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Burma

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. As during previous years, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. Violence, discrimination, and harassment in Rakhine State targeting ethnic Rohingya, nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the military’s commission of ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocities against Rohingya in August 2017 that displaced more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Burma continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Among the 163 Rohingya who reportedly fled the country between January and October, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State; others reported continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign, which they said they did not trust. During the year, several UN entities commented or released reports on the Rohingya crisis. In September, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said the government was purposefully evading accountability and making it difficult for Rohingya refugees to safely return to Rakhine State as part of the government’s goal of “exterminating their basic identity.” The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) began to interview witnesses and collect evidence for possible criminal proceedings for gross violations of human rights, including against Rohingya. Religious leaders and civil society activists reported some government and military officials continued to deploy anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech in official events. Rohingya, both in Rakhine State and those living in Bangladesh, faced mass disenfranchisement in November general elections because of discriminatory citizenship policies. The government barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on citizenship grounds, while allowing five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority to run. Non-Buddhist minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, said authorities restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minority groups, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. NGOs said the military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to continued severe hardship for religious minority groups.

According to media reports, ethnic armed organizations in the country continued to pose a threat to religious freedom. Christian pastor Tun Nu, abducted in 2019 by the Arakan Army and previously presumed dead, was found alive and was reunited with his family in March. In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government had no administrative control, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) tightened restrictions on Christian religious practice. In December 2019, 51 Baptist churches had reopened and UWSA authorities stated they were conducting assessments to determine which other churches would be allowed to reopen. In October, however, a Baptist religious leader reported that all churches were again closed and even house worship was limited to no more than four families together in some areas.

Some leaders and members of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly Ma Ba Tha) continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. Although the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, issued orders that no group or individual be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha and declared it an “illegal organization,” many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim speech in sermons and through social media. According to Burma Monitor, an NGO focused on monitoring and analyzing hate speech, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates registered to run in the 2020 general elections, mostly from nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. While local and international experts said deep-seated prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against members of religious minority groups, some civil society groups worked to improve interreligious tolerance. According to media reports, civil society activists spearheaded efforts to improve interreligious tolerance and respect for religious practices and to deepen interfaith dialogue. The interfaith “White Rose” campaign that formed after an anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist mob shut down temporary Ramadan prayer sites in Yangon in 2019 continued its efforts. Other religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador to Burma, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against members of religious minority groups, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tensions. In June, the Acting USAID Administrator noted freedom of religion was a key component of national security and that the U.S. response to promote accountability for those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya remained a top priority. U.S. financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on the Burmese military commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against members of ethnic and religious minority groups remained in place. During the year, U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religion-based abuses, including discrimination, and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 56.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately six percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately four percent of the population. The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016. According to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 remain in Rakhine State. There are an estimated 130,000 Rohingya living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, according to Human Rights Watch. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Yangon (Rangoon).

There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Magway, and Mandalay Regions, practice Islam. Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions observe traditional indigenous beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides to every citizen the right to profess and practice his or her religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings “of any class” by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities. The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs.

The law bars members of “religious orders” such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group, from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.” The election law states that a candidate’s parents must be citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth, and the citizenship of most Rohingya is denied, thus precluding Rohingya from candidate status.

Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the SSMNC, the members of which are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools. Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies may start the school day with a Buddhist prayer.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards. The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country’s penal code also criminalizes.

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

Government Practices

International organizations and NGOs reported most members of the military involved in mass atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 had not been held accountable, and the military continued to commit acts of violence against members of ethnoreligious groups. In April, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee stated that the military “may once again be committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine State.” According to Lee, the military had expanded its campaign against minorities from Rakhine to Chin States, adding, “having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity.” According to NGO Fortify Rights, two former soldiers confessed in videos recorded in July by the Arakan Army to having taken part in atrocities committed by the army against Rohingya in 2017. In the recording, the soldiers said they were involved in killing more than 180 Rohingya men, women, and children in Taung Buzar Village and surrounding villages in Buthidaung and five villages in Maungdaw during military operations in Rakhine State in late 2017. One also admitted to committing rape in Taung Buzar Village, Rakhine State. At year’s end, the two men were reportedly in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

On June 23, a Buddhist monk and military veteran stabbed to death a Muslim teenager in Magway Region’s Aung Lan Township. The victim’s brother told authorities the assailant, Tun Naing Win, called the brothers “kalar,” considered a derogatory term for persons of South Asian descent, and shouted, “You kalars do not own this country, you kalars do not own this road,” before killing the victim.

The investigation of the June 2, 2019, beating of one group of villagers by another group of villagers in Ann Myawk Village, Rakhine State continued with no reported progress through year’s end. According to the CHRO, which first documented the incident in December 2019, 25 villagers, led by Khin Aung, Myint Maung, Hwe Hla and Nyuat Maung, assaulted members of the Chawn family, who were conducting a Christian home prayer service.

In November 2019, The Gambia filed an application instituting proceedings against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a request for provisional measures, alleging Burma’s actions against Rohingya violated the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In January, the ICJ unanimously indicated provisional measures, ordering Burma to preserve any evidence of atrocities against Rohingya; ensure that government and security officials refrain from any act that could contribute to genocide; and report to the ICJ on its progress on these measures in May and every six months thereafter while the case was pending. The government submitted two reports and stated its reports would show decisively that no genocide occurred. The government also filed preliminary objections to the jurisdiction of the court and the admissibility of The Gambia’s application; proceedings on the merits were suspended while the ICJ considered the preliminary objections. In September, Canada and the Netherlands announced their intention to intervene in the case.

According to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, during the year it was in the process of organizing a fact-finding mission to gather relevant evidence for its investigation into credible allegations that crimes against humanity were committed against Rohingya in Burma. Although the country is not a party to the ICC, the court claimed it had jurisdiction over such crimes if elements of the crime were at least commissioned in Bangladesh, which is a state party, and where most displaced Rohingya fled.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the government in 2018 to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State released the executive summary of its final report in January. The summary stated the commission found no evidence of genocidal intent, but it did not address alleged crimes against humanity. It stated the abuses amounted to “war crimes.” According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary was part of the government’s attempt to portray the operation as a “legitimate armed conflict” with no element of genocide. The summary also stated there was “no evidence of gang rape committed by Burma’s security forces,” despite extensive documentation by the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights groups of widespread rape against Rohingya women and girls. According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary of the final report fell well short of creating the conditions for justice and accountability or the safe return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. As of the end of the year, the government had not released the full report. According to international and domestic human rights activists, previous government-led investigations of reports of widespread abuses by security services against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2016 had yielded no findings of responsibility by security forces and were criticized by international observers as deeply flawed.

The IIMM, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings covering human rights abuses in Burma since 2011, continued to develop protocols and procedures to balance public outreach with confidentiality and the protection of witnesses in criminal cases. Since 2018, the government has denied the IIMM permission to establish an office in the country, and during the year, the IIMM, based in Geneva, received no response to its request to travel to the country. During the year, the IIMM received evidence from the UN Fact-Finding Mission, traveled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to interview Rohingya refugees, and completed a mapping of NGOS and victims’ groups in Burma as part of planning for evidence collection there.

According to leaders of religious minority communities and human rights activists, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, communal disparities were exacerbated by inconsistent government regulations, their enforcement, and varying interpretations of the regulations around the country, with harsher outcomes for minority religious communities. The President’s Office banned public events and mass gatherings nationwide on March 13, including religious events. As of year’s end, a range of restrictions at the national and regional level remained in place, and pagodas, monasteries, mosques, and churches remained closed to the public. At least three different laws were applied to enforce limits on gatherings, including religious gatherings. The same action – for instance, a gathering of five or more persons – had the potential to result in charges and punishment under the Natural Disaster Management Law (three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine or both), the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law (six months’ imprisonment or a fine), or Article 188 of the Penal Code (one to six months’ imprisonment or a fine). According to media, the government prosecuted Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh – returning through both formal and informal channels – amid anti-Muslim sentiment and hate speech from the public, military, and religious hardliners portraying Rohingya as a vector for the coronavirus.

More than 200 residents of Sinthay Village in Dawei District’s Yebyu Township attended Buddhist funeral rites for a monk in April, despite COVID-19 restrictions. According to the Irrawaddy newspaper, the chairman and secretary of the pagoda trustee committee were fined 93,000 kyat ($70) under the penal code for defying an order issued by government officials. In contrast, 12 Muslim men in Mandalay were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a religious gathering at a house in the Aung Pin Lae quarter of Chanmyathazi Township.

According to the Myanmar Times, Christian pastor David Lah and colleague Wai Tun were sentenced to three months in prison on August 6 for organizing a prayer session in April in violation of the government’s National Disaster Management Law prohibiting mass gathering as part of a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, Ma Ba Tha members shared some of Lah’s speeches denigrating Buddhism, reportedly in an attempt to incite anti-Christian hatred.

According to Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the National League of Democracy’s (NLD) central information unit, on May 26, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein and the NLD-led Yangon regional government attended a public religious ceremony that went “against the government’s own [COVID-19] instructions.” The government took no disciplinary against the Chief Minister or cabinet members who attended the event.

Several NGOs reported authorities confined approximately 130,000 Rohingya in camps within the country, following an earlier round of violence in 2012. Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya remained extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside.

In July, newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews told the Human Rights Council, “Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are forced to live in deplorable conditions in IDP camps or in villages without basic rights, including freedom of movement.” He also noted that a proposed camp closure project the government launched as part of its National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons and Closure of IDP Camps in 2019 “not only prohibits the right of IDPs to return home but may force them into land susceptible to flooding and without access to basic services, including healthcare and education. And it may also continue to deny other basic rights, including freedom of movement.” According to local sources, authorities continued to deny IDPs the right to choose their relocation or return destination. Human Rights Watch described these IDP camps as severely limiting livelihoods, movement, education, health care, and adequate food and shelter. It stated the government closure process entailed constructing permanent structures near the current camp locations, further entrenching segregation and denying Rohingya the right to return to their land, reconstruct their homes, regain work, and reintegrate into society.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an additional 163 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and October, compared with 2,966 during the same period in 2019. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the government made no new efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees during the year. An attempt in August 2019 failed when Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship. Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back.

Starting in 2019 and continuing during the year, authorities arrested hundreds of Rohingya in Ayeyarwady, Yangon, Bago, and Magwe Regions for traveling without permission, and charged them with violations of the Immigration Act. On April 8, a court dropped charges against more than 200 of those accused of leaving Rakhine State illegally, but according to activists, hundreds more remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

On November 2, Wirathu, a monk and chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, surrendered to Yangon police on an arrest warrant issued in 2019 for criticism of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Numerous human rights groups described Wirathu’s anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric as hate speech.

According to international humanitarian NGOs, the government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State, northern Shan, southern Chin, and Kachin States during the year. NGOs stated the government’s travel authorization process for aid groups within the country effectively restricted aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations, in violation of international humanitarian law. During the year, the Red Cross Movement and World Food Program continued to maintain generally predictable access to meet life-saving emergency needs.

Multiple sources stated authorities and the military continued to single out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor, including requiring them to transport soldiers, weapons and ammunition, and food supplies, and arbitrarily arrested them and imposed restrictions impeding their ability construct houses or religious buildings. According to reports, government officials were occasionally complicit with traffickers abducting Rohingya women and children in transit while fleeing violence, selling them into sex trafficking and forced marriage in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Authorities in northern Rakhine State reportedly continued to prohibit Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons, prior to the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions. Rohingya refugees reported that exceptions to the five-person regulation applied only to marketplaces and schools.

Armed conflict between the government and ethnic armed organizations in Kachin and northern Shan States, begun in 2011, continued. It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. The United Nations reported that 107,000 persons remained displaced during the year by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where many Christians and individuals from other religious groups lived. According to the United Nations, 97,000 persons remained displaced in Kachin State and 20,000 in Shan State.

According to NGOs, both the government and nationalist monks used their influence and resources to build Buddhist infrastructure in majority Christian areas, including in Kachin and Chin States, against the wishes of the local population. Minority religious communities said they perceived these efforts to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), authorities continued practicing discriminatory and abusive policies against members of religious minority groups. The CHRO said that Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to face destruction of homes and places of worship and suffered physical violence by pro-military Buddhist nationalists, and that authorities prevented them from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings. The CHRO also said there were cases in which police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account for crimes against members of religious minority communities.

In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the situation remained unchanged from 2019, and government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya. Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considered foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks but was given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists. Sources stated obtaining travel permits often involved extortion and bribes. Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine State if they were to visit the state. According to an August report by Burma Human Rights Network, 160 cases against 1,675 individuals were documented over four years of discriminatory prosecution against Rohingya for attempting to move freely in the country.

According to NGOs, such restrictions continued to impede the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods and education, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities. Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim continued to receive additional scrutiny on their movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion; obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments. Some NGOs that tried to register reportedly found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, a leading national news organization publishing in Burmese and English, the Internal Revenue Department required an NGO categorized as an “advocacy group” to pay tax if the department determined the NGO had made a “profit,” based on its tax return. NGOs voiced concern that new tax rules could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.

According to the Irrawaddy, on July 7, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ordered the removal of sitting Buddha statues in Nay Pyi Taw donated by members of the country’s former military regime because, it said, the stone idols were sculpted according to occult practices that contravene Theravada Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.

According to the CHRO, the government continued not to issue permits for Christian religious groups to register and own land and properties. All such registration applications remained pending at year’s end, with some pending for more than 15 years.

Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings. Buddhist leaders said obtaining such permission was more difficult for non-Buddhist groups. Representatives of religious groups said the need for multiple permissions, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action, often as a result of pressure by members of other religious groups. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.

In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture continued to restrict non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes.

Along with other houses of religious worship, mosques remained closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak as of the end of the year, although some authorities allowed limited renovation work to take place. In September 2019, some Muslim leaders formed a committee to press the government to reopen shuttered mosques across the country, most of which were closed by the government in the wake of 2012 communal Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine State. The committee maintained a list of more than 40 shuttered mosques across the country. A 2019 list from the General Administration Department reported there were more than 800 mosques in Maungdaw Township, more than 400 in Buthidaung Township, and 10 in Rathedaung Township, all in northern Rakhine State. It was unknown how many of them had been shut down or destroyed. Twelve mosques and religious schools remained closed in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Regions, as well as in Shan State, according to the Burma Human Rights Network. A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thaketa Township in Yangon Region and the closure of two additional schools remained in force. Thirty-two mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Regions remained closed. Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Region, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate, in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance.

Muslims in Mandalay Region reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014. Authorities ordered mosques shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, as did mosques in Bago and Mandalay Regions. Some Hindu leaders also reported authorities continued to limit access to religious sites.

A Chin-based NGO again reported local authorities in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches seeking to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members continued to circumvent this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

According to the CHRO, the General Administration Department in Mindat, Chin State continued to require organizers of religious events and activities involving domestic and international NGOs to seek permission at least two weeks in advance from the Chin State government. COVID-19 restrictions that remained in place at the end of the year, however, stopped all events.

According to the CHRO, in January and before COVID restrictions were in place, the Chin State government prohibited a religious gathering organized by the Chin Baptist Convention, the largest Christian organization in Chin State. The event was scheduled to take place in Mindat Township, Chin State, with a focus on peace and environmental issues. Despite the convention’s having submitted a permission request in advance and having pledged not to discuss politics during the meeting, Chin State officials denied the request just prior to the scheduled start of the gathering.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented most public events, sources said the government continued restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, including requirements for advance notice of events and participants. NGOs sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues. Many religious groups and NGOs said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.

Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

The government continued to financially support Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. It continued to fund two state sangha universities in Yangon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.

Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography. According to the CHRO, Christian students were required to convert to Buddhism to access so-called “Na Ta La” schools in Chin State, which were better funded than public schools. The CHRO described Na Ta La schools as a “state-sponsored religious and cultural assimilation program.” The national elementary school curriculum included lessons and textbooks containing discriminatory and incendiary material, according to UN and NGO reports. According to sources, one high school textbook still commonly used included a poem that read, “Horse, the color of a coconut shell / slave, [the red-brown color of a] kalar.”

Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.

Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools. Rohingya and Kaman children in central Rakhine State had physical access to only one high school, located in Thet Kae Pyin, Sittwe Township, according to international observers. Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students could attend classes and take examinations but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.

A Rakhine State government university program for Rohingya and Rakhine students – launched during the 2018-2019 school year and expected to expand during the 2020-2021 school year – allowed students to attend University of Sittwe-administered courses in a limited distance education program.

