the government, shall be regulated by law with due regard for the freedom of these schools to provide education according to their religion or ideology.
The constitution stipulates public education shall pay due respect to the individual’s religion or belief, and the law permits, but does not require religious education in public schools. Regular teaching staff teach religion classes. All schools are obligated to familiarize students with the various spiritual movements in society, regardless of the school’s religious affiliation. Religion-based schools are free to shape religious education, as long as the education inspectorate agrees that such education does not incite criminal offenses.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: The government provided security to all Jewish institutions and to Muslims institutions upon request and established a working group to discuss mosque security. It barred religious groups from proselytizing at asylum centers. The government and Jewish and Muslim groups amended an agreement to allow for better protection of animal welfare while preserving the groups’ requirements of ritual slaughter. Party for Freedom (PVV) parliamentarian Geert Wilders continued calls for “de-Islamization” of the country. The government issued a report expressing concerns about Salafist groups. It continued to require Muslim religious leaders recruited from Islamic countries to complete an integration course before engaging in religious work in the country. The government also announced measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment as part of an updated action plan to combat discrimination. A Muslim member of The Hague City Council called Israeli students visiting parliament “future child murderers.”
The national government established a special working group to discuss security questions concerning mosques, which included representatives of the Muslim community, National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Security, police, and Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment. Following a January 29 attack on a mosque in Canada, members of the working group convened and adopted a “Safe Mosque” manual. The manual helped bolster local cooperation among local government, police, and mosque officials. The mayors of Amsterdam and Rotterdam also met with representatives of various mosques in their cities to discuss security.
Local governments, in consultation with the national government, continued to provide all Jewish institutions with security and to provide security to Muslim institutions at their request. Amsterdam authorities were finalizing the replacement of 18 police-manned booths in favor of camera surveillance in Jewish sites throughout the city.
The NIHR and municipal antidiscrimination boards continued to address individual complaints of discrimination, such as the denial of internships or employment to female Muslim students who refused to remove their headscarves. The rulings generally maintained that any restriction on wearing headscarves should be limited and based on security or other carefully delineated grounds pertaining to the nature of the work, for example, applied to members of the military and medical personnel on operating floors. In practice, headscarves were permitted almost everywhere, including in schools.
According to several religious community leaders, the government did not allow religiously affiliated organizations to proselytize at asylum centers. The government agency charged with overseeing asylum centers, the Central Body for Accommodating Asylum Seekers, said it instituted this policy to avoid inflaming any tensions among different religious groups housed together in an already sensitive environment. Some members of religious groups said they had difficulty gaining access to the centers, even as volunteers. One member of an evangelical church said its members prayed in front of asylum centers but were not allowed to pray inside.
In July Jewish and Muslim organizations signed an agreement with the government and slaughterhouses amending a 2012 accord allowing ritual slaughter, to better protect animal welfare while preserving the requirements of ritual slaughter.
PVV leader and opposition parliamentarian Geert Wilders, whose party won 20 of the 150 seats in parliament in March elections, continued to call for the “de-Islamization” of the country. He advocated refusing all asylum seekers and immigrants from Islamic countries, banning the burqa in all public spaces, closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Quran, and prohibiting any Islamic expression that violated public order. On November 3, Wilders called for mass protests against Islamization. He tweeted “Enough is enough. It is time to resist. Organize mass demonstrations. Reclaim our country. Fight back Islamization.”
Wilders appealed a December 2016 court conviction for inciting discrimination and insulting a racial group for his remarks about Moroccans at a 2014 rally. He argued his statements were protected free speech. The appeal hearing was scheduled for 2018.
In September the Ministry of Justice and Security’s Research and Documentation Center issued a report stating Salafist organizations were growing in the country and propagating intolerance toward others. In a letter submitting the report to parliament, then-Minister of Justice and Security Stef Blok and then-Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher expressed concern that Salafist doctrines triggered intimidation, incited hatred against others, and undermined democratic institutions and the rule of law. The letter, however, opposed banning Salafist organizations as contrary to freedom of religion. The ministers said they were not taking a position on what individuals believed but “on preservation of an open society.” The ministers stated national and local authorities could take actions against undesirable conduct by groups such as Salafists, especially with regard to public security, while seeking interaction and dialogue with those and other groups. In the fall the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced it was working closely with its embassies abroad to ensure transparency in the foreign funding of Salafist mosques in the country.
Government ministers, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the annual Auschwitz and Kristallnacht commemorations, regularly spoke out against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment in speeches. On February 3, then-Deputy Prime Minister Asscher stated, “We are working with the religious communities on a society in which everyone can practice his religion in freedom and safety.”
Then-Ministers Blok and Asscher met regularly with the Jewish community to discuss measures to counter anti-Semitism. The government worked with youth and relevant NGOs on several projects addressing anti-Semitism. These projects included making anti-Semitism a subject of discussion within the Turkish community; establishing a help desk to facilitate projects combating anti-Semitism; organizing roundtables with teachers to train them to deal with anti-Semitic prejudice and Holocaust denial; holding discussions with social media organizations on countering anti-Semitism among Islamic youth; promoting an interreligious dialogue primarily between Muslims and Jews; and renewing a public information campaign against discrimination and anti-Semitism.
In the spring, the government announced specific measures to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment in the update to its national action plan to counter discrimination. The plan cited a need for more Jewish and Muslim role models from business, education, and government to promote dialogue between members of those two communities. In a June 22 letter to parliament, then-Ministers Blok and Asscher said, as part of the action plan, the government was supporting community projects to strengthen interreligious dialogue between Jews and Muslims. The ministers said six cities (which they did not identify) were assessing best practices for advancing interreligious dialogue that could serve as an example for other cities.
As part of the action plan, the government consulted the Royal Netherlands Soccer Association, local authorities, police officials, the prosecutor’s office, and soccer clubs, on ways to counter anti-Semitic chanting, salutes, and other behavior directed against religious groups during soccer matches. Participants agreed on measures to prosecute offenders or ban them from stadiums. The Anne Frank Foundation, an NGO, organized government-sponsored projects, such as the “Fan Coach” project to counter anti-Semitic chanting by educating soccer fans on why their actions were anti-Semitic, and the “Fair Play” project to promote discussion on discrimination, including religious discrimination.
To combat anti-Muslim discrimination, the national action plan focused on enhancing the readiness of the Muslim community to report incidents, reinforcing the resilience of Muslim organizations, and improving local cooperation between the Muslim community and local authorities. As part of this effort, authorities conducted regional meetings in which representatives of local governments, police, antidiscrimination bureaus, and Muslim communities discussed ways to improve collaboration.
In June the leader of the SGP, Kees van der Staaij, and the Israeli Ambassador filed complaints with the police against The Hague City Council member Abdoe Khoulani of the Islamist Party of Unity, after he characterized Israeli students visiting parliament as “Zionist terrorists” and “future child murderers.” Reacting to Van der Staaij’s complaint, Khoulani called him “a spokesman of Zionism, hypocrite to the bone, Islamophobic, Christian Zionist.” On November 8, the prosecutor’s office in The Hague announced it would not prosecute Khoulani because it concluded the statements did not constitute a criminal offense.
The government continued to require asylum seekers seeking to obtain a residence permit to sign a statement of participation in civic integration. The statement informed immigrants of their rights and obligations and of fundamental values, including freedom of religion.
According to the NGO Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), Jewish community leaders stated the school curriculum lacked sufficient coverage of the Holocaust. On March 21, Deputy Minister for Education Sander Dekker spoke at a conference underscoring the importance of Holocaust education. He viewed schools as a safe place for children to hear “the right story,” because “we see that they [students] are taught the wrong facts and ideas in other places.” Dekker stated it could be difficult for teachers to discuss the Holocaust, especially at schools with a high percentage of minorities.
The government continued to require imams and other spiritual leaders recruited from Islamic countries to complete an integration course before preaching religion in the country. This requirement did not apply to approximately 140 Turkish imams appointed by that country’s religious affairs directorate. The government also sponsored leadership courses, with the declared intention of facilitating imam training in the Dutch language free of foreign interference.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary Paragraph: The government and NGOs reported hundreds of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents in 2016, the most recent year for which figures were available. Most consisted of verbal or written harassment or insults, threats, or vandalism, and several involved violence. An EU survey found 30 percent of Muslims in the country said they had experienced religious discrimination during the previous five years, and that Muslims’ feeling of attachment to the country was the second lowest among 15 European countries surveyed. Groups regularly staged protests against Islamic institutions, and internet sites described Muslims as threats. Police registered 26 incidents of anti-Semitic chants at soccer matches in 2016, and CIDI reported use of “Jew” as a term of insult was common. There were incidents of vandalism during the year against Jewish and Muslim targets. CIDI reported 21 incidents of vandalism against Jewish sites in 2016; a report by an Amsterdam academic cited 72 attacks or threats against mosques in the same year.
There were reports of violence, threats, discrimination, verbal abuse, and vandalism against Muslims and Jews. Agencies collecting data on such incidents stated many occurrences went unreported. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The police registered 352 incidents, including harassment, verbal abuse, and vandalism against Muslims in 2016, compared with 439 in the previous year. Antidiscrimination boards registered 250 incidents in 2016, 10 more than in 2015. The Complaints Bureau for Discrimination on the Internet (MDI), an NGO, and the government’s internet discrimination hotline (MIND) cumulatively registered 251 inflammatory statements against Muslims in 2016, compared with 472 in 2015.
The police registered 335 anti-Semitic incidents in 2016, compared with 428 incidents in 2015. Of these, 198 incidents concerned verbal harassment or insults. Many involved use of the epithet “Jew,” as a general insult.
CIDI reported 109 anti-Semitic incidents in 2016, compared with 126 in the previous year. According to CIDI, persons who were recognizable as Jewish because of dress or outward appearance, for instance wearing a yarmulke, were sometimes targets of direct confrontations. Incidents included three physical assaults in 2016. In one incident, a janitor of Moroccan origin got into a fight with a colleague, deriding his Jewish origin. CIDI registered fewer incidents (10) of bullying and verbal harassment of Jewish students because of their religion in and around schools, but an increase in total cases of verbal abuse incidents (25) and incidents in public and traditional media (four). CIDI registered fewer hate emails (seven), which it said some analysts attributed, not to a decline in hate speech on the internet, but to a shift towards more hate speech on social media. There were 21 incidents of vandalism, according to CIDI.
The NIHR reported receiving 24 complaints in 2016 about religious discrimination in the workplace.
In June the nonprofit Verwey Jonker Institute published the results of its government-commissioned research into which factors determine positive or negative perceptions of Muslims. The goal of the research was to help authorities determine how to design policies to redress anti-Muslim discrimination. The institute surveyed 3,790 youths aged 12-23 and 2,020 older adults. It found more negative views of Muslims among boys and young men (33 percent) than among girls and young women (15 percent). The most negative views of Muslims were among less-educated male youths (35 percent), many of whom had little to no contact with Muslims, often basing their opinions on media reports of Muslim crimes and Muslim cultural views towards women and others. According to the institute, these youths often viewed Muslims as a threat to national culture or the economy, and/or feared Muslims wanted to rule the country. Most of these youths, however, disapproved of physical actions against Muslims.
A September 21 survey by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights reported 72 percent of the nation’s Muslims believed religious or ethnic discrimination was widespread in the country. Thirty percent of Muslims stated they had experienced discrimination because of their religion over the previous five years. Muslims’ feeling of attachment to the country (3.4 on a five-point scale) was the second lowest of the 15 EU countries surveyed. Research by the SCP from December 2016 found 60 percent of ethnic Turks and Moroccans, the two largest ethnic minorities, reported feeling connected with the country. Among ethnic Turkish and Moroccan youths, the percentage was significantly lower, with only 44 percent and 52 percent, respectively, reporting feeling connected with the country.
The PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) and Identitair Verzet (Identity Resistance) movements regularly staged protests against Islamic institutions. For example, on September 4, two activists displayed a banner in front of a new secondary Islamic school in Amsterdam saying, “those who sow Islam harvest the Sharia,” and on September 2, activists displayed banners at a building site of a new mosque in Venlo with texts such as “No mosque in our neighborhood” and “No Jihad in our street.” On September 1, six PEGIDA members protested the installation of a Muslim mayor in the town of Arnhem, stating they feared it would result in the Islamization of the provincial capital.
On January 12, the Amsterdam District Court convicted four men for offending and discriminating against Jews. They had participated in a 2016 demonstration in Amsterdam organized by the Netherlands People’s Party, carrying neo-Nazi banners and wearing anti-Semitic nose stickers. The court fined them 600 to 800 euros ($720 to $960) and sentenced them to 40-60 hours of community service.
CIDI called for more specific measures to stop anti-Semitic chanting during soccer matches. In 2016, the police registered 26 such incidents in and around the soccer field.
CIDI also expressed concern about the use of “Jew” as a general term of insult in the public sphere. For example, individuals often called police officers, in particular, “Jew.”
MDI reported 64 instances of anti-Semitic language on the internet in 2016 (7 percent of the total number of incidents of intolerance on the internet), compared with 46 incidents in 2015 (also 7 percent of the total.) MDI concluded two thirds of the expressions were not punishable under the law.
On August 24, The Hague District Court ruled that the suspension of a civil servant, Yasmina Haifi, at the Ministry of Justice and Security in 2014 for tweeting “ISIS is a premeditated plan by Zionists” was too severe a punishment, as the employee was exercising her right to free speech. The court decreed a written reprimand would have sufficed. Haifi remained employed at the Ministry of Justice in a different capacity.
Internet blogs PowNed News and GeenStijl conducted discussions on the role of Muslims and Islam in society, in which the sites described Muslims as cultural and political threats as well as sources of hatred.
In late April MIND received several complaints that the Altrechts.com website published a list of alleged “public enemies,” including citizens with a migrant background, and “Dutch Jews,” who were described as “alien organisms.” CIDI filed a complaint with police and demanded the list be removed as soon as possible. The internet service provider took the website offline, and police initiated an investigation. A government spokesperson said, “The cabinet regards the list’s publication as repugnant.”
Organizers disinvited hip-hop group Broederliefde from performing at the May 5 Liberation Day festival because a video surfaced in which a member of the group, rapper Emms, shouted anti-Semitic slogans such as “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,” during a soccer match.
In April city workers in Amsterdam removed and relocated a small plaque placed near the entrance to a residential house commemorating a Holocaust victim who had lived there. A couple living in the house sued the city to have the plaque removed altogether, saying it placed an emotional burden on them and attracted visitors, compromising their right to privacy. After public protests, the couple dropped their suit. They said the plaque reminded them too much of their deceased child, but they valued the memory of all Holocaust victims.
On December 9, police arrested a former asylum seeker, waving a Palestinian flag and a piece of wood, after he smashed several windows of a kosher restaurant in Amsterdam. In response, parliamentarians from the Liberal and Christina Union parties dined at the restaurant in a show of support.
On Liberation Day, May 5, the apartment of a Jewish woman in Apeldoorn was vandalized when the Star of David and the word “whore” were scratched on her front door.
On February 20, individuals defaced a mosque in the town of Waalwijk with obscene graffiti. Around the same time, several mosques received threatening letters with swastikas and calling Islam “a false and devilish religion.”
CIDI reported 21 incidents of vandalism in 2016. Incidents included destruction of property, such as a mezuzah, or the writing of anti-Semitic graffiti on walls, such as “Jew=Israel=Nazi,” on May 7 in Bilthoven; “Hamas, all Jews to the gas,” on May 25 in a village in North Holland Province; and “Jews should burn,” on March 25 in The Hague.
In March Ineke van der Valk, a University of Amsterdam professor, published The Third Monitor on Muslim Discrimination, which included a survey of threats, vandalism, and other acts against mosques. The report cited 72 incidents in 2016, the highest number since it began monitoring in 2005.
In Amsterdam, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups and a number of NGOs, including the Council of Churches, Turkish Islamic Cultural Federation, and Humanist Alliance, established the Security Pact Against Discrimination, an organization to combat anti-Muslim and other forms of discrimination.
On March 4, approximately 300 Muslims and non-Muslims gathered at the Al Kabir Mosque in Amsterdam to show support for Muslims and to counter “hateful stories” about Muslims. “Politicians, stop saying that the Netherlands is threatened by Islam,” said Adbou Menebhi of the NGO Collective against Islamophobia.
CIDI continued to conduct programs to counter prejudice against Jews and other minorities in schools. CIDI again invited 25 teachers to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem for a seminar on how to teach students about the Holocaust, especially in the face of prejudices by students toward the Jewish community. CIDI also led workshops for police and prosecutors at the police academy to help them recognize anti-Semitism.
The Liberal Jewish Community of Amsterdam continued with its program of reaching out to youth in the “Get to Know Your Neighbors” project, which invited students into its synagogue to introduce them to a temple and explain Jewish practices.
Multiple groups continued with existing initiatives to bring Muslims and Jews together. For example, the Salaam-Shalom NGO in Amsterdam through its “Mo&Moos” (Mohammed and Moshe) program and SPIOR (the umbrella organization of Islamic organizations in the Rotterdam region), in Rotterdam again brought together young Muslim and Jewish professionals to encourage leadership on interfaith issues. The NGO INS Platform continued to operate a website where citizens could meet “ordinary” Muslims in an effort to overcome prejudice. In Amstelveen, the Jewish-Muslim Alliance Amstelland (a collaboration between Jewish and Muslim groups and local authorities to advance understanding between Jews and Muslims), Mo&Moos, the Jewish group Bendigamos, and local political parties organized meetings to discuss safety, discrimination against Jews and Muslims, religion, and education.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy emphasized in conversations with government officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice and Security, and Social Affairs, the national police, and parliamentarians the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and discussed how the country safeguarded religious freedom. The embassy also raised these issues with local and municipal leaders, including the mayor of Rotterdam and members of the Amsterdam City Council.
The embassy and the consulate general in Amsterdam highlighted the need for religious tolerance and interfaith understanding and discussed issues of religious integration and violent extremism in outreach to youth, academics, and religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths and community organizations such as CIDI, SPIOR, Humanity in Action, and the Anne Frank Foundation.
For National Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the embassy organized an interfaith dinner with 16 guests from the Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Bahai communities to discuss religious freedom in the country. Guests praised the country as a historically tolerant society that had welcomed various faiths for centuries, but they noted an undercurrent of prejudice and discrimination in an increasingly secular society. Also in January the Consul General in Amsterdam hosted a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration, where guests, including individuals from various backgrounds and faiths, discussed integration, religious tolerance, and countering discrimination. The Consul General hosted the mayor of a city in the U.S. south to discuss violent extremism and religious tolerance with Muslim and Jewish community leaders from Amsterdam.
Representatives from the embassy and consulate general met with a wide range of religious leaders, including the Liberal Jewish, Orthodox Jewish, Christian, Bahai, evangelical Christian, and Muslim communities throughout the year to highlight U.S. support for religious freedom. They attended iftars and a seder organized by the Liberal Jewish Community. Discussions at the iftars and seder involved Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders on their perceptions of religious freedom in the country. Refugees also attended these events and participated in discussions on integration and religious tolerance. The embassy met with religious leaders at mosques in Leiden, The Hague, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam and discussed the freedom to practice religion, religious tolerance, and diversity in the country. The embassy toured the Orthodox synagogue of The Hague and its neighboring school to discuss ways the embassy and the synagogue could cooperate to promote religious tolerance. Embassy officials visited several Christian and evangelical churches whose congregants came from a refugee background to discuss issues pertaining to integration and religious freedom.
The constitution provides for religious freedom, including the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. In May the media reported that a little-known blasphemy law was still in effect. It has not been applied since 1922, and some observers said it was anomalous in light of legislation that is more recent. An opposition party attempt to repeal the law was defeated by the governing coalition that, although it was itself in favor of repeal, preferred any changes to go through an ongoing review committee. In April a long-running dispute over the teaching of religious education in schools reached the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Advocates for secular education complained the Ministry of Education and the government-funded Human Rights Commission (HRC) supported a proreligious – and specifically pro-evangelical Christian – bias by lax enforcement of laws and regulations. A decision was not expected until at least April 2018, due to a backlog of cases at the tribunal.
Jewish and Muslim leaders reported anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents. The HRC received 69 complaints of discrimination based on religious belief for 2016-17, 16 percent fewer than the previous year. The HRC, government officials, and community leaders denounced these incidents. In April after media reports of anti-Semitic posters appearing on a college campus, the New Zealand Jewish Council President said anti-Semitism was increasing, particularly online. In September the media and national Muslim groups condemned a University of Waikato academic’s criticisms of religious observance in the workplace on a public social media forum. The university condemned all discriminatory language and said it would investigate. In February an attacker verbally and physically assaulted a group of headscarf-wearing Muslim women in Huntly. Police apprehended the attacker, who pleaded guilty to assault and expressed remorse for her actions.
The Ambassador and embassy and consulate general officers continued to meet with the government and representatives of all major religious groups throughout the country to discuss religious freedom and the role of religion in society. In August the Consul General hosted an interfaith event in Auckland and followed up with a grant to a local Islamic Center for its interfaith community work.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 4.5 million (July 2017 estimate). According to 2013 census data, of those responding regarding religious affiliation, 12.6 percent are Roman Catholic, 11.8 percent are Anglican, 8.5 percent Presbyterian, 15 percent other Christian denominations (including Maori syncretic religions), 2.1 percent Hindu, 1.5 percent Buddhist, 1.2 percent Muslim, and 0.2 percent Jewish. Since 2006, the number of Muslims and Hindus has increased by 28 and 40 percent, respectively. More than 90 additional religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. The number of persons stating they had no religious affiliation increased from 34 percent to 42 percent, compared with the 2006 data; 4.4 percent of the respondents to the census question on religion stated they objected to the question.
Indigenous Maori make up approximately 15 percent of the country’s population. According to 2013 census data, of those Maori responding regarding religious affiliation, 11.2 percent are Catholic, 10.8 percent are Anglican, and 8.9 percent belong to syncretic Maori Christian groups such as Ratana and Ringatu. 46 percent stated no religious affiliation, while 6.5 percent did not respond regarding religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution, comprised of several basic laws, states that religious expression is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” According to the law, religious practices may not breach the peace.
The government does not require the licensing or registration of religious groups; however, if a religious group desires to collect money for any charitable purpose, including the advancement of its religion, and obtain tax benefits, it must register with the Department of Internal Affairs as a charitable trust. The registration must provide the rules of the organization showing it is a nonprofit organization and a list of officers free from conflict of interest who will not put their own interests above the organization. There is no fee for this registration.
The law provides that “teaching in every state [public] primary school must, while the school is open, be entirely of a secular character.” A public primary school, however, may close for up to one hour a week up to a total of 20 hours a year to devote to religious instruction or religious observance, to be conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board of trustees. If a public primary school provides religious instruction or observes religious customs, it must allow students to opt out. Religious instruction or observance, if provided, usually takes place outside normal school hours. Public secondary schools may provide limited religious instruction and observances within certain parameters that ensure it does not discriminate against anyone who does not share that belief.