In December 2019, the Center for Diversity of National Harmony (CDNH) and the embassies of the Netherlands and Denmark launched a small scholarship program in Rakhine State that allowed 100 students, both Rakhine and Rohingya, to attend East Yangon University in Yangon. Previously, Rohingya students were required to attend the University of Yangon because of stated government concerns regarding security if they attended school in Sittwe. According to CDNH, the program was set to expand in the 2020-2021 school year.

Human rights organizations again reported that schools sometimes submitted citizenship applications on behalf of non-Muslim students while denying the same privilege to Muslim students. Muslim students, after submitting the applications, sometimes had to pay bribes to immigration officials to obtain documentation. According to Rohingya rights organizations, instructors reportedly made anti-Muslim comments in university classrooms. Muslim students typically were not permitted to join institutes for professional studies. One human rights group documented the teaching of racist and anti-Muslim tenets in schools throughout the country.

According to a 2019 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017, the government continued to prevent Rohingya and other Muslims from holding congregational prayers on Friday or during religious festivities in Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees reported they were unable to freely celebrate Eid al-Fitr or other religious holidays for the past seven years.

According to media reports, Yangon authorities requested that Muslims observe Ramadan at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to additional government restrictions on all forms of worship, including Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, but sources reported punishments for violation were disproportionally meted out to religious minorities. In July, the government permitted limited worship with fewer than 30 people at a time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of public events, the White Rose campaign – which grew in response to anti-Muslim activities in 2019 – conducted food distribution and a “Peace Biker” rally in Yangon during Ramadan.

Although Muslims said government authorities had granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha in prior years, COVID-19 restrictions prevented this activity in 2020. Media and religious sources said that in previous years, local authorities in some villages had restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority of which were owned by Muslims. Community leaders stated these restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslims to celebrate Islamic holidays.

Sources continued to state that authorities generally did not enforce four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”

Although there were no public reports of military donations to Ma Ba Tha during the year, according to the weekly newsmagazine Frontier, the military and military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had a history of patronizing and funding Ma Ba Tha. In October remarks to Frontier, a monk active in Ma Ba Tha stated, “So what if Ma Ba Tha was funded by the USDP? It’s a charity organization. Everyone was welcome to support Ma Ba Tha’s mission and it is not fair to criticize the giving of donations to a Buddhist organization.”

On February 10, the military-aligned nationalist Buddhist organization Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) conferred its highest honor on the military’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing for protecting “race, language, [and] religion,” according to the newspaper Myanmar Times. On June 26, the YMBA issued a statement demanding “insults” to Buddhism, race, and religion must be stopped or be prosecuted, according to Frontier.

On January 26, Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Aung Ko said during a Myanmar Muslim Youth Gathering in Yangon that he wanted to reopen closed mosques and build a large new mosque in Yangon, but he feared the reaction of what he termed “ultranationalist thugs.”

The 2019 case against monk Myawaddy Sayadaw for defaming the military was ongoing at the end of the year. NGOs stated that Sayadaw was an active participant in various peacebuilding and interfaith efforts.

A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State remained in effect, requiring residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.

According to civil society activists, Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.

Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions continued to require the applicant to list his or her religion. Applications by Muslims for government jobs were largely rejected, according to one human rights organization.

Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians. There were 60 Christian and two Muslim members of parliament: Sithu Maung (Yangon constituency) and Win Mya (Mandalay constituency). Neither of the two was Rohingya. According to political observers, the exclusion of Rohingya in the political process was based more on animosity towards Rohingya as an ethnic group than on Rohingya as followers of Islam. Twenty-Five Muslim candidates competed in the November general elections, compared with none in 2017 and 2018. The Union Election Commission barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on the grounds that their parents did not hold citizenship. Activists noted the difficulty of attributing this to anti-Muslim (rather than anti-Rohingya ethnic group) sentiment, citing the fact that five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority were allowed to run.

According to Fortify Rights, because of discriminatory documentation requirements, Rohingya were disenfranchised en masse in the November general elections, both Rohingya still living in Rakhine State and Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.

Authorities continued to require citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards usually indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, continued to face problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. Some Muslims reported they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on their application for a citizenship card.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs). The government said these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law. NGOs reported that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. There were reports that government officials required Rohingya to have an NVC to fish or access banking services. Many Rohingya expressed distrust of the process; they said they were already citizens and that they feared the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would grant naturalized rather than full citizenship, which carried fewer rights. Some townships in Rakhine State continued to require Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs and listed “Bengali” as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card, also known as “pink card.” At least one NGO stated that NVCs were a method used by authorities to diminish the citizenship standing and future rights of Rohingya by indicating they were foreigners. The few Rohingya who received citizenship through this process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits, and consideration of their citizenship applications usually required significant bribes at different levels of government.

State-controlled media continued to frequently depict military and government officials and their family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.

Statements from various government ministries and departments, including the President and State Counselor’s Office, highlighted discriminatory attitudes toward Rohingya, according to the NGO Progressive Voice. According to media reports, the military continued a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through fictitious Facebook accounts and other social media. After media attention in July focused on a handful of cases of COVID-19 imported into Burma by Rohingya returning from Bangladesh, Kyaw Win, director of Burma Human Rights Network, said the narrative that Rohingya brought COVID-19 into Burma was an attempt to “divide the Rakhine and Rohingya community.”

On May 4, the government ordered all civil servants to stop using hate speech on social media and required civil servants to monitor and report online behavior to the central government. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), civil society groups welcomed the move but were cautious about its intent and effect. Thet Swe Win, Executive Director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, told RFA, “We have noticed that the government has issued directives on hate speech in the past few days. This coincides with increasing international pressure, as they will soon submit a report to the ICJ. They may be politically motivated to reduce international pressure, but otherwise these measures are very good in nature.”

In January, former President Thein Sein urged voters to consider the protection of “race, religion and military” as they looked toward the November election. NGOs said this phrase was well-known coded language used to encourage discrimination against Rohingya.

The government hosted conferences and attended events with a number of interfaith groups, including Religions for Peace, to promote reconciliation, peace, and development through national and local initiatives in its interfaith councils, the Interfaith Youth Network, and Women of Faith Network. Events included multireligious, multistakeholder Community Forums for Advancing Peace and Development in Pyay, Bago Region, on February 19, and in Lashio, Shan State, on February 25. Religions for Peace participants included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh leaders.

In February, Vice President Myint Swe and other senior government officials participated in an interfaith conference organized by Religions for Peace in Loikaw, Kayah State. During the event, Myint Swe urged respect for the country’s different faiths.

According to NGOs, the government generally regulated foreign religious groups in a manner similar to nonreligious foreign aid groups. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Yangon-based religious groups to host international students and experts.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors. Many prominent civilian and religious leaders continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.

According to Muslim leaders and civil society activists, opposition from Buddhist monks in Hpa-an, Karen State, prevented the construction or repair of any mosques and blocked Muslims from purchasing homes outside the traditional Muslim quarter, despite government approval. Monks exercised influence over local officials to prevent permits or construction despite higher-level government approval, according to religious and interfaith leaders.

Despite a continuing order by the SSMNC that no group or individual operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media, including a July campaign in Mandalay that distributed stickers reading, “We don’t want the NLD to make Myanmar a kalar country.”

According to Burma Monitor, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates ran in the 2020 general election from various – mostly nationalist – parties, such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. None of the candidates was elected to office. According to RFA, the parties’ campaign posters contained three banyan leaves – a symbol used by Burma’s Buddhist majority – and the slogan “No Rohingya.”

On February 9, hundreds of individuals, characterized as anti-Muslim ultranationalists by civil society and pro-tolerance activists, protested in Yangon as part of the newly formed and Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar Nationalist Organization, accusing the NLD-led government of failing to protect the country’s Buddhist majority, according to Reuters. Speakers at the rally protested against remarks made by Religious Affairs Minister Aung Ko, blaming him for criticizing the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry for the government’s failure to arrest several nationalist figures for sedition and inciting violence. Protestors carried “No Rohingya” banners.

On December 28, “Bullet” Hla Shwe, a former USDP lawmaker and former military officer, who said in 2019 that the Prophet Mohammad would bomb the U.S. embassy if it posted “insulting images” of him, surrendered to Yangon police on a 2019 arrest warrant for sedition.

On April 3, police arrested three street artists in Kachin State for painting a mural that raised awareness about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating the law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after some Buddhists, described by interfaith activists as “hardliners,” said the mural, which portrayed a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, was wearing a robe that resembled those worn by Buddhist monks. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.

According to local and international experts, Rohingya Muslims were perceived as not truly belonging to the country, irrespective of citizenship status, and belonging to a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain. There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya. Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent. There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.

On June 15, local media outlet The Voice ran a cartoon depicting a Rohingya man crossing the border carrying COVID-19 with him, accompanied by the derogatory label “illegal interloper,” a term frequently used to describe Rohingya.

Hate speech against Muslims continued to be widespread on social media. In September, Facebook said that in the second quarter of the year it had taken action against 280,000 pieces of content in Burma that violated its community standards regarding hate speech, with 97.8 percent detected by its systems before being reported, up from the 51,000 pieces of content it took action against in the first quarter.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered activities, such as informational exchanges, although most activities were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups, including Article 19 and Free Expression Myanmar, continued advocating and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.

Monk Ashin Issariya, formerly known as “King Zero,” continued to lead the Anti-Adhamma Committee, a group of approximately 100 like-minded monks who preached against intolerance, confronted militant Buddhism from within the Buddhist clergy, and conducted interfaith outreach initiatives. According to interfaith activists, Issariya collaborated with other monks and lay activists, including Pyin Oo Lwin-based monks U Seintita and Thet Swe Win, who led the 2019 “White Rose” solidarity campaign with Muslims following a spate of communal violence in Yangon.

In Mandalay Region, civil society and interfaith leaders continued to hold meetings and public events for community leaders and youth aimed at promoting peace and religious tolerance, as in previous years, although such meetings were, in part, curtailed due to COVID-19. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the USAID Administrator, the Ambassador to Burma, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the country with senior government and military leaders. They specifically raised the plight of the overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin, northern Shan, and Chin States amid ongoing military conflicts, and the advocacy on social media of violence against religious minorities.

U.S. visa restrictions imposed in July 2019 on the armed forces commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities remained in force during the year, as did Global Magnitsky financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on these same individuals for serious human rights abuses.

In March, the then-USAID Administrator said, “We have carried out groundbreaking initiatives aimed at helping religious and ethnic minorities recover from atrocities, [providing assistance to] the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh.”

In May, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom warned that the Burmese military was denying Rohingya Muslims access to medical care and exposing them to the risk of complications in severe cases of COVID-19.

In February, when launching the International Religious Freedom Alliance to promote global religious freedom and respect human dignity, the Secretary of State noted the repression of religious freedom in Burma, stating, “We condemn terrorists and violent extremists who target religious minorities, [including] Muslims in Burma.”

The U.S. government continued to press for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.

The U.S. government advocated with senior Burmese government officials for the military to drop its legal action against a leading pro-tolerance monk for remarks critical of the military.

U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and violence in Rakhine State, including a voluntary and transparent path to provision of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services for IDPs, and unhindered access for humanitarian personnel and media in Rakhine and Kachin States. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence in Mandalay, Kachin, and elsewhere. Since August 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $820 million in humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh and Burma, including $469 million in 2020, with $78 million for programs in Burma, $314 million for programs in Bangladesh, and $29 million in regional crisis response.

Embassy officials at all levels emphasized the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the national security advisor, and the Ministers of International Cooperation; Religious Affairs; Home Affairs; Ethnic Affairs; Immigration, Population, and Labor Affairs; and Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement Affairs. Embassy officials also met with officials in the President’s Office, the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, and representatives of other governments.

Although embassy travel to ethnic and religious minority-predominant areas was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions of religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities continued. Embassy staff visited Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Shan and Karen States, areas where conflict or violence have affected religious minorities in recent years, as well as other areas that suffered from and were identified as vulnerable to ethnoreligious violence.

The embassy emphasized the need for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, in public engagements, and through its social media accounts. At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech, including at panel discussions on U.S. First Amendment rights integral to freedom of religion and communal harmony. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook to engage local audiences on the importance of religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in democratic societies and in the United States.

The Ambassador gave interviews to local media and international media in which he discussed the need for accountability for the 2017 ethnic cleansing and improved conditions for Rohingya and other minority groups. The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously-based tensions and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance.

Public programs at embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay offered a platform for community leaders, media, students, and others to discuss intercommunal tolerance and respect, often featuring individuals from minority ethnic and religious communities, including a virtual Youth Forum on tolerance. The embassy hosted programs on digital and media literacy as a way to empower participants to reject online hate speech and the spread of rumors and other misinformation. As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported numerous faith-based groups and NGOs working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws on minors’ participation in religious activities. The government continued to assert control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,600 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. According to the annual report of The Church of the Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 7,000 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions. The CAG reported some individuals died in custody or as a result of police harassment. Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, where authorities beat them and forced them to take medication. Authorities detained and arrested religious leaders trying to hold services online. The government continued its 2019-2024 campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts, including, according to media, stories from the life of Jesus, to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the State. In September, United Front Work Department (UFWD) vice head and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) director general Wang Zuo’an announced foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, and maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong. From January to July, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID restrictions. There were reports the government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase the surveillance and arrest of religious practitioners, including members of state-sanctioned groups, and to curtail private worship among religious groups. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized publishing and copying businesses that handled religious materials. Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country. The government removed architectural features that identified churches and mosques as religious sites. It altered textbooks to delete references to religious holidays. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In October, the Holy See extended for another two years its 2018 provisional agreement with the government concerning the appointment of bishops. Critics stated the agreement did not alleviate government pressure on Catholic clergy to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture, while promoting ethnic Han individuals in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread.

In multiple public speeches, the U.S. Secretary of State criticized the government for curtailing religious freedom. In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four Chinese leaders and additional PRC entities pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. During the year, the U.S. government added 20 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List that were implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing the visa restrictions, the Secretary of State said, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” The U.S. also prohibited import of merchandise believed to have been produced in Xinjiang with forced labor. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country. An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than one percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020 report, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. The SCIO report states there are six million Catholics, although media and international NGO estimates suggest there are 10-12 million, approximately half of whom practice in churches not affiliated with the CCPA. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uyghur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 14.9 million residents, or 60 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimate tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates there are seven to 20 million practitioners.

Some ethnic minorities follow traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as an expression of “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but it limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining normal. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in or do not believe in any religion.” The constitution states, “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution. Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

The CCP is responsible for creating religious regulations and oversees the UFWD, which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities. SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations and administers the provincial and local bureaus of religious affairs.

CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practice. Members found to belong to religious organizations are subject to expulsion, although these rules are not universally enforced. The vast majority of public office holders are CCP members, and membership is widely considered a prerequisite for success in a government career. These restrictions on religious belief and practice also apply to retired CCP members.

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups. Criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison. There are no published criteria for determining or procedures for challenging such a designation. A national security law also explicitly bans cult organizations.

The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other organizations. The government continues to ban the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy) and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.” The government also considers several Christian groups to be “cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of the Almighty God (CAG, also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

The Counterterrorism Law describes “religious extremism” as the ideological basis of terrorism; it uses “distorted religious teachings or other means to incite hatred or discrimination, or advocate violence.”

The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Regulations require religious organizations to register with the government. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations are permitted to register, and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. The five associations, which operate under the direction of the CCP’s UFWD, are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (TSPM), and the CCPA. Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See, are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations. Registration information is only required once, but religious organizations must reregister if changes are made to the required documentation.

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in June, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code. The revisions formalized the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions. Previously, bank accounts and real estate holdings were commonly held in the name of individual staff members, making it difficult in some cases for authorities to separate the financial matters of members from those of the religious institution.

Religious and other regulations permit official patriotic religious associations to engage in activities such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities. The CCP’s UFWD, including SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

Government policy allows religious groups to engage in charitable work, but regulations specifically prohibit faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities require faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once they are registered as official charities, authorities allow them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government does not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government requires faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of their registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often require these groups to affiliate with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

Article 70 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.” Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100 and $30,600). Illegally obtained income connected to the travel may be seized and “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

The regulations specify that no religious structure, including clergy housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. SARA regulations place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions, and they state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,300) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

The regulations require that religious activity “must not harm national security” or support “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling the credentials of clergy.

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations. Many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect. In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, may permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices. In Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces, for example, local governments allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.

SARA states, in a policy posted on its website, that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government. A provision states, however, that religious organizations should report the establishment of a religious site to the government for approval.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody. However, the PRC defines the right to religious faith differently than the right to religious activities, such as prayer facilities and access to clergy. Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states that no state unit, social organization, or individual may force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion. Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 criminalize the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments or symbols; doing so is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release, and a concurrent fine. Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

Publication and distribution of literature containing religious content must follow guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. Online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups require prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools.

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must first receive approval from the religious affairs department of the local government when the facility is proposed, and again before services are first held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space. Therefore, every time such groups want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel room or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for that specific service. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, gained either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity and is subject to criminal or administrative penalties.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or the construction of “key” projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local bureau of religious affairs (guided by SARA) and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or to provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules varied widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students. The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the XUAR state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities. No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.” Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues. Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.” Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

The law states job applicants shall not face discrimination in hiring based on religious belief.

On February 1, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism. Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With respect to Macau, the central government notified the UN Secretary-General, in part, that residents of Macau shall not be restricted in the rights and freedoms they are entitled to unless otherwise provided for by law, and in case of restrictions, the restrictions shall not contravene the ICCPR. With respect to Hong Kong, the central government notified the Secretary-General, in part, that the ICCPR would also apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Government Practices

Police continued to arrest and otherwise detain leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention. Authorities reportedly used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.

Sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities had targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,492 individuals imprisoned for “organizing or using a ‘cult’ to undermine implementation of the law.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that according to a government source, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a confidential document in September ordering a nationwide, three-year crackdown on the CAG. The campaign outlined three main goals: “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad.” Bitter Winter reported increased arrests of Church members following the issuance of this document, including 71 arrests in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province, in September and 160 arrests in Nanyang City, Henan Province, on November 10 alone.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 42,807 church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 32,815 in 2019. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 35,752 church members (at least 26,683 in 2019), arrested 7,055 (6,132 in 2019), detained 4,045 (4,161 in 2019), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 5,587 (3,824 in 2019), sentenced 1,098 (1,355 in 2019), and seized at least RMB 270 million ($41.3 million) in church and personal assets. At least 21 church members died as a result of abuse or persecution (19 in 2019). The 21 included four who died as a result of physical abuse or forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and four who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the CAG annual report, in August, a woman named Qin Shiqin died in custody in Shandong Province 10 days after her arrest. Facial swelling and blood in the corners of her mouth could be seen on her remains. A 71-year-old woman identified as “Xiang Chen” died in prison in Sichuan Province while serving a three-year sentence because of her faith. Her remains appeared emaciated, her face was swollen and bruised, and a scar was visible under her nose. A man named Zou Jihuang died in custody in Hubei Province of liver cirrhosis. Zou had been arrested in 2017. During his imprisonment, he had developed a liver condition for which he was denied medical treatment, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor. In Shaanxi Province, a 77-year-old woman named Yang Fengying committed suicide after police went to her home multiple times over the course of three years to intimidate and threaten her.

According to the CAG annual report, at least 847 CAG members were arrested between February and April, many of whom were apprehended as a result of the CCP’s antipandemic household checks or at identity card checkpoints. Police extracted information on the church from these individuals through physical abuse, such as administering electric shocks and handcuffing them painfully, with one arm over a shoulder and one twisted up from below.

Media reported authorities used measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups. The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic. According to media reports, the government conducted door-to-door household inspections, during which they identified and arrested members of banned religious groups. One CAG member said she hid under the bed every time officials came for an inspection. A government employee in Shandong Province said his superiors ordered him to search for nonlocal tenants, particularly members of banned groups, such as the CAG and Falun Gong.

In May, Bitter Winter reported the political and legal affairs commission of a locality in northeastern China released a document stating the CCP had established “a stability maintenance mechanism” targeting religious groups, among other individuals and groups, that the government determined posed “a danger to social stability” during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that between February and March, authorities used COVID-19-related mandatory identification checks and home inspections to arrest 325 CAG members. In February, authorities arrested two church members during an identification check, searched their home, and confiscated RMB 45,000 ($6,900) of church valuables. During interrogation, officers reportedly placed a plastic bag over the head of one of the Church members and beat him. They also strapped him to a “tiger bench” with his body tied in a stress position and shocked him with an electric baton. According to Bitter Winter, another church member was arrested when a pandemic inspection team that included community representatives, health personnel, and police officers came to his home. During his interrogation, officers reportedly covered his mouth with a plastic bag and hit him on the face with a desk calendar, stepped on his feet, beat his calves with an iron rod, and forced him to hold a live electric baton.

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,659 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed 8,576 practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith, compared with 6,109 arrested and 3,582 harassed in 2019. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted. Those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, authors, and dancers. Minghui stated individuals were tortured in custody. Minghui also reported that authorities sentenced 622 practitioners to prison throughout the country during the year. The sentences ranged from three months to 14 years, with the average sentence being three years and four months.

Minghui reported that during the year, 83 individuals from 20 provinces and centrally controlled municipalities died due to being persecuted for being Falun Gong practitioners. Some individuals died in custody as a result of physical abuse, including being deprived of sleep and food, forced into stress positions, and denied proper medical attention. Others died shortly after being released on medical parole. On May 13, authorities in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, arrested Zhang Zhiwen for distributing Falun Gong materials the previous August. Zheng’s husband attempted to bring her clothes and insulin for her diabetes, but authorities refused to accept the items, saying they would provide her medication. Zheng died in custody on May 17 and authorities sent the body directly to a funeral home without notifying her husband. Falun Gong practitioner Li Ling of Dazhangjia Village, Penglai City, Shandong Province, died on July 13 after reportedly being severely beaten following her arrest on June 28. Village authorities forced her family to cremate her remains on the same day. According to her family, her face was deformed, and she was covered in bruises. The village’s CCP secretary and a group of paramilitary soldiers took Li from her home on June 28 after a fellow villager reported seeing her with dozens of Falun Gong booklets.

According to Minghui, on September 22 and 23, authorities in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, arrested 27 Falun Gong practitioners and three family members who were not practitioners, and confiscated books, laptops, printers, money, photographs of Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi, and other personal items. Authorities harassed eight other practitioners within days of the arrests. One practitioner returned home to find police ransacking her home. They confiscated books on Falun Gong and arrested the woman along with her husband, who was not a practitioner. Following a group arrest of Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun City, Jilin Province, in July, police beat one practitioner, hit his head against the wall, and dragged him around on the concrete floor. He suffered severe injuries to his knees as a result.

According to Bitter Winter, on May 18, authorities assaulted several individuals who were protesting the demolition of a Buddhist temple in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, that authorities declared was “a dilapidated building.” Police beat one woman for filming the scene. A witness said, “Three officers pressed her to the ground, hitting her collarbones until she lost consciousness, and the phone was destroyed.” Police injured a monk in his 70s for waving his walking stick at authorities and accused him of “assaulting the police.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report, Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ-transplant market. A related series of articles published during the year examining the country’s organ transplantation system questioned the plausibility of official government statistics about the sourcing of transplant organs, stating there was an overlap between medical personnel performing organ transplants and individuals involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign.

On March 1, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal established by the Australia-based NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, released its Full Judgment on the conditions of organ harvesting in the country. The report was a fuller account with appendices of the evidence the nongovernmental group had drawn on and methodology it had used to reach conclusions contained in its Short Form Conclusions and Summary Judgment report issued in June 2019. In the Full Judgment report, the group included accounts by individuals, including medical personnel, who stated they were eyewitnesses to abuses, including from medical personnel, and other evidence that documented what the NGO determined to be a decades-long and ongoing state-run program of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, principally Falun Gong practitioners. The Full Judgment report also contained eyewitness accounts from Falun Gong and Uyghur individuals of involuntary medical examinations, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, and DNA tests.

According to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated news organization, on August 2, authorities broke into the home of a Falun Gong practitioner, pinned her down, and forcibly took a sample of her blood, telling her it was “required by the state.” One officer shouted, “The law does not apply to you. We’re going to wipe you all out.” The Epoch Times stated that dozens of other practitioners across the country reported similar incidents. On July 22, authorities in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, arrested and took blood samples from 46 practitioners. An attorney familiar with the cases said the blood sampling did not appear to be a routine physical checkup but rather was illegally “collecting people’s biological samples.”

According to the CAG annual report, harassment of members included the collection of biological data, such as blood samples and hair.

In April, Bitter Winter reported instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. According to a staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it was hospital practice to begin “treatment” of CAG members as soon as they were brought in, without any tests or examination. According to a member of the Church from Tianmen City, Hubei Province, who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital, “A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests.” Nurses threatened to tie her up if she refused to take medication. One former patient said two doctors pressed her down on a desk and shocked her on the back, hands, and feet with an electric baton to force her to take medication. During the month she was in the hospital, doctors administered six electroshock treatments, causing her to suffer memory loss and numbness in her limbs. She said doctors threatened that her son’s job would be negatively affected if she continued to practice her faith.

International religious media outlets and human rights groups reported that local authorities in several districts around the country continued to award compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners from certain groups or confiscating donation money. Conversely, local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, a government employee from Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter the municipal government issued arrest quotas for CAG members to subordinate localities, leading to the arrest of 211 individuals. In Jiangxi Province, the police arrested 116 CAG members and confiscated RMB 378,000 ($57,800) of church and personal assets. Minghui reported police received an unknown amount of bonus pay for each Falun Gong practitioner arrested.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities raided the homes of and arrested at least eight members of the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during an online worship service on April 12, Easter Sunday. A pastor and a deputy deacon were among those arrested. According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), authorities continued to harass members in the weeks following the raid. On April 24, authorities took Church member Ran Yunfei to a police station shortly before he was scheduled to speak in an online service. He returned home later that same day. The NGO ChinaAid reported police summoned Ran again in November in connection with his participation in another online religious seminar.

The ICC reported that on May 23, authorities arrested a pastor from the Nanjing Road Church in Wuhan, Hebei Province, during an online evangelism event in which he was taking part. They interrogated him for approximately five hours before releasing him.

According to Bitter Winter, in February, police arrested 13 members of the Born Again Movement, also called the All Sphere or All Range Church, in Huai’an City, Jiangsu Province. Five of the members arrested were elderly and suffered from various illnesses. Police released the five after protests from their relatives but forced them to sign statements promising to stop their church activities. Police also came to the home of another church member who hosted church gatherings at her home and threatened to arrest her if she did not stop doing so. They said three generations of her descendants would be unable to take college entrance examinations, enroll in the army, or become public servants if she did not stop. The officers took samples of her blood and prints of her fingers and palms.

According to AsiaNews.it, on April 2, authorities took Zhao Huaiguo, founder and pastor of the Bethel Church in Cili County, Hunan Province, from his home and arrested him on a charge of “inciting subversion against state power.” Police returned to his apartment on April 15 to confiscate books, Bibles, and photocopies of books as evidence of “illegal trade” in books. His wife said he was likely arrested because he spoke to foreign news agencies about COVID-19 and had not affiliated his church with the TSPM church. ChinaAid reported the Zhangjiajie Intermediate Court tried Zhao in October for “inciting subversion of state power,” and prosecutors recommended an 18-month sentence.

In May, the ICC reported that authorities transferred Pastor Wang Yi of the ERCC from Chengdu City Detention Center to a prison in an unknown location. In December 2019, Wang had been sentenced to nine years in prison. According to the ICC, since his arrest, authorities had denied Wang’s parents the ability to visit him, either in person or virtually, despite their having the legal right to do so, and Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location under surveillance.

At year’s end, the whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police had detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups. In September, the NGO Jubilee Campaign submitted a written statement to the 45th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the government to “release unconditionally and with immediate effect all political and religious prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng.” Gao’s daughter, Geng Ge, submitted a video statement to the council, stating, “As of today, I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

In October, ChinaAid reported that since July, police in Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, had threatened and harassed Pastor Wang Hai of the Trinity Church and his wife and detained other church leaders and members of Wang’s extended family. Wang said authorities had targeted the Church because its members belonged to the ethnic Miao minority and were Christian. He said that due to the ongoing harassment, church attendance had dropped from 100 worshippers to only a handful who attended Sunday services.

AsiaNews.it reported that on September 1, authorities from the Religious Affairs Bureau in Fujian Province arrested Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of the Mindong Diocese, and held him incommunicado for 17 days to pressure him to join the CCPA. At least 20 underground priests in the region faced similar pressure from the religious affairs bureau, according to AsiaNews.it.

According to RFA, on April 19 and May 3, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Church pastor Yang Xibo told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM. According to multiple international press reports and mobile phone videos that Church members posted to Twitter, authorities forcibly entered a private residence in which Church members were holding a worship service, without a warrant or showing any form of identification. Authorities seized several congregants and tried to drag them out, injuring three; they detained at least nine members, releasing them approximately 12 hours later. According to RFA, authorities raided Xingguang Church again on June 11, taking away furniture and other church belongings, but did not arrest anyone. ChinaAid stated authorities broke into church members’ homes on July 22, destroying and removing property.

In January, RFA reported that authorities in Jinan City, Shandong Province, arrested Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country. He was held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” According to RFA, this charge was “frequently leveled at peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

The Falun Dafa Information Center, a Falun Gong rights advocacy group, reported authorities in Beijing detained at least 40 persons ahead of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on May 22. Sources said police also harassed practitioners and searched their homes and that police told the individuals they were taking the actions because of the upcoming political meetings. On April 21, police forcibly entered the home of Wang Yuling by prying open her window. They ransacked the house and confiscated books and printed materials related to Falun Gong, as well as a printer and computer. They took Wang and her daughter into custody. On April 27, authorities forcibly entered the home of Yang Yuliang, searched it, and confiscated Falun Gong books and photographs of Falun Gong’s founder. They held Yang and his daughter, Yang Dandan, in custody for three days.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities pressuring members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. Media reported the government threatened to withhold social welfare benefits and to retaliate against family members. The NGO CSW stated authorities instructed schools to report the religious beliefs of students and staff.

Bitter Winter reported that on November 1, the government began the seventh national population census, collecting a broad range of personal and household data, including individuals’ identification numbers. According to several census takers, although there were no questions about religion on the census questionnaire, they were instructed when visiting people’s homes to pay attention to religious materials and symbols and to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue. In one case, when five census takers entered a home in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, they saw a Bible and asked the residents if they were Christian. They determined the home was being used as a house church and ordered the residents to stop hosting gatherings. A census taker in Yantai City, Shandong Province, said local police told him and his colleagues to report any households with images associated with Falun Gong. A census taker in Heze City, Shandong Province, said he was ordered to report to police any person who did not allow him inside the home, because refusal might indicate the person held religious beliefs or hosted unauthorized religious gatherings.

According to the ICC, on October 11, police arrested Elder Li Yingqiang of the ERCC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, just before the church began an online service. During the arrest, police also threatened Li’s two young children. Police also arrested another church member, Jia Xuewei, and interrogated him for several hours about ERCC’s recent spiritual retreat and the worship that was about to take place. Both were released later that day. An ERCC member told the ICC that authorities likely detained Li and Jia to prevent the online service from taking place. According to the source, police told Li he would be taken from his home every week and that they would target his children if he posted about his experience online.

According to Bitter Winter, during the year, authorities in several provinces investigated the personal backgrounds of civil servants, hospital staff, teachers, students, and the family members of each to determine their religious status. In May, the Education Bureau of Jinan City, Shandong Province, required some primary and secondary schools to determine if any of their teachers, students, or their family members were religious.

There continued to be no uniform procedures for registering religious adherents. The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the state-sanctioned religious associations. Only government-accredited religious personnel could conduct such activities, and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. The April 2018 white paper by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) stated there were approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 were Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.

The 2018 SCIO white paper stated that by 2017, there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA: 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic, and 21 Protestant. Students younger than 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country: 222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered or, at other times, because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader. According to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, Article 34 of the new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups regulation, which governs money and finances, if enforced, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations, promulgated in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” According to Bitter Winter, on April 13, the UFWD in Zibo City, Shandong Province, issued an order calling on religious groups and clergy to write essays on their “love for the country and the Communist Party.” A Catholic dean in Zibo said that on April 16, a religious affairs bureau official told him to study Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Congress of the CCP for an examination he would have to take later. On February 18, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province issued a notice that the city’s religious groups should hold events to advance Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, the TSPM in Fujian Province issued a document stating, “Posters promoting the core socialist values shall be posted in prominent positions in all church venues. Clergy members should highlight the core socialist values in their sermons and use important festivals, major events, and other occasions to interpret and publicize the core socialist values, so that they are inserted into believers’ minds, their Sunday worship services, and daily lives.” Local government authorities reportedly threatened to close churches whose clergy refused to help spread government propaganda.