Citizens may file complaints of unlawful discrimination, including on the basis of religious belief, to the government-funded HRC. The HRC’s mandate includes assuring equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, protecting the right to safety for religious individuals and communities, promoting freedom of religious expression and reasonable accommodation for religious groups, and promoting religious tolerance in education. In the event a complaint is not resolved satisfactorily with the assistance of HRC mediation, the complainant may proceed to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. The tribunal has the authority to issue restraining orders, award monetary damages, or declare a breach of the Human Rights Act, which is reported to parliament. Conduct prohibited by the Human Rights Act (e.g., workplace discrimination) may also be prosecuted under other applicable laws. In addition to the HRC dispute resolution mechanism, a complainant may initiate proceedings in the court system.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The HRC intervened in a number of cases, including proceedings related to the teaching of religious instruction in schools. During the year, the HRC also published the “A-Z Pre-Employment Guide to Human Rights for Employers and Employees,” a set of guidelines aimed at ensuring equality and fairness for all job applicants, regardless of a range of factors, including religion.
In May the media reported that the country had a blasphemy law on its statutes, taking government ministers and religious leaders by surprise. The law carries a prison term not exceeding one year. The press reported that it had not been applied since a failed prosecution in 1922, and it had been superseded by a more recent bill of rights. An opposition party attempt to repeal the law was defeated. The then Prime Minister, Bill English, said that although he agreed the blasphemy law should be replaced, any amendments should “go through the proper process” of an ongoing review committee examining criminal legislation, which would give the public the opportunity to express opinions on any potential change.
In April a long-running dispute over the teaching of education in schools reached the Human Rights Review Tribunal. The Secular Education Network (SEN) said that many schools ignored legal restrictions on religious instruction. Unlike previous complaints targeting individual school boards, the SEN complained of “state-sanctioned religious bias” by the Ministry of Education, lack of appropriate action from the HRC, and alleged conflicts with the Bill of Rights Act. A decision was not expected until at least April 2018, due to a backlog of new cases awaiting hearing and determination at the tribunal.
Every parliamentary session began with a Christian prayer.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The HRC received 69 complaints of unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religious belief or lack of religious belief during 2016-17, compared with 85 complaints during 2015-16.
In February a woman at a rest stop in Huntly in the rural Waikato region physically attacked and made anti-Muslim comments to a group of female Muslims wearing headscarves. The attacker was charged with common assault and pleaded guilty. She later expressed remorse, citing a history of alcohol abuse and mental illness as contributory to her actions.
In April the New Zealand Jewish Council President told reporters that anti-Semitism was increasing, with hate speech towards Jews particularly prevalent on social media. Also in April police investigated after anti-Semitic posters were placed around a college in Queenstown. Two men were later interviewed by police but not charged.
In September a University of Waikato academic used a public social media forum on workplace diversity to question the value of employees who “stop work five times per day to talk to an imaginary being.” Media and national Muslim groups criticized the comment. The university condemned discriminatory language, reiterated its commitment to diversity, and said it would investigate.
In August the pastor of a small independent Christian church in Auckland was quoted as saying he is in favor of gay marriage, “as long as a bullet goes through their head the moment they kiss.” The media and Christian leaders criticized the statement. Police sought legal advice on whether to pursue the matter but ultimately decided not to proceed, saying no criminal offense could be shown to have been committed.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officers regularly met with government officials in the HRC and Foreign Ministry to discuss interfaith action on antitrafficking and actions to encourage tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom regionally.
In July the Charge d’Affaires spoke at an embassy-funded antitrafficking-in-persons conference convened by the Anglican Church. His remarks highlighted the embassy’s support of faith communities who are among the country’s most active groups in combating trafficking, as well as the importance of encouraging tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom as safeguards against a range of human rights abuses. In September the Ambassador met with the conference convener, promising continued embassy support for the Church’s interdenominational leadership in this area.
In August the Consul General in Auckland engaged in a series of meetings with resettled refugees from diverse religious backgrounds to learn about the successes and challenges of integrating into the country. She highlighted the importance of tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom as norms in the country and vital to resettlement.
In August the Consul General in Auckland invited approximately 30 religious leaders to an interfaith event to mark World Humanitarian Day. In September she presented an Interfaith Community Grant to one of the attendees to recognize the Avondale Islamic Center for its interfaith community work with the city’s homeless. Again, her remarks stressed the importance of religious freedom and diversity.
The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. Human rights groups continued to report the federal government often failed to prevent, quell, or respond to violence affecting religious groups, particularly in the northeastern and central regions of the country. In November Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) during its annual Ashura procession. The government continued to detain the leader of the IMN, the country’s largest Shia group, and restrict the activities, free movement, and free association of its members. There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report and reports from nongovernment observers, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. A pending bill in Kaduna State would require all preachers to obtain preaching licenses or risk fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years. The draft generated widespread opposition from both Muslim and Christian groups, who cited fears that such steps would lead to broader government restrictions on religious organizations and general religious activity. Members of regional minority religious groups said some state and local government laws continued to discriminate against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and obtaining government employment.
The terrorist organization Boko Haram and its splinter organization the Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued carrying out numerous attacks, committing mass killings, and targeting civilians. Nigeria Watch estimated activities by Boko Haram and ISIS-WA resulted in the deaths of 1,794 persons during the year, including members of the two groups, a decrease from the 2,900 deaths recorded in 2016. According to media reports, in September members of Boko Haram killed Chief Imam Ustaz Goni Bukar Tabare and four people in Magumeri, Borno State.
There were incidents of killings and other violence which observers stated were motivated in part by religion, although they said there were other contributing factors, including ethnicity, corruption, criminality, and conflict over grazing rights. In Kaduna State clashes between mainly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and mainly Muslim Fulani herders in January, February, and July resulted in the deaths of dozens of persons. In June ethnic Mambilla tribesmen in Taraba State attacked dozens of Fulani settlements, resulting in the deaths of dozens of individuals. In September Fulani herdsmen attacked villages in Plateau state, killing 19 persons.
Embassy officials met with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, state governors, National Assembly leaders, and other senior federal and state government officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance, and encouraged them to address interreligious violence and take timely legal action against perpetrators of violence. In meetings with leaders of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and Jama’atu Nasril Islam, the national Islamic umbrella organization, to discuss religious freedom, embassy officers affirmed U.S. support for efforts to combat Boko Haram and ISIS-WA and reviewed efforts to improve relations between Christians and Muslims throughout the country. In April the embassy sponsored a conference that brought together farmers and pastoralists from 16 states and discussed triggers of violence, including religious triggers.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 190.6 million (July 2017 estimate). A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated the population to be 49.3 percent Christian and 48.8 percent Muslim, while the remaining 2 percent belong to other or no religions. Many individuals combine indigenous beliefs and practices with Islam or Christianity. A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identified as Sunni and 12 percent as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “Just a Muslim” (42 percent). Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi groups, including Tijaniyah and Qadiriyyah. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi Muslims. Christian groups include evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other groups include Jews, Bahais, and individuals who do not follow any religion.
The Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim northern states. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri, also reside in the north, and Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the central part of the country and in the southwestern states, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group, whose members include both Muslims and Christians, predominates. In the southeastern states, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where the Ogoni and Ijaw ethnic groups predominate, Christians form a substantial majority, and a very small minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the central and southern regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership on the basis of religion or with names that have a religious connotation.
The constitution provides for state-level courts based on common or customary law systems, which have operated in the region for centuries. It specifically recognizes sharia courts of appeal in any states that require it, with jurisdiction over civil proceedings such as marriage, inheritance, and other family matters, where all the parties are Muslims. Sharia courts hear criminal cases in 12 northern states. State laws on sharia criminal courts vary, but at least one state, Zamfara, requires that criminal cases in which all litigants are Muslim be heard in sharia courts. According to state laws, sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including hudood offenses (serious criminal offenses with punishments prescribed in the Quran) and prescribe punishments, such as caning, amputation, and death by stoning. State laws dictate non-Muslims have the option to try their cases in sharia courts if involved in civil or criminal disputes with Muslims. Common law courts hear the cases of non-Muslims and Muslims (in states where they have the option) who choose not to use sharia courts. Sharia courts do not have the authority to compel participation by non-Muslims. Aggrieved parties may appeal sharia court judgments to three levels of sharia appellate courts. According to the constitution, decisions by the state sharia courts of appeal (the highest level of the sharia courts) theoretically can be appealed to the Federal Court of Appeal and then to the Supreme Court, although none have been.
Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, distribute licenses to imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
In order to build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($56).
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution states schools may not require students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place maintained wholly by that community.
Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools of registered religious groups. A Katsina State law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: In November Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three members of the IMN during its annual Ashura procession. The government continued to detain Sheikh Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, leader of the IMN, the largest Shia Muslim group in the country, despite a court order that he be released by January 15. There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. Some Christian groups reported a lack of protection by government authorities for churches and Christian communities, especially in the central and northern regions. They reported discrimination in acquiring land permits to build churches and in admission to universities in the north. Muslims living in predominantly Christian states reported discrimination by state governments against such practices as women wearing the hijab. There were continued conflicts between migrant ethnic groups, known as settlers, who were mainly Muslim, and longstanding residents or indigenes, who were mainly Christian, which the groups accused the federal government of ignoring. Farmer-herder violence remained a form of the indigene-settler conflict, since herders were generally not seen as indigenous to the land by farmers. The differences between the indigenes and settlers were frequently religious as well as ethnic and economic. State governments often granted preferential treatment, for example in access to education and jobs, to indigenes over settlers.
According to international reports, on November 5, Kano State police fired tear gas and bullets, killing three IMN members during the group’s annual Ashura procession. Police arrested 10 members. The police spokesperson stated the IMN ignored instructions from police not to hold the procession.
The government stated publicly that Sheikh Zakzaky, leader of the IMN and a prominent Shia cleric, would remain in what it said was “protective custody” pending appeal of the December 2016 decision of Federal High Court in Abuja that the government must release him. At year’s end, Zakzaky remained in prison. The court also ruled the government must provide him with a house and pay him and his wife restitution of 25 million naira ($69,600) by January 15; at year’s end, the court’s order had yet to be followed.
There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead. Dozens of IMN members were still being held since December 2015, charged with the death of the soldier. In August Acting President Osinbajo announced the creation of a Presidential Investigative Panel that committed to transparently and credibly investigating human rights abuses committed by the military. On August 17, the IMN publicly stated it would boycott the panel because it doubted the panel’s sincerity. Outside human rights observers also expressed concern over lack of transparency and rigor of the panel. At year’s end, the panel’s findings were not yet available.
According to local media reports, the 23rd Armored Brigade of the Nigerian Army in Yola, Adamawa State, began an investigation into the disruption of an Assemblies of God church service in March by men in military uniforms but without nametags. Media reported the church had been affected by a leadership crisis, and a clergy member representing a rival faction in the leadership struggle reportedly invited the soldiers to enter the church and remove the presiding pastor. An army spokesperson stated that the army sent no personnel to the church and would investigate whether the attackers were in fact soldiers.
Both Muslim and Christian groups said there was a lack of just handling of their mutual disputes and inadequate protection by federal, state, and local authorities, especially in central regions, where there were longstanding, violent disputes between Hausa and Fulani Muslims and Christian ethnic groups. In disputes between primarily Christian farmers and Muslim herders, herders stated they did not receive justice when their members were killed or their cattle stolen by the farming community, which they said caused them to carry out retaliatory attacks. Farmers stated security forces did not intervene when their villages were being attacked by herdsmen.
A pending bill in Kaduna State would require all preachers to obtain preaching licenses or risk fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years. The bill was introduced in 2016 in the state legislature and remained pending at year’s end. Deputy Governor of Kaduna State Barnabas Bala said the bill was proposed to protect the state from religious extremism and hate speech. The bill would also restrict playing religious recordings at certain times and places as well as prohibit “abusive” religious speech, which it did not define further. The draft bill generated widespread opposition from both Muslim and Christian groups, who cited fears that such steps would lead to broader government restrictions on religious organizations and general religious activity.
The media regularly reported on claims by Christian leaders and organizations that northern leaders, backed by the federal government, were engaged in an effort to Islamize the country. In September Caritas Nigeria stated a bill to regulate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) would give the federal government authority to regulate churches, which are registered as incorporated trustees and thus fall under the category of NGO, and thereby provide the government authority to restrict the activity of churches and promote Islam. The National Assembly member who introduced the bill responded that the bill’s intent was to ensure transparency and accountability in the way NGOs collected and used funds, and he said the bill would not affect mosques or churches. Also in September, CAN reported that the federal government’s proposal to issue Sukuk bonds, an Islamic financial certificate, was in violation of the country’s secular constitution and an attempt to Islamize the country. The minister of information responded that the Sukuk bond issuance was an attempt at financial inclusiveness, and the difference between a Sukuk bond and other bonds was that Sukuk bonds paid no interest.
In December BBC and other media reported that Amasa Firdaus, a law graduate from Ilorin University, was denied admission to the “call to bar” ceremony because she wore a hijab to the ceremony in what her law school said was violation of its dress code.
Christian groups reported authorities in northern states continued to deny building permits to minority religious communities for the construction of new places of worship, expansion, and renovation of existing facilities, or reconstruction of buildings that had been demolished. Christian religious leaders in Adamawa complained that Christians in Yola, Adamawa State, could not obtain permits to purchase land for churches. They said that Christians built the churches anyway, but remained vulnerable when governments decided to demolish them, such as what occurred in Jigawa State. In January the Jigawa State government demolished churches belonging to the Redeemed Christian Church of God and the Lord Chosen God in the state capital, Dutse. The state government said the churches were built illegally and the churches had been given three notices to stop development. CAN said the churches did not receive a response from the government for their land permit application. In Ekiti State in April, the state government was reportedly prepared to demolish a mosque in the state capital, Ado Ekiti. After protests, the governor and Muslim leaders in the state were able to reach an agreement, and the government allowed the mosque to remain, despite not having a permit.
The Hisbah continued to arrest street beggars and prostitutes, and destroy confiscated bottles of alcohol. There were no reports of Christians being forced to use sharia courts.
Christian and Muslim groups continued to report that individual administrators of government-run universities and technical schools in several states refused to admit certain individuals or delayed the issuance of their degrees and licenses because of religion or ethnicity. For example, in Borno State, Christian religious leaders said it is very difficult for Christians to be admitted into certain schools at the University of Maiduguri, especially medicine and engineering, where Muslims make up over 90 percent of the student body. They also stated that Christianity was not offered for the religious studies courses in many public schools in Maiduguri and northern Borno, only Islam. Muslim leaders in Jos, Plateau State, complained that local governments in Plateau discriminated against Muslim residents regarding land purchases, admittance to universities, and access to government jobs. According to Christian and Muslim groups and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the issue was connected to the country’s indigene-settler conflict, whereby state governments granted benefits, such as access to government services, to ethnic groups considered to be indigenous to a particular state and distinguished them from ethnic groups considered to be settlers, even if their families had lived in the state for generations. In certain states, especially in the Middle Belt, the divide between Christian indigenes and Muslim settlers was religious as well as ethnic and economic.
In February the Kwara State government hosted an international conference on security and peaceful coexistence, which included Muslim and Christian religious leaders. During his remarks, the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar, the spiritual leader of Muslims in Nigeria, said “God did not make a mistake when he created us as Nigerians and put us together. We must understand that and all of us who profess to be Christians or Muslims have a guide which is either the Quran or Bible. In these two major religions there is nowhere where killing of innocent people is allowed.” In July more than 480 participants, including the Army Special Task Force, local government officials, and Christian and Muslim community leaders, met in Kafanchan to discuss establishing peace in the area and address grievances of victims of the communal violence. In January the governments of Nasarawa and Benue States worked together to enact a peace agreement between predominantly Muslim herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in Agatu, Benue State, after the January 2016 attack on the Christian community by herdsmen left more than 300 farmers dead.
According to press reports, in April Senate President Bukola Saraki stated: “….whatever laws we pass here, will be respectful to the religious beliefs of our people. We will not do anything that will in anyway go against that.”
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
The U.S.-designated terrorist organization Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016, one pledging allegiance to ISIS and calling itself the Islamic State of West Africa (ISIS-WA), headed by Abu Musab al Barnawi, and another headed by Abubakar Shekau and retaining the traditional Boko Haram name, the Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da’awati wal-Jihad (JASDJ). Most residents and government officials referred to both groups collectively as Boko Haram.
Boko Haram and ISIS-WA continued to attack population centers and security personnel in the states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe. Vulnerable populations, notably those perceived as disagreeing with the groups’ political or religious beliefs or those perceived as interfering with their access to resources, were targeted by the groups. There were multiple reports of Boko Haram killing scores of unarmed civilians. On November 21, Boko Haram blew up a mosque in Mubi, Adamawa State, resulting in the deaths of 50 worshippers.
While Boko Haram no longer controlled as much territory as it once did, the two insurgencies maintained the ability to stage forces in rural areas and launched attacks against civilian and military targets across the Northeast. On November 25, ISIS-WA militants launched an attack on Magumeri town in Magumeri local government area of Borno State, but security forces were able to repel them. From these areas of influence, the groups were still capable of carrying out complex attacks on military positions, and they deployed large numbers of roadside improvised explosive devices. According to estimates from NGO Nigeria Watch, which did not appear to differentiate between Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, 1,794 persons, including Boko Haram members, died as a result of the group’s activities during the year, compared with 2,900 killed in 2016. The Adamawa State chapter of the country’s Muslim Council reported that Boko Haram killed more than 5,247 Muslims since 2013 in Adamawa State. According to reports, Boko Haram killed more than 500 Catholics in Borno State since the insurgency began.
Approximately half of the students abducted by Boko Haram from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in 2014 remained in captivity. The government successfully negotiated the release of 82 of the kidnapped students in May, in addition to the 21 students released in October 2016. According to media reports, in September members of Boko Haram killed Chief Imam Ustaz Goni Bukar Tabare and four other individuals in Magumeri, Borno State. CAN reported more than 900 churches were destroyed by Boko Haram in the northeast since the insurgency began.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: There were incidents of killings and other forms of violence between members of different religious groups. Many killings occurred between farmers and herders in the central Middle Belt region, where farmers are predominantly Christian and from various ethnic groups, and herders are predominantly Fulani Muslims. This violence included religious differences as a factor, according to scholars and other experts, but also involved ethnicity, politics, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources as a result of population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from other forms of violence and criminality occurring in the north. Participants at an April conference identified 13 triggers to farmer-herder conflicts and offered recommendations for peace. Among these triggers of violence was incitement by religious leaders and inaccurate reporting by media, which tended to divide religious communities. Among the solutions identified was to increase interfaith dialogue and initiate sensitization programs. Media reported on claims by Christian groups that northern leaders were engaged in an agenda to Islamize the country. For example, the National Christian Elders Forum issued a communique in July warning of jihad and “brazen” attempts at Islamizing the country. At a CAN-sponsored meeting of Christian leaders in November, participants issued a resolution calling for the National Assembly to withdraw the country from the Organization of Islamic Countries and other Islamic organizations.
On December 22, gunmen suspected of being Fulani herdsmen opened fire on a congregation, killing four and injuring 10 in Nindem, Kaduna State. A report from the Fulani community in southern Kaduna, however, said the attack in Nindem was not perpetrated by Fulani, but was possibly a conflict within the Nindem community. On December 24, a suspected Fulani herdsman attacked a village, Ungwan Mailafiya, in Jema’a Local Government Area and killed six persons. The same Fulani community source said the attack in Ungwan Mailafiya may have been carried out by a Fulani man whose son was killed in the village by local persons. He said authorities were still looking for the man.
On January 21, unknown gunmen opened fire on a Fulani settlement in Kaura Local Government Area of southern Kaduna, killing a pastoralist, 13-year old Yahaya Musa. In retaliation, on February 20 Fulani herdsmen attacked and killed 31 individuals in villages in the same area. In another attack later that day, suspected Fulani herdsmen attacked Zunuruk village in the same area, but were repelled by local residents, resulting in the death of some of the attackers. On February 21, a clash broke out between ethnic Hausa (predominantly Muslim) and Kanikon residents of Kafanchan, the largest city in southern Kaduna, when both groups went to claim dead bodies at the morgue, resulting in a number of deaths, including of two policemen. Some Kanikon residents reportedly assumed the Hausa residents came to claim the bodies of the attackers who were killed in the previous day’s violence. On February 22, police deployed a team of special forces to the troubled area.
According to media reports, on April 15, 12 worshippers died and many more were injured in Asso village in Kaduna state when Fulani herdsmen opened fire on an Easter Vigil service. Media said the attackers boasted about disrupting the Easter celebration.
From June 17-20, ethnic Mambilla residents of the Mambilla Plateau of Taraba State attacked dozens of Fulani settlements throughout the plateau, killing dozens of Fulanis and hundreds of cattle. On June 21, Acting President Osinbajo sent in troops to restore order. Thousands of Fulani residents of the Mambilla Plateau fled into neighboring Cameroon to seek refuge. On July 4, CAN and the Muslim Council of Nigeria brought leaders of the two communities together in a reconciliation summit, but the Fulani leaders walked out and vowed not to engage in reconciliation until those involved in the attacks were brought to justice.
From July 15-17, ethnic Fulani herdsmen and Kadara local residents clashed in Kajuru in Kaduna State, resulting in the deaths of 27 Fulani and six Kadara individuals. Media reports said the clash was the result of an incident days before when Kadara youths killed a Fulani boy who was considered to be a bandit engaged in criminal activities in the area. Fulani youths then reportedly in revenge killed six Kadara youths who were allegedly involved in the initial killing. Immediately after, Kadara youths attacked several Fulani settlements, burning tents and killing approximately 17 Fulanis. Security officials arrived to restore calm soon after, but when they departed, Kadara youths attacked other Fulani settlements and killed an estimated 10 persons. Acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered additional security reinforcements to the area.
On September 8, Fulani herdsmen attacked villages in Bassa, Plateau State, killing 19 ethnic Irigwe residents, who are mainly Christian, and injuring five. The Plateau State commissioner of police said the attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Fulani boy on August 3. President Muhammadu Buhari condemned the attack, and the government sent a military task force to provide security to the affected community. On September 11, military personnel repelled another attack by Fulani gunmen, killing five. On November 20, ethnic Bachama local residents, who are predominantly Christian, killed more than 50 predominantly Fulani pastoralists in Numan Local Government Area of Adamawa State. The victims were women and children as the attack was carried out while the men were either in town or grazing cattle. The attack was in retaliation for the killing of a Bachama farmer by an unknown gunman, whom local residents suspected of being a Fulani herdsman.
In July a female suicide bomber killed eight individuals and wounded 18 before morning prayer at a mosque in Maiduguri. In January authorities thwarted a suicide bombing near a mosque in Maiduguri when, according to reports, a civilian self-defense force member stopped the bomber from reaching the mosque. Both died in the ensuing explosion.
In June traditional religious practitioners, known as masquerades, attacked a mosque in Moba Local Government Area of Ekiti State, injuring five worshippers, including the imam. The masquerades warned the Muslims against conducting their prayer service while the traditionalists were engaged in their festival, called Egungun.
A Lagos-based NGO, Muslim Rights Concern, said Muslim female students were not allowed to wear the hijab at Adeleke University in Osun State and Afe Babalola University in Ekiti State, both private universities.
According to international reports, in Kaduna State members of the IMN visited three churches to celebrate Christmas with Christians. The IMN advocated for religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence during the visits.
Many religious leaders publicly supported tolerance and interfaith cooperation to resolve conflicts. In January the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue hosted a two-day conference on inclusive and sustainable interreligious dialogue. At the conference, the Sultan of Sokoto condemned what he said was increased hate preaching in the country.
In January religious and political leaders conducted a peace and reconciliation mission to southern Kaduna in an effort to stem the violence between mainly Christian farmers and mostly Muslim herders. The delegation included former Head of State General Abdulsalami Abubakar, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Bishop Matthew Kukah, and Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar. General Abubakar said there is no religion that preaches violence, and criminals must be brought to justice to ensure peace.
In January 100 Christian and Muslim religious leaders came together to found the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace (IDFP), a forum of Christian and Muslim representatives to address emerging interfaith issues, primarily in the troubled areas of Kaduna, Plateau, Yobe, Taraba, Borno and Adamawa States. The religious leaders selected Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar and Chairman of CAN Samson Ayokunle to head the IDFP. Its board of trustees includes eminent religious and traditional rulers from throughout the country.
On national hijab day on February 1, a coalition of women’s groups held a press conference in Alausa, in which the women discussed wearing of the hijab as their inalienable constitutional right that must always be protected by the government through laws.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy staff and visiting U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. In February the Ambassador met with the minister of foreign affairs to express U.S. support for efforts to strengthen religious freedom and combat violent extremism, especially in the northeast. In March the Ambassador met with the Governor of Plateau State to discuss his efforts to foster peace and build trust between Muslim and Christian communities after years of intense ethnoreligious conflicts. In August a U.S. embassy official hosted a meeting for officials from the ministries of agriculture and interior, the national police, military, and the Senate and House of Representatives to discuss recommendations to reduce farmer-herder violence in the country. In October the Ambassador met with the Governor of Kano State to discuss efforts to combat violent extremism.
In January the embassy hosted a roundtable discussion with Muslim and Christian religious leaders to reiterate U.S. support for religious freedom and encourage greater interfaith coordination between leaders of the two faiths in order to strengthen unity in the country. In February the Ambassador met with the president of CAN to encourage continued efforts at interfaith dialogue between the Christian and Muslim communities. In April the embassy sponsored a farmer-herder conference that brought together farmers and pastoralists at the community level from 16 states, who discussed triggers of violence, including religious triggers. In August the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials held a roundtable discussion with religious leaders, including members of CAN and the Jama’atu Nasril Islam, the Islamic umbrella association, to assure U.S. support for interfaith efforts aimed at resolving tensions between religious communities.
In November the Deputy Secretary of State met with Muslim and Christian religious leaders to express U.S. support for interfaith cooperation and encourage greater efforts.
The U.S. Consul General in Lagos continued to discuss religious tolerance and interfaith relationship building with a wide range of religious leaders.
The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice religious rites as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, it is a criminal offense to “defame” any faith. Proselytizing in public is illegal. Hassan Al-Basham, who had been sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2016 for blasphemy and disturbing religious values, arising out of his comments on social media, remained in prison at year’s end. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Non-Muslim groups reported they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. The MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts.
The Protestant-run interfaith group Al-Amana Center and the MERA continued to host programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam. In September Muscat’s College of Sharia Studies invited a delegation of European students of religion to study Islam and tour the country. Social media condemned a Sunni cleric who described southern Oman as a “Sunni land” in a July video.
In January the Ambassador met with the minister of endowments and religious affairs to discuss government protection of religious minorities. At various times throughout the year, embassy officers met with government officials to discuss the expansion of the country’s public campaign to counter violent extremism related to religion, and to encourage the government to continue to support religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In April the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia visited the country and subsequently authored an article about religious tolerance to be published in Al-Tafahum(Understanding), a government-run magazine on religious topics.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.6 million (July 2017 estimate). Citizens constitute 55 percent of the population. The percentage of citizens who are Ibadhi Muslims (Ibadhi Islam is the historically dominant religious group in the country and distinct from Shia and Sunni Islam) is estimated at 45 percent, according to many sources, and 75 percent, according to government estimates. Academic sources estimate Shia Muslims compose approximately 5 percent of citizens and live mainly in the capital area and along the northern coast, while another 5 percent are Hindus and Christians, mainly extended families of naturalized citizens of South Asian origin. According to academic sources, the remainder of the citizen population is Sunni Muslim.
Academic sources state the majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia. Noncitizen religious groups include Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Bahais, and Christians. Christians are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah and include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and states that sharia is the basis for legislation. It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion. According to the Basic Law, the sultan must be a Muslim.
The law prohibits a father who converts from Islam from retaining paternal rights over his children. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.
It is a criminal offense to “defame” any faith. The law provides for a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment for inciting religious or sectarian strife. The law prescribes a maximum three-year prison sentence and fine of 500 Omani Rials ($1,300) for anyone who “publicly blasphemes God or His prophets,” commits an affront to religious groups by spoken or written word, or breaches the peace of a lawful religious gathering. Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is also a crime, with a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 Omani Rials ($2,600).
All religious organizations must register with the government. The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for ministerial approval. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by the MERA. New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from the MERA before it can register. Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor. For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, Al-Amana Center (an interdenominational Christian organization that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar Al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors. The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders. The MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.
All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with the MERA. The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must follow government-approved sermons. Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.
The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the sultan for the purpose of collective worship.
The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government tolerates private proselytizing within legally registered houses of worship and “Islamic propagation centers.”
The law states the government must approve construction and/or leasing of buildings by religious groups. In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 mile) from existing mosques.
Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction. The classes take a historical perspective in comparing the evolution of Islamic religious thinking, and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another. Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.
Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code. The law states Shia Muslims may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts, and retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition. The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.
Citizens may sue the government for violations of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there are no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.
Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion. Other official identity documents do not do so.
Foreigners on tourist visas may not preach, teach, or lead worship. Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to the MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member’s entry.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The primary issue for religious groups continued to be opaque processes and unclear guidelines. While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for the registration of a new religious group, the MERA reportedly considered the group’s size, theology, belief system, and availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration, and reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim. Observers said the precise process remained vague, although there were reports of the MERA consulting with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group. According to the MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) had reportedly not received approval for registration from the MERA because it had not identified a sponsor in the Christian community, but reported its representatives had met with the MERA and were working toward a solution.
The MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. Imams were required to preach sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters the government distributed monthly, with outlines of acceptable topics along with standardized, approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams. Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring. The grand mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country and who is appointed by the government, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside of the designated government parameters. All religious figures requesting visas to the country must be approved by the MERA. The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders are privately funded. The government provided land for all religious sites in the country.
According to NGO sources based outside of the country, Hassan Al-Basham, a former diplomat who had been sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2016 for blasphemy and criticizing the sultan, remained in prison at year’s end.
Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups experienced no interference from the government in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations. Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship. Space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.
Consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups needed to obtain approval from the MERA before publishing texts within the country or disseminating religious publications outside their membership. The government also continued to require religious groups to notify the MERA before importing religious materials and submit a copy to the MERA. The ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval. Sources said non-Muslims were often able to import literature without scrutiny.
Although the Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation, in practice the civil code continued to have precedence over sharia, consistent with the replacement of sharia courts by civil courts in 1999 with passage of the Judicial Authority Law. Under this law, the judicial outcomes reached under sharia jurisprudence could not contradict civil statutes.
The government, through the MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum, an annual periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths. During the year, Al-Tafahumfocused on jurisprudence – articles included one juxtaposing Islamic and Kantian principles, while another discussed Sufism’s role in civil law.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Conversion from Islam was reportedly viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.
The interfaith Al-Amana Center, run by a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs with a goal of interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims. It hosted immersion courses in conjunction with the MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations. The center also worked closely with the MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.
In July a video of a Sunni cleric describing Dhofar, a region in the southern part of the country, as a “Sunni country” was widely shared. Social media users largely condemned the cleric for being divisive and seeking to undermine the government, and they demanded government intervention. In August the cleric issued a video apology, encouraging persons to respect the authority of the government.
The Anti-Defamation League reported that a cartoon with anti-Semitic imagery was published on December 17 in the Al-Watannewspaper. According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, on July 9, Al-Watan published an anti-Semitic column that accused Jews of murdering children in order to use their blood as part of their religious rituals during Jewish holidays.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In January the Ambassador met with the minister of endowments and religious affairs to discuss the government’s protection of religious minorities. The Ambassador visited the largest Hindu temple, attended an Anglican Church service, and hosted Jewish holiday services at his residence.
Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its outreach efforts promoting religious tolerance, and discussed its efforts to counter violent extremism related to religion. Embassy officers also raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religion compounds and encouraged the MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship. Embassy officers met with minority religious groups and supported efforts to promote interfaith understanding across all religious groups. In April the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia visited the country and subsequently authored an article about religious tolerance, to be published in Al-Tafahum (Understanding), a government-run religious periodical.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution also states, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, whose punishment ranges from life in prison to the death sentence for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 50 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 17 of whom had received death sentences. According to data provided by civil society organizations (CSOs), police registered at least 10 new blasphemy cases against 17 individuals. CSOs reported lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. In April a mob shot and beat to death Mashal Khan, a student at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), following an accusation of blasphemy later deemed by investigators to be false, which prompted widespread condemnation in the country. Ahmadiyya Muslim Community leaders and human rights organizations continued to express concerns about the government’s targeting of Ahmadis for blasphemy, and Ahmadis continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights. On October 2, the president signed into law a bill that changed the electoral oath affirming belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam to a “declaration” and abolished separate voter lists for Ahmadis, sparking weeks of protest. In response, the government attributed the change in the oath to “clerical error,” and parliament reversed the provisions. Throughout the year, government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. Members of religious minority communities continued to raise concerns regarding the government’s inconsistency in safeguarding minority rights, and official discrimination against religious minorities persisted. CSOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and police often failed to arrest perpetrators of such abuses.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, staged attacks targeting Christians, Ahmadi Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. On February 16, a suicide bomber at the Lal Shahbaz Qalander Sufi shrine in Sehwan, Sindh, killed at least 88 persons and injured more than 200 who were gathered for a ritual. The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) later claimed responsibility. In January, March, and June, terrorist groups targeted markets in the Shia majority city of Parachinar, Kurram Agency, Federally Administered Tribal Area, killing at least 115 persons and injuring nearly 400. On December 17, suicide bombers killed nine and injured nearly 60 worshippers at a church in Quetta, Balochistan; ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. The government continued to implement the National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups. Civil society groups, however, expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities
Throughout the year, unidentified attackers targeted and killed Shia, Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks believed to be religiously motivated; the attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group increased during the year. In five separate incidents, unidentified assailants shot and killed 15 members of the Hazara Shia community. Assailants killed at least seven members of the Ahmadi community in multiple incidents that appeared to be targeted attacks. There were numerous reports of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam, including forced conversions of young girls; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. There also continued to be reports of attacks on the holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of religious minorities.
Senior officials from the U.S. Department of State, including the Ambassador, the Special Advisor on Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss the need to combat sectarian violence, to ensure the protection of religious minorities, and to limit the misuse of provisions of blasphemy law. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote dialogue on interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with madrassah board leaders and members of the National Counterterrorism Authority to discuss plans for curriculum reform in the public and madrassah education systems. They also met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the Office of the Prime Minister to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The Department of State publicly condemned terrorist attacks throughout the year, including the February attack on the Lal Shahbaz Qalander shrine; attacks in the Shia majority city of Parachinar; the October attack on the Jhal Magsi shrine in Balochistan; and the December bombing of the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta. On December 22, 2017, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 204.9 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a national census conducted in 1998, 95 percent of the population is Muslim (75 percent of the Muslim population is listed officially as Sunni and 25 percent as Shia). Per government figures, the remaining 5 percent includes Ahmadiyya Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Bahais, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalasha, Kihals, and Jains.
Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. According to 2014 media accounts, although there are 2.9 million non-Muslims registered with the National Database and Registration Authority; media estimates of the actual number exceed 3.5 million. Religious community representatives estimate minority religious groups constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population, approximately six to 10 million citizens.
According to the 2014 government registration documents cited by the press, there are approximately 1.4 million Hindus, 1.3 million Christians, 126,000 Ahmadis, 34,000 Bahais, 6,000 Sikhs, and 4,000 Parsis. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadiyya Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” A 1984 amendment to the penal code restricted the rights of members of the Ahmadiyya community to propogate their faith.
According to the constitution, every citizen also shall have the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death sentence for “defiling Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment.
The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad … the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Muhammad … ” It also states “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Bahai, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”
According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis are not Muslims and may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violation of these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine.
The penal code criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
A 2015 constitutional amendment allows military courts to try civilians for terrorism, sectarian violence, and other charges; this authority was renewed in January for an additional two years. The government may also use special civilian terrorism courts to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.
The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.
The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax on the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims and distributes the funds to Sunni mosques, madrassahs, and charities.
The constitution mandates the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.
The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam, or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.
The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.
The constitution states no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.
The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs, and the students may have no other option. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. Private schools are free to teach or not teach religious studies.
By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. The law requires all madrassahs to register with one of five wafaqs (independent boards) or directly with the government, to account for their sources of financing, and to accept foreign students only with valid student visas, a background check, and the consent of their governments.
The constitution states “all existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from pre-partition British legislation.
The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the court the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution empowers the court to review criminal cases relating to certain crimes, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The court exercises “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) in such cases in lower courts, a power which applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters which affect them or violate their rights if they so choose. Decisions of the court may be appealed to the Supreme Court.
The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council, as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”
In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. In March the government enacted legislation codifying the legal mechanisms to register Hindu marriages and to prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages under the law, a move which proponents state could help reduce the frequency of forced marriages and conversions of Hindus. The law allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism.
The government considers the marriage of a non-Muslim woman dissolved by the government if she converts to Islam, although a non-Muslim man may convert and his marriage remains recognized. Children born to a non-Muslim couple are considered illegitimate and ineligible for inheritance if their mother converts to Islam. The only way to legitimize the marriage and the children is for the husband also to convert to Islam. The children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert to another religious group are considered illegitimate, and by law the government may take custody of the children.
The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights, an independent government-funded agency, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation on human rights violations; it has quasi-judicial powers and can refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority.
According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified.
The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces; however, students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation.
The government designates religious affiliation on passports and requests religious information in national identity card applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim.
The constitution requires the president and prime minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires that elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam.
There are reserved seats for religious minority members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-seat National Assembly has 10 seats for religious minorities. The 104-seat Senate has four reserved seats for religious minorities, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in KP; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected by the minority constituencies they represent.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men is given greater weight than that of women; second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the president and prime minister be Muslims.
Summary paragraph: Civil society organizations continued to voice concern about the application of the country’s blasphemy laws. According to civil society reports, there were at least 50 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 17 of whom had received death sentences. According to data provided by CSOs, police registered at least 10 new blasphemy cases against 17 individuals. There were at least two minors imprisoned for blasphemy in Punjab Province. Civil society groups said the blasphemy laws disproportionately impacted members of religious minority communities. The Supreme Court acquitted two persons charged with blasphemy during the year; a third case was closed due to the death of the accused while awaiting trial, while other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. A high-profile government campaign against blasphemy on social media resulted in several indictments and legislation codifying the criminalization of online blasphemy. A Supreme Court hearing for the appeal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, remained on indefinite hold since October 2016. Several sources reported the continued practice of initiating blasphemy complaints against neighbors, peers, or business associates to intimidate them or to settle personal grievances, and said there were instances in which government entities such as the police and courts were complicit in this practice. Legal observers said authorities took steps to protect some individuals from unfounded accusations of blasphemy, although lower courts continued to fail to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Despite an August directive from the Islamabad High Court, the parliament took no action to amend the penal code to make the penalties for false accusations of blasphemy commensurate with those for committing blasphemy. According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, the targeting and harassment of Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy and other purported violations of law persisted. In October the president signed into law a bill that changed the electoral oath affirming belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam to a “declaration” and abolished separate voter lists for Ahmadis, sparking an uproar and weeks of protests by supporters of cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan political party, which said the change in the electoral oath was tantamount to blasphemy. In October and November, parliament passed legislation reversing both changes. Some government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. The government continued to prosecute counterterrorism actions under the NAP, which included an explicit goal of countering sectarian hate speech and extremism. Civil society groups expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and police failed to arrest perpetrators of such abuses. NGOs and media outlets, however, reported police intervention helped to prevent religiously based violence on some occasions. Members of religious minority communities stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding minority rights, and official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyya Muslims persisted. A bill passed by the Sindh Assembly in November 2016 criminalizing forced conversions stalled when the governor declined to ratify it, disappointing religious minority activists.
In April a mob attacked, shot, and beat university student Mashal Khan to death on the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, following an accusation of blasphemy. According to university administrator statements, police who reported to the scene were unable to control the mob because there were so many students involved. A subsequent police investigation found that a group at the university had manufactured the blasphemy allegation against Khan due to his activism on campus. Members of the public and government officials, including the prime minister, condemned the killing. On September 19, an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) indicted 57 individuals, including university employees, for their roles in the killing. The trial was ongoing at year’s end.
In January according to media reports, five secular social media activists who had criticized the government disappeared from cities around the country, triggering a public outcry against the government, which was widely believed to be responsible for the abductions. While the activists were missing, a number of Muslim clerics launched a social media campaign labeling the bloggers as blasphemers deserving of death. Four of the five activists reappeared several weeks later. In October one of the bloggers publicly stated he had been tortured by a state intelligence agency during his disappearance. As of year’s end, the whereabouts and fate of the fifth blogger, Samar Abbas, remained unknown. On December 22, the Federal Investigation Agency told the Islamabad High Court that it had found no evidence the bloggers had committed blasphemy.
According to press reports, in October Majlis Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen, a Shia political organization, launched a protest campaign in Karachi to highlight the issue of Shia activists who had been unlawfully detained or “disappeared” by authorities in recent years. Shia representatives had previously reported the government targeted Shia activists under the pretense of law enforcement actions. The Sindh chief minister denied the allegations.
According to CSOs, Indrias Masih, a Christian accused along with 41 others of lynching two Muslim men, died of gastrointestinal tuberculosis in August in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore. Some organizations said prison authorities neglected Masih’s health due to his status as a minority member. An ATC indicted Masih and the other 41 on charges of murder and terrorism in September 2016. The lynching allegedly occurred after terrorists bombed two Christian churches in March 2015. The trial was ongoing at year’s end.
According to data provided by CSOs, police registered new cases against at least 17 individuals under blasphemy laws during the year, compared with 18 new cases in 2016. There were continued reports of individuals initiating blasphemy complaints against neighbors, peers, or business associates to settle personal disputes or to intimidate vulnerable persons. While the law requires a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint can be filed, human rights activists said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. According to religious organizations and human rights groups, religious minorities continued to be disproportionately accused of blasphemy relative to their small percentage of the population. CSOs also stated police continued not to file charges against many individuals who made false blasphemy accusations, and if charges were filed, courts most often acquitted those accused.
On June 11, an ATC in Bahawalpur, Punjab, sentenced Taimoor Raza, a Shia Muslim, to death after he was convicted of posting blasphemous material on social media. The verdict represented the first time courts had convicted an individual for blasphemy stemming from a social media posting. The appeals process was ongoing at year’s end.
On September 14, a court in Gujrat, Punjab, sentenced Nadeem James, a Christian man, to death after he was convicted of sending blasphemous content via WhatsApp. James appealed the verdict to the Lahore High Court, and the case was pending at year’s end.
On October 12, a court in Sheikhupura, Punjab, sentenced three Ahmadis to death for blasphemy based on an incident that occurred in 2014. According to representatives of the Ahmadiyya community, the acts of blasphemy allegedly committed by the three involved their removal of posters that advocated the murder of Ahmadis with impunity due to their alleged apostasy.
In May a court in Rawalpindi sentenced Zafar Bhatti, a Christian, to life in prison for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages in 2012. Bhatti’s lawyer said he planned to appeal the case to the Lahore High Court.
In January an ATC in Lahore acquitted 115 individuals charged with burning more than 125 Christian homes in Joseph Colony in 2013, following a blasphemy allegation against a member of the Christian community. According to press reports, the courts cited a lack of evidence in the acquittal. At year’s end, no one had been convicted for the incident. The Christian whose alleged blasphemy sparked the attack remained on death row following his 2014 conviction.
In May media reported police in Hub, Balochistan, arrested Prakash Kumar, a Hindu, for sharing allegedly blasphemous material on social media. Police refused to hand Kumar over to a mob that subsequently gathered outside the station. In the violence that followed, a minor was killed and three police officers were injured. Kumar’s case was ongoing at year’s end.
The Supreme Court’s indefinite postponement of hearings regarding the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010, continued. Authorities arrested Bibi in June 2009 after a group of Muslim women with whom she was arguing accused her of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. The Supreme Court indefinitely postponed Bibi’s October 2016 appeal hearing when a member of the three-judge bench assigned to the appeal unexpectedly recused himself. Prior to the judge’s recusal, clerics affiliated with some religious organizations threatened death to anyone involved in Bibi’s release. There was no subsequent hearing during the year.
In separate incidents in July and August, authorities in Punjab arrested two Christian teenagers for alleged blasphemy; the families of both boys said the accusations stemmed from interpersonal disputes. Another Christian teenager in Punjab, Nabeel (Masih) Amanat, remained in custody on blasphemy charges at year’s end; he faced up to 10 years’ imprisonment if convicted. Kasur District police arrested Amanat in September 2016 for sharing an allegedly blasphemous picture of the Kaaba in Mecca on Facebook.
On May 31, a court in Punjab sentenced two Ahmadis to three years’ imprisonment for publishing an Ahmaddiya publication banned by the province in 2014. Ahmadi representatives said a court order had allowed them to keep publishing, but the Punjab Counter-Terrorism Division raided the publication’s offices in December 2016, arresting four individuals. Ahmadi representatives stated those arrested were tortured while in police custody. An appeal against the judgment was pending with the Lahore High Court at year’s end.
In March authorities in Lahore charged two Ahmadis with blasphemy for preaching their faith. A court rejected their request for bail, and at year’s end they remained in prison awaiting trial.
Courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal, after the accused had spent years in prison. On February 27, the Supreme Court overturned a Balochistan High Court verdict of life imprisonment due to lack of evidence and exonerated Khuda Bakhsh, a man accused of burning a Quran in Naseerabad, Balochistan, in 2012. Bakhsh had been imprisoned for five years prior to the Supreme Court ruling. On June 7, the Supreme Court acquitted another individual convicted of burning a Quran based on lack of evidence. The Supreme Court verdict noted several inconsistencies and deficiencies in the original conviction, which stemmed from a 2006 allegation. On December 29, the Supreme Court, citing procedural irregularities related to evidence, overturned the life sentence of Mohammad Mansha for blasphemy after he had served nine years in prison. Mansha was arrested in 2008 after the imam of a mosque in Bahawalnagar, Punjab, told authorities Mansha had desecrated a copy of the Quran.
According to media reports, individuals convicted in well-publicized blasphemy cases from previous years, including Sawan Masih, Shafqat Emmanuel, Shagufta Kausar, Sajjad Masih Gill, and Liaquat Ali, remained in jail and continued to await action on their appeals.
Authorities charged 77 Ahmadis in 10 separate religion-related cases during the year, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders. As of the end of the year, nine Ahmadis remained in prison on religion-related charges, including 80-year-old Abdul Shakoor, who was arrested by the Punjab Counter-Terrorism Division in December 2015 for selling Ahmadiyya religious books. In 2016 an ATC sentenced Shakoor to five years’ imprisonment for propagating the Ahmadiyya Muslim faith, and to an additional three years under the Anti-Terrorism Act for stirring up “religious hatred” and “sectarianism,” with sentences to run concurrently. In August a court overturned the blasphemy conviction of Ahmadi Qamar Ahmad Tahir after he had spent 21 months in prison. The authorities arrested Tahir in November 2015 for allegedly ordering the burning of a Quran at the factory where he worked as a security guard. A mob subsequently burned down the factory, an Ahmadiyya mosque, and several homes belonging to Ahmadis.