According to Bitter Winter, the government regularly pressured clergy to incorporate government messages into sermons. Following President Xi’s call in August to curb food waste in the country, two Chinese Christian Councils of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, demanded all TSPM churches integrate the president’s ideas into their sermons, so that “the policy reaches everyone in society.” In response, some clergy members reportedly integrated the president’s exhortation into the Biblical story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country. Many religious groups faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances. Following investigations, authorities shut down hundreds of churches that were reportedly unregistered or whose registration had not been updated under the new regulations. In late 2019, the Jilin Province Religious Affairs Bureau issued a document calling for investigations of churches related to or funded by overseas religious groups and blocking their activities online, and it began implementing these measures during the year. In Shandong Province, national security officers interrogated a house church pastor in February for evangelical activities abroad.

The government media outlet Xinhua reported that in September, UFWD vice head and SARA director general Wang announced that in the previous 70 years, through the development of the TSPM, foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in the country.

On May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association held a training session for Buddhist professionals and monks across the province. The training included advising monks on how to implement religious Sinicization, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National Religious Work Conference, and the religious affairs regulations.

The BAC-affiliated Buddhist website AmituofoCN.com reported that on April 16, approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized by the Hainan Province UFWD, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School. Participants studied the principles of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the Regulations on Religious Affairs. Hainan UFWD deputy director general Liu Geng in his opening remarks told the religious professionals to “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.” According to AmituofoCN.com, on May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association organized another training session for clergy, teachers, and religious workers from various temples in the province. Song Xinghe, an official in the Hainan UFWD Religious Affairs Bureau, gave a lecture entitled, “Insistence on the Sinicization of Religion.”

According to Gospel Times, a Chinese Christian news website, from July 15 to 17, the Guangdong TSPM held a training session for 98 clergy to study new regulations and promote Sinicization in Guangdong Province. An associate professor from Jinling Union Theological Seminary gave a lecture on TSPM and the Sinicization of Christianity. Government officials also gave a lecture on “anticult” measures.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders. The publication reported that on July 20, the Dandong City Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province required TSPM clergy to participate in a sermon competition on the Sinicization of religion. The clergy were told to prepare sermons by “looking for elements in the Bible that are relevant to the core socialist values and traditional Chinese culture,” in conformity with “the progress of the times.” One clergy member told Bitter Winter that only competition participants would pass the annual review to receive a clergy certificate.

In August, a conference to study the new civil code and volume three of Xi Jinping on Governance was held at the Guangxiao Buddhist Temple, organized by the Guangdong Buddhist Association. Approximately 800 leaders of all religious groups in Guangdong Province attended in-person and virtually.

The state-owned China News Service reported that on December 1, SARA director general Wang delivered remarks at the 10th National Congress of the BAC. Wang called on the BAC to “pursue political progress toward the adherence of Sinicization of Buddhism” to ensure Buddhist content was suitable for “contemporary social development.”

From August 10 to16, the Gansu provincial UFWD held what it described as the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of temple management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. A UFWD press release stated the training was intended to direct the Sinicization of Islam, promote the statement of CCP principles, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and “increase political literacy, all while highlighting policies and regulations, history and culture, and national and provincial conditions through the lens of patriotic education.”

In November, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an Islamic scholar in the northwestern part of the country said of Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out. You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out – but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

On October 13, the state-owned China National Daily News reported the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association released an outline for implementing the “five-year plan for Hubei Province to adhere to the Sinicization of Islam in China (2018-2022).” According to the article, measures to implement the plan included “strengthening political identity,” studying the works of Xi Jinping, studying the Regulations on Religious Affairs, and guiding imams to interpret the scriptures in accordance with “Chinese traditional culture and the core values of socialism.”

China News Service reported that on November 28, the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Taoist Association was held in Jurong, Jiangsu Province. In addition to passing a code of conduct for Taoist teachers, the congress elected Li Guangfu as the new Taoist Association chairman. Li stated that Taoism should “adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “adhere to the Sinicization of Taoism.”

Media reported in September that Catholics in the country protested the distorted retelling of a Bible story in a textbook the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology Press published to teach “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools. In the original biblical story from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who committed adultery and prevented a crowd from stoning her to death. In the textbook, Jesus disperses the crowd, but he says to the woman, “I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” and he then proceeds to stone her to death himself. According to UCA News, Catholic critics said the authors of the textbook “want to prove that the rule of law is supreme in China and such respect for law is essential for a smooth transfer to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Sources told media that authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians wearing skull caps or veils.

During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating loyalty to the CCP over the church. In a press release on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Pastor Wang Qingwen, senior pastor of Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches in the city to “unswervingly adhere to the three-self patriotic principle of teaching and strive to promote the theological construction of the Sinicization of Christianity.” In the press release, Wang urged churches to continue to adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to “hold high the banner of patriotism.”

In December, the Jerusalem Post reported there were approximately 100 practicing Jews among the 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Lacking access to the Torah, they used Christian Bibles containing the Old Testament. Members of the community said they worried about government crackdowns on religion and had to celebrate Hanukkah and hold other gatherings in secret. One community member said, “Every time we celebrate, we are scared.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities placed pastors of house churches and dissident Catholic priests under arrest to make sure they would not lead Christmas celebrations in churches or private homes. According to the publication, in Xiamen, Fujian Province, police stopped a group of Christians from singing Christmas songs at a mall, even though they had been invited to perform there. Authorities fined a Christian in Lushan County, Henan Province, RMB 160,000 ($24,500) for gathering people to pray and sing Christmas songs. The NGO Human Rights Defenders reported there was pressure on schools across the country to teach children that Christmas should not be celebrated and that gifts should not be exchanged. According to the NGO, the government gave permission for “spontaneous” street demonstrations by people carrying banners reading “Christmas, Get out of China.”

The government labeled several religious groups as “cults” (xie jiao – literally “heterodox teachings”), including the CAG, the Shouters, the Association of Disciples, and the All Sphere Church. The government also continued to ban certain groups, such as Falun Gong, which it classified as an illegal organization. In July, Bitter Winter reported that several provinces had introduced measures that encouraged individuals to report on members of what it called “cults,” which carried a penalty of between three and seven years’ imprisonment. According to the CAG’s annual report, authorities harassed and threatened with imprisonment more than 8,400 Church members across the country who refused to sign statements renouncing their faith. In Shandong Province, those who reported on suspected “cult” members could receive up to a RMB 2,500 ($380) award, while Hainan Province offered awards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300). Guangdong Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Nanjing City introduced similar measures. Actions by cults to be reported included using the internet to produce or disseminate religious materials; producing or disseminating religious leaflets, pictures, slogans, newspapers, and other publications; and hanging religious banners and posters in public places. Sources told Bitter Winter the campaign against xie jiao was ubiquitous throughout the country. Bitter Winter posted photographs of a park in Yuchen County, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, that contained multiple large red banners with anti-xie jiao messages.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it labeled as cults and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities. Faluninfo.net reported that in June, a police supervisor in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, fired Falun Gong practitioner Zha Zhuolin from the force for refusing to write a statement denouncing the group. According to Zha, the supervisor, Xu Wang, said, “The first rule for a police officer is to be loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Media reported that in Guangzhou, pandemic-control volunteers delivered anti-xie jiao brochures, along with facemasks and hand sanitizer, to residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then broadcast anticult propaganda when an industrial park reopened in April.

According to media, police and local religious affairs bureau officials raided the Dongguan Branch of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church on the evening of August 21 when more than 10 adherents were holding a Bible study session. Police accused the attendees of “spreading heterodox teachings” and detained three individuals. Two were released shortly, but the minister, Yang Jun, was detained until the next day on a fraud charge.

According to Bitter Winter, the government responded to protests against school reform in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region by blaming the unrest on banned religious groups, such as Falun Gong, or groups it labeled cults, such as the CAG. On August 28, the region’s Anticult Association launched “Prevention of Xie Jiao Propaganda Month.” Activities during the month included holding events, distributing brochures, and teaching “all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia to guard against xie jiao.”

In October, CSW reported that some ethnic minority villages had established “village rules” to allow villagers to isolate and target Christians. According to CSW, in September, village authorities in Huang Fei Village, Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, issued a notice stating that the traditional faith of the Dai community was Buddhism and that Christianity was an “evil cult.” The notice announced that anyone who violated the rules of the village “by believing in Jesus Christ and other sects” would have to pay a financial penalty to the community. CSW stated that individuals on social media reported the Li community in Hainan Province had also imposed a financial penalty on persons believing in Christianity.

From January to June or July, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bitter Winter reported, however, that authorities allowed Taoist temples displaying Mao Zedong images to stay open throughout the lockdown. Sources told Bitter Winter that people worshiped at the Arhat Temple in Zhumadian City, Henan Province, throughout the lockdown because it had a Mao Zedong wall painting. The director of the Chinese National Ancestors’ Temple in Shanqui City, Henan Province, said authorities allowed his temple to remain open during the pandemic because it had a Mao Zedong statue.

Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown. On February 23, Shandong Province’s two state-run Christian organizations, the TSPM and the Chinese Christian Council, issued a notice prohibiting live streaming of religious services. A former TSPM pastor from Jiangxi Province told Bitter Winter that in early February, police shut down a chatroom he was using for a religious gathering. The ICC reported that on August 11, the local religious affairs bureau in Yunnan Province fined Zhang Wenli of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for conducting unauthorized online Bible study. A TSPM pastor in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, told Bitter Winter in April that the government blocked the link he shared with his congregation on WeChat, a Chinese social media application. A house church director in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, live-streamed a church service on YY, a video-based social network, but the service was suspended less than half an hour into the broadcast. An imam in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, reported that shortly after he discussed Islamic festivals on a social media platform, police blocked his account. A local government official in Liaoning Province was summoned by his superiors in March for attending an online service of a South Korean church. They forced him to uninstall the app that allowed him to join the service.

In June, AsiaNews.it reported that although the government had begun allowing churches to reopen, the bureaucratic process and conditions for reopening made doing so difficult. A priest in central China said these conditions included getting permission to reopen from the village, city, and provincial governments and meeting strict sanitation requirements. The priest said, “Religion does not seem to belong to us; it belongs to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” The Catholic News Service reported authorities in Zhejiang Province issued a notice on May 29 stating that priests were required to “preach on patriotism” as a condition for resuming in-person services. Bitter Winter reported in June that authorities in Zhejiang Province required churches to praise the government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to pray for “national economic and social development,” “attainment of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and “promotion and realization of human destiny community,” all of which were President Xi Jinping’s political slogans.

According to Bitter Winter, in July, before the government had begun to lift lockdown restrictions and reopen religious venues in Nanyang City, Henan Province, the city’s religious affairs bureau ordered several folk religion temples to remove religious books and incense burners. Government authorities inspected the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple three times in August. As a condition for reopening the venue, officials ordered the temple to burn scriptures and expel a nun who lived on the premises. The temple remained closed, however, even after meeting these conditions.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although it allowed some musical, cultural, and political events to take place. On Christmas Day, riot police blocked the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral of the Savior in Beijing (also known as the Xishiku Church), saying religious gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic. A large Christmas tree was used to block the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing, and signs were also posted there saying gatherings were cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to Bitter Winter, officials placed arbitrary restrictions on Catholic churches affiliated with the CCPA, closed facilities, and merged others without the congregations’ consent. Government officials in Linyi used a point system to determine whether a congregation should be merged, considering such factors as whether the congregation had more than 10 members or the facility was equipped with a blackboard, audio system, desks, and chairs.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 10, the local religious affairs bureau and the security bureau ordered Father Liu Jiangdong, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, to leave the Zhengshou Diocese, which was affiliated with the CCPA. A source told Bitter Winter that government authorities had previously accused Liu of financial improprieties, suspended his priesthood certificate, and imprisoned him from October 2018 to December 2019. The source said Liu had in fact been imprisoned because he opposed removal of the cross from atop his church, formed a Catholic youth group, and allowed minors to attend religious services. A member of his congregation said that since Liu’s release, authorities had surveilled him, monitored his telephone calls, and locked him out of his residence. A churchgoer said authorities threatened to fine members of Liu’s former congregation up to RMB 200,000 ($30,600) if they sheltered him or invited him to hold Mass in their homes.

Media and human rights organizations reported that SARA issued a new requirement in October that only the IAC was permitted to organize Muslims’ pilgrimage trips. The new regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health. They also had to be able to completely pay the costs associated with going on the Hajj and must oppose religious extremism. The new administrative measure was reportedly intended to “preserve religious freedom and the continued Sinicization of religion in the PRC.”

According to Bitter Winter, the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang Province issued a document in April that required authorities to increase “counterterrorism and stability maintenance measures” during Ramadan. The document instructed police to intensify surveillance of local Hui and other Muslims, especially during Friday prayers, the daily breaking of the fast, and other important Ramadan activities. It also instructed police to surveil ethnic minority visitors from Xinjiang by checking their documents and luggage, determining their whereabouts while in the city, and acquiring other information.

NPR reported in November that in the spring, police detained 14 men in Yiwu City, Central Zhejiang Province, because they had purchased Islamic books. They were subjected to weeks of questioning about their political views and online correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and Chinese Muslims overseas. According to a friend of one of the men detained, “The police had printed out the text records everyone had on WeChat with writers and publishers…Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to [the police] beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

Sources reported churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

Bitter Winter reported that in April, authorities placed surveillance equipment, including facial recognition cameras, in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Authorities also installed surveillance cameras in all Protestant and Catholic churches in Jinxiang County, Jinin City, Shandong Province. A deacon at one TSPM Church in Henan Province, where authorities had installed a surveillance camera in December 2019, said, “[Government officials] always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” In March and April, authorities in a city in Zhejiang Province placed surveillance cameras outside the entrances of homes of seven members of the CAG. One church member reported she was told this was done for “theft prevention.”

In October, Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Jiangxi Province’s Poyang County, which has a large population of Christians, issued orders to install RMB one million ($153,000) in facial recognition cameras in all state-approved places of worship. According to the report, authorities installed approximately 200 cameras in more than 50 TSPM churches from July to September, and nearly 50 in 16 Buddhist and Taoist temples. A police officer stated the cameras were installed to monitor church members and sermons.

A Catholic source in the northeast part of the country told AsiaNews.it in July that government staff attended Sunday services to monitor activities and ensure children who were 18 or younger did not attend. The Grand Mosque in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, displayed signs prohibiting children who were 18 and younger from participating in religious activity. According to one worshipper at the mosque, authorities said this was to allow young people to focus on their secular education.

Minghui reported that police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, intensely surveilled Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zhenyu, who had been released from Suzhou Prison on September 19 after completing his three-year sentence. While monitoring Ma, authorities intimidated his mother and other practitioners.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in September that authorities in Sanya City, in the island province of Hainan, took measures against the predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, which comprised approximately 10,000 members. They banned girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school. An Utsul community worker said the ban prompted fierce protests by students and their families and that it was temporarily lifted after hundreds of students wore hijabs in public and boycotted classes. Photographs and videos circulated on social media showed girls wearing hijabs and reading from textbooks outside their primary school while surrounded by police officers. According to the SCMP, Utsuls working in government or CCP bodies were told the hijab was “disorderly.” The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued document, Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui Neighborhoods, which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods on the island. The document called for the demolition of mosques displaying “Arabic” features, the removal of shop signs saying in Chinese characters the words “Islamic” or “Halal,” and increased surveillance over the Utsul population.

According to Bitter Winter, from March to May, Islamic symbols and writings in Arabic were painted over or covered on signboards of 70 Hui-run businesses in Chuxiong, the capital of the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. According to some shop owners, officials from various state institutions, among them the public security bureau, urban management, and religious affairs bureaus, ordered them to remove the symbols from their signboards or replace them entirely. Otherwise, their business licenses would be revoked. A baker from the prefecture’s Lufeng County said that from December to May, Islamic symbols were removed from the signboards of 62 halal shops in the county. “The state is out of control, like during the Cultural Revolution…Hui men are not allowed to wear white caps and women, headscarves. Hui Muslims will disappear in two or three generations.” Local officials told shop owners that the order came from the central government and that the signboard-removal campaign was nationwide. According to one local resident in Songming County, Kunming Province, signboards on 176 Hui businesses were “Sinicized” between December 2019 and May. A restaurant owner said, “If we Hui people tried to argue with officials, they would call us rioters and arrest us on any trumped-up charge.”

The SCMP reported in September that new foreign teachers coming to the country had to attend a mandatory 20-hour training course of what the news source characterized as “political indoctrination covering China’s development, laws, professional ethics, and education policies.” According to the newspaper, the Hainan provincial public security bureau offered rewards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for tips on foreigners who “engaged in religious activities without permission,” including teaching religion and evangelizing. One teacher said authorities installed a surveillance camera in his classroom to monitor his lessons.

The SCMP reported in September that many foreign missionaries were not allowed to return to the country after it partially lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreign national residents. According to the Voice of America (VOA), in November, the Ministry of Justice published draft regulations requiring foreign worshippers wanting to host religious activities to apply for a permit and to demonstrate their groups were “friendly to China” in their country of origin. The regulations would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners and would require those organizing religious activities to provide the names, nationalities, and visa status of those who would attend as well as a detailed program of the service, including which texts would be read, before authorities would grant permission. According to VOA, authorities said the new regulations were intended to stop foreigners from spreading “religious extremism” or using religion “to undermine China’s national and ethnic unity.” The draft regulation specified it would also apply to individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups. During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” from unofficial distribution channels. The government-affiliated news outlet Meipian.com reported that in January, law enforcement officers inspected publication wholesale and retail locations, farmer’s markets, and “urban-rural junctions within their jurisdictions” looking for “illegal religious publications and illegal training courses of a religious nature.” The ICC reported that on March 24, the Zhongshan No. 1 District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong Province charged Christians Liang Rurui and Zhu Guoqing with conducting illegal business operations that “seriously disrupted market order.” According to the ICC, authorities in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, had arrested them in November and December 2019, respectively, for printing 7,000 children’s Bibles. According to the human rights blog Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network), on July 2, authorities arrested four Christians from the Life Tree Culture Communications Co., Ltd. – Fu Xuanjuan, Deng Tianyong, Han Li, and Feng Qunhao – on charges of “illegal business operations” for selling electronic audio Bible players, small handheld devices that allow the user to listen to (as opposed to read) Biblical text. According to Weiquanwang, the company had been legally established in 2011 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on September 14, the education and environmental protection bureaus in Luoyang City, Henan Province, inspected a local printing house to determine whether it was publishing banned religious materials. The printing house manager said, “They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content. If any such content is found, I’ll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed.” According to Bitter Winter, similar bans applied to photocopying businesses. One photocopy employee said, “I was told to report anyone who comes to copy religious materials.” Another said, “If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities.”

The ICC reported in September that the People’s Court of Linhai City in Zhejiang Province sentenced online Christian bookseller Chen Yu to seven years in prison and fined him for “illegal business operations,” allegedly for selling unapproved religious publications. Authorities first detained him in September 2019.

In July, Bitter Winter reported government restrictions on printing, copying, and mailing nonapproved Buddhist literature increased throughout the country. A source in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said authorities confiscated thousands of Buddhist books and compact discs from at least 20 stores in the region. One store owner said authorities confiscated more than 2,000 Buddhist books and materials from the store. Another shop owner said, “In the past, people would send me books and materials they printed themselves to distribute them for free, but nobody dares to do this now.” In March, police in Zhejiang Province forbade printing houses from fulfilling orders from venues not approved by the government. In June, authorities in Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia, banned copy centers from printing Buddhist and Christian materials. One copy shop owner said, “Government officials come every day to inspect computers and copy machines. If they discover that religious materials have been copied, I could be held legally accountable.”

Bitter Winter reported that in early September, police arrested a person in Jinan City, Shandong Province, who attempted to mail compact discs of sermons by Shenpo Sodargye, a Tibetan Buddhist master, to the more than 100 individuals in Weihai City, Shangdong Province, who had ordered them online. The names of the buyers were forwarded to local Weihai police, who summoned them for questioning.

According to Bitter Winter, during a meeting on Buddhism organized on July 31 by the Fuzhou City Religious Affairs Bureau in Jiangxi Province, authorities banned all temples in the city from keeping religious books from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the name of “preventing foreign infiltration.” The director of a Buddhist temple said, “The government controls all books on Buddhism; nothing that does not comply with the CCP ideology is allowed and is considered illegal. Only religious materials promoting the Party are permitted to be circulated.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Chinese New Year. Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them. One merchant in Luhe County, Guangdong Province, said, “We don’t carry religious couplets. Even if we had them, we wouldn’t dare sell them.” On January 19, three officials from Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, entered a TSPM church, took photos, and registered the personal information of those in the church. The officials distributed couplets praising the CCP and demanded they be posted. A government employee in Xinmi City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter that in early March, municipal authorities ordered all town and township governments to conduct door-to-door inspections of households and shops looking for religious couplets. Inspectors were instructed to remove the couplets and cooperate with the public security bureau to ascertain where they had been produced. One shopkeeper said authorities threatened to close his business if he posted Christian couplets again.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. According to VOA, in October, ChinaAid stated that online censors removed the words “Christ” (jidu), “Jesus” (Yesu), and “Bible” (shengjing) from social media posts and replaced them with the initials “JD,” “YS,” and “SJ.” The word Christianity was replaced with “JD religion.” According to some scholars, Christians were replacing the words in texts themselves to avoid online censors who might block the posts.

In May, Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to dismantle Islamic architectural features and remove Islamic symbols from mosques throughout the country, and it published photographs from multiple locations showing construction workers taking down domes and minarets as well as before-and-after pictures. In Weizhou City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, many of the more than 4,000 mosques in the city were remodeled or destroyed between 2018 and February 2020 as part of the government’s “de-Arabization and de-Saudization” campaign. Before-and-after photographs of the Weizhou Grand Mosque and other mosques showed that Chinese-style pagodas had replaced minarets and crescent moon symbols had been removed.

In late March, authorities removed the domes and star-and-crescent symbols from 17 mosques in Pingliang City, Gansu Province. A local imam said that before the removals, authorities forced imams to study “de-Arabization and de-Saudization policies as well as the promotion of religion ‘Sinicization.’” The imam said authorities threatened to revoke the credentials of imams who did not cooperate with removal of the symbols. Many mosques visible from major highways in Qinghai Province in September had replaced traditional Islamic minarets with more Chinese-looking structures or appeared to be in the process of doing so. Mosques with more traditional Han Chinese architecture, such as the Grand Mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, remained unchanged and were highlighted in public tours by imams and other mosque representatives.

According to Bitter Winter, in January, authorities removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from at least 10 mosques in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. On March 18, amid the coronavirus lockdown, government-hired workers remodeled the roof of the Gongmazhuang Mosque in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, to make it look “more Chinese.” Authorities had removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from the mosque in November 2019. In late March, the government ordered the removal of domes and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Xiaoma Village, Henan Province. In mid-November, authorities removed the dome and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Qinghua Town, Henan Province, and hung banners reading, “Resolutely resist religious infiltration and combat religious extremism” at the mosque’s entrance. In Maying Village, Henan Province, after the government ordered the removal of symbols from the local mosque, one resident said, “We have to listen to what Xi Jinping says and what state policies indicate. No one dares to challenge the state.”

In December, Bitter Winter published before-and-after photographs of numerous churches in multiple provinces, including churches affiliated with the TSPM, that showed that exterior crosses had been removed and facades altered to eliminate Western-style features that identified them as Christian worship venues. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM churches in Anhui Province between January and July. In April, UCA News reported the removal of crosses from several Catholic churches, including from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Anhui Diocese on April 18. A priest said dioceses normally cooperated with authorities on the removal of crosses in the hopes that they would not demolish the entire building. On June 6, all crosses, other religious symbols, and pews were removed from the Wangdangjia village church in Linyi County. The “Catholic Church” signboard above its entrance was covered with wooden boards.

According to Bitter Winter, between March 2019 and January 2020, authorities removed crosses from approximately 70 Christian churches, including TSPM churches, in Linyi City, Shandong Province. Authorities said the crosses were “too close to the national highway,” “too tall,” or might seem “unpleasant” to visiting provincial government superiors. They threatened to demolish the buildings if the crosses remained. On January 8, the provincial government ordered a TSPM Church near the high-speed rail line in Lanshan District, Shandong Province, to remove its exterior cross because it was “too eye-catching.” The Chinese characters for “love” and “Christian Church” were also removed. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM Churches in Anhui Province between January and July.

According to Bitter Winter, officials in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, pressured the abbot of the Buddhist Yuantong Temple to remove an 11-meter (36-foot)-high statue of Guanyin for being “too tall.” According to sources, authorities threatened to close the temple if the abbot did not comply. On March 9, workers dismantled the statue, and photographs accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed it lying in pieces on the ground.

Media reported authorities continued to destroy religious sites, including those affiliated with the TSPM and CCPA. Throughout the year, Bitter Winter published numerous before-and-after photographs showing churches, temples, and other religious structures that had been reduced in whole or in part to rubble. Bitter Winter reported that on March 10, authorities demolished a TSPM Church in Shangqiu, Henan Province. A source told Bitter Winter that on March 10 at 4:00 a.m., more than 200 government personnel and police came to demolish a TSPM Church in Xiazhuang Village, Shangqiu City, Henan Province. According to the source, police kicked in the door and forcibly removed a member of the congregation who was guarding the church, fracturing two of his ribs. The contents of the church were buried under the rubble.

On April 20, the government of Shangrao County in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Prefecture, demolished a TSPM Church, saying the structure was “unlicensed and dilapidated.” Sources said local officials told the congregation higher-level officials had ordered the demolition because “the government doesn’t allow belief in Jesus.” A church member told Bitter Winter the structure was in fact sound and was also registered with the local religious affairs bureau. The church member said that, contrary to law, authorities did not compensate the congregation for destroying the building. Accompanying the article were photographs showing the church before demolition and a pile of rubble following the demolition. According to another church member, following the demolition, congregants began practicing separately at home but had to be cautious. “The government arrests anyone in unauthorized religious gatherings. When they find two or three of us meeting, they can charge us with any crime at will, saying we are against the CCP.”

The ICC reported that on September 12, authorities in the town of Xiezhou in Yanhu District, Yucheng City, Shangxi Province, demolished the tombstones of more than 20 Swedish missionaries who had performed missionary work in the country in the early 1900s. They threatened to arrest anyone who photographed or videotaped the incident. Authorities planted vegetation over the gravesites.

Local sources reported authorities continued to close Christian venues or repurpose them into secular spaces. According to Bitter Winter, in April, the government of Qingshui Township in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, closed a TSPM Church for being “unlicensed and too eye-catching.” Officials destroyed religious symbols inside the church and posted a closure notice at the entrance. In May, officials converted the church into an activity center for the elderly, placing a ping-pong table, Chinese chess boards, and secular books inside.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 1, six local government officials and police officers raided a Catholic nursing home in Fuzhou City, Jiangxi Province. They confiscated 30 religious publications, a cross, and other religious symbols, sculptures, and paintings. A photograph accompanying the article showed that a mural of Jesus that had been displayed behind the alter was replaced with a landscape painting and an outdoor sculpture of Jesus was covered with a shed. Authorities pressured the church’s priest to sign an application to join the CCPA, but he refused. According to Bitter Winter, authorities also targeted the Benevolence Home, a nursing home operated by nuns in Saiqi Village, Fujian Province. On January 12, nearly 50 local government officials and police officers raided the nursing home where more than 30 persons lived, some of whom were from impoverished households or disabled. Authorities forced the elderly residents out and cut off the building’s electricity and water supply.

In July, a Catholic source in southeast China told AsiaNews.it that the local government denied permits to construct new Catholic churches and halted construction that was already underway. In January, AsiaNews.it reported that in at least five parishes in Mindong Diocese, Fujian Province, including Fuan, Saiqi, and Suanfeng, authorities cut off power and water to prevent churches from being used, citing “fire safety” measures.

Bitter Winter reported that government and law enforcement personnel destroyed the Great Hall of Strength, a Buddhist temple in Handan City, Hubei Province, on March 6. A local Buddhist said authorities demolished it because it “lacked a religious-activity venue-registration certificate.” The temple director said he was never approached about obtaining such a certificate. The local Buddhist said, “The government just wanted to demolish the temple…People cannot argue with authorities; they will accuse us of breaking the law as they please.”

According to Bitter Winter, authorities demolished the Buddhist Phoenix Temple in Qitang Town, Chongqing Municipality, on January 3. In March, authorities ordered eight Buddhist temples in Yongchuan District, Chongqing Municipality, to close and brick up their entrances, rendering the buildings unusable. Authorities demolished the Longhua Temple in Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, on April 1.

Sources told Bitter Winter that on May 18, more than 20 officials and police in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, destroyed a Buddhist temple that authorities had declared “a dilapidated building.” When a protester attempted to film the scene, police officers pressed her to the ground and hit her in the collarbone until she lost consciousness. Police then destroyed her mobile phone.

Bitter Winter reported several cases of authorities destroying folk religion sites throughout the country. From April 14 to 19, authorities demolished three buildings in the Yangfu Temple in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. On April 22, authorities demolished 18 statues in two folk religion temples in Linzhou, Henan Province. From April to June, authorities demolished 85 small folk religion temples in Handan, Hebei Province. On May 1, authorities demolished an ancestral hall in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 2 in Dangtu County, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Prefecture, more than 100 police officers destroyed a village folk temple. One villager said police first cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching. The witness said, “They then smashed the lock to get inside and demolished the temple after dragging out the eight elderly believers protecting it.” The online magazine posted a video on social media that showed a large number of police standing guard while a bulldozer knocked down the structure.

Bitter Winter reported in July that authorities had not yet reopened the Cao’an Manichean temple in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police were seen periodically patrolling the temple. Before its closure, authorities ordered the construction of a flagpole for the national flag and placed government propaganda slogans inside the temple.

Religious education for minors remained banned, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.

AsiaNews.it reported authorities sent a directive to Xilinhaote Middle School Number 6 in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia dated March 25 forbidding students from taking part in religious activities in or outside of school. The directive reportedly prohibited parents from teaching their children about religion and religious organizations from operating in schools. Students and teachers found disobeying the restrictions faced expulsion and dismissal.

In November, Bitter Winter reported that a fifth-grade teacher in a Liaoning Province primary school told the online magazine any mention of religious holidays had been purged from English-language textbooks. The teacher said a text originally entitled “Easter Party” had been replaced with “English Party” and descriptive passages such as “You will meet the Easter Bunny” with “You will meet Robin the Robot.”

In January, AsiaNews.it, reported the government had closed down several Tibetan Buddhist centers in Sichuan Province because, authorities said, “Illegal activities” were carried out in the centers. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet said the government’s actual purpose was to limit the influence of Khenpo Sodargye, a Buddhist monk who founded these centers. The centers were associated with the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, from which authorities had expelled more than 15,000 Buddhist monks and nuns since 2016 and destroyed significant portions of the property.

Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning continued to be required to obtain the support of the corresponding official state-sanctioned religious association. The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates from religious schools. Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.

Religious groups reported state-sanctioned religious associations continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice. The associations also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “Uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22-years-old.” According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge to renew their license each year.

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations and the Holy See had no official representative to the country. On October 22, the Holy See and the PRC announced they had agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. The two parties signed the original agreement in 2018. The precise terms of the agreement were not made public, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA) and Vatican News, it was a “pastoral” effort to help unify members of the underground Catholic Church in China – which had remained in communion with the Holy See – with Catholics belonging to the CCPA. Vatican News stated the agreement “does not directly concern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between the clergy and the authorities of the country. The Provisional Agreement concerns exclusively the process of nomination of bishops…” Following the signing of the agreement, seven CCPA-affiliated bishops appointed without papal mandate were brought into full communion with the Holy See; an eighth bishop was posthumously recognized. AsiaNews.it reported that on November 23, Reverend Thomas Chen Tianhao became the third new bishop without a prior affiliation with the CCPA to be ordained under the agreement, assuming the position of Bishop of Qingdao in Qingdao City, Shandong Province. UCA News reported that on December 22, a fourth bishop, Peter Liu Genzhu, was ordained bishop of Hongdong in Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Commentators, human rights groups, and some Catholic leaders criticized the agreement as doing little to protect freedom of religion or belief for Catholics in China. On November 17, the America Jesuit Review published an article discussing 30 bishops who belonged to the underground Catholic Church and refused to join the CCPA. “The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong in his online blog of October 7 said the agreement was lopsided, with the CCP nominating bishops for the Pope to approve, and that persecution of the underground Catholic Church had increased since 2018.

Catholic clergy and laypersons told media the situation of both registered and unregistered Catholic communities worsened during the year. A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the Pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. According to Bitter Winter, the Catholic Diocese of Mindong in Fujian Province suffered severe persecution from the CCP after most of its priests refused to join the CCPA. Authorities closed five parishes in January. Bitter Winter reported multiple instances of authorities pressuring Catholic leaders to join the CCPA and, in some cases, arresting and physically abusing Catholic leaders who refused. According to Bitter Winter, during the first half of the year, the CCPA attempted to force 57 unregistered Catholic priests from the Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 had complied, three had resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. Local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests to join.

According to Bitter Winter, on April 2, officials detained Father Huang Jintong, a priest from the Mindong Diocese’s parish in Saiqi Village in Fuan City, Fujian Province. Police deprived the priest of sleep for four days before he signed a document saying he would join the CCPA. According to AsiaNews.it, on September 1, the local religious affairs bureau detained another priest of the Mindong Diocese, Father Liu Maochun, for at least 17 days for refusing to join the CCPA.