In the spring the government launched a high-profile crackdown on blasphemy on social media. In a March court order stemming from the blasphemy case against the five bloggers abducted in January, Islamabad High Court Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui directed the government to block websites containing blasphemous material. In his order, Siddiqui called blasphemers “the biggest terrorists” and warned that if the government did not take action against them, “the patience of the followers of Holy Prophet (Peace be Upon Him) may run out of control.” The following week, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called blasphemy an “unpardonable sin” and ordered authorities to apprehend and prosecute those who posted blasphemous material online. In April then-Minister of Interior Chaudhry Nisar said authorities had blocked 152 Facebook pages and put eight suspects on the country’s exit-control list. On May 10, millions of individuals received text messages from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) warning them that uploading or sharing blasphemous content on social media was a punishable offense under the law. Human rights activists decried the public awareness campaign, arguing that it would encourage more mob attacks on alleged blasphemers. In September, at the behest of the Federal Investigation Agency, an ATC reportedly indicted four individuals for posting blasphemous content online. In October the PTA reported to parliament it had “taken action” against 188 websites and blocked 3,025 websites for containing blasphemous material. In November the media reported the PTA had created an interagency committee tasked with monitoring and blocking blasphemous content online. Human rights activists expressed concern the government would use this initiative as a pretext to suppress views on the internet that differed from those of the government, including on religious issues.
In May the newspaper DAWN said that 41 of the 64 groups banned by the National Counter-Terrorism Authority for involvement in terrorism were openly using Facebook to recruit and train followers, including sectarian groups responsible for attacks on members of religious minority communities.
According to civil society and media reports, there were cases in which government mediation prevented intercommunal mob violence. In September mediation by CSOs and government officials, including a federal minister, diffused tensions over an interfaith marriage in Qaidabad, Punjab. Police also intervened on several occasions to interdict mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy.
A trial in a military court continued against two men accused of murder in the June 2016 killing of Amjad Sabri, a singer of Sufi devotional music. In addition to Sabri’s killing, Mohammad Ishaq and Mohammad Asim were charged with nine other counts of terrorism.
A bill passed by the Sindh Assembly in November 2016 criminalizing forced conversions remained pending at year’s end. The bill mandates a 21-day waiting period and a minimum age of 18 for any person wishing to convert, and it establishes a minimum sentence of five years for those convicted of forcing others to convert. On January 7, after some Muslim scholars and religious parties objected to some of the bill’s clauses, Sindh’s governor declined to ratify the bill and returned it to the Sindh Assembly for review. Religious minority activists expressed disappointment the bill had stalled and said they believed it would help protect underage girls belonging to religious minorities, who were particularly vulnerable to forced conversions through abductions, rape, and forced marriages.
In the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram, religiously significant for Shia Muslims, authorities at the federal and provincial levels restricted the movement and activities of an unknown number of clerics. According to civil society and media reports, the government targeted individuals known for exacerbating sectarian tensions. Some CSOs characterized the restrictions on clerics prior to the Ashura holiday as too broad. Provincial governments deployed hundreds of thousands of police and other security personnel to protect Shia religious ceremonies across the country during the commemoration of Ashura, which observers noted was more peaceful than in previous years.
In June, in the wake of three terrorist attacks targeting markets in the Shia majority city of Parachinar, Kurram Agency, Federally Administered Tribal Area, residents protested against the government’s failure to protect them from sectarian violence. Frontier Constabulary officers fired on the protesters, killing four persons. Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa subsequently met with members of the Shia community in Parachinar, called for an inquiry into the shooting, and announced security improvements.
According to Ahmadiyya Muslim Community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Muhammad. Representatives also stated provincial authorities prevented Ahmadis from purchasing land near the community’s headquarters in Rabwah.
According to reports, the Senate Human Rights Committee continued to debate possible procedural reforms to discourage misuse of the country’s blasphemy laws, a legislative process begun in December 2016. In August the Islamabad High Court directed parliament to amend the penal code to make the penalties for false accusations of blasphemy commensurate with those for committing blasphemy. Parliament had not acted on the court’s direction as of year’s end.
Legal observers continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, which led to some convicted persons spending years in jail before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. Lower courts reportedly continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of groups labelled extremist by the government, such as the Khatm-e-Nabuwat (“Finality of the Prophethood”) group, often threatening the defendant’s attorneys, family members, and supporters. According to observers, the general refusal of lower courts to free defendants on bail or acquit them persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely in an effort to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups labeled by the government as extremist.
The government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence in television and print media, despite a promise to do so in the 2014 NAP. Some government officials made anti-Ahmadi statements and attended events that vilified the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. In January the annual Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference was held in Lahore under the leadership of, among others, Punjab Minister of Specialized Healthcare and Medical Education Khawaja Salman Rafique and Punjab Minister of Primary and Secondary Health Khawaja Imran Nazir. Speakers called on the government to “stop the support of the Qadianis [a pejorative term for Ahmadi Muslims].” Then Federal Minister of Finance Ishaq Dar also addressed the conference and promised there would be no changes to the blasphemy laws. In February at a conference of political parties organized under the auspices of the International Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nabuwat, an organization which aims to safeguard the “finality of prophethood,” several political leaders made anti-Ahmaddiya statements, including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam President Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and Raja Zafar ul Haq, the chairman of the governing Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) party. In a meeting with Muslim clerics in October, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said Ahmadis were more dangerous to Islam than any other “non-Muslim” minority.
The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. In order to seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so as non-Muslims, despite self-identifying as Muslim. On October 2, the president signed into law a bill that changed the electoral oath to a “declaration” and abolished separate voter lists for Ahmadis. The change sparked a nationwide uproar, including a roughly three week sit-in by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) political party, which is also known as Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and whose platform centers on enforcement of the blasphemy laws. The protesters said the change in the electoral oath was tantamount to blasphemy. Speaker of the National Assembly Ayaz Sadiq issued a statement attributing the change to a “clerical error,” and former Prime Minister Sharif set up a committee within the ruling PML-N to determine the individuals responsible for the change. On October 16, parliament reversed the changes to the oath, reverting back to the original wording. As demanded by the protesters, Law and Justice Minister Zahid Hamid resigned. The government also agreed to other demands, including to release the protesters who had been arrested and to make a report on its investigation into the alteration of the electoral oath; in exchange, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of the TLP, agreed not to issue a fatwah against Hamid. Some observers stated the government’s concessions to the TLP’s demands represented a surrender to extremism, and representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community expressed concern that the actions signaled an escalation in state-sanctioned persecution of their community.
On October 10, in a speech in the National Assembly, Member of the National Assembly Safdar Awan, son-in-law of former Prime Minister Sharif, called for Ahmadis to be banned from service in the military or civil service and for institutions named for Ahmadis to be renamed. The speech was carried live on government-run Pakistan Television. The military subsequently issued a statement affirming its commitment to nonsectarianism.
On November 29, the Karachi City Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning the attempt to change the electoral oath and calling for punishment of the party responsible. Jamaat-i-Islami city council member Junaid Makati, who proposed the resolution, said the attempt to change the oath was a conspiracy between the PML-N government and “Jewish elites.”
On November 24, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution demanding the government make the “finality of prophethood” a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Following the federal government’s November 25 agreement with the TLP, several hundred protesters affiliated with the TLP continued to stage a sit-in outside the Punjab Assembly to protest remarks by Punjab Law Minister Sanaullah which they said were tolerant of Ahmadis. The TLP ended its protest on December 2 after reaching an agreement with the Punjab government. While the terms of agreement were not made public, the TLP claimed the Punjab government made numerous concessions. The Punjab provincial government, however, did not confirm these claims, and observers stated there was no evidence any concessions were being implemented.
On November 30, in response to the protests, the Supreme Court issued an order that stated “there is no place in the public discourse to propagate the commission of an offense or to incite people to resort to violence. Broadcasts cannot encourage violence, extremism, militancy, or hatred.”
In December the Islamabad High Court temporarily banned television anchor Aamir Liaquat Hussain from appearing in the media for inciting hatred and violence. The court’s ruling came in response to a petition that accused Hussain of promoting religious intolerance by issuing Islamic fatwas on the air that led to incidents of sectarian violence.
The government continued efforts to enforce its previous bans on the activities of, and membership in, some religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist. The Ministry of Interior maintained a multitier schedule of groups that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed. The schedule included individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed.
The government continued to fund and facilitate Hajj travel for most Muslims, but Ahmadis were unable to participate in the Hajj, community leaders said, because of passport application requirements to list religious affiliation and denounce the Ahmadiyya prophet.
According to representatives of minority religious groups, the government continued to allow organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.
According to civil society activists and monitoring organizations, some public school textbooks continued to include derogatory statements about minority religious groups, including Ahmadi Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and Christians. Civil society leaders said the teaching of religious intolerance remained widespread, and although multiple groups had presented recommendations for the removal of discriminatory content, the federal government had not taken the initiative to support the recommended changes. Monitoring groups said textbooks used in all four provinces for grades one to 10 continued to contain religiously intolerant and biased material against Hindus, Christians, and other religious minorities. These groups reported there were initiatives by some provincial authorities to remove discriminatory material and promote tolerance through the textbooks, such as the Punjab Curriculum and Textbook Board’s effort to incorporate short stories promoting peace and harmony into Urdu textbooks, which started in 2016 and ran until March when the initiatives ended. Books published after March did not explicitly include materials derived from the effort but did include some passages added as part of the initiatives. Punjab authorities also added a separate chapter on religious minority groups to some textbooks. While private schools remained free to choose whether or not to offer religious instruction, they were reportedly under government pressure to teach Islamic studies. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools.
There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine. Increasing government supervision of madrassahs remained a component of the NAP, and there was evidence of continued government efforts to increase regulation of the sector. According to press reports, provincial authorities continued campaigns to geotag madrassahs. Press reports also indicated provincial authorities continued efforts to close madrassahs with connections to terrorism. The authorities prosecuted cases involving sectarian hate speech and restricted the movement and public sermons of some clerics accused of spreading sectarian hatred. Security analysts and madrassah reform proponents observed many madrassahs failed to register with one of five waqafs (religious endowments) or with the government, to provide to the government documentation of their sources of funding, or to accept foreign students only with valid student visas, a background check, and the consent of their governments, as required by law.
Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the federal Ministry of Law and Justice, as well as by the federal Ministry of Human Rights and its provincial counterparts. Religious minorities said they remained concerned that government action to address coerced conversions of religious minorities to Islam was inadequate.
The National Commission for Minorities, a government committee created in 2014 with Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh representatives, met sporadically to develop a national policy for minorities. Minority activists stated the commission’s lack of a regular budget allocation and lack of an independent chairperson inhibited its development.
Some human rights groups criticized the government’s commitment to the Ministry of Human Rights 2016 Action Plan for Human Rights, particularly its provisions related to religious minorities. The plan included nine provisions for the protection of the rights of minorities, among them enforcement of laws criminalizing incitement to religious hatred and protection for places of worship for minority religious groups.
Human rights activists continued to report neither the federal nor the provincial governments had made substantial progress in implementing the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision directing the government to take measures to protect members of minority religious groups.
In January the Sindh governor returned a law passed in November 2016 establishing a Minorities Commission for the province to the Provincial Assembly for further review. The law states the 11-member commission will examine government policy and laws and make recommendations to better protect the rights of minorities in Sindh. The commission would also have the inquiry powers of a civil court, including the ability to summon witnesses and receive evidence on affidavits. The draft law remained pending at year’s end.
Religious minority community leaders continued to state that the government failed to take adequate action to protect minorities from bonded labor in the brick-making and agricultural sectors, an illegal practice in which victims were disproportionately Christians and Hindus. Such families, particularly on agricultural lands in Sindh Province, often lived without basic facilities and were prevented from leaving without the permission of farm landlords. In September the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed legislation which further amended a 2016 law prohibiting the use of child labor in the brick industry. Under the amended law, the penalty for employing children was increased from up to six months’ imprisonment and a criminal fine to up to five years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees ($4,500).
Historically, Hindu and Sikh leaders had noted the legal uncertainty surrounding the process of registering marriages for their communities created difficulties for Hindu and Sikh women in obtaining inheritances, accessing health services, voting, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. The enactment of the Hindu Marriage Act in March addressed many of these problems, but media reported some Hindu community leaders expressed concern that a provision of the national bill permitting annulment of Hindu marriages could be used to legitimize forced conversions of Hindu women. Members of the Sikh community continued to report difficulties related to the registration of marriages for their community. Some local administrative bodies continued to deny Christian and Ahmadi marriage registrations; advocates called for a new law governing Christian marriages, as the existing regulation dated to 1872. On June 19, the Lahore High Court restored a section of a law on Christian divorce that General Zia ul Haq’s government had suspended in 1981, allowing the country’s Christian community an avenue to legally divorce for reasons other than adultery.
Legal experts and NGO representatives continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights assumed primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. In addition, the country’s 18th amendment to the constitution devolved certain authorities and responsibilities for the protection of human rights and rights of religious minorities to provincial governments.
Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students needed to sign on their applications for admission to university continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government maintained Ahmadis could qualify for admission as long as they did not claim to be Muslims. Ahmadiyya community leaders reported multiple Ahmadi students had been expelled from public universities after not disclosing their religious affiliation at initial admission.
Religious minority community members stated Muslim students in public schools were afforded bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit were available for religious minority students.
Most religious minority groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. While there remained a 5 percent quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal level, minority organizations said government employers did not enforce it. According to religious minority members and media reports, provincial governments in Punjab, Sindh, and KP also failed to meet such quotas for hiring of religious minorities into the civil service.
Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions. Although there were no official obstacles to advancement of minority religious group members in the military service, they said in practice non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.
Ahmadiyya leaders continued to report the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such. Ahmadiyya leaders continued to report the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of prophethood” in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis did not try to participate in the political process. On December 16, media reported police in Sialkot, Punjab, had arrested six Ahmadis for listing themselves as Muslims on their identity cards and for registering to vote as Muslims during a local 2015 election.
Religious minority leaders continued to state the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. They also stated the system effectively precluded the election of minority women, who were rarely in a position of sufficient influence with the major political parties to contend for a seat.
According to Ahmadiyya community members, authorities continued to seal or demolish Ahmadi mosques, barred construction of new mosques, and took no action to prevent attacks on mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set Ahmadi mosques on fire. In May the Lahore High Court granted bail to 37 individuals accused of participating in a December 2016 attack on an Ahmadiyya mosque in Chakwal. During the incident, one of the attackers was killed, and one of the Ahmadiyya worshippers died of a heart attack. At year’s end, 60 of the 67 attackers had been granted bail, one Ahmadi remained imprisoned on murder charges, and the mosque remained sealed. Following an attack on an Ahmadiyya procession in central Punjab in late 2016, Ahmadiyya leaders reported the community undertook no processions in 2017, on the grounds the government’s policies created conditions where Ahmadis could not safely hold processions or publicly congregate.
The government continued to deny citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, the right to travel to Israel. Representatives of the Bahai community said this policy particularly affected them because of the location of the Bahai World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – in Israel.
On December 25, Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa attended a Christmas celebration at a church in Rawalpindi and expressed appreciation for the role Christians played in the country’s public institutions and armed forces.
During an April gathering to celebrate the Hindu observance of Holi, then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the practice of forced conversions and affirmed the constitution guaranteed equal rights for members of all religious communities.
The government continued to permit non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. The government stated on its immigration website that it continued to grant visas to foreign missionaries valid from two to five years and allowed two entries into the country per year, although only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. Non-Muslim missionaries, some of whom had been working in the country for many years, however, were either denied visas, only given four-month extensions, or received no response from immigration authorities before their visas expired. Others were allowed to remain in country while appeals of their denials were pending.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
There continued to be violence and abuses committed by armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (previously referred to as Sipah-e-Sahaba), as well as abuses by individuals and groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIL-K. Data on sectarian attacks varied, as there was no standardized definition of what constituted a sectarian attack. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 231 persons were killed and 691 injured in 16 incidents of sectarian violence during the year. Civil society groups expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities and urged the government to fully implement its National Action Plan to combat terrorism, as well as the Supreme Court’s June 2014 order regarding protection for members of religious minority groups.
On February 16, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on the Sufi shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalander in Sehwan, Sindh, which killed at least 88 people and injured more than 200 during a religious activity. In November the media reported the authorities had arrested a suspect in connection with the attack.
Sectarian violent extremist groups continued to target Shia houses of worship, religious gatherings, religious leaders, and other individuals in attacks resulting in at least 112 persons killed during the year. Some organizations recorded upwards of 220 Shia killed in at least 18 sectarian incidents during the year.
Terrorist groups targeted markets three times in the Shia majority city of Parachinar, Kurram Agency, Federally Administered Tribal Agency. On January 21, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami and the TTP claimed responsibility for a bomb attack that killed 25 persons and injured 87. On March 31, a suicide attack for which Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a Sunni splinter faction of the TTP, claimed responsibility killed 25 persons and injured more than 100. On June 24, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for bomb blasts that killed 67 persons and injured more than 200.
On November 29, gunmen killed two worshippers as they exited a Shia mosque in Islamabad. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami claimed responsibility for the attack.
In another attack, claimed by ISIS-K on October 6, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the shrine of Pir Rakhyal Shah, which attracts both Sunni and Shia followers, in Jhal Magsi, Balochistan, killing 21 persons and injuring 24.
On December 17, suicide bombers killed nine and injured nearly 60 members of the Christian community in a terrorist attack on the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, Balochistan. One of the attackers blew himself up outside the church’s main hall, where hundreds of worshippers had gathered for Sunday service, and police officers providing security for the church shot and killed another attacker. This was the first attack on a church in the country claimed by ISIS-K.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Throughout the year, unidentified attackers targeted and killed Shia, Hazaras, and Ahmadis in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.
On February 26, unidentified assailants killed three members of the Shia community in Paroa, KP. Attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group increased over the past year. In at least five separate incidents, unidentified assailants targeted and killed at least 13 members of the Hazara community.
There were multiple instances of what appeared to be targeted killings of Ahmadiyya community members by unknown individuals. On March 30, gunmen killed an Ahmadi man riding on a motorbike in Nankana Sahib, Punjab; the man’s son was injured in the attack. On April 7, unidentified gunmen on a motorbike killed an Ahmadi man walking to a mosque in Lahore. On April 18, unidentified assailants robbed and killed a female Ahmadi professor from Punjab University in Lahore. On May 3, gunmen killed an Ahmadi man while he was returning home.
On October 9, gunmen killed an Ahmadi husband, wife, and their two-year-old son in their home. Police investigated the incident as a so-called honor killing allegedly carried out by the wife’s brother and his accomplices, who were angry she had married an Ahmadi man against her family’s wishes.
There were media reports of numerous incidents of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy. In April three sisters killed a Shia man near Sialkot, Punjab, whom they had accused of committing blasphemy 13 years earlier. The victim had fled the country due to the blasphemy allegations, which his family said were due to his Shia faith, but had recently returned. Also in April in Chitral, Punjab, a mob severely beat a man inside a mosque whom they said had made blasphemous remarks. The mosque’s imam, fearing for the man’s life, handed him over to the police, who filed blasphemy charges against him. In August two assailants in Tando Adam, Sindh, killed an intellectually disabled man who had been acquitted on blasphemy charges due to his condition; authorities arrested and investigated the perpetrators who confessed to killing him because he had committed blasphemy. Also in August near Wazirabad, Punjab, a mob gathered outside a police station after authorities arrested an 18-year-old Christian for allegedly burning pages of the Quran outside a shrine. Police moved the teenager to another police station and charged him with blasphemy.
In August a Muslim student in Burewala beat to death 17-year-old Sheron Masih, who was the only Christian in his grade level; Masih had complained of bullying. Police reportedly filed charges against several of the students.
Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held rallies and other events to support the doctrine of the finality of the Prophet Muhammad. The events, which were often covered by English and vernacular media, featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric, including the incitement of violence against Ahmadis. Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against members of their community, especially after the TLP protests in October and November.
The 2016 execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who was convicted of killing then-governor of Punjab Province Salman Taseer in 2011 after Taseer publicly criticized the country’s blasphemy laws, continued to elicit protests from some religious groups. In its 2015 verdict confirming Qadri’s death sentence, the Supreme Court stated criticism of the blasphemy laws was not blasphemy itself and vigilante violence was unacceptable. On January 4, police arrested 160 persons at a rally in Lahore celebrating Qadri’s assassination of Taseer. In March thousands of persons gathered at Qadri’s grave, which his family had turned into a shrine, to observe his death anniversary. Throughout the year, supporters visited the shrine to pay tribute to Qadri.
Reports continued of attempts to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam. Rights activists reported victims of forced marriage and conversion were pressured and threatened into saying publicly they had entered into the marriage of their own free will. Christian and Hindu organizations stated that girls from their communities were particularly vulnerable to forced conversions. In April according to Christian activist organizations, a 14-year-old Christian girl was abducted by a police officer, held for four months in Hafizabad, Punjab, and forcibly converted to Islam. With the assistance of civil society organizations, the family won back custody of her. A criminal case against the girl’s abductor was pending at year’s end.
According to press reports, on June 6, four armed men kidnapped at gunpoint a Hindu teenager in Mirpukhas, Sindh. On June 8, the girl’s parents led a protest demanding her return and alleging the kidnappers were receiving protection from politically-connected individuals in the locality. At year’s end, the case was ongoing, and civil society organizations believed the girl remained in the custody of her kidnappers.
Christian activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor; some advertisements for menial jobs even specified they were open only to Christian applicants.
Observers reported that some coverage in the English-language media of issues facing religious minorities had improved, but that journalists continued to face threats for covering these issues. In June Rana Tanweer, a journalist who covered minority rights issues for the newspaper Express Tribune, survived an assassination attempt when an assailant tried to run him over with a car; Tanweer escaped with a broken leg. A month earlier, according to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, Tanweer’s landlord received a call from someone who pressured him to evict Tanweer for his alleged “anti-Islam” stance. Several days later, someone spray-painted a message on Tanweer’s home that read, “Qadiani supporter Rana Tanweer is an unbeliever who deserved to be killed.”
Observers reported that Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media used inflammatory language or made inappropriate references to minorities. Throughout the year commentators on private television channels and editorials in the vernacular press stated Ahmadis were “deserving of death” and labelled the community “enemies of Pakistan” and “blasphemers.” For example, on October 3, Orya Maqbool Jaan said on his program on the private Neo TV channel that Ahmadis could be beheaded with impunity.
Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups reported they continued to be hesitant to speak in favor of religious tolerance because of the societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.
There continued to be reports of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols, which police failed to prevent. According to media reports, an unidentified assailant threw a hand grenade in a church in Quetta, Balochistan, on October 7. No congregants were injured in the attack; there were no arrests for the incident by year’s end.
In September the Pakistan Ulema Council, dominated by clerics from the Deobandi movement within Sunni Islam, issued a code of conduct for Muharram. The code of conduct specifically condemned sectarianism and urged the Sunni community to respect Shia processions around the Ashura holiday.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, consuls general, embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials met with government officials, including from the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministries of Human Rights and Law and Justice, to discuss blasphemy law reform; curriculum reform in the public and madrassah education systems; the need for better protection of members of Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other religious minority communities; pending legislation; interfaith dialogue; sectarian relations; and religious tolerance.
In August the Secretary of State raised concerns about the country’s enforcement of the blasphemy laws and the rights of members of the Ahmadiyya community in public remarks during the release of the 2016 International Religious Freedom Report.
Following the February attacks on the Lal Shahbaz Qalander shrine, the Department of State condemned the attacks during a press briefing and extended condolences to the victims and their families. In June the White House and the Department of State both condemned terrorist attacks in Quetta and the Shia majority city of Parachinar. In October the Department of State condemned the attack on the Jhal Magsi shrine in Balochistan. In December the Department of State condemned the attack on Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta.
In March the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia visited Islamabad and Karachi and met with religious minority community representatives, parliamentarians, members of the Office of the Prime Minister and the federal cabinet, and human rights attorneys. The Special Advisor highlighted concerns over attacks by violent extremists against members of religious minorities, the enforcement of blasphemy laws, and discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims.
In April the Consul General in Karachi, Sindh – the country’s most religiously diverse province – toured Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh places of worship to promote interfaith engagement. Following the tour, the Consul General held a roundtable discussion for local religious leaders to discuss interfaith dialogue and the rights of religious minorities.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers convened groups of civil society and legal experts to discuss the impact of the country’s blasphemy laws on both minority and Muslim communities and avenues for engagement by U.S. government representatives. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to end sectarian violence and protect the rights of religious minorities. They also met with leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase religious tolerance and dialogue. U.S. Department of State programs on religious freedom helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders, enhance protections for the legal rights of religious minorities, develop more pluralistic educational materials, and counter sectarianism.
On December 22, 2017, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Pakistan on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The constitution, laws, and executive decrees provide for freedom of religion and worship and prohibit discrimination based on religion. The constitution recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens, but not as the state religion. The law continued to require Muslim women, Catholic nuns, and Rastafarians to pull back their head coverings to show their ears in pictures taken by immigration officials, but civil registry and customs authorities agreed to take the photographs and conduct any body searches in private. According to a Muslim community leader, the community did not receive any complaints regarding these procedures. Public schools continued to teach Catholicism, but parents could exempt their children from religion classes. Some non-Catholic groups continued to state that the government provided preferential distribution of subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses.
The Inter-Religious Institute of Panama, an interfaith organization with a wide range of associated religious groups, expanded its membership while continuing to provide a coordination mechanism for interfaith activities and promote mutual respect and appreciation among the various religious groups. Several religious groups held interdenominational events, including a Jewish community-hosted iftar to honor the leaders of an Islamic cultural center; a Muslim-Arab community-hosted interreligious youth day camp; a joint Catholic-Jewish youth event; and an interfaith event to celebrate the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. On September 10, members of the Inter-Religious Institute announced the institute would host youths during the World Youth Day in 2019, including hosting Catholic travelers in the homes of Muslim, Bahai, Jewish, and non-Catholic Christian faiths.
Embassy officials met on several occasions with government officials and raised questions about fairness in education subsidies for religious schools and the need for equality of all religious groups before the law. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met frequently with Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Rastafarian, Bahai, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and evangelical Protestant leaders to discuss government treatment of members of religious groups and interfaith initiatives to promote tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions and treatment of members of religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.8 million (July 2017 estimate). The Ministry of Health estimates 69.7 percent of the population is Catholic and 18 percent evangelical Protestant. Episcopalian and Methodist bishops state their communities have 11,000 and 1,500 members, respectively, and the Lutheran Church states there are 1,000 Lutherans. Smaller religious groups, found primarily in Panama City or other larger urban areas, include Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais, Pentecostals, and Rastafarians. Baptists and Methodists derive their membership in large part from the African Antillean and expatriate communities.
Jewish leaders estimate their community at approximately 15,000 members, centered largely in Panama City. The Muslim community, largely comprising Arab and Pakistani-origin individuals, numbers approximately 14,000 and is centered primarily in Panama City, Colon City, and Penonome in Cocle Province, and includes smaller congregations in David in Chiriqui Province and Santiago in Veraguas Province. There are approximately 850 Rastafarians, most of whom live in Colon City and La Chorrera, Panama Oeste. Indigenous religious groups, including Ibeorgun (prevalent among the Guna community), Mama Tata and Mama Chi (prevalent among the Ngobe Bugle community), and Embera (prevalent among the Embera community), are found in their respective indigenous communities located throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious practices and provides for freedom of religion and worship, provided that “Christian morality and public order” are respected. It recognizes Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but does not designate it as the state religion. It limits the public offices religious ministers and members of religious orders may hold to those related to social assistance, education, and scientific research. It forbids the formation of political parties based on religion. The constitution prohibits discrimination toward public servants based on their religious practices or beliefs.
The constitution grants legal status to religious associations, permitting them to manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law. If groups decline to register, they are unable to apply for grants or subsidies. To register, the group must submit to the Ministry of Government (MOG) a power of attorney, charter, names of the board members (if applicable), a copy of the internal bylaws (if applicable), and a payment of four balboas ($4) for processing. Once the MOG approves the registration, the religious association must then register the MOG’s resolution in the Public Registry. Registered religious associations must apply to the Directorate of Internal Revenue of the Ministry of Economy and Finance in order to receive clearance for duty-free imports. The government may grant government properties to registered religious associations, upon approval by the Legislative Tax Committee and the cabinet. The law states income from religious activities is tax exempt as long as it is collected through such activities as church and burial services and charitable events.
The constitution requires public schools to provide instruction on Catholic teachings. Parents have the right to exempt their children from religious education. The constitution also allows for the establishment of private religious schools. It is illegal to determine enrollment of students in private schools based on religion. Students of a separate faith from their educational institution are allowed to practice their religion freely.
Immigration law grants foreign religious workers temporary missionary worker visas that must be renewed every two years, for up to a total of six years. Catholic and Orthodox Christian priests and nuns are exempt from the renewal requirement and are issued a six-year visa. Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and other religious workers are also eligible for the special, automatic six-year visa but must submit additional documentation with their applications. This discrepancy is due to an article in the constitution that allows for all religions to worship freely, with no limitation other than “respect for Christian morality.” These additional requirements include a copy of the organization’s bylaws, the MOG-issued registration certificate, and a letter from the organization’s leader in the country certifying the religious worker will be employed at its place of worship. The application fee is 250 balboas ($250) for all religious denominations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government did not consider Rastafarians a religious organization because the community had chosen not to register as a religion. Instead, the MOG issued the Rastafarian Alliance of Panama a permit to function as a nongovernmental organization. According to a Rastafarian leader, the group continued to operate under this permit without difficulties.
The government continued to rely primarily on Catholic clergy to conduct religious invocations at government events. Many official celebrations included participation of the highest-ranking officials at Catholic masses. Muslims and Jews continued to serve in senior positions in the government.
The law continued to require Muslim women, Catholic nuns, and Rastafarians to pull back their head covering to show their ears in pictures taken by immigration officials upon their arrival in the country. Civil registry and customs authorities, however, continued to allow the taking of photographs and conducting body searches in private if Rastafarians, Muslims, and other individuals wearing religious garments requested to do so. According to a Muslim community leader, the community did not receive any complaints regarding these procedures.
Catholic schools continued to represent the majority of parochial education; non-Catholic religious schools also received equal consideration of government grants. The Ministry of Education reported that in accordance with a decree mandating “fair and equitable allocation of funds to schools,” it had granted government subsidies ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 balboas ($5,000 to $50,000) to small religious and nonreligious private schools, including a Catholic school and an evangelical Protestant school. The Ministry of Education also provided a subsidy of 367,000 balboas ($367,000) to an Anglican school to cover the school’s annual teacher and administrative staff annual payroll. Another evangelical Protestant school reportedly did not receive a subsidy because it had not opened a required bank account.
The government provided 90,000 balboas ($90,000) for social programs conducted by the Catholic-run school Colegio Javier. In February the National Assembly Budget Committee approved the government’s request for additional funds to reconstruct several Catholic facilities in Herrera Province. In May the government assigned 210,359 balboas ($210,359) to build a new Catholic church in Valle Rico, Las Tablas. The funds were allocated from the budget of the Social Assistance Directorate, an office within the Ministry of the Presidency.
In January the National Assembly hosted a ceremony to celebrate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, with the Israeli Ambassador as guest speaker. The event was attended by government representatives and included prayers by the rabbis of the three Panamanian-Jewish congregations. Holocaust survivor Gerta Stern and the Catholic Archbishop of Panama both attended.
Throughout the year, the government coordinated closely with the Catholic Church on preparations for World Youth Day, which the country is scheduled to host in January 2019. Some social media commentators criticized the use of public funds for the religious event, which is cosponsored by Pope Francis and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. In August the government’s Technical Secretariat for Social Development hosted members of the Inter-Religious Institute for a private briefing on government programs and achievements related to promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Inter-Religious Institute of Panama, an interfaith committee made up of representatives of the Catholic, Episcopal, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Methodist, evangelical Protestant, and Lutheran churches, Salvation Army, Colon Islamic Congregation, the Bahai Faith, and Kol Shearith Jewish Congregation, continued to meet several times during the year. It held several joint public events with religious groups, including a celebration of the country’s entry into the World Cup, during which they raised the importance of tolerance and respect for religious diversity. The institute provided a coordination mechanism for interfaith activities and promoted mutual respect and appreciation among the various religious groups.
On May 9-12, the government hosted the Fifth International Forum by the Global Network of Religions for Children. The organization stated it chose the country as the first Latin American country to host the event due to the eight years of successful activism by the Inter-Religious Institute. Both President Juan Carlos Varela and First Lady Lorena Castillo de Varela served as guest speakers at different events held by the forum.
In June members of the National Jewish Congress (Kol Shearith Congregation) hosted the first-ever iftar in Panama City to honor the leaders of the Islamic Cultural Center of Colon. Clergy members Sheikh Mohamed El Sayyed and Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik also participated. Prior to the dinner, the Colon Arab Islamic representatives were given a space for their prayers at the synagogue.
In May the Arab School of Colon hosted a day camp for youth of all faiths, and in June youth from the Catholic St. Luke Evangelist community joined youth from the Kol Shearith Jewish in a Jewish-Catholic fraternity march.
On September 1, members of the Kol Shearith Jewish congregation, along with the Episcopal, Catholic, and Greek Orthodox communities, travelled to Cocle Province to hold an interfaith event to celebrate the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, a joint initiative of Pope Francis and Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew. Regional government representatives from the Ministry of the Environment, Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama, and Penonome mayor’s office attended.
On September 10, members of the Inter-Religious Institute announced the institute would host youths during the World Youth Day in 2019. The group stated it would foster interfaith respect and cooperation by hosting Catholic travelers in the homes of Muslims, Bahais, Jews, and non-Catholic Christians.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials engaged with the Ministry of Education and the Ombudsman’s Office to discuss government policies regarding the equal treatment of all religious groups and individuals, including those belonging to religious minorities, and to inquire about any open religious discrimination claims submitted to the government, such as fairness in education subsidies for religious schools.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with religious leaders, members of religious groups, and community organizations to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including societal perceptions and the treatment of members of religious groups. The Ambassador and embassy representatives met several times with the principal leaders of the country’s largest religious groups, including Catholic priest Manuel A. Diaz, a Catholic representative to the Inter-Religious Institute; Jewish Kol Shearith Congregation President Moises Abadi and Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik of the congregation; Episcopal Bishop Julio Murray; Colon Islamic leader Luis Ibrahim; evangelical Protestant Pastor Edwin Alvarez, leader of the largest evangelical community in the country; Nessim Bassan, President of the Hebrew National Council, which gathers the associations of the Sheveth Ahim Jewish congregation; Rabbi Aaron Laine of the Beth El Jewish congregation; and Gilberto Toro of the Rastafarian community. In May the Ambassador hosted 15 religious leaders for a roundtable discussion on freedom of religion and spoke about the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. In November the Ambassador and other embassy officials attended a Shabbat dinner hosted by the Beth El congregation Rabbi Aaron Laine and members of his community where religious freedom and other shared values were discussed.
Papua New Guinea
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion and the right to practice religion freely. In October the new speaker of parliament announced that he would implement a 2016 national court order to reinstall indigenous cultural artifacts to the parliament house. The reinstallation did not occur during the year. The previous speaker had planned to replace the artifacts with Christian symbols. The Constitutional Review Commission considered the possibility of defining Papua New Guinea as a Christian country, although it acknowledged that the constitution allows for freedom of religion. In October the new minister of religion, youth, and community development said he would introduce legislation to create provincial church councils to “bring churches closer to the government.” Most official government meetings and parliament sessions began and ended with Christian prayer. In January the chief secretary to government announced a plan to make religious education compulsory in public schools, but as of the end of the year, no action had been taken on his proposal, and religious education remained legally noncompulsory.
According to media reports, several hundred, but not all, Muslim refugees in the country refused to move to less secure facilities, and at least three were attacked by knifepoint. Since religion and refugee status are often closely linked, it was difficult to characterize many incidents as being based solely on religious identity. There continued to be reports that established churches criticized the role of new Christian and missionary groups.
Embassy officials discussed religious freedom and government funding of religious groups with the government, including with the Office of Religion. The Ambassador and other officials met with local religious leaders and U.S. citizen missionaries of many denominations. The Ambassador hosted an interfaith breakfast that convened representatives from eight religious groups and highlighted the importance of religious tolerance and cooperation.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.9 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 98 percent of citizens identified themselves as Christian. Approximately 26 percent of the population is Roman Catholic; 18 percent, Evangelical Lutheran; 13 percent, Seventh-day Adventist; 10 percent, Pentecostal; 10 percent, United Church (an offspring of the London Missionary Society, Australian Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand); 6 percent, Evangelical Alliance; 3 percent, Anglican; and 3 percent, Baptist. Other Christian groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Kwato Church, and the Salvation Army together constitute 9 percent. There are approximately 60,000 Bahais, making up less than 1 percent of the population, and 2 percent hold indigenous or other beliefs. Newer self-identified fundamentalist Christian religious groups are growing. Many citizens integrate Christian faith with indigenous beliefs and practices. The Muslim community numbers approximately 5,500 and includes approximately 2,220 local converts and 500 refugees and asylum seekers at the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre and Manus Island refugee processing center. The rest are expatriate workers primarily centered in Port Moresby. Most local converts live in Port Moresby or villages in the Highlands.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides the individual the right to “freedom of conscience, thought and religion and the practice of his religion and beliefs, including freedom to manifest and propagate his religion and beliefs” except where that practice infringes on another person’s rights or where it violates a public interest in “defence, public safety, public order, public welfare, public health, the protection of children and persons under disability, or the development of under-privileged or less advanced groups or areas.” The predominance of Christianity is recognized in the preamble of the constitution, which refers to “our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours.” There is no state religion.
Religious groups are required to register with the government in order to hold a bank account, own properties in the religious group’s name, have limited individual liability, and apply to the Internal Revenue Commission for exemption on income tax and to the Department of Treasury for exemption of import duty. In order to register, groups must provide documentation including a list of board or executive committee members and a constitution.
Foreign missionary groups are permitted to proselytize and engage in other missionary activities. Religious workers receive a three-year special exemption visa from the government. Applications for the visa require a sponsor letter from a religious group in the country, an approved work permit from the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, and 100 Kina ($32) fee, which is less than other visa categories.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In October the newly elected speaker of parliament said he would comply with a 2016 national court order to reinstall indigenous cultural artifacts that his predecessor had ordered removed from the parliament house in 2013. The reinstallation did not occur by the end of the year. The former speaker, an evangelical Christian, had removed or in many cases destroyed these artifacts, including 19 traditional masks that formed the lintel over the entrance, saying they were demonic and “ungodly images and idols.” Former Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare, who helped author the country’s constitution, lauded the new speaker’s decision to reinstall the artifacts. He told the press “this group of Christian evangelicals cannot impose their views on the freedom of thought, religion, and conscience of the rest of Papua New Guinea.” Many Christian groups stated they supported the national court decision when it was handed down in 2016.
The former speaker had also proposed reinstalling a “pillar of unity” in parliament, but with the modification of the pillar resembling a large candle, with a flame at the top and “The Word of God” inscribed in the base. As of the end of the year, the new speaker said he was still considering whether this proposal was viable and “how much taxpayer money would be needed to install it.”
The Constitutional Review Commission considered the possibility of defining Papua New Guinea as a Christian country, although it acknowledged that the constitution allows for freedom of religion. These discussions were still in the initial phases as of the end of the year, and no details were made public. Media reports said such a measure could potentially slow down or stop current growth of non-Christian religions in the country.
Parliament sessions and most official government meetings began and ended with Christian prayers.
Churches continued to operate approximately half of schools and health services in the country, and the government provided financial support for these institutions. The government subsidized their operation on a per-pupil or per-patient basis. In addition, the government continued to pay the salary and provide benefits for the majority of teachers and health staff (generally members of the civil service) who worked at these church-administered institutions, as it did for teachers and health staff of national institutions. Services were provided to the general population irrespective of their religious beliefs, and operations were not religious in nature. The education and health sectors continued to rely heavily on church-run institutions. Individual members of parliament continued to give grants of government money to religious institutions in their constituency to carry out development projects or religious activities. Nearly all of these institutions were Christian.
In April the former minister of religion, youth, and community development announced the government had allocated 20 million Kina ($6.38 million) for the Church-State Partnership Program, but as of the end of the year, the Office of Religion had not received planned funding. In 2016, the government budgeted the same amount to the program but released only 2.5 million Kina ($797,000), citing revenue shortfalls. The former minister of planning said allocations were made to churches according to how much they contributed to education in the country.
In October the new minister of religion, youth, and community development said that churches would be given more emphasis under his leadership, and that he would introduce legislation to create provincial church councils. These councils would “bring churches closer to the government.” The governor of Gulf Province also said he would create a provincial council of churches that would include the heads of mainline churches in the province. He said the council would receive 5 percent of the provincial budget to assist with education and health service delivery.
In January the chief secretary to government announced a plan to make religious education compulsory in public schools, but as of the end of the year, no action had been taken on his proposal. The Department of Education continued to set aside one hour per week for religious instruction in public schools, but such instruction remained legally noncompulsory, although almost all students attended. Representatives of Christian churches taught the lessons, and students attended the class administered by the church of their parents’ choice. Children whose parents did not wish them to attend the classes were excused. Members of non-Christian groups used family and group gatherings before and after school for religious lessons.
In June immigration authorities ordered the immediate deportation of a Catholic missionary, stating he breached his visa conditions. According to immigration authorities, he abused the conditions of his visa by engaging in sensitive landowner issues. The missionary responded that providing legal advice to landowners through the archbishop was a large component of his job, and that he was helping landowners advocate for a fair and just lease agreement with a well-known multinational company. The Catholic Church undertook legal action against the government. In August immigration authorities issued the missionary a new visa, and the Church agreed to drop legal action.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to media reports, hundreds of Muslim refugees and asylum seekers initially refused to leave the Manus Island Regional Processing Center (RPC) despite its official closure at the end of October. The men repeatedly communicated that they feared for their safety from the local community and opposed relocating to less secure facilities on Manus Island. After a three-week standoff, all refugees and asylum seekers were removed from the RPC on November 24. After restrictions on movement were eased while the RPC was open, tensions increased between its inhabitants and the local inhabitants. In July local residents attacked Sudanese, Iranian, and Afghan asylum seekers individually at knifepoint, and the victims required medical attention for stab wounds. Since religion and refugee status are often closely linked, it was difficult to characterize many incidents as being based solely on religious identity.
The Council of Churches continued its efforts at interfaith dialogue among its members. The council members included the Anglican, Gutnius Lutheran, Baptist Union, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, and United Churches and the Salvation Army, but not Seventh-day Adventists or Pentecostals. In addition, 16 church-affiliated organizations, including the Young Women’s Christian Association, participated in its activities. The council concentrated primarily on cooperation among Christian groups on social welfare projects. It also issued a press statement ahead of national parliamentary elections, asking religious leaders to speak out against election-related violence and to encourage their congregations “to safeguard our democracy.”
There were reports that established churches, either through the Council of Churches or on their own, continued to criticize new missionary movements and new Christian groups for what established churches said they perceived as the increasingly important role they played in society.
Leaders of eight religious groups stated that the various religious groups in the country were generally able to practice their faith freely without barriers. Religious leaders discussed working together to address social issues that affect congregation members such as education, health, gender equality, fragmentation of family values, and sorcery-related violence.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials discussed the issue of ensuring that diverse religious groups received public funding from the government with government officials, including those with the Office of Religion.
The Ambassador and embassy officials discussed religious tolerance, gender equality, and churches’ role as health and educational service providers in regular meetings with the Council of Churches, local religious leaders, as well as U.S. citizen missionaries of many denominations.
On October 27, International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy utilized social media to highlight support to persecuted religious minority groups around the world.
In November the Ambassador hosted an interfaith breakfast at her residence in Port Moresby and invited leaders of eight religious groups to attend, including the Bahai, Mormon, and Muslim communities. Media coverage of the event highlighted the importance of religious freedom, shared values among a range of religious groups, and the criticality of religious tolerance.
The constitution bars discrimination based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of conscience and religion, either individually or in association with others. It provides for the separation of religion and state but recognizes the historic importance of the Catholic Church. Some Catholic Church members and members of religious minorities continued to criticize the 2011 religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church. Many non-Catholic groups said, however, that they were generally pleased with the government’s revised religious freedom regulations, which reduced the government registry standards for non-Catholic entities. The changes adopted in 2016 in registration regulations stimulated more minority religious groups to register voluntarily with the Ministry of Justice’s (MOJ) Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom. Some non-Catholic groups said the removal of the prerequisite of registration in order to receive tax and visa benefits and other government services had improved their ability to practice their religion in the country.
Jewish community leaders and members stated that some individuals engaged in conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel. Muslim leaders said that when the media reported terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, some non-Muslim members of the public made negative comments about Islam, including through social media. Both Jewish and Muslim leaders also said some public and private schools and employers did not always give their members time off for religious holidays. The Inter-Religious Council of Peru, representing a broad spectrum of religious groups, continued to engage the MOJ for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including taxation exemptions (income, import, property, and sales), visas for religious workers, and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains. The council also discussed the government’s revised religious freedom regulations with religious communities.
U.S. embassy officials discussed the 2016 revised implementing regulations to the 2011 religious freedom law with government representatives and emphasized the importance of equal treatment of all religious groups under the law. Embassy officials also engaged leaders from the Catholic, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Bahai, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities to promote tolerance and respect for religious diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 31 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2007 national census reported the population as 81 percent Catholic and 13 percent Protestant (mainly evangelical Protestant). A 2014 Pew Research Center study estimated 76 percent of the population is Catholic, 17 percent Protestant, 3 percent other faiths, and 4 percent atheist or agnostic. According to the MOJ, religious groups together constituting, in no specific order, less than 3 percent of the population include Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Israelites of the New Universal Pact Baptists, Jews, Bahais, Buddhists, International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and Muslims.
According to the Israel Information Center for Latin America, 3,000 Jews reside in the country, primarily in Lima, Cusco, and Iquitos. Approximately 2,000 Muslims live in Lima and 600 in the Tacna region. Lima’s Muslim community is approximately half-Arab in origin and half local converts, while Tacna’s is mostly Pakistani. The majority of Muslims are Sunni.