Sources told Reuters News Agency that in May, two Catholic nuns serving at the Holy See’s Study Mission to China in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were arrested by mainland authorities when they traveled to Hebei Province to visit their families. The nuns were detained in Hebei for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They remained under house arrest as of year’s end, and their families’ homes were under surveillance. The nuns were reportedly allowed to attend Mass but were not permitted to leave mainland China.

In July, AsiaNews.it reported that a priest said authorities often gathered priests in order to “brainwash” them, congregation members were no longer able to host Mass in their homes, and bishops of underground dioceses were increasingly arrested since the 2018 signing of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China. One lay member said there were more restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to attend religious gatherings, children younger than 18 were forbidden from entering the church, and government authorities often sat in on church meetings to surveil the church.

CNA reported that on October 4, Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the auxiliary bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province, announced he would no longer preside over public masses or receive any tithes and said that all administrative matters associated with the diocese should be referred to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. In 2006, the Holy See excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese while Guo stepped into the subordinate position. Zhan was one of seven individuals appointed without papal mandate whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. The government did not recognize Guo, who was not a member of the CCPA, in his role as auxiliary bishop. In an open letter announcing his withdrawal from public religious duties, Guo stated, “The sacraments celebrated by those who sign [a document joining the CCPA] and those who do not sign are legitimate.”

In June, CNA reported that authorities detained underground Catholic bishop Cui Tai in Zhangjiakou Municipality, Hebei Province. According to AsiaNews.it, authorities in the past had repeatedly placed Cui under house arrest or sent him to forced-labor camps for engaging in evangelization activities without official government permission and for criticizing the CCPA. As of year’s end, it was unclear whether he had been released from detention.

Sources told Bitter Winter the government threatened to retaliate against family members if clergy in the Mindong Diocese did not join the CCPA. Authorities forced Father Feng from Xiyin Village, Fuan City, to sign an application to join the CCPA by threatening to dismiss his younger brother and sister-in-law from public employment. After another priest refused to join, authorities confiscated the vehicle his brother used for business and shut down his nephew’s travel agency.

The ICC reported in July that a member of the ERCC said authorities threatened to send the children of church members to “reeducation camps” and take adopted children away from their parents. The source said authorities had already taken four adopted children from one church family and returned them to their biological parents or found them other homes.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers. Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities. Minghui reported cases of Falun Gong practitioners losing their jobs due to their beliefs.

Bitter Winter reported that in June, a sanitation worker in Henan Province was fired for reading the Bible while on a work break. The director of the Environmental Sanitation Bureau fired her after publicly criticizing her earlier in the day. Thereafter, the Environmental Sanitation Bureau required that new workers show a “certificate of no faith” issued by police in the area of their permanent residence registration and stated that “one who believes in the Lord is not allowed.” A man in Shaanxi Province told Bitter Winter that he was required to provide a “certificate of no faith” to each of the multiple hotels he had worked at over the course of his career. A man working in the public security sector in Shandong Province said he lost his job because his father was a member of the CAG.

Discrimination against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs continued. Since 2017 and 2018 when articles in the 2005 Public Security Administration Punishment Law related to “suspicious activity” began to be enforced in earnest, Falun Gong practitioners reported ongoing difficulty finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Sources stated the enforcement of this law continued to move the PRC further away from informal discriminatory practices by individual landlords towards a more formalized enforcement of codified discriminatory legislation.

Sources told Bitter Winter that government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility towards that group. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread. Bitter Winter reported that in March, police in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, sent notices to many rental and real estate agencies forbidding them to rent apartments or shop spaces to Uyghurs. One property owner said police fined him RMB 500 ($76) for renting to Uyghurs and demanded he send police identification information and photographs of all Uyghur tenants. One Uyghur man said his family had, after some difficulty, found an apartment to rent, but on the condition that the family report to a local police station three times a week. The man said, “Three days after we signed the rental contract, police officers installed a surveillance camera at our building entrance.” One man in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, said owners preferred to keep their properties empty rather than to rent to Uyghurs. A Uyghur man said he had to use his friend’s bank card because local banks refused to issue him one. Uyghur grocery store and restaurant owners said constant police visits had a severe negative impact on their businesses. A Han businessman told Bitter Winter, “The government tries every means possible to deprive Uyghurs of their rights, prohibiting them from renting, doing business, and staying in hotels. The goal is to drive them away and cut off all their sources of survival, forcing them back to Xinjiang to be locked in ‘transformation-through-education’ camps.”

According to Bitter Winter, several college students stated college administrators encouraged students to report on fellow students who appeared to engage in religious activities. One Christian student in Inner Mongolia said she had been reported and that school administrators investigated her, frequently summoned her, and forced her to write self-criticism statements. A university professor who was a member of the TSPM Church was demoted from her teaching position after mentioning the Bible in class and was subsequently investigated by the State Security Bureau.

There were reports that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other religious minorities continued to face difficulties in finding accommodation when they traveled.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On September 30, at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy in Rome, Italy, the Secretary gave a speech on the restrictions of religious freedom in China. The Secretary said the CCP “has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.” In an October speech on tolerance while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.”

Embassy and consulate officials regularly sought meetings with a range of government officials managing religious affairs to obtain more information on government policies and to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials, including the Ambassador and Consuls General, urged government officials at the central, provincial, and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and to release prisoners of conscience. The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in meetings with senior officials. The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience and advocated on behalf of individual cases of persons imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu (prior to its closure by the Chinese government in retaliation for the closure of PRC Consulate Houston), Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The Consul General in Chengdu (prior to its closure) met with Tibetan and Muslim leaders in Sichuan Province to emphasize support for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities. Embassy officials met with visiting members of U.S. religious groups to discuss how these groups were engaging with local communities.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to its Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 120 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 250,000 social media users engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy staff and with each other. The embassy also highlighted the Secretary’s visit to the Vatican to emphasize U.S. support on religious freedom.

The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments, such as “Countries that respect religious freedom will be respected,” “Freedom of religion is a prerequisite for building a civil society,” and “The essence of religion is to lead people to the good. As a democratic power, the United States has guaranteed religious freedom.” For International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy published the Secretary’s message supporting respect for religious freedom as well as information describing the Chinese government’s continuing control over religion and restrictions on the activities of religious adherents. These posts on Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter social media platforms garnered more than 750,000 views and approximately 10,000 engagements.

In January, the Consulate General in Guangzhou submitted comments to the Guangdong People’s Congress and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission regarding the new draft of Guangdong Religious Affairs Regulations. The government stated the new regulations would “protect citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious harmony and social harmony, standardize the management of religious affairs, and improve the level of legalization of religious work.” In December, the embassy submitted comments and recommendations on the central government’s draft Rules for the Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Foreign Religious Activities, which proposed burdensome preapproval procedures for almost all religious activities. The draft rules also limited activities of unregistered religious groups and conflated peaceful religious practice with “terrorism.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons, bring the total number of entities added to the Entity List during the year to 20. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 1, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee; and Wang Mingshan, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB). They and their immediate family members became ineligible for entry into the United States. In making the announcement, the Secretary said the United States “will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB organization, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed a second round of sanctions pursuant to the Executive Order on one government entity and two current or former government officials, in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC.

On December 10, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on Huang Yuanxiong, chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau Wucun police station “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xiamen, China.” In his statement, the Secretary said, “Huang is associated with particularly severe violations of religious freedom of Falun Gong practitioners, namely his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.” The action also applied to Mr. Huang’s spouse.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities.

PRC authorities consistently harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend. Authorities routinely declined to approve or postponed U.S. officials’ requests to visit religious sites and meet with religious leaders.

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Hong Kong

Read A Section: Hong Kong

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.

Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. If a state of emergency is proclaimed, the rights may not be limited based solely on religion.

On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both, provided they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Dafa Association is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it may establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.

Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.

Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”

In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”

Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.

Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.

In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.

Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.

In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.

Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.

Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” According to the online news service Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court, for the third time, upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni Muslim prisoners who were charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.” On October 4, according to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish nongovernment organization (NGO), security forces arrested a prominent Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in his home in the city of Piranshahr. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. On October 8, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, stating, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities in the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’is across the country in “simultaneous operations.” On May 28, Radio Farda reported that police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri (an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals) and separatist groups.” The opposition website Iran Focus stated human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several religious Sunni teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan (which began in late April). NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them were placed there during the year. In July, a court sentenced seven of eight Christian converts who were arrested in Bushehr in 2019 for spreading “propaganda against the regime.” After sentencing a married couple among the group, the court ruled that, as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their adopted daughter, who has heart and other health conditions, whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In May, the parliament passed amendments to the Islamic Penal Code, including language that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. On November 9, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her prison sentence for protesting the compulsory hijab. On November 1, Iran International and the international human rights news agency HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. In January, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would only allow citizens to register as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism; previously application forms for the identity card had an option for “other religions.” According to a December 4 report by the news website IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to provincial judiciary heads establishing a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, including women lawyers not wearing the mandatory hijab at work or on social media or doubts about a lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries. According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University in Qom had infected the country with the COVID-19 virus. According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. In June, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on research on Iran, conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that found dramatic changes in Iranian society’s religiosity, especially an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. On September 24, the United States sanctioned several officials and entities for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking only to practice their religion, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad prisons. The statement read, in part, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers greater than 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam. Conversion from Islam may be considered apostasy under sharia, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims. The law considers these activities proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“enmity against God,” which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities [Islam]”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law,” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. The government considers any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, to be Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahl-e-Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or unregistered individuals attend services. The law does not recognize individuals who convert to Christianity as Christian. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources. The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press, except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level, through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs. To pass the university entrance examination, applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education supervises the private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education, or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulations state Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than the Baha’i Faith (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and Supreme Leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the Supreme Leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or Majles) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council, composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, President, and parliament, and supervises elections for those bodies. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).

The constitution bans parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system, or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states that in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men, but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents and not for other categories of death, such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

The criminal code provides for hadud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public-sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the Supreme Leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification, it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. According to Amnesty International and Voice of America (VOA), on June 10, an official told the family of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a Sunni Kurdish activist, they executed him on or about May 21 in the town of Oshnavieh. Authorities subsequently gave the family a death certificate stating he died on May 11 as a result of “being hit by hard or sharp objects,” a phrase Amnesty International had previously documented was used on certificates of deaths from gunshot wounds. Authorities had arrested Abdollahpour in 2016 in connection with an armed fight between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and the IRGC. The government charged him with “taking up arms [against the government]” and “supporting a dissident group,” charges he denied. The NGO Justice4Iran reported that authorities did not notify Abdollahpour’s family members at the time of his execution, and for many months before his death, his whereabouts were unknown, which led international observers to press authorities for information on his case. At year’s end, the government still refused to disclose what it did with Abdollahpour’s remains. According to Kurdistan Human Rights-Geneva, out of the nine political prisoners executed in 2020 in addition to Abdollahpour, there were three other Sunni Kurd political prisoners charged with “enmity against God” and other vague national security charges – Mustafa Salimi, Saber Shehkh Abdullah, and Diako Rasulzadeh – and two Sunni Baluchis – Abdulbaset Dehani and Abdulhameed Baluchzahi.

According to Radio Farda and IranWire, on July 9, authorities executed in Central Mashad Prison a man social media users helped identify as Morteza Jamali, who was arrested and charged with “consumption of alcohol.” IranWire reported that Jamali’s lawyer said that he was arrested in 2017 or 2018 and had been charged with consuming alcohol on several occasions. Under the country’s Islamic penal code, consuming alcohol is a “crime against God” and the initial punishment is usually flogging. Article 179 of the code states, however, that the accused may face the death penalty after being arrested three times.

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace and multiple media reports, on February 22, a Revolutionary Court sentenced to death three young men who had participated in November 2019 antigovernment protests, which began in reaction to a government increase in fuel prices. The government charged the men with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” The reports identified the three men as Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi. Amnesty International said their trial was unfair and that security forces “tortured [them] with beatings, electric shocks, and being hung upside down.” Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary, confirmed the three protesters’ death sentences on July 14 and accused them of “having links with certain groups abroad.” Citizens posted items on social media using the hashtag “DoNotExecute.” On July 19, the country’s judiciary said it would suspend the executions.

CHRI reported that the government announced the execution of two Sunni Baluch prisoners, Behnam Rigi and Shoaib Rigi, in the central prison in Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, on December 19. On December 20, the government executed a third Baluch prisoner, Abdolbaset Khesht, who was arrested in 2012, in the central prison of Dozap, in the same province. Authorities accused the men of membership in militant Sunni Muslim groups. NGOs and press reported that three other Sunni prisoners held in Zahedan were in imminent danger of execution.

According to Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni prisoners for the third time. Authorities imprisoned the inmates, Farhad Salimi, Qassem Absteh, Davood Abdollahi, Ayub Karimi, Anwar Khezri, Khosrow Besharat, and Kamran Sheikha, in the Urmia, Evin, and Rajai Shahr prisons for 11 years after arresting them in 2009. The government charged the men with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.”

According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested a Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in the city of Piranshahr on October 4. Authorities arrested Hamzehpour in his home, which they searched. The news report’s source stated that the government arrested Hamzehpur, whom the source said was regarded as one of the prominent clerics in the province, several times in the past. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown.

The ABC said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. Commenting on the report, Amnesty International stated, “The real number of victims is likely to be higher as many cases are believed to go unreported.” During this period, the ABC said the government flogged at least 2,134 individuals, including at least 17 children. According to the ABC, these numbers meant that, on average, for the past 20 years authorities have amputated the fingers of at least one person every two months and flogged at least two persons every week.

According to Amnesty International, members of the intelligence unit of the IRGC arrested Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi at her home in Noshahr, Mazandran Province, primarily in connection to her writings on social media about the November 2019 protests. IGRC intelligence officers held Kavousi in a Mazandran detention center, where she was kept in prolonged solitary confinement. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison. Starting in May, she was serving her sentence in Evin Prison along with 35 other women prisoners of conscience as of year’s end.

According to Amnesty International, in March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces containing Sunni Ahwazi Arab, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani Turkish ethnic minorities, staged protests over fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Prison authorities and security forces reportedly responded by using live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 inmates in two prisons and injuring hundreds of others. According to reports from families of prisoners, journalists, and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists and organizations, on March 30 and 31, security forces used excessive force to quell protests, causing up to 15 deaths in Sepidar Prison and 20 in Sheiban Prison, both located in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International reported that numerous videos taken from outside both prisons and shared on social media sites showed smoke rising from the buildings, while gunfire can be heard. Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.

On October 8, ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, saying it was “an indelible stain on the country’s human rights record.” According to the report’s language, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the FIDH report, “These ethnic and religious groups have been subjected to extensive and protracted discrimination with regard to their political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights, which has led to resentment towards the central government. Various groups have engaged in opposition activities and occasionally taken up arms in ethnic-populated regions in the past four decades. Rather than addressing their grievances, the Iranian authorities have responded with heavy-handed measures, including the implementation of the death penalty on a large scale.…Members of religious minorities [who have been targeted by executions] include some groups of Sunni Muslims in West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan Provinces; followers of the Shia Ahl-e-Haq sect [Yarsan] in West Azerbaijan Province; and Baha’is.”

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 6, IranWire and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) reported security forces shot and killed two Sunni Baluchi brothers, 18-year-old Mohammad and 20-year-old Mehdi Pourian, in their home in Iranshahr, the capital city of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Security forces also reportedly killed a 17-year-old, Daniel Brahovi, in the incident. The Iranshahr prosecutor told local media that the three were “famous and well-known miscreants” and that “weapons and ammunition were seized from them.” The families of the three deceased filed charges against the security forces involved but did not receive a response. According to one report, the local police and prosecutor threatened to kill the Pourian family if they continued to press the case.

According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities of the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. Authorities released Omidi from Evin Prison in August after he served two years on charges of “establishing home churches” and “promoting Zionist Christianity.” In September, he moved to Borazjan in Bushehr Province to serve a two-year term of internal exile. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Omidi and fellow members of the Church of Iran denomination Yussef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadai, and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mosayebzadeh to 10 years in prison each in 2017. At a retrial in June, a court reduced Nadarkhani and Fadai’s sentences to six years each and Omidi’s sentence to two years. On November 15, according to UK-based Article 18, an NGO focused on religious freedom in Iran, authorities summoned Fadai to the Shahid Moghadas Revolutionary Court, where he received 80 lashes for drinking communion wine.

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Article 18 reported that on January 12, authorities arrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi during protests in central Tehran and took her to Vozara detention center, where male and female prison guards beat her so badly that she carried visible bruises for three weeks. Detention center staff forced her to sit outside in extremely cold temperatures, withheld food until 24 hours after her arrest, and strip-searched her. They transferred Mohammadi to Qarchak Prison, where her bail was set at approximately 95 million rials ($2,300), equivalent to more than the annual salary of the average Iranian. Mohammadi had already served six months in prison for her Christian activities on charges of “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” According to VOA, on April 21, Mohammadi told her Instagram followers that she spent 46 days in “terrible conditions” during her detention. She said authorities sentenced her to three months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in the January protests but suspended punishment for one year, allowing her to remain free.

In a July report, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed concern at the reported high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azerbaijani-Turk, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.

On May 6, Amnesty International reported that Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for a spinal-cord disorder. CHRI had reported in 2019 that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities had transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” of Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Amnesty International called on authorities to suspend the execution of a Baluchi man, Javid Dehghan, who had been forced to confess under torture that he was a member of a Salafi terrorist group called Jaish ul-Adl and fatally shot two IRGC agents in an ambush in 2015. According to OHCHR, there was a series of “at least 28” executions in December in the country. An OHCHR spokesperson said, “This has included a series of executions of members of ethnic and religious minority groups – in particular, Kurdish, Ahwazi Arabi, and Baluchi communities.”

According to IranWire, on December 15, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 60 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 25 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 43 persons to prison for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” and at least 13 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.”

On May 28, Radio Farda reported police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri and separatist groups.” The report said that authorities used takfiri as an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals. Police accused those arrested of shooting at government buildings and raising the flag of dissident groups around the city.

On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’i’s across the country in “simultaneous operations.” Security agents possessing vaguely worded search warrants confiscated personal effects, mobile telephones, computers, laptops, and religious books and pictures. In some cases, agents also reportedly confiscated cash and national identity cards. Some of the Baha’is whose homes were searched had previously served prison sentences, including Afif Naeimi, a member of the former leadership body of the country’s Baha’i community, who was freed in 2018 after serving a 10-year sentence, and Riaz Sobhani and Shahrokh Taef, who each had served four-year sentences in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. On September 26, VOA reported that since August, authorities denied a Gonabadi Sufi dervish, Benham Mahjoubi, medical treatment, including medication provided by his family, for a panic disorder, and forcibly transferred him from Evin Prison to the Razi Aminabad psychiatric hospital in Tehran. Amnesty International stated that authorities subjected Mahjoubi to torture and gave him injections of an unknown substance on multiple occasions against his will. Mahjoubi’s wife posted on social media that authorities transferred him to the facility after he was paralyzed in a fall. According to VOA, the government had arrested Mahjoubi for taking part in street protests in Tehran in 2018, along with 300 other Gonabadi Sufi dervishes who had been demanding the release from house arrest of their leader, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh (who subsequently died on December 24, 2019).

In May, Gonabadi dervish Reza Yavari told VOA that authorities forced him to relocate to the northeastern town of Taybad, in Razavi Khorasan Province, to start a two-year sentence of internal exile following his April 1 pardon and release from a prison in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan Province. Yavari, a native of Khuzestan who was studying at a Tehran university prior to his 2018 detention, accused authorities of acting illegally by forcing him into internal exile after granting him a pardon. Yavari told VOA that 38 other dervishes had also been forced into internal exile and expressed concern about the government’s ongoing imprisonment of eight other dervish activists who were among more than 300 dervish community members arrested for involvement in antigovernment protests in Tehran in 2018. In August, four dervishes whom the government sentenced to internal exile told VOA that they rejected the claim made by a government representative in a press briefing that the government did not maintain a predetermined list of destinations for internal banishment. The four men said that the government sends released prisoners to live in poor towns, with harsh climates, far from the country’s population centers and their homes.

According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late September, government security services arrested three Kurdish religious activists, Syawash (Forat), Behzad Talayi, and Farshad Fatahi in Urmia, West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on October 14. According to the NGO, the government arrested the three individuals because of religious activities and “propaganda” on behalf of “Islamic extremist groups.”

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a June report by the online news source Balochwarna News, Sunni cleric Molavi Fazl al-Rahman Kouhi remained in prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad on the orders of a special clerical court that summoned and jailed him in November 2019 following nationwide antigovernment protests after a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Kouhi served as the Friday prayer leader for the town of Pashamagh, inhabited mostly by Baluchi Sunnis. The court summoned and jailed him days after he gave a sermon criticizing the country’s Shia-dominated government for violently suppressing the protests. According to the report, Kouhi’s sermon described the crackdown as un-Iranian, un-Islamic, and inhumane. Abdol Sattar Doshoki, an exiled Sunni rights activist, said that the government’s apparent arbitrary detention of an outspoken Sunni cleric was the latest sign of a bleak future for the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

Balochwarna News reported that security forces arrested Molawi Mohammad Qalandarzai, a Sunni imam, on February 27 at his home in Zahedan.

Iran Focus stated that during the year, the government increased its persecution of Sunnis in the parts of the country that have large Sunni populations. The website stated that human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several Sunni religious teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan, which began in late April. Authorities detained at least 10 Sunnis in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. According to other reports, the Sanandaj Intelligence Agency summoned Ali Moradi, a Sunni cleric, and his son Mohammad at the beginning of Ramadan. On April 22, the IRGC summoned and interrogated Maktoom Askani, a Sunni activist in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. The Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and arrested Abdul Rauf Dashti, another Sunni activist. In late April, the Human Rights News Agency reported that MOIS summoned and interrogated Shahdad Zehi, a Sunni cleric in Sarbaz in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. On May 21, the Baluch Activists Campaign said that the Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and interrogated Akram Kuhi, the temporary head of Friday prayers in Peshamag village. The reports said that after the IRGC officials asked Kuhi about the employees, teachers, and students at a local religious school, they summoned and interrogated four other Sunnis from the school in September.

NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them – 19 women and seven men – were placed there in 2020. NGOs reported that it was not clear whether holding twice as many women as men was accidental or whether it marked the beginning of a trend designed to apply additional pressure on the Baha’i community. In Shiraz, authorities summoned 26 Baha’is for a criminal hearing on October 5.

According to Iran Press Watch (IPW), on December 24, Branch 2 of the Bandar Abbas Revolutionary Court sentenced eight Baha’is for “gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt the security of the country.” Six Baha’is received two-year prison sentences and two received one-year prison sentences. The court banned them from membership in political and social parties and groups, including Baha’i banquets and gatherings, for a period of two years and sentenced them to five sessions of “counseling on sectarian issues.”

According to press reporting, on September 7, a court in southern Khorasan Province sentenced eight Baha’is – six women and two men – to prison for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization, which is a threat to national security.” Authorities arrested the eight during a celebration of a Baha’i holiday. The court gave the defendants – Ataollah Melaki, Attiyeh Salehi, Saeed Melaki, Roya Melaki, Nasrin Ghadiri, Arezou Mohammadi, Farzaneh Dimi, and Banafshe Mokhatari – sentences ranging from 15 months to two years’ imprisonment. Some of these individuals wrote letters to Birjand judicial authorities requesting a delay in starting their sentences due to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Authorities denied their requests, however, and the group began serving their sentences on October 20.

On June 8, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that in the weeks leading up to that date, authorities summoned 55 Baha’is to court in Shiraz, Birjand, Karaj, and Kermanshah, trying and sentencing 26 of them; summoned 11 Baha’is to prison in Shiraz, Ghaemshahr, and Birjand; arrested three Baha’is in Yazd; and arrested two Baha’is in Isfahan, releasing them shortly thereafter. In a court hearing in Shiraz, a court official threatened to “uproot” the Baha’is in the city.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that on September 17, security forces arrested brothers Salar Ghazali and Saman Ghazali, holding them in a MOIS detention center for 75 days before transferring them to Mahabad Prison. In mid-December, Branch 1 of the Mahabad Revolutionary Court tried them for “acting against national security through membership in a Kurdish opposition party” and “propaganda against the state.”

Activists and NGOs reported that Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subjected to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

IPW and IranWire reported that on May 2, IRGC agents raided the Isfahan homes of three Baha’is, Shahzad Hosseini, his son Shayan Hosseini, and Shahzad’s mother. Security personnel then arrested Shayan Hosseini and transferred him to an unknown location. According to a close relative of Shayan, during the raids, agents searched for small wooden boxes that the families used to store prayer books.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

On May 28, authorities summoned Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammed Vafadar to begin serving five-year prison sentences. The government arrested the men in early 2019 before releasing them on bail. The four men were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran denomination arrested over a four-week period, accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism. The government transferred the other five converts, who were unable to afford bail, to Evin Prison shortly after their 2019 arrests. In late 2019, a court convicted all nine of “acting against national security” and sentenced them to five years’ imprisonment. A court upheld the sentences on appeal in February.

In July, a court convicted seven of eight Christian converts arrested in Bushehr in 2019 of “propaganda against the regime.” One of the Christians, Sam Khosravi, received a one-year prison term followed by two years of internal exile. The court fined Maryam Falahi, his wife, who worked as a nurse, 80 million rials ($1,900) and banned her from working in a public institution. After their sentencing, a court ruled that as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their daughter, whom they adopted as an infant in early 2019 and whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In September, an appeals court upheld that decision, despite the daughter’s physical disabilities, which, according to the judge, made her chances at another family adopting her “zero.”

On January 11, a court sentenced Anglican convert Ismaeli Maghrebinejad to three years’ imprisonment for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs” after he responded with a smiley emoji to a joke seen as critical of ruling clerics that had been texted to him on his cell phone. On February 27, a court sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment on a separate charge of “membership in a group hostile to the regime” (“evangelical Zionism,” according to court documents) for receiving a Bible verse sent over a cell phone app. In May, a court upheld the February verdict and added a one-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime.” In July, a court overturned on appeal his three-year sentence for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs,” but upheld the other two sentences. Authorities arrested Maghrebinejad in early 2019 in Shiraz. In late 2019, authorities dropped a charge of apostasy that they brought against Maghrebinejad at the time of his arrest.

In February, authorities in Rasht arrested four Christian converts, Ramin Hassanpour, his wife Saeede (Kathrin) Sajadpour, Hadi (Moslem) Rahimi, and Sakine (Mehri) Behjati, for being members of a house church belonging to the Church of Iran. On May 14, the Revolutionary Court in Rasht initially set bail at five billion rials each ($119,000). The government transferred the four to Lakan Prison, near Rasht, when they were unable to post bail. A week later, the court reduced the bail to two billion rials each ($47,600) and released Sajadpour, Rahimi, and Behjati on May 20 and Hassanpour on May 21. On August 1, a court handed down prison sentences to the four for “acting against national security” by belonging to a house church and “spreading Zionist Christianity.” Hassanpour received a five-year sentence, Rahimi four years, and Behjati and Sajadpour two years each.

After the cancellation of several court sessions connected with appeals of their 2017 and 2018 convictions and respective 10- and five-year sentences relating to “illegal church activity,” Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, learned in early August that their appeals had been denied and that authorities would schedule no further hearings. On August 11, Isavi received a summons to report to Evin Prison to begin her prison sentence. On August 15, the couple fled the country. In September, Article 18 reported that Christian converts Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari, and Amin Afshar-Naderi, who had received prison sentences in 2017 alongside Bet Tamraz, also fled the country after their appeals were rejected. In January, authorities summoned Ramiel Bet Tamraz, the son of Victor Bet Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi, to Evin Prison to serve his four-month sentence from 2018 for “propaganda against the system” through membership in a house church. Authorities released him from prison on February 26.

According to Article 18, authorities extended the two-year internal exile of Ebrahim Firouzi by 11 months. The government released Firouzi, a Christian convert, from Rajai Shahr Prison in 2019 after he served six years in prison for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After he reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence, authorities extended his exile, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. After Firouzi’s exile was extended, a local prosecutor summoned him on new charges of “insulting the sacred,” which carries a maximum five-year sentence, and “propaganda against the state through promoting the Christian faith,” which may be punished with up to a year in prison. After meeting Firouzi, the prosecutor dismissed the case.

On November 18, at a virtual conference hosted by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights regarding the “attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the different religious groups,” an Article 18 representative said that 17 Christian prisoners of conscience, all converts, were incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

In April, authorities arrested Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), following the posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Police released Heydari on bail while detaining Haghjoo pending an investigation into the case. There were no updates as of year’s end.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the greatest leeway among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

According to the BBC Persian service, on October 29, the Qom Seminary Teachers Association labeled Grand Ayatollah Kamal Heidari a “liar,” “sinner,” and “foreign agent,” and decreed that any dealings with him would be considered a “sin.” The association excommunicated Heidari and labeled him a “seditionist” for his modernist and rationalist views.

In a January 28 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran said he was “deeply concerned” about a bill adopted by the Committee for Judicial and Legal Affairs of parliament in 2019 on “misguided sects” that would criminalize membership in religious groups that the government considered to be “misguided.” The special rapporteur stated, “According to a member of the Committee, the bill was proposed because of concerns about sects that have no jurisprudential or religious status but attribute their belief to Islam and about the cults that have emerged recently. Members of nonrecognized religious minorities have expressed concern that passage of the bill would make it a criminal offence to follow certain religions and could be used to increase discrimination against them.”

In May, parliament passed the legislation on “misguided sects” in the form of amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code. The legislation stated that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. A human rights lawyer living in Europe stated, “The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government, but in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognized minorities.” The NGO Article 18 reported that the Guardian Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills, returned the bill to parliament in July, seeking eight clarifications, the majority of which related to “ambiguous” language. An Article 18 official cautioned that the legislation would still likely to return in a “different, perhaps more minimal, form.” ARTICLE 19, another human rights NGO based in the UK, reported that in November, it was believed that parliament addressed issues raised by the Guardian Council, but the specific changes were not publicly released. The NGO said the proposed amendments, regardless of any changes, would “further erode the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief.”

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property. On September 5, IranWire reported that in late 2019, authorities arrested Einollah Rezazadeh Juibari, a Shia cleric, at his home as preparations began for the 40th day commemorations of the deaths of protestors killed by government forces in the November 2019 protests. Authorities first detained Juibari, a critic of the government who was repeatedly arrested in the past, at a detention center in Urmia before taking him to a prison in Miandoab, where he undertook a 13-day hunger strike before being released. IranWire reported that Juibari, whose case remained open at year’s end, had written a letter stating that he would remove his clerical garments and clerical turban for good, because such clerical attire needed to be “excised from politics.” His letter also said that the government had “used Islamic jurisprudence as a pretext for a power grab” and that it had “sacrificed the truth and authority of the Shia faith with [its] greed.”

Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

The BBC Persian service and the Times of Israel reported authorities confirmed to local media that a California-based Zoroastrian priest, Arash Kasravi, was killed on July 25 while attending his father’s funeral in Kerman. BBC Persian reported on August 2 that the Kerman Province prosecutor told local media that the killer’s body was one of two others found with Kasravi and that he had committed suicide after the killings. The prosecutor said the judiciary believed the killings were financially motivated, since $10,000 was found in one of the victims’ vehicles. A social media post said that, following the 1979 revolution, many Zoroastrians have been targeted in these types of “mysterious homicides.”

Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from performing burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, 100 miles away, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

BIC reported that it learned in July that the Baha’i cemetery in Taft, Yazd Province, which the government had confiscated shortly after the 1979 revolution, was being divided and sold. According to BIC, the judiciary endorsed the confiscation of all property owned by Baha’i residents in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, on the grounds that Baha’is have “a perverse ideology” and therefore have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.

According to BIC, the government’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize Christian private churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs report that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. In 2019, Radio Farda reported, “Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognized minority who are usually able to freely practice their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.” Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to require all women to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women.

On November 9, Branch 28 of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her 24-year prison sentence, which she received in August 2019, on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab. As a result, she faced a minimum of 15 years in prison, the sentence associated with the most serious charge against her, “spreading corruption.” In July, Amnesty International said authorities forced Kord-Afshari to wait a year following her 2019 arrest before allowing her to make her first hospital visit on June 29 for pre-existing gastrointestinal problems that were exacerbated in prison. Amnesty International also said the doctor failed to conduct a comprehensive examination of Kord-Afshari and referred her for future colonoscopy, endoscopy, and ultrasound procedures. VOA reported that Kord-Afshari was told that she could not have the procedures because of her late hospital arrival and her lack of funds for payment. As a result, Kord-Afshari’s health problems worsened since the government transferred her to Evin Prison in August 2019, the source added.

In December, authorities summoned Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, back to prison one month after her release due to health complications she manifested in prison. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. Most recently, authorities arrested her in 2018 as a result of what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights works, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. At year’s end, she remained confined to Qarchak Prison.