Some indigenous peoples in the far eastern Amazonian jungles practice traditional faiths. Many indigenous communities, particularly Catholics in the Andean highlands, practice a syncretic faith blending Christian and pre-Columbian beliefs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars discrimination and persecution based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of religion, either individually or in association with others. It states every person has the right to privacy of religious conviction. It establishes the separation of religion and state but recognizes the Catholic Church’s role as “an important element in the historical, cultural, and moral development” of the country.
An agreement with the Holy See accords the Catholic Church institutional privileges in education, taxation, and immigration of religious workers. The law exempts Catholic Church buildings, houses, and other real estate holdings from property taxes. Other religious groups often must pay property taxes on schools and clergy residences, depending on the municipal jurisdiction and whether they have sought and received tax exemptions. The law exempts Catholic religious workers from taxes on international travel. The government also exempts all work-related earnings of Catholic priests and bishops from income taxes. By law, the military may employ only Catholic clergy as chaplains.
The revised implementing regulations to the religious freedom law the government adopted in 2016 make registration with the MOJ’s Directorate of Justice and Religious Freedom optional and voluntary. The stated purpose of the registry is to promote integrity and facilitate a relationship with the government. The revised regulations do not require government registration for a religious group to obtain institutional benefits. They allow all religious groups, registered or not, to apply for tax exemptions and worker or resident visas directly with the pertinent government institutions.
For religious entities seeking to register with the government, the regulations require at least 500 adult members. The regulations exempt all “historically established” religious groups from this requirement. The explanatory statement accompanying the regulations identifies Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, evangelical and all other Protestant churches, as well as the Jewish and Muslim communities, as examples of “historically established” religious groups. Registration is free, the process usually takes one week, and the MOJ provides assistance in completing the application forms.
According to law, all prisoners, regardless of their religious affiliation, may practice their religion and seek the ministry of someone of their same faith.
The law mandates that all schools, public and private, provide religious education through the primary and secondary levels, “without violating the freedom of conscience of the student, parents, or teachers.” The law permits only the teaching of Catholicism in public schools, and the Ministry of Education requires the presiding Catholic bishop of an area to approve the public schools’ religious education teachers. Parents may request the school principal to exempt their children from mandatory religion classes. The government may grant exemptions to secular private schools and non-Catholic religious schools from the religious education requirement. Non-Catholic children attending Catholic schools are also exempt from classes on Catholicism. The law states that schools may not academically disadvantage students seeking exemptions from Catholic education classes.
The law requires all employers to accommodate the religious days and holidays of all employees; this accommodation can include allowing an employee to use annual vacation leave for this purpose.
Foreign religious workers must apply for a visa through the Ministry of Interior’s Office of Immigration. If the religious group is registered with MOJ, the immigration office accepts this as proof the applicant group is a religious organization. If the group is unregistered with MOJ, the immigration office makes its decision on a case-by-case basis.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Some Catholic Church members and members of religious minorities continued to criticize the 2011 religious freedom law, stating it maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church and did not address the government’s unequal provision of benefits, specifically the stipends paid to certain Catholic clergy. Non-Catholic groups, however, said they were generally pleased with the revised registration regulations because they reduced the government registry standards for non-Catholic entities. By the end of the year, the government had registered 115 non-Catholic groups that had voluntarily requested registration; only Catholic groups registered in 2016. Most of the new registered groups were Protestant; however, Jewish, Muslim, Bahai, Orthodox Christian, and Jehovah’s Witnesses entities also registered. The government accepted and approved the applications from all interested religious groups. According to a Mormon community representative, the Mormon Church did not believe it was necessary to register. The representative said the Mormon Church received tax benefits and visas for its religious workers even though it had never registered.
The executive branch, through the MOJ, formally interacted with religious communities on matters of religious freedom, including the new registration process, taxation exemptions, religious worker visas, and budgetary support for religious groups. The MOJ continued to implement laws and interact regularly with the public through its Office of Catholic Affairs and Office of Interfaith Affairs for non-Catholic Religious Groups. Government engagement with religious groups included conferences and other meetings to discuss the new registration process, joint charity campaigns, and cultural events.
According to the MOJ’s Office of Catholic Affairs, the government paid stipends to the Catholic cardinal, six archbishops, and other Catholic Church officials, totaling approximately 2.6 million soles ($803,000) annually. Some Catholic clergy and laypersons employed by the Church received remuneration from the government in addition to Church stipends, including 44 active bishops, four auxiliary bishops, and some priests. These individuals represented approximately one-eighth of the Catholic clergy and pastoral agents. In addition, the government provided each Catholic diocese with a monthly institutional subsidy, based on a historic agreement with the Holy See. The Catholic Church used the funds to provide services to the poor, regardless of their religious affiliation, according to Catholic Church representatives. Similar stipends were not available to other religious groups.
Some Protestant soldiers continued to report some difficulty finding and attending non-Catholic religious services because of the absence of non-Catholic chaplains in the military.
Congress passed a resolution declaring October 31 the National Day of Evangelical Christian Churches. Members of the evangelical Christian community said they appreciated the government’s gesture.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Inter-Religious Council of Peru, an umbrella organization open to all religious groups and representing a broad spectrum of religious groups, including evangelical and other Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Mormon communities, maintained a steady dialogue among religious entities, including engaging religious communities about the impact of the government’s revised religious freedom regulations. In its regular meetings with the MOJ, the council continued to press for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including taxation exemptions (income, import duties, property, and sales), visas for religious workers, and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains.
Jewish community leaders said that some individuals engaged in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on social media. Muslim leaders said that when the media reported terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, some non-Muslim members of the public posted negative social media comments about Islam. Muslim and Jewish community members stated that public and private schools in addition to employers occasionally required their members to use accumulated leave for non-Catholic religious holidays such as Eid al-Fitr and Yom Kippur, an option in accordance with the law.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials encouraged the government to implement the religious freedom law and its implementing regulations in a manner equally fair to all religious groups. The embassy discussed implementation of the revised regulations with government officials and advocated for additional changes to promote government respect for religious diversity and the equal treatment of all religious groups under the law.
Embassy officials met with representatives of the Inter-Religious Council, academics, the Catholic Church, Protestant and evangelical Protestant groups, and the Mormon, Bahai, Jewish, and Muslim communities to discuss equal treatment of religious groups, anti-Semitism, the government’s implementation of the revised religious freedom regulations, and the voluntary registration of religious groups.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of religious profession and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of religion by law. The government continued to implement the “strategic peace roadmap,” which it said would address the aspirations of Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao. On July 17, President Rodrigo Duterte received the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) from relevant stakeholders and expressed support for congressional approval. Local authorities in Paniqui, Tarlac Province in Central Luzon considered creating an identification system for Muslims in the region suggested by Muslims. The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at the national and local level, and the Department of Education continued to promote the standardization of Arabic language and Islamic values curricula for Muslim students in private madrassahs and public schools with 10 percent or more Muslims. The president made several statements during the year critical of the Catholic Church when its leadership criticized his policies. The president also made statements toward developing a better relationship with the Catholic Church and among persons of all faiths.
In May the Maute Group (also known as Dawlah Islamiya-Lanao) and other related factions seized areas of the southern city of Marawi. These ISIS-affiliated groups carried out killings, attacks, and bombings, including against hospitals, schools, and city jails. These groups reportedly went house-to-house searching for Christians and killing them. They also burned churches and took several hostages, including a priest and staff members of a Catholic church. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against these groups.
There were instances of clan violence and societal discrimination against Muslims pursuing housing and employment opportunities, including on the basis of names and religious attire. There were frequent public statements on the internet and social media that denigrated the beliefs or practices of religious groups, particularly Muslims.
The U.S. embassy routinely discussed with government officials and nongovernmental organizations the role of the peace process in increasing space for religious diversity. The embassy supported a visiting expert who discussed methods for improving engagement between the police force and religious minorities. The Ambassador also gave remarks at representational events on the importance of the value of religious freedom and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 104.3 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2015 census conducted by the National Statistics Office, approximately 79.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic and approximately 9 percent belong to other Christian groups. These groups include internationally based denominations such as the Seventh-day Adventists, the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Episcopal Church in the Philippines, Bible Baptist Church, other Protestant churches, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons); and domestically established churches such as the Iglesia ni Cristo (Church of Christ), Philippine Independent Church (Aglipayan), Members Church of God International, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the Name Above Every Name. Approximately 6 percent of the population is Muslim according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, although the NCMF estimated that 12 percent of the total population is Muslim.
Approximately 4 percent did not report a religious affiliation or belong to other groups, such as the animistic and syncretic religions of the Lumad (indigenous tribes). The majority of Muslims are members of various ethnic minority groups and reside in Mindanao and nearby islands in the south. Although most are practitioners of Sunni Islam, a small minority of Shia Muslims live in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur on Mindanao. An increasing number of Muslims are migrating to the urban centers of Manila and Cebu.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the free exercise of religious profession and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion by law. No religious test is required for the exercise of civil or political rights. The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state. The law treats intentional attacks directed against buildings dedicated to religion as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law.
The law requires organized religious groups to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and with the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) to establish tax-exempt status. Religious groups must submit their articles of faith and bylaws for SEC registration as religious corporations. The SEC requires existing religious corporations to submit annual financial statements. The law does not specify penalties for failure to register with the SEC. To register as a nonstock, nonprofit organization, religious groups must meet the basic requirements for corporate registration with the BIR and must request tax exemption from the BIR. The basic requirements for registration include a name verification of the religious corporation, articles of incorporation and bylaws, the name of a director, list of members, and a list of financial contributors. The BIR provides tax exemptions to newly established religious corporations that are then reviewed for renewal every three years. Established religious corporations may be fined for the late filing of registrations with the BIR or for failing to submit registration datasheets and financial statements.
The government permits religious instruction in public schools with written parental consent, provided there is no cost to the government. Based on a traditional policy of promoting moral education, local public schools give religious groups the opportunity to teach moral values during school hours. Attendance is not mandatory, parents must express in writing a desire for their child to attend religious instruction for a specific denomination, and the various groups share classroom space. Students who do not attend religious instruction, whether because no class was offered in their denomination or because their parents did not express a desire, receive normal supervised class time. The government also allows groups to distribute religious literature in public schools. The law mandates that government agencies address religious issues and consult recognized experts on Filipino Muslim beliefs, as well as the history, culture, and identity of indigenous peoples, when formulating the national history curriculum.
By law, public schools must ensure the religious rights of students are protected. Muslim girls may wear the hijab and are not required to wear shorts during physical education classes.
The government recognizes sharia in all parts of the country through a presidential decree. Sharia courts are organized into five sharia districts all located in the south of the country; Muslims residing in other areas must travel to these districts to pursue an action in a sharia court. Sharia courts handle only cases relating to personal laws on family relations and property. Sharia does not apply in criminal matters and applies only to Muslims. The state court system hears cases involving Muslims and non-Muslims, and national laws apply in those cases.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In July President Duterte received a new draft of the BBL, designed to implement the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The BBL would grant additional political autonomy in majority Muslim areas. The updated BBL was drafted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and MNLF representatives. The BBL remained in the legislature as of the end of the year. In 2016, President Duterte approved the “strategic peace roadmap” with the goal of continuing the implementation of previous peace agreements with Muslim and other separatist groups in Mindanao. According to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), the roadmap aims to uphold all preexisting MNLF and MILF agreements within constitutional parameters, including the role of sharia. Observers said the government’s drive to build a roadmap towards implementation of previous peace agreements in Mindanao was not solely based on religious factors, but also on aspirations among the Muslim separatist groups to attain greater political autonomy.
The Catholic Church remained vocal against the rising number of alleged extrajudicial killings associated with the war on drugs under President Duterte. Duterte publicly denounced the Catholic Church and labeled some Church leaders as “corrupt” and “womanizers.” On several occasions, Duterte directed his disapproval toward specific priests and bishops who criticized his policies. Duterte, however, also expressed hope for pursuing an amicable relationship with the Catholic Church in the future.
Muslim officials reported that while Muslim prison detainees were allowed to engage in religious observances, Roman Catholic Mass was often broadcast by loudspeaker to both Catholic and non-Catholic prison populations.
The Philippines Council of Evangelical Churches (PCEC) stated again during the year that many Muslims viewed the congressional failure to pass the BBL as a failure of the government to expand religious freedoms for Muslims agreed upon by OPAPP and MILF negotiators. The council, however, reported that it was hopeful that an agreement could be reached in the future. The PCEC also said the Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Expression bill, which emphasizes the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex community and passed the third reading in the lower house, potentially infringed on the rights of religious communities.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns continued to monitor issues relating to religious freedom and again received no complaints or cases involving the abuse of religious freedom during the year.
The NCMF’s Bureau of Pilgrimage and Endowment continued to administer logistics for the Hajj, such as obtaining flight schedules, administering vaccines, coordinating with the Department of Foreign Affairs to process Hajj passports, filing Hajj visa applications at the Saudi Embassy, and conducting predeparture orientations for pilgrims. The NCMF reported that 5,868 Filipinos made the pilgrimage during the year, meeting the limit set by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj for pilgrims from the Philippines. The NCMF also administered the awqaf (an endowment for the upkeep of Islamic properties and institutions) and continued to oversee the establishment and maintenance of Islamic centers and other projects. Following the September 2016 bombing of a night market in Mindanao’s Davao City that left 15 persons dead, the city government discussed plans to require Muslim women to remove their hijabs and burqas upon entering malls and at other checkpoints as a security measure. The Davao City Council did not adopt this requirement, but citizens reported tightened security in public places such as malls and hotel entrances, particularly for women with Muslim headwear.
The Department of Education continued to support the Arabic Language and Islamic Values Education (ALIVE) program for Muslim students in public elementary schools with a Muslim population of 10 percent or greater. For the 2016-17 school year, 1,622 public elementary schools administered the voluntary ALIVE program for 308,071 students.
Madrassahs continued to have the option of registering with the NCMF and Department of Education, both, or neither. Registered madrassahs received government funding and produced curriculum that was subject to government oversight. There were 80 private madrassahs registered with the Department of Education, and 24 more applied for registration but had not met all requirements to receive funding. Many private madrassahs chose to remain unregistered rather than allow government oversight, according to Department of Education representatives. Some unregistered madrassahs preached radical ideologies, according to religious officials. Only registered schools could receive financial assistance from the government. The Department of Education’s Office of Madrassah Education managed local and international financial assistance to the private madrassah system. The madrassahs registered by the Department of Education followed the Standard Madrassah Curriculum and received funding for classrooms, facilities, and educators who taught the Revised Basic Education Curriculum. The overall funding for and attendance at private madrassahs increased by 10 percent from the previous year. During the year, the Department of Education provided a subsidy of 5,000 pesos ($100) per student to 12,284 private madrassah students within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and to 2,250 private madrassah students outside the ARMM.
Local authorities in Paniqui, Tarlac Province in Central Luzon, considered an identification system for Muslims in the region. A local Muslim association had initially created the system for its community. After national expressions of concern, the CHR investigated media reports about the proposal and said the initiative came from the Muslim community and that authorities did not infringe religious liberties.
NCMF officials said that anti-Muslim discrimination occurred in government offices but cited no specific examples. There were 11 Muslims in the 292-member House of Representatives. Some Muslim leaders, including an NCMF official, expressed concern with the low representation of Muslims in senior government and military positions.
The government said it continued to promote interfaith dialogue to build mutual trust and respect among various religious and cultural groups. The Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns coordinated all interreligious and intercultural concerns and initiatives within the government on behalf of the Office of the President. The task force participated in February’s World Interfaith Harmony Week and mandated all government agencies observe the week. The Philippine National Police Chaplaincy Services hosted a symposium that underscored the importance of acknowledging different religious beliefs, and attendees included the Imam Council of the Philippines and United Religious Initiatives. Furthermore, the University of the Philippines, in partnership with the NCMF, hosted an interfaith forum titled “Celebrating Women’s Rights in the Light of Islam,” which coincided with World Hijab Day. The forum highlighted the importance of mutual respect and promoted solidarity with Muslim women worldwide.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
The government attributed several killings, attacks, and kidnappings for ransom in the south of the country to the ISIS-linked Maute Group, the terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and other ISIS-related groups. The government continued sustained military, law enforcement, and counterterrorism operations against the Maute Group, ASG, and other ISIS-related groups. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
In May the Maute Group, ASG, Ansar Al-Khalifa, the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters, and an undetermined number of foreign fighters seized portions of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The group occupied and destroyed buildings, including churches, mosques, jails, schools, and private homes. These ISIS-linked groups reportedly sought out Christian residents to kill during the first days of the siege. The media reported that the militants killed nine Christians at a checkpoint, and killed at least one Christian man when he failed to recite the Shahada, a Muslim proclamation of faith. They also reportedly targeted Christians who refused to convert to Islam and Muslims who rejected violence. Media footage showed militants defacing a church and destroying religious symbols. The group took several hostages at the beginning of the siege, including a priest and more than a dozen staff members from a Catholic church. The priest escaped in September during a firefight between the military and the militants. The Marawi siege ended in October, and as of December, official government statistics estimated that 47 civilians were killed.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with clan violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as being solely based on religious identity.
Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities said that while relations among religious groups were generally amicable, there were reports of tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City. The NCMF received no formal complaints of discrimination on the grounds of Muslim religious identity during the year. The NCMF stated, however, that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country, including in education. There were reports of discrimination by students against Muslim students displaced from Marawi. The Department of Education employed several outreach initiatives to welcome these students. Internally displaced Muslims also reported discrimination in private-sector employment and housing. Other Muslims witnessed negative reactions to Muslim names or forms of dress, and said they stood out in public places. Social media comments denigrating the beliefs or practices of Muslims continued to occur in the country.
Religious representatives report increasing tensions between communities of various faiths and within subsets of the Muslim community.
Religious communities participated in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination. Efforts included training Catholic leadership on interreligious dialogue and more than 100 attendees for events within World Interfaith Harmony week in February. The PCEC served as the co-convener of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform, which aims to ensure the continuation of the peace process between the government and the National Democratic Front.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador expressed support for religious freedom and the protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths during his public engagements. U.S. embassy officials met with the NCMF and Muslim civil society groups to discuss government protection, the promotion of religious freedom, the attacks in Marawi City, radicalization, and the impact of foreign donor financing on religious education in Muslim communities. Embassy officials also met with government officials, including representatives from the Presidential Task Force on Interreligious and Intercultural Concerns, to affirm the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas. Throughout the year, embassy officials met with Muslim, Christian, and other religious leaders to discuss religious freedom issues.
On June 21, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar for Muslim and Christian guests at the University of the Philippines-Diliman. He delivered remarks on religious tolerance, the importance of interfaith service projects, and the sacrifices of Muslim Filipinos protecting non-Muslims in the wake of the Marawi crisis. The iftar emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and youth empowerment across faiths. As an example of interfaith cooperation, the Charge d’Affaires shared photographs of U.S. government exchange alumni organizing a similar iftar conducted for both Muslims and Christians displaced by the Marawi conflict. On January 16, the embassy’s Facebook page had two postings commemorating National Religious Freedom Day.
In September the embassy sponsored an American police lieutenant for a speaking tour to discuss his role in bringing law enforcement together with marginalized groups in order to address violence targeting at-risk communities. During his visit, he spoke with Muslim representatives about enhancing community-level cooperation between religious minorities and the police.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states that religion is a personal choice, and all churches and religious organizations have equal rights. An agreement with the Holy See determines relations with the Roman Catholic Church and grants it privileges not accorded to other religious groups. Statutes adopted because of agreements between the government and other churches and religious organizations determine relations with those groups. The criminal code prohibits public speech offensive to religious sentiment. The Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal that, if successful, would have led to the deregistering of the Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland. The government made a final determination on 60 communal property restitution cases involving claims by religious communities during the year, out of approximately 3,600 outstanding. The leader of the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) met with Jewish groups after they wrote to him expressing concerns over growing anti-Semitism. Parliament asked the interior minister to respond after Muslim groups wrote to the speaker of the lower house asking him to protect the Muslim minority. The interior minister ordered an investigation after Holocaust survivor groups discovered that a 1999 video of naked people laughing and playing tag in a concentration camp gas chamber had been filmed in the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp. PiS members made statements against Muslim migrants, and one party parliamentarian tweeted an anti-Semitic comment. The PiS leader denounced anti-Semitism, and President Andrzej Duda said the country had a duty to speak out about the extermination of its Jewish population by the Nazis during WWII.
According to government figures from 2016, which civil society groups said were not comprehensive, anti-Muslim incidents almost doubled to 360 compared with 2015, while anti-Semitic incidents declined by 23 percent to 160. Jewish groups reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents during the year but did not cite figures. In June German Muslim students reported harassment in Lublin, and the Muslim Cultural Center in Warsaw cancelled an open house after online threats. A Pew Research Center poll found two thirds of respondents held negative views of Muslims, and a Warsaw University study reported a rise in anti-Semitic attitudes in the country. In November some marchers chanted Nazi and anti-Semitic slogans at a nationalist Independence Day march attended by tens of thousands of persons in Warsaw. In April some participants chanted anti-Muslim slogans at a demonstration in Warsaw by several hundred supporters of a group widely described as extremist. In March a group burned an effigy of a Jewish woman in Warsaw. There were incidents of vandalism at Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant sites.
The U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials and representatives of Jewish groups to discuss the status of private and communal property restitution and anti-Semitism. The Ambassador appealed to extend the provisions of draft private property restitution legislation to cover American citizens and Holocaust victims, survivors, and their heirs. The Ambassador, other embassy staff, and visiting U.S. government delegations raised concerns with government officials that draft legislation criminalizing the attribution of Nazi Third Reich crimes to the Polish state or nation could undermine free speech and media freedom, and inhibit discussion of the Holocaust. The embassy and consulate general in Krakow engaged with Jewish and Muslim leaders on countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and sponsored events, including exchange programs, roundtable discussions, cultural events, and education grants, that promoted interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 38.5 million (July 2017 estimate). The Polish government Statistical Yearbook, which publishes the membership population for religious groups that voluntarily submit the information for publication, reports that 86 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. The next largest religious groups are the Polish Orthodox Church, which reports just over half a million members, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which reports more than 120,000 members. Other religious organizations include Lutherans, Pentecostals, the Old Catholic Mariavite Church, the Polish Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Church of Christ, Methodists, Latter-day Saints, Hare Krishnas, and Buddhists. Jewish and Muslim groups estimate their numbers to be 20,000 and 25,000, respectively, although some Jewish groups estimate their number could be as high as 40,000. Approximately 10 percent of Muslims are ethnic Tatars, a group that has been present in the country for several hundred years. A Central Statistical Office February survey reported 92.8 percent of citizens aged 16 years or older identify as Roman Catholic and 1.4 percent as belonging to other denominations, including Orthodox (0.7 percent), Jehovah’s Witnesses (0.3 percent), or other Protestant groups (0.2 percent). Just over 3 percent reported no religious identification, and less than 0.1 percent identified with non-Christian religions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religion. It states freedom of religion includes the freedom to profess or to accept a religion by personal choice as well as to manifest that religion, either individually or collectively, publicly or privately, by worshipping, praying, participating in ceremonies, performing rites, or teaching. It states freedom to express religion may be limited only by law when necessary to defend state security, public order, health, morals, or the rights of others. The constitution states “churches and other religious organizations shall have equal rights.” It stipulates the relationship between the state and churches and other religious organizations shall be based on the principle of respect for autonomy and mutual independence. The constitution specifies that relations with the Catholic Church shall be determined by an international treaty concluded with the Holy See and by statute, and relations with other churches and religious organizations by statutes adopted pursuant to agreements between representatives of these groups and the Council of Ministers.
According to the constitution, freedom of religion also includes the right to own places of worship and to provide religious services. The constitution stipulates parents have the right to ensure their children receive a moral and religious upbringing and teaching in accordance with their convictions and their own religious and philosophical beliefs. It states religious organizations may teach their faith in schools if doing so does not infringe on the religious freedom of others. The constitution acknowledges the right of national and ethnic minorities to establish institutions designed to protect religious identity. The constitution prohibits parties and other organizations whose ideologies are based on Nazism.
The criminal code outlaws public speech that offends religious sentiment. The law prescribes a fine, typically 5,000 zloty ($1,400), or up to two years in prison for violations.
Specific legislation governs the relationship of 15 religious groups with the state, outlining the structure of that relationship and procedures for communal property restitution. The 15 religious groups are the Roman Catholic Church, Polish Orthodox Church, Evangelical-Augsburg (Lutheran) Church, Evangelical Reformed Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Polish National Catholic Church, Pentecostal Church, the Union of Jewish Communities, Mariavite Church, Old Catholic Mariavite Church, Old Eastern Orthodox Church, Muslim Religious Union, and Karaim Religious Union. Marriages performed by officials from 11 of these groups do not require further registration at a civil registry office; however, the Mariavite Church, Muslim Religious Union, Karaim Religious Union, and Old Eastern Orthodox Church do not have that right. An additional 165-registered religious group and five aggregate religious organizations (the Polish Ecumenical Council, Polish Buddhist Union, Biblical Society, Evangelical Alliance, and Council of Protestant Churches) do not have a statutorily defined relationship with the state.
The law provides equal protection to all registered religious groups. In accordance with the law, the government and the Roman Catholic Church participate in the Joint Government-Episcopate Committee, co-chaired by the minister of interior and administration and a bishop, currently the Archbishop of Gdansk, which meets regularly to discuss Catholic Church-state relations. The government also participates in a joint government-Polish Ecumenical Council committee, co-chaired by a Ministry of Interior and Administration (MIA) undersecretary and the head of the Polish Ecumenical Council (an association composed of six denominations and two religious associations, all of them non-Roman Catholic Christian), which meets to discuss issues related to minority Christian churches operating in the country.
Religious groups that are not the subject of specific legislation may register with the MIA, but registration is not obligatory. To register, the law requires a group to submit a notarized application with the personal information of at least 100 citizen members; details about the group’s activities in the country; background about its doctrine and practices; a charter and physical address; identifying information about its leaders; a description of the role of the clergy, if applicable; and information on funding sources and methods of new member recruitment. If the ministry rejects the registration application, organizations may appeal to an administrative court. By law, the permissible grounds for refusal of an application are failure to meet formal requirements or inclusion in the application of provisions that may violate public safety and order, health, public morality, parental authority or freedom and rights of other persons. Unregistered groups may worship, proselytize, or publish or import religious literature freely and bring in foreign missionaries, but they have no legal recognition and are unable to undertake certain functions such as own property or hold bank accounts in their name. The 185 registered and statutorily-recognized religious groups receive privileges not available to unregistered groups, such as selective tax benefits – they are exempt from import tariffs and property taxes and income tax on their educational, scientific, cultural, and legal activities, and their official representatives are also exempt from income and property taxes – and the right to acquire property and teach religion in schools.
Four commissions oversee communal religious property restitution claims, one each for the Jewish community, the Lutheran Church, and the Orthodox Church, and one for all other denominations. The commissions function in accordance with legislation providing for the restitution to religious communities of property they owned and that was nationalized during or after WWII. The law does not address communal properties the government sold or turned over to new private owners after WWII. A separate commission overseeing claims by the Catholic Church completed its work several years ago. The MIA and the respective religious community each appoint representatives to the commissions. The law states decisions by the commission ruling on communal property claims may not be appealed, but the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2013 that parties could appeal commission decisions in administrative courts. There have been no reports of parties filing such appeals.
The law authorizes Warsaw city authorities to expeditiously resolve long-standing restitution cases affecting Warsaw properties now being used for public purposes. Warsaw city officials must post a notification of specific public properties for a six-month period during which original owners of the property must submit their claims. At the end of the six-month period, Warsaw city authorities may make a final determination on the disposition of the property, either declaring that the property shall remain public and not be subject to any future claims, or returning the property or equal compensation to the original owner.
In accordance with the law, all public and private schools teach voluntary religion classes. Schools must provide instruction in any of the registered faiths if there are at least seven students requesting it. Each registered religious group determines the content of classes in its faith and provides the teachers, who receive salaries from the state. Students may also request to take an optional ethics class instead of a religion class; the ethics class is optional even if students decline to take a religion class.
Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom, and the law prohibits discrimination or persecution on the basis of religion or belief.
The constitution recognizes the right to conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds but states such objectors may be required to perform alternative service as specified by law.
The human rights ombudsman is responsible for safeguarding human and civil freedoms and rights, including the freedom of religion and conscience, specified in the constitution and other legal acts. The ombudsman is independent from the government, and appointed by the parliament.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal that, if successful, would have led to the deregistering of the Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland. Warsaw city authorities began implementing a private property law, specific to that city, that observers said could extinguish potential claims by private individuals, including Jews and members of other religious minorities, of public properties seized in WWII or the communist era. The government made a final determination on 60 communal property claims of religious groups during the year, out of approximately 3,300 cases pending. Then-Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak ordered a follow-up investigation after Holocaust survivor groups determined a 1999 video of naked persons laughing and playing tag was recorded in the gas chamber of the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp. PiS members made statements criticizing Muslim migrants, and one party member wrote an anti-Semitic comment on his Twitter account. Some government officials called for the resignation of the human rights ombudsman after he said on television that the nation had taken part in implementing the Holocaust. President Duda stated the country had a duty to speak out about the extermination of Jews, and the leader of PiS denounced anti-Semitism.
On April 3, the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed an appeal of the court’s own 2014 decision reversing a lower court ruling that would have led to the deregistration of the Union of Progressive Jewish Communities in Poland (Beit Polska). The appeal had been brought by another Jewish organization which had filed the original deregistration.
The MIA approved the registration of one religious group during the year, the Evangelical Methodist Church in the Republic of Poland.
According to MIA statistics, the religious community property commissions made a final determination (“resolved”) on 60 communal property claims during the year, out of approximately 3,300 pending communal property claims by religious groups. The commission handling Jewish communal property claims had partially or entirely resolved 2,770 of the 5,554 claims the Jewish community had submitted by its 2002 filing deadline. The commission handling Lutheran property claims had partially or entirely resolved 946 of the 1,200 claims filed by its 1996 filing deadline. The commission handling Orthodox Church restitution had partially or entirely resolved 264 of 472 claims filed by the 2005 deadline, and the property commission for all other denominations had partially or entirely resolved 87 of 170 claims.
Critics continued to state the laws on religious communal property restitution did not address the issue of disputed communal properties now privately owned, and the government left several controversial and complicated cases unresolved. For example, in a number of cases, buildings and residences were built on land that included Jewish cemeteries destroyed during or after WWII. The Jewish community continued to report the pace of Jewish communal property restitution was slow, involved considerable legal expense, and often ended without any recovery of property or other compensation for claimants.
The European Shoah Legacy Institute, an independent think tank that monitored restitution issues, stated in April that Poland was the only country in the EU that had not established a comprehensive restitution regime for private property taken during the Holocaust or the communist era.
Warsaw city authorities began implementing the 2015 law that critics stated might extinguish potential claims by private individuals, including Jews and members of other religious minorities, on public properties seized in WWII or the communist era. By year’s end, the city had listed 63 public properties for which the six-month public notification period had expired. No individuals submitted prior ownership claims for 54 of the 63 public properties. Of the nine other properties for which individuals did submit prior ownership claims, the city refused four and was still reviewing the remaining five claims at year’s end. The city determined that the 58 properties for which there were no claims or for which it rejected prior ownership claims would remain public property and would not be subject to any future claims. The public properties involved included schools, preschools, a park, and a police command unit site. There was no information available as to the identity of the prior ownership claimants or whether any belonged to religious minorities.
In June a special government commission formed during the year under Deputy Justice Minister Patryk Jaki to investigate accusations of irregularities in restitution of private property in Warsaw called Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz and other officials to testify on several occasions. Waltz refused to appear before the commission and questioned its authority. One of the cases about which the commission called Waltz involved a property for which her husband’s family received compensation and was reported as formerly owned by a Jewish Holocaust victim. The mayor’s husband returned the compensation paid to him as required by a December 22 ruling of the commission, which required all beneficiaries of the property to return a total of more than 15 million zloty ($4.3 million) to city authorities.
On October 11, the Ministry of Justice announced comprehensive private property restitution draft legislation that would block any physical return of former properties, whether the properties were currently privately or publicly owned, provide compensation of 20-25 percent of the property’s value at the time of taking in cash or government bonds, and set a one-year claims filing period. The legislation drew intense media coverage and public scrutiny. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and advocacy groups expressed concern the legislation would exclude foreign potential claimants, many of whom were Holocaust survivors or their heirs. At year’s end, the justice ministry had not submitted the draft legislation to the Council of Ministers (cabinet) for review and approval before sending to parliament.
In February the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage financed the restoration of 21 historic gravestones at the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
In December parliament voted to allocate 100 million zloty ($28.7 million) to restore the Warsaw Jewish Cemetery, and the Ministry of Culture transferred the funds to the Cultural Heritage Foundation, which was to oversee the restoration project in cooperation with the Warsaw Jewish Community. Warsaw Jewish Community president Anna Chipczynska stated the donation was “the most important gesture of the Polish state aimed at protecting Jewish heritage.”
By year’s end, draft legislation was pending in parliament that made it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to attribute to the nation or the state any responsibility for Nazi crimes or war crimes or other crimes against peace or humanity. Government officials stated the legislation was designed to deter public use of phrases like “Polish death or concentration camps,” instead of “Nazi German concentration camps in occupied Poland during World War II.” These officials said the former contradicted historical truth and harmed the country’s good name. Critics stated the law would violate freedom of expression, stifle academic freedom, harm Holocaust remembrance, and strain relations with Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
Crucifixes continued to be displayed in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, as well as in many other public buildings, including public school classrooms.
In October President Duda signed into law a bill creating the National Freedom Institute – Center for Civil Society Development to support NGOs, including Catholic and other religiously affiliated groups. In response to a request by the human rights ombudsman, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights issued an opinion on the law. The OSCE office stated the legislation was discriminatory because it contained language focused on Christian heritage and “nurturing Polishness,” which might imply that “associations focusing on these issues may receive preferential treatment as opposed to other religious or believer communities or organizations.”
On August 4, the Union of Jewish Communities sent a letter to PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski expressing deep concern over increased anti-Semitic attitudes, hate speech, and violent behavior, which it said left the group fearing for Jews’ future in the country, and asking for intensified government action. On November 17, Kaczynski met with Jewish community leaders to discuss their concerns. He stated he had been shocked upon hearing of recent anti-Semitic incidents and promised to help set up a meeting between Jewish community representatives and then Interior and Administration Minister Blaszczak.
In June the Muslim Religious Union, Muslim League, Muslim Association of Cultural Education, and Association of Muslim Students in Poland sent a written appeal to Sejm (lower house of parliament) Speaker Marek Kuchcinski to take actions to protect the Muslim minority. The letter stated negative references to Islam in media and political debate reinforced anti-Muslim attitudes and might increase anti-Muslim behavior. On September 21, the Sejm Committee on National and Ethnic Minorities reviewed the letter and asked the minister of internal affairs and administration to provide it with information on the scale of the problem and government actions to address it. At year’s end, the committee was waiting for a detailed response from the ministry.
On December 1, then-Interior and Administration Minister Blaszczak requested prosecutors review a 1999 video, “Game of Tag,” showing naked men and women playing tag and laughing in the gas chamber of the former Nazi Stutthof concentration camp, located approximately 22 miles east of Gdansk. In November several groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, wrote in protest to President Duda, asking who had authorized the video, what rules of conduct existed at the site, and whether the government had conducted an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the making of the video.
Piotr Tarnowski, the director of the state-run Stutthof Museum and Memorial, said one of his predecessors had given permission for the video based on a different script. An Israeli lawyer who helped identify the site where the video was recorded, David Schonberg, told the BBC that more important than the video itself was the “apparent indifference” to it in Poland.
Member of the European Parliament and PiS member Ryszard Czarnecki said on June 6, following a terrorist attack in London, that officials needed to protect the country from terrorist attacks by barring the entry of Muslim migrants. He added that the children of Muslim migrants, many of whom were European citizens, often carried out terrorist attacks after being trained by ISIS.
On June 8, in reference to a music festival in the country whose organizer said it was open to migrants in Germany, PiS posted on its official Twitter account, “Do you really want to have an event in Poland with the participation of Muslim immigrants?” and encouraged people to retweet the message.
On August 2, PiS member Bogdan Rzonca tweeted, “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.” Several politicians, including a PiS deputy Sejm speaker, condemned the statement. Rzonca later apologized.
In June Human Rights Ombudsman Adam Bodnar acknowledged on state-run television channel TVP Info that his nation took part in the Holocaust, saying, “there is no doubt that the Germans were responsible for the Holocaust, but many nations took part in its implementation. Among them – and I say this with regret – the Polish nation.” Some government officials called for his resignation, and Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Dziedziczak called Bodnar’s comment “scandalous.” Bodnar later said he had meant “some Poles had committed crimes against Jews.”
On January13, President Duda hosted a holiday meeting with Jewish community leaders, including Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich. The president said he was extremely pleased Jewish culture was reviving and that so many Poles supported this resurgence. He added that the Jewish and Polish people had coexisted in the country for more than a thousand years, and Jews had contributed greatly to the development of the country’s culture and science.
In August Krystyna Pawlowicz, a PiS Member of Parliament, wrote on Facebook that the government should seek help for its claim for German reparations from “the best American Jewish law firms.”
On September 18, PiS leader Kaczynski denounced anti-Semitism as a dangerous phenomenon expressed through hostility toward Israel and praised the state of Israel at a ceremony honoring Poles who had protected Jews during the Holocaust.
In February the government’s Institute of National Remembrance published online what it described as the most complete list of Auschwitz extermination camp Nazi SS commanders and guards. The institute said it hoped some of the persons listed could still be brought to justice.
On June 15, then-Prime Minister Beata Szydlo attended and spoke at the 77th anniversary of the first deportation of Poles to Auschwitz at a ceremony at the site of the Nazi death camp.
On October 11, President Duda hosted a 75th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of the Zegota Council to Aid Jews. The council was an underground organization established for rescuing Jews in the German-occupied part of the country during WWII.
On November 15, speaking at the opening of the Jewish Historical Institute’s new exhibition on the Warsaw Ghetto’s Underground Archive, President Duda stated, “Our duty is to speak the truth about the extermination of Jews.” Historian and social activist Emanuel Ringelblum, who gathered documentary evidence of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and the fate of Jews under the Nazi occupation, created the archive in 1940.
On July 3-7, the Grodzka Gate-NN Theatre Center in Lublin, a local government institution that worked to preserve Jewish heritage in the city, held the first international reunion of Jewish Lublin residents and their descendants as part of a celebration of the 700th anniversary of the city’s founding. The gathering included a conference, workshops, and artistic events. Before WWII, Jews constituted one third of Lublin’s population.
On December 12, parliament hosted a ceremony in which newly sworn-in Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lit a candle in a “hanukiah,” or nine-branched candelabra, with Rabbi Shalom Stambler from the Chabad community in honor of the first night of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The government continued to fund exchanges with national participants and U.S. and Israeli Jews to foster dialogue on restitution, the Holocaust, and interfaith issues.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: According to national prosecutor figures, which religious groups and NGOs said were not comprehensive, prosecutors investigated 582 religiously motivated incidents in 2016. Anti-Muslim incidents almost doubled to 363, compared with the previous year, while anti-Semitic incidents declined by 23 percent, to 160. Jewish groups reported an increase in anti-Semitic incidents during the year, without citing figures. In June German Muslim students reported Lublin residents spat on and threatened them, and the Warsaw Muslim Cultural Center cancelled an open house after online threats. A Pew survey found two thirds of respondents held negative views of Muslims, and a Warsaw University study reported a rise in anti-Semitic attitudes. An Independence Day march in Warsaw in November, in which tens of thousands of persons participated, included some Nazi and anti-Semitic symbols and chants, although the main slogan was “We want God.” Participants at a march in April in Warsaw chanted anti-Muslim slogans. Various groups, one of which recorded itself burning an effigy of a Jewish woman in Warsaw, continued to espouse anti-Semitic views. On October 7, up to a million Catholics prayed the rosary for the country and the world along the country’s borders. Some participants cited fear of Islam as among the reasons they joined in the prayers. A Catholic bishop apologized to the Jewish community on the 76th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom, and the Catholic Church again organized a Day of Islam and a Day of Judaism to promote interreligious harmony. Vandals targeted Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant sites.
The national prosecutor’s office reported that during 2016, the most recent period for which data were available, prosecutors investigated 582 religiously motivated incidents. The report cited 363 anti-Muslim incidents, almost double the 192 recorded in 2015, while anti-Semitic incidents decreased by 23 percent, to 160 from 208. Prosecutors investigated 59 incidents against Christians, compared with 52 in 2015. The NGO Never Again and religious groups stated government tracking of religiously motivated incidents was not systematic; police, prosecutors, and the MIA all kept their own sets of numbers, which did not agree with each other.
On June 28, German Muslim students visiting Holocaust memorials in the east of the country told a German radio station they were yelled at, spit on, and threatened by residents of Lublin during their trip.
On June 13, the Muslim Cultural Center in Warsaw canceled an open house after nationalist websites posted hostile comments and threats against it. The open house was part of the nonprofit Civic Education Center’s “Four Corners of Warsaw – Young Tour Guides in a Multicultural Capital” program, in which Warsaw high school students presented information on Islam and the Warsaw mosque to help combat negative stereotypes and prejudices. Organizers decided to cancel the event out of safety concerns for the students, but they promised to organize a similar event at a different time, which would ensure participants’ safety. Also in June the imam of the Poznan mosque received threats via email and social media after several websites posted a manipulated video falsely showing the imam saying, “If Islam wins, Christians will have to pay a ransom.” The Poznan deputy mayor stated he would ask police to enhance security around the mosque.
Members of the Warsaw Jewish Community and the Union of Jewish Communities of Poland described an increase in anti-Semitic incidents during the year, including hostile phone calls to community centers, vandalism of offices, attempted forced entry of community property, and a fake bomb that a tour group’s security team found at a Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
A coalition of groups widely considered extremist, including National Radical Camp (ONR) and All-Polish Youth – Mlodziez Wszechpolska (MW) – organized an Independence Day march in Warsaw on November 11 under the slogan, “We want God.” While many of the tens of thousands of marchers carried Polish flags without signage, some participants displayed large signs reading, “White Europe of brotherly nations” and “Clean Blood,” and Celtic crosses and banners depicting a far-right symbol from the 1930s. These participant also chanted, “Sieg Heil,” “Pure Poland,” and “Jews out of Poland.” One participant interviewed on TVP television said he was taking part in the demonstration “to remove Jewry from power.” A smaller counterprotest took place at the same time. The two demonstrations were largely peaceful, but there was one report of extremist participants pushing and kicking several women who were holding a “Stop Fascism” banner and chanting antifascist slogans. Police arrested 45 counterprotesters and none of the participants in the main march.
The Israeli foreign ministry issued a statement describing the march as dangerous and “instigated by extremists and racists,” and calling on the Polish government to take action against the organizers. One march participant was quoted in the press as saying he was not a fascist and was marching to honor those who had fought for the country’s freedom. He estimated 30 percent of the marchers had extremist views, while the rest were “walking peacefully, without shouting any fascist slogans.”
Following the march, President Duda stated, “There is no room for … anti-Semitism in our country.” PiS leader Kaczynski said the country’s traditions had nothing to do with anti-Semitism and stated that unfortunate incidents at the march were probably a provocation designed to harm the country’s image. Then-Interior Minister Blaszczak stated he did not see the racist signs and praised the patriotism of marchers who displayed Polish flags, calling it “a beautiful sight.”
Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Glinski called for an investigation into whether the far-right signs violated the law. On November 20, the Warsaw prosecutor’s office announced that it was launching an investigation into “public propagation of fascism and calls for hatred” during the march.
On March 24, 12 persons from Poland, Belarus, and Germany killed a sheep and chained themselves together naked to the main gate of the Auschwitz former Nazi death camp. The demonstrators stated it was an anti-war protest. They were charged with insulting a memorial site and killing an animal. On October 17, the Oswiecim local court began a trial of the 12 demonstrators, which continued at year’s end.
On August 21, the Przemysl local court sentenced 20 persons to between four and 10 months of community service for disrupting the June 2016 religious procession of Greek Catholic and Orthodox Church members marching to commemorate Ukrainian soldiers who fought for Poland from 1918 to 1920.
On January 30, the Warsaw North City Center prosecutor’s office indicted one person for disrupting a Catholic Mass during the reading of a letter by the Polish episcopate calling for a total ban on abortion in April 2016.
According to a survey the Center for Social Opinion Research issued in February, anti-Semitic attitudes declined; 26 percent of respondents reported holding negative attitudes towards Jews, compared with 37 percent in 2016. On the other hand, the 2017 Polish Prejudice Survey by the Warsaw University Prejudice Research Center found an increase in anti-Semitic attitudes, with 43 percent reporting they would not accept a Jew as a close family member, compared with 30 percent in 2016; 27 percent reported they did not want Jewish neighbors, compared with 14 percent in 2016.
A Pew Research Center survey released in July found 66 percent of the population had negative views about Muslims, unchanged from the previous year. According to an Ipsos poll in May commissioned by TVP public television, 46 percent of respondents strongly opposed accepting Muslim refugees into the country, while 4 percent strongly supported it. Another 27 percent said Muslim refugees should probably not be admitted, while 19 percent said they probably should be.
In January approximately 50 non-Jews donned kippahs at a restaurant in Warsaw, the Foksal Cafe, to condemn anti-Semitism and demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish community. The event was in response to unsigned social media posts, which also generated online debate, stating that a bartender at the restaurant had ejected two customers for discussing Israel on New Year’s Day. The restaurant’s management said the customers had been ejected for engaging in anti-Christian speech about the Virgin Mary while under the influence of alcohol.
On April 29, several hundred supporters of ONR marched through Warsaw to mark the 83rd anniversary of the group’s founding before WWII. During the march, some participants shouted anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant slogans such as “no Islam, terrorists, Muslims in our country.” According to a member of NGO Never Again, police took no action against the demonstration and forcibly removed a group of counterprotesters who had sat down in front of the ONR marchers.
In October Never Again reported the Kielce district court began proceedings in a criminal defamation case against one of its members, Anna Tatar, editor of the group’s magazine. Organizers of the annual Eagle’s Nest music festival, which Never Again said featured extremist bands, Nazi salutes, and the use of Celtic crosses, alleged Tatar had defamed them in a 2016 interview when she said, “during the Eagle’s Nest festival fascist ideas are promoted, and such events must not take place in Poland.” If convicted, Tatar could face up to one year in prison. At year’s end, the court proceedings were ongoing.
On March 21, a group of Warsaw residents celebrating the first day of spring burned an effigy of what they referred to as “a Jewish woman” and posted a videotape of it online. In the video’s comments section, the group wrote that the puppet “symbolizes what is ugly, cold, and bad.” One of the participants added the comment, “this mug, this big nose, so well-known in Polish history.”
On April 13, the Wroclaw Appellate Court reduced a first-instance court sentence of Piotr Rybak from 10 to three months’ imprisonment. The court had convicted Rybak of public incitement to hatred on religious grounds for burning an effigy of an Orthodox Jew during a 2015 anti-immigrant demonstration in Wroclaw.
The National-Social Congress, an association of groups widely described as extremist, invited a prominent American activist, who described himself as an identitarian and whom CNN called a white nationalist, to speak at a November 10 conference titled, “The Future of Europe; the Vision of the Demise of the West,” on the eve of the country’s Independence Day celebrations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on October 26, strongly protesting the visit as promoting intolerance, including anti-Semitic ideas, and stating such ideas contradicted the law. After the MIA Office of Foreigners issued a five-year Schengen zone entry ban on the invitee at the request of the country’s Internal Security Agency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the invitee cancelled his trip.
Groups such as National Rebirth of Poland and Blood and Honor continued to espouse anti-Semitic views, but authorities did not link any of them to specific incidents of violence or vandalism.
On March 2, Stanislaw Michalkiewicz, a commentator on Radio Maryja, run by a conservative Catholic group, said on his regularly scheduled broadcast that young people were rejecting the “stinky legends” told to them by Jewish communists and looking for their roots and real heroes.
On April 28, the Wroclaw prosecutor’s office discontinued the investigation into ONR Lower Silesia branch chief Justyna Helcyk for inciting hatred against Muslims and racial minorities during her speech at the ONR’s 2015 “In Defense of Christian Europe” demonstration in Wroclaw. Prosecutors decided Helcyk’s speech did not constitute hate speech.
On February 27, the Lublin district court sentenced five men to suspended prison sentences of between six and eight months for public offense and incitement to hatred for hanging anti-Semitic posters around the city of Lublin between 2012 and 2014. One of the convicted men was a former worker of the state museum on the site of the Majdanek German Nazi concentration camp.
On October 7, the Catholic feast of Our Lady of the Rosary and the anniversary of the Christian victory over the Ottoman Turks at the 16th century naval battle of Lepanto, up to a million Catholics recited the rosary and prayed along the country’s international borders “to save Poland and the world.” On its website, the Solo Dios Basta (Only God Suffices) Foundation, a Catholic lay organization that organized the event, attributed the Lepanto victory to the recital of the rosary, “that saved Europe from Islamization.” At a Mass during the event broadcast by Radio Maryja, Archbishop of Krakow Marek Jedraszewski called on believers to pray “for the other European nations to make them understand it is necessary to return to Christian roots … ” Archbishop of Poznan Stanislaw Gadecki told private radio broadcaster RMF, “the key objective of this manifestation is to pray for peace.” According to press reports, organizers stated that the prayers were not directed against any group, but some persons cited fears of Islam among their reasons for participating.
In August private television station Republika TV adapted the “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work sets you free”) sign above the gates of Auschwitz into a parody illustration featuring a “Reparations set you free” slogan for a story about the call by some lawmakers for Germany to make reparations to the country for its losses in WWII. The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum criticized the broadcast, writing on its Twitter account, “the primitive manipulation of painful symbols shows the moral level and understanding of history by its authors.”
On July 10, Catholic Bishop Rafal Markowski, head of the Polish Bishops’ Conference’s Council for Religious Dialogue and the Polish Episcopate Committee for Dialogue with Judaism, issued an apology at the ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom, in which the town’s Jews were killed by their Catholic neighbors.
In June the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, an international NGO, recognized the Church of All Saints in Warsaw as a “House of Life” for helping Jews during WWII. In a letter to participants in the ceremony, President Duda described Poles who risked their lives to help Jews as “the nation’s heroes.”
In January Holocaust survivors, politicians, and religious leaders gathered to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
There were incidents of vandalism targeting property associated with religious sites.
In December the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland reported a Jewish cemetery in the eastern town of Siemiatycze had been desecrated. Construction workers found human remains on a privately owned commercial lot located within the original boundaries of the cemetery and immediately adjacent to the current boundaries of the cemetery. Although the law requires construction activities to cease immediately and the police to be contacted in such circumstances, the dirt and human remains were removed from the site and construction initially continued. An initial review indicated local and regional authorities had not followed correct procedures in approving the construction permit for the site. Local prosecutors opened an investigation, which was continuing at year’s end.
On August 31, Maszewo village police announced an investigation into possible desecration of a burial site after reports a building contractor had bulldozed an old Jewish cemetery in the town and turned up human remains. The land where the cemetery had been located was added to a local register of protected sites prior to its purchase for development, but the owner stated she had not been aware of this designation prior to finding the human remains.
On August 5, unknown perpetrators vandalized a Protestant church with offensive graffiti in the northern town of Biala Piska.
On July 12, unknown perpetrators damaged a religious figure standing outside a Roman Catholic church in Warsaw.
In November unknown attackers smashed approximately a dozen windows at a mosque and Muslim cultural center in Warsaw. Imam Youssef Chadid blamed the attack on a “not very friendly” atmosphere in the country that he said misrepresented Islam. The imam appealed to the government to speak out against attacks on Muslims. Police were investigating the crime at year’s end.
On January 17, the Catholic Church celebrated the 20th annual Day of Judaism, which featured numerous events throughout the country, including meetings, lectures at schools, film screenings, and exhibitions. The main celebrations took place in Kielce and included prayers in front of monuments commemorating Holocaust victims, a theological discussion conducted by Catholic bishops and rabbis, and a religious service in Kielce Cathedral. Former and current Chairman of the Polish Episcopate Committee for Dialogue with Judaism – Bishops Mieczyslaw Cislo and Rafal Markowski – and Chief Rabbi Schudrich participated in the religious service.
On January 26, the Catholic Church celebrated the 17th annual Day of Islam with the stated purpose of promoting peace among religious groups. The Church hosted an event titled “Christians and Muslims – the Addressees and Tools of God’s Mercy” in Bialystok, which included discussions, readings from the Bible and the Quran, and prayers. Chair of the Polish Episcopate Committee for Dialogue with Non-Christian Religions Bishop Henryk Ciereszko and representatives of the Bialystok Muslim religious community attended the event. On September 24, the Joint Council of Catholics and Muslims organized a conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the council, an association made up of lay members of their religions, who described their main role as promoting interreligious dialogue and respect for various religions and cultures.
The Polish Council of Christians and Jews continued to organize annual conferences and ceremonies, including the Day of Judaism in the Catholic Church and “Close Encounters of Christians and Jews” to encourage tolerance and understanding, as did a Catholic and Orthodox Churches bilateral commission.
The Polish Ecumenical Council hosted conferences and interfaith dialogue. For example, on October 29, the Lublin branch of the council co-organized an international ecumenical congress titled Lublin – City of Religious Agreement 2017, which focused around a debate about different Christian traditions and their attitude towards ecumenism. On November 25, the council organized an ecumenical women’s conference in Warsaw, which gathered more than 30 women from eight different Christian churches.
Human Library projects, funded by European Economic Area grants and organized by the Citizens for Democracy Foundation, continued in various cities, including Olsztyn, Krakow, and Lodz. Under the project, a diverse group of volunteers, including representatives of various religious groups, told their stories to individuals who could “borrow” them like books. The stated intent of the project was to foster greater tolerance, including religious tolerance.
On March 27, the Jewish advocacy organization American Jewish Committee held an opening celebration for its new Central European headquarters in Warsaw.
A Central Statistical Office February survey found nearly 95 percent of Poles identified themselves as religious, and half attended religious gatherings on a weekly basis.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy and Krakow consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives met with government officials from the interior, foreign affairs, and treasury ministries; the presidential chancellery; parliament; and the city of Warsaw. They discussed the state of private and communal property restitution to religious groups and members of religious minorities. They also appealed to the government to extend the provisions of draft private property restitution legislation to cover American citizens and Holocaust survivors and their heirs, who would otherwise be unable to make restitution claims if the legislation were enacted in its unchanged form.
In February the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with government officials in Warsaw to discuss Jewish community property and private property restitution issues and social welfare benefits for Holocaust survivors. He visited the southern part of the country and met with Jewish community members to discuss restitution of Jewish cemeteries. He also visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and discussed Holocaust education programs and outreach. He later visited Krakow’s historic Jewish quarter and attended a Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Community Center.
On several occasions, the Ambassador and visiting senior U.S. government officials raised concerns with government and parliamentary officials about the draft legislation pending in parliament that would make it a crime to attribute to the Polish nation or state any responsibility for Third Reich crimes.
The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general staff met with members of the local Jewish community and Muslim and Christian leaders, to discuss private and communal property restitution, and the communities’ concerns over rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. In March the Ambassador spoke at the gala celebration of the opening of the American Jewish Committee’s Central European office in Warsaw. He highlighted the revival of Jewish life in the country and U.S. government support for Holocaust education, measures to counter anti-Semitism, and cultural exchanges in support of religious freedom and tolerance. On April 24, embassy and consulate general staff marched in the International March of the Living, an annual educational program that brought individuals from around the world to the country to study the history of the Holocaust. On June 22, the Ambassador participated in the Ride for the Living, a cycling event in which participants biked from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum to the Krakow Jewish Community Center to celebrate and support the revival of Jewish life in the country.
The embassy continued to employ exchange programs, student roundtables, and grants for education and cultural events to promote religious freedom and tolerance. On October 8-9, an embassy grant supported a “Teaching about genocide” conference organized by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The conference was part of a cooperative agreement between the embassy and the museum to select and send teachers and educators on a Holocaust teacher-training program in the U.S. More than 180 teachers from various cities attended the event. The embassy funded the travel of four Polish teachers to the U.S. for training it organized with the POLIN museum and sponsored by the Association of Holocaust Organizations. The embassy provided financial and organizational support to Jewish cultural festivals in Warsaw, and Bialystok to promote interreligious understanding and tolerance. The consulate general in Krakow provided financial support to international programs at the Auschwitz Jewish Center for Genocide and Religious Persecution Prevention and the Galicja Museum in Krakow. The consulate general also hosted an international speaker from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, who engaged audiences on teaching about the Holocaust.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The evangelical Christian Mana Church stated a Setubal court’s imposition of a fine against the church and its founder violated its freedom of expression. An EU report issued in August stated non-Catholic religious groups encountered problems in ministering to persons in hospitals and prisons, and state schools had not adjusted their menus to accommodate religious minorities, especially Muslims. The government High Commission for Migration (ACM) sponsored activities to promote religious tolerance and acceptance, published religious texts, and organized education for teachers and workers interacting with persons of diverse religious backgrounds. The government Commission for Religious Freedom (CLR) established an annual prize for research on religious freedom in the country. The government granted citizenship during the year to 1,406 Sephardic descendants of Jews expelled during the Inquisition and to a total of 1,837 Sephardic descendants since the program’s inception in 2015. The government rejected one Sephardic citizenship application, and 6,962 other applications remained pending at year’s end. President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa advocated religious tolerance and harmony at several public events.
With support from the EU, the Catholic Church launched the first private Catholic cable television channel in April, which broadcast domestically and to other Lusophone countries. There were two complaints of religious discrimination to a government-appointed religious advisory body in 2016, the most recent year for which data were available. The advisory body was still investigating the two complaints at year’s end.
U.S. embassy representatives met regularly with CLR and ACM officials and discussed the importance of mutual respect and understanding among religious communities and the integration of immigrants, many of whom belonged to religious minority groups. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.8 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, more than 80 percent of the population above the age of 15 is Roman Catholic. Other religious groups, each constituting less than 5 percent of the population, include Orthodox Christians, various Protestant and other Christian denominations, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, and Zoroastrians. According to the census, the Protestant population includes 250,000 members of evangelical churches, and there are approximately 200,000 immigrants from Eastern Europe, primarily from Ukraine, most of whom are Eastern Orthodox. More than 600,000 people said they were not members of any religious group.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, which may not be violated even if the government declares a state of emergency. It states no one shall be privileged, prejudiced, persecuted, or deprived of rights or exempted from civic obligations or duties because of religious beliefs or practices. The constitution states individuals may not be questioned by authorities about religious convictions or observance, with the exception of gathering statistical information that does not identify individuals, and in such cases individuals may not be prejudiced by refusal to reply. Churches and religious communities are independent from the state and have the freedom to determine their own organization and perform their own activities and worship. The constitution affords each religious community the freedom to teach its religion and use its own media to disseminate public information about its activities. It bars political parties from using names directly associated with, or symbols that may be confused with those of, religious groups. The constitution and the law recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service, including on religious grounds; they require conscientious objectors to perform equivalent alternative civilian service.
Religious groups may be organized in a variety of forms that have national, regional, or local character. A denomination may choose to organize as one national church or religious community or as several regional or local churches or religious communities. An international church or religious community may set up a representative organization of its adherents separate from the branch of the church or religious community existing in the country. A registered church or religious community may create subsidiary or affiliated organizations, such as associations, foundations, or federations.
All religious groups with an organized presence in the country may apply for registration with the registrar of religious corporate bodies in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The requirements include providing the organization’s official name, which must be distinguishable from all other religious corporate bodies in the country; the organizing documents of the church or religious community associated with the group applying for registration; the address of the organization’s registered main office in the country; a statement of the group’s religious purposes; documentation of the organization’s assets; information on the organization’s formation, composition, rules, and activities; provisions for dissolution of the organization; and the appointment method and powers of the organization’s representatives. Subsidiary or affiliated organizations included in the parent group’s application are also registered; if not, they must register separately. The MOJ may reject a registration application if it fails to meet legal requirements, includes false documentation, or violates constitutional rights of religious freedom. In the case where an application is rejected by the MOJ, religious groups may appeal to the CLR within 30 days of receiving the MOJ’s decision.
The CLR is an independent, consultative body to parliament and the government, established by law. Its members include representatives of various religious groups in the country, such as the Portuguese Episcopal Conference, Evangelical Alliance, Israelite Community of Lisbon, Islamic Community of Lisbon, Hindu Community of Lisbon, and Aga Khan Foundation, as well as laypersons appointed by the MOJ. The Council of Ministers appoints its president. The CLR reviews and takes a position on all matters relating to the application of the law on religious freedom, including proposed amendments. It alerts the competent authorities, including the president, parliament, and others in the government, to cases involving religious freedom and discrimination, such as restrictions or prohibitions on the right to assembly and the holding of religious services; the destruction or desecration of religious property; assaults against members and clergy of religious groups; incitement of religious discord; hate speech; and violations of the rights of foreign missionaries. The CLR may file formal complaints at the national level with the ombudsman, an official position created by the constitution and supplemental legislation to defend the rights and freedoms of individual citizens, and at the international level with the European Court of Human Rights. The ombudsman has no legal enforcement power, but he or she is obligated to address complaints and provides an alternative remedy for dispute resolution.
Religious groups may register as religious corporations and receive tax-exempt status. They also receive the right to minister in prisons, hospitals, and military facilities; provide religious teaching in public schools; participate in broadcasting time on public television and radio; and national recognition of religious holidays. The government certifies religious ministers, who receive all the benefits of the social security system. Chaplaincies for military services, prisons, and hospitals are state-funded positions open to all registered religious groups. A taxpayer may allocate 5 percent of his or her tax payment to any registered religious group.
Religious groups may also register as unincorporated associations or private corporations, and in that form they may receive the same benefits granted to religious corporations. The process for registering as unincorporated associations or private corporations involves the same procedures as for religious corporations. There are no practical differences between associations and private corporations; the different categories distinguish how the groups are internally administered. Unregistered religious groups are not subject to penalties and may practice their religion but do not receive the benefits associated with registration.
By law, religious groups registered in the country for at least 30 years or internationally recognized for 60 years may obtain a higher registration status of “religion settled in the country.” To show they are established, religions must demonstrate an “organized social presence” for the required length of time. These groups receive government subsidies; may conclude “mutual interest” agreements with the state on issues such as education, culture, or other forms of cooperation; and may celebrate religious marriages that have effect in the state legal system. The government has mutual interest agreements with Jewish and Islamic religious bodies and a concordat with the Holy See that serves the same function for the Catholic Church.
Public secondary schools offer an optional survey course on world religions taught by lay teachers. Optional religious instruction is available at government expense if at least 10 students attend the class. Religious groups are responsible for designing the curriculum of the religious classes and providing and training the teachers, who are lay. Private schools are required to offer the same curriculum as public schools but may provide instruction in any religion at their expense. All schools, public and private, are required to accommodate the religious practices of students, including rescheduling tests if necessary.
The law prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of religion and requires reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious practices. According to the labor code, employees are allowed to take leave on their Sabbath and religious holidays, even if these are not nationally observed.
The law provides for the naturalization of Jewish descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from the country in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In October the Mana Church, an evangelical Christian group, stated the Judicial Court of Setubal’s decision to fine the church and its founder, Apostle Jorge Tadeu, violated Tadeu’s freedom of expression. The court fined Tadeu after he spoke out against religious persecution, the closure of Christian churches, and local government corruption. According to the Mana Church, it appealed the Setubal court’s decision to the Superior Council of the Judiciary, but the council declined to reopen the case.
The EU’s nondiscrimination report on the country for 2016, issued in August, stated non-Catholic religious groups faced greater problems in ministering to persons in hospitals and prisons. According to the report, state schools had also not adapted their meals to meet the needs of students from minority religions, particularly Islam.
The ACM hosted events, activities, and debates, published books on religion to promote religious tolerance and acceptance, and provided education for teachers and workers interacting with individuals of diverse religious backgrounds. The ACM dedicated the month of January to the theme of “Migrations and Religions” in tribute to World Religion Day, celebrated annually on the third Sunday in January. The ACM highlighted harmony between religions through the development of closer relationships and better understanding among religious groups. The ACM made available a collection of documents, statistics, and other contents on this topic at its documentation center during the month. In May the ACM sponsored a study by Lusofona University on “Religious and Spiritual Worldviews – Educational Guide of Traditions in Portugal.” Available on the ACM website, the study highlighted the different religions in the country and was intended for use as a teaching tool to foster knowledge of religious diversity.
The state-run television channel RTP continued to air a half-hour religious program five days a week, with segments written by different registered religious groups and a weekly half-hour program highlighting activities of diverse religious groups. Participants in the programs included the Evangelical Alliance, Orthodox Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Islamic Community of Lisbon, Bahai Community, Old Catholic Church, Orthodox Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Church, and Hindu Community.
The government reported that, of 8,800 applications received since 2015, it had approved the naturalization of 1,837 Sephardic descendants of Jews expelled from the country during the Inquisition, including 1,406 applications approved in 2017. The government had rejected one application, and 6,962 others remained pending. Beneficiaries of the program included individuals from Turkey (171), Israel (56), and Brazil (39). The Jewish community in Lisbon or Porto vetted each application, checking existing documentation of the applicants’ ancestors and making recommendations to the government.
On January 7, President Rebelo de Sousa participated in an ecumenical Presbyterian ceremony at St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland in Lisbon. The president joined the congregations of the Church of Scotland, Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and Romanian Orthodox Church to celebrate the Julian calendar Christmas. The president told reporters the visit was a “great honor in a spirit of unity, peace, and reunion.” Ukrainian priest Vasyl Bundzyak said the president’s attendance reflected his respect for the religious communities in the country, calling it a “grand gesture.”
On March 20, during a visit to an exhibition on the Jewish presence at the national archives in Lisbon, President Rebelo de Sousa praised the importance of the Jewish communities throughout the country’s history, calling the Inquisition and the persecution of Jews “a historical mistake.”
On April 27, President Rebelo de Sousa visited the Lisbon Central Mosque, hosted by Head Imam Sheikh David Munir and President of the Lisbon Islamic Community Abdool Magid A. Karim Vakil. The president praised the Islamic community as an example of a religious group that was integrated in society and said religious tolerance was ingrained in the country and its people.
In May the CLR announced the establishment of an annual Religious Freedom Prize for research in the area of religious freedom. The CLR committed to publishing the winning research paper and awarding the winner 5,000 euros ($6,000).
On May 26, the president’s office released a Ramadan statement to Muslims, conveying “fraternal greetings, sharing the universal values of tolerance and peace, and respect for diversity.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The first private Catholic television channel, Angelus TV, began broadcasting on April 27. The project represented a global investment of approximately 800,000 euros ($960,000). It received start-up funds from the EU, and the remaining financial backing came from partners, including the Sanctuary of Fatima, which provided an office that served as headquarters, studios, and two spaces within the sanctuary for the live transmission of morning Mass and evening prayers. Angelus TV broadcast, free of charge, through cable operators in the country and other Lusophone countries. Programming also included Vatican events and information and cultural programs.
There were two complaints to the CLR during 2016, the most recent year for which data were available. The Portuguese Atheist Association filed a complaint about the naming of a public school in the town of Freamunde after Catholic Bishop Antonio Taipa on the 50th anniversary of his ordainment. The bishop was a native of Freamunde. In the second case, an individual objected to the selling of religious items in the workplace. No further details were available about the complaint. The CLR opened investigations into the two complaints but had not released the results as of the end of the year.
According to the EU’s nondiscrimination report, “religious diversity remains a fairly neutral topic in Portuguese society.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy representatives met regularly with CLR and ACM officials and discussed the importance of mutual respect and understanding among religious communities and the integration of immigrants, many of whom belonged to religious minority groups.
The embassy sponsored the visit of a university professor to the United States from June 24 to August 5 to participate in a program on religious pluralism at Temple University.
The Ambassador and embassy representatives met with leaders of religious groups, including the Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim communities to discuss issues of religious tolerance and encourage interfaith collaboration. The Ambassador continued his contact with Head Imam Sheikh David Munir and Arif Z. Lalani, Head of the Department for Diplomatic Affairs of the Ismaili Imamat, to discuss ways in which the Muslim community and the embassy could work together to promote religious acceptance and tolerance.
On January 19, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a working lunch with then-Secretary of State for Citizenship and Equality Catarina Marcelino to discuss the resettlement and integration of Yazidi refugees, who had fled religious persecution.
On February 21-23, the embassy hosted and co-organized with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Rescue Committee a workshop on the topic of resettlement of refuges, many of whom belonged to religious minorities, and their integration in the country. A wide variety of NGOs and government officials involved with refugee issues participated.
On May 26, the Charge d’Affaires visited the Ismaili Center and met with a delegation headed by Nazim Ahmad, Diplomatic Representative of the Ismaili Imamat to Portugal and the Lusophone countries, and a member of the CLR. They discussed ways of promoting interfaith tolerance and cooperation.
On August 18, an embassy official met with Abdool Magid A. Karim Vakil, President of the Lisbon Islamic Community, at the Lisbon Central Mosque to discuss integration projects relating to Muslim refugees.
On September 13, an embassy official met with Mamadou Bah, Chairman of the Islamic Community of Tapada das Merces, and Mem Martins to discuss outreach and cooperation between the embassy and the Islamic community.
Other religious leaders with whom embassy officials met throughout the year included Gabriel Szary Steinhardt and Esther Mucznik, President and Vice President, respectively, of the Israelite Community of Lisbon, and Rana Uddin, President of the Islamic Center of Bangladesh in Lisbon. At all of these meetings, embassy officials discussed the importance of freedom of expression of religious views, promoting tolerance and understanding among religious communities, and countering the spread of religiously motivated violence.