The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. On November 1, Iran International and HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. A November 2 Radio Farda report stated, “The real number of Baha’i students unable to access… degrees is likely much higher,” noting that officials rejected 70 Baha’i students in 2017. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980 and that this was the 40th consecutive year the government denied its own citizens access to higher education because of their religious beliefs.

In January, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”

On September 11, Radio Farda reported that new Minister of Education Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, apparently in response to an account published two days earlier by a human rights organization, said, “It is forbidden for them [Baha’is] to study in schools.” Mirzaei was referring to the organization’s claim that authorities had ordered Saadet High School in the city of Semnan to refuse enrollment to student Borna Pirasteh in the third year of high school because of her Baha’i faith.

A Sabean-Mandaean resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr, Khuzestan Province told IranWire in October that law enforcement personnel regularly harassed his community. The man said that authorities regularly demanded bribes from Sabean-Mandaean goldsmiths. Another Sabean-Mandaean goldsmith stated that police worked with known thieves to victimize Sabean-Mandaean-owned jewelry shops.

In January, NGOs and press reported that the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions would henceforward only allow citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. According to CHRI, “anyone applying for the card who is not of the official Muslim faith or one of three religious minorities recognized in the…constitution (Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism) will have to either lie and check the required box on the application for one of those religions, or not receive the card.” Previously, application forms for the ID card had an option for “other religions.” The card is used for all government services, banking activities, and the vast majority of other transactions. CHRI stated the policy “will blatantly discriminate against Baha’is as well as members of the Mandaean, Yarsani, and other unrecognized minority faiths in the country.” A report by Deutsche Welle stated that since Baha’is were forbidden by their faith to lie about their religion, they were unable to apply for new identity cards and obtain official identification.

In a July 21 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur stated that he “remains deeply concerned at the continued discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Changes to the national identity card application process reportedly hinder minority religious groups from gaining access to several essential services. The application form had previously listed ‘other’ as a religious option. In January, the National Organization for Civil Registration reported that this option had been removed, meaning individuals could only choose from the four officially recognized religions. The removal of ‘other’ raised fears that nonrecognized religious groups, such as Baha’is, Christian converts, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans and nonbelievers, would be unable to obtain a national identity card, which is necessary to gain access to government and banking services.”

According to a December 4 report by IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to the country’s provincial judiciary heads regarding the supervision of lawyers. Describing the expansion of a “security umbrella” over practicing attorneys, the government letter said it had established a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, in addition to the work already carried out by the Bar Association. Possible issues cited in the memorandum included non-observation of the mandatory hijab by female lawyers at work or on social media, or doubts about a given lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader. According to IranWire, this new office “will intimidate, silence, and push some lawyers out of the profession, while forcing others to align with the state’s principles, leading to an atrophy of justice.”

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed Baha’is “unclean.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented the building of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population. Three news sources opposed to the government stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.

On May 25, the Deutsche Welle Persian service reported that Mohammad Baqer Tabatabai, an advisor to the Razavi Khorasan Guidance Office, referred to the Maki Mosque in Zahedan, the country’s largest and most culturally significant Sunni mosque, as a “house of corruption” on his Twitter account and called for its destruction. He deleted his tweet after public protest. Maki Mosque was built in 1353 in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. It is religiously and culturally significant to the Sunni Baluch minority, which reportedly contributed to the upkeep of the building independently from the central government.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their religion. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored propaganda aimed at deterring the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz, whom IranWire identified as “Selim,” said, “The Mandaeans of Ahvaz are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery.” On December 31, Radio Farda reported, “destroying graves and tombstones of minorities and dissidents, including Baha’is and Yarsanis, [has] formed a part of the daily life of the supporters of the Islamic Republic.” According to the report, security forces warned Baha’is that they no longer had the right to bury their dead in many cities, including Gilavand, Tabriz, Kerman, and Ahvaz.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a February article in U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsani religion remained banned. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools, but only after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

Baluch sources reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. According to the Anti-Defamation League, following a March speech by the Supreme Leader on the COVID-19 pandemic, his office’s website posted remarks by a cleric who said “there is no doubt that the Jews and especially the Zionists previously have a long history of supernatural affairs and matters such as a relationship with the devil and genies.” The Anti-Defamation League report stated that most of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread by the government imagined the United States as leading “a biological attack, either with the help of Jewish capitalists or Israel, or to benefit Israel or at the behest of Jewish puppet masters.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.

In September, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the head of a government arts agency, announced a plan to organize another exhibition of Holocaust-denial cartoons, which the government also held in 2006 and 2016. Following the beheading in France of a teacher who had shown students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, Shojaei-Tabatabai told the Tehran Times, that “our [exhibition] program [will] publish serious artworks challenging the Holocaust; for one insulting cartoon, we will publish 10 cartoons in social media and other virtual spaces.” After French President Macron defended the slain teacher’s presentation of secularism and individual freedom, the Supreme Leader asked on Twitter, “Why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh [Peace be upon him]) is allowed?”

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and some self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and charitable associations.

On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 82 states in favor, 30 against, and 64 abstentions. The resolution, which was cosponsored by 45 member states, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences.” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ….”

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.

According to Radio Farda, religious leaders in Qom warned shops not to sell gifts associated with Valentine’s Day because of its roots in Christian tradition. Radio Farda stated that the country’s law enforcement agencies issue warnings to stores every year against selling such items, threatening to close the businesses from one to six months for noncompliance. The report also stated that some secular citizens have tried to promote the February 19 celebration of the day of Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility from the country’s pre-Islamic past. The country’s religious leaders opposed Sepandarmaz because of its roots in Zoroastrianism, which was replaced by Islam as the country’s predominant religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. “Yarsanis are not our brothers,” he told the congregation, adding, “Brotherhood is only possible in Islam.” According to IranWire, protests by members of the Yarsan community followed, gaining momentum over the days that followed, prompting Faraji to issue a retraction on social media in which he said enemies of the Islamic Republic had distorted and misrepresented his statements in an attempt to sow division between Muslims and Yarsanis in the area. He defined these “enemies” as Jews, Christians, and Zionists.

According to Radio Farda, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University had infected Iran with the novel coronavirus. The university said in a statement that the Sunni leader had no evidence to back up his accusation and that top religious clerics should be more cautious in public remarks. According to Iran News, the university also “deplored Abdolhamid for accusing al-Mustafa International University of brainwashing its non-Iranian students.”

A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz said that he had witnessed the destruction of a temple and 12 other buildings belonging to the community in recent years. Another Sabean-Mandaean said, “Since 2015, the destruction of the Mandaean tombs has occurred many times in different parts of the country. But have our protests ever been heeded?”

According to a Radio Farda report, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.

According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. IRNA, the country’s official press agency, which first confirmed the attack but later removed the report from its website, said there was no major damage to the shrine. The attack followed reports in February that the government was considering razing the shrine as an act of revenge aimed at the United States and Israel. Hamedan’s prosecutor, Hassan Khanjani, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that police had not reached a conclusion on the cause of the fire and that no arrests had been made.

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence and that perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to human rights NGOs, including CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.

Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

In June, the Netherlands-based NGO Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that showed Iranian society’s unprecedented secularization. According to its authors, the result of the poll of 40,000 individuals revealed dramatic changes in the country’s religiosity, with an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim, contrasting with government data that states 99.5 percent of the country is Muslim. The survey found 32 percent of respondents explicitly identified as Shia, while 5 percent said they were Sunni Muslim and 3 percent Sufi Muslim. Another 9 percent said they were atheists, along with 7 percent who preferred the label of “spirituality” as describing their religion. Among the other selected religions, 8 percent said they were Zoroastrians, which the pollsters interpreted as a reflection of Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith, while 1.5 percent said they were Christian (which Christian groups state translates into between 750,000 and one million Christians in the country). Of those polled, 78 percent said they believed in God, while only 37 percent believed in life after death and only 30 percent believed in heaven and hell. Approximately 25 percent said they believed in jinns (demons).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

In a speech to the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, the President expressed concern about the arrest of Mary Mohammadi, a Christian convert, at an antigovernment protest in January, which the President said was due to her conversion to Christianity. The Secretary of State later told an interviewer that he was deeply disturbed by the arrest.

The U.S. government continued to call publicly and in multilateral forums for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials, use of social media, reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

On January 15, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom tweeted, “Following the tragic death of Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh [on December 24, 2019], we are closely watching how the Iranian government treats Gonabadi Sufis. Authorities should release those unjustly detained and allow the community to select their religious leaders without government interference.”

On October 16, the Department of State spokesperson tweeted, “Deeply disturbed by reports Iran lashed Mohammad Reza Omidi 80 times for drinking communion wine. He already served two years in prison for belonging to a house church. We condemn these unjust punishments and urge Iran to allow all Iranians the freedom to practice their beliefs.”

On September 24, the United States sanctioned several Iranian officials and entities, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons, for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking to practice their religion. The statement read, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.” The statement added, “The actions taken today by the United States expose Iran’s revolutionary courts and their judges for what they really are: tools designed to enforce the Iranian regime’s brutal ideology and suppress dissent. They do not fairly administer justice, but rather seek to deprive the Iranian people of due process as well as their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The United States will continue to stand with the Iranian people and demand the regime treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Following the attempted arson in May at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism called on the government in a tweet “to stop incitement and protect its Jewish and other minorities.” He said that the United States strongly condemned the attack and that the Iranian government is “the world’s chief state sponsor of anti-Semitism.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers. The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese. Sources stated the PRC central government and religious leaders from mainland-authorized churches invited Macau diocese representatives to public events.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

According to Minghui.org, with fewer foreigners visiting the SAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Falun Gong practitioners interacted more with local residents, handing out information on the streets, including publications called CCP Virus Special Editions and MinghuiWeekly. According to the website, “Local residents have always treated Falun Dafa practitioners with kindness.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Nigeria

Executive Summary

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. The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts. Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts. In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. General insecurity throughout the country’s regions increased during the year: a terrorist insurgency in the North East; brazen kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the North West and southern regions; militant groups and criminal gangs in the South South region; and conflict between farmers and herders over access to land in the North Central region. There were incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, predominantly Christian but also Muslim, in the North Central and North West regions. The government continued ongoing security operations and launched additional operations that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources that frequently involved rival ethnic groups. Various sources said the government did not take significant measures to combat insecurity throughout the country; the International Crisis Group said that state governments relied heavily on armed vigilante groups to help quell the violence, which it said was counterproductive. Some said this lack of government response exacerbated insecurity and failed to address underlying causes. A report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) stated the presence of state forces was “too inconsistent and limited to protect or support communities, or mitigate and suppress violence.” The government continued its detention of Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, head of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia organization, and his wife despite a December 2016 court ruling that they be released by January 2017. All the other members of IMN arrested during the 2015 clash with the military were released by February. On September 29, the Kaduna State High Court rejected a motion filed by El-Zakzaky and his wife to dismiss the case. The court adjourned the case to November and later to January 2021. During the year authorities arrested and detained two individuals under blasphemy laws: Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, sentenced to death for blasphemy on August 10, and 16-year-old Umar Farouq, sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Authorities detained Mubarak Bala, head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, in April without filing any charges, although his attorneys stated they believed he was being held on charges related to allegations of insulting Islam on Facebook. The government at both the federal and state levels put temporary limitations on public gatherings, including religious services, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most churches and mosques throughout the country closed in April and May, during which time state governments arrested both Christian and Muslim leaders for violating lockdown orders. Beginning in June, the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions included reopening religious houses of worship with prevention measures in place.

Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out a range of attacks targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques.

Violent conflicts between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in the North Central states continued throughout the year. Some religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concern that this conflict had religious undertones. In addition to religious differences, local authorities, scholars, and regional experts pointed to ethnicity, politics, criminality, lack of accountability and access to justice, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources as among the key drivers of the violence. Attacks and killings attributed to Muslim Fulani herdsmen continued during the year. According to ACLED data, total civilian deaths numbered 2,454 during the year, compared with 2,198 in 2019 and 3,106 in 2018. Some domestic and international Christian groups stated that Muslim Fulani herdsman were targeting Christian farmers because of their religion. Local Muslim and herder organizations said unaffiliated Fulani were the targets of Christian revenge killings. Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized what they said was the government’s inability or unwillingness to prevent or mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities. Christian organizations reported several cases during the year of Muslim men kidnapping young Christian girls and forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam.

The U.S. embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion and religious tensions in the country in discussions throughout the year with government officials, including the Vice President, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. Embassy and consulate general officials further strengthened their engagement on religious freedom issues with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations, emphasizing the importance of interfaith relationships. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups throughout the year and delivered remarks on the importance of the respect for religious freedom at large religious gatherings. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders to discuss issues of peace and security and to promote religious freedom. In July, the embassy held a roundtable with prominent religious leaders from different churches and dioceses in the country and discussed the violence occurring in the country, providing an overview of challenges and opportunities for affected communities. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives over the drivers of conflict in the country. Embassy officials and the Counselor of the Department of State met with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and security during his visit in October.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 214 million (midyear 2020 estimate). While there are no official indicators of religious affiliation in the country, the Pew Global Religious Futures report estimates it is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, while approximately 2 percent belong to other or no religious groups. Many individuals syncretize indigenous animism with Islam or Christianity.

A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identifies as Sunni, the vast majority of whom belong to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, although a sizable minority follows the Shafi’i school of fiqh. The same study found 12 percent of Muslims in the country self-identify 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 brotherhoods including Tijaniyyah, Qadiriyyah, and Mouride. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi and Kalo Kato (Quraniyoon) Muslims. A 2011 Pew report found roughly one quarter of Christians are Roman Catholic and three quarters Protestant, with small numbers of Orthodox or other Christian denominations. Among Protestant groups, the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches maintain the largest populations, while evangelicals, Pentecostals, Anabaptists (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses report tens of thousands of adherents each. Other communities include Baha’is, Jews (both internationally recognized and unrecognized, as well as significant numbers of other Judaic-oriented groups), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.

The Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim North West and North East regions. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri, also reside in the North East and North West. Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the North Central and South West regions, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group – whose members include both Muslims and Christians – predominates. In the South East and South South region, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where ethnic groups include Ijaw, Igbo, Ogoni, Efik, Ibibio, and Uhrobo, among others, Christians form a substantial majority; a small but growing minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the North Central and South East, South South, and South West regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja. The Shia Muslim presence is heavily concentrated in the North West region states of Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kano.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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 one’s 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 based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other qualities, as a distinct component of the “national ethic.”

The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts. Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts. In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for noncriminal proceedings; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear noncriminal cases in which all litigants are Muslim and provides the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in civil or sharia courts.

In addition to noncriminal matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both the complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Despite constitutional language supporting only secular criminal courts and the prohibition against involuntary participation in sharia criminal courts, a Zamfara State law requires a sharia court hear all criminal cases involving Muslims in that state. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide hudud punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning. Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, may seek advice from sharia experts. Included in the sharia laws are blasphemy laws which can carry sentences up to and including the death penalty, though the secular court system has historically vacated such sentences on appeal.

In the states of Kano and Zamfara, state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license 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.

On August 7, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Companies and Allied Matters Act of 2020 (CAMA), which streamlines procedures for and increases the ease of doing business in the country by outlining management responsibilities of businesses and organizations. The law contains provisions that, according to some legal scholars, could place some smaller religious organizations under the administrative control of the government.

Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring 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 stated that 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 states that no religious community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place that community wholly maintains.

Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools of registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including by issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison, a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,300), or both for operating without a license.

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

Government Practices

Numerous fatal intercommunal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim Fulani herders. The government undertook 20 targeted military operations whose aim it stated was to root out bandits and armed gangs in the region and to arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence, but multiple sources stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the violence.

According to multiple academic and media sources, banditry and ideologically neutral criminality was the primary driver of violence in the North West region, although religious figures and houses of worship were often victims. The government launched additional security operations in the North West region that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian.

Various sources stated the government did not take significant measures to combat insecurity, including ethnoreligious violence, throughout the country. The NGO International Crisis Group said in a report released during the year, “A further factor that has exacerbated violence in the North West is the state authorities’ negligence in dealing with the crisis.” The report said that many state governments relied primarily on arming vigilante groups to counter the violence, which it said was counterproductive. An ACLED report stated, “Responding to communal violence is not a priority of Nigeria’s state forces. A lack of government engagement leads to an increased reliance on local vigilante groups, and in turn, an increased accessibility to arms. Despite increasing their activity substantially since 2015, the overall presence of state forces is too inconsistent and limited to protect or support communities or mitigate and suppress violence.”

In a speech given at the funeral of Michael Nnadi, a Catholic seminary student killed by gang members in Kaduna State on January 31, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah commented on the situation in the northern part of the country, saying the government and what he called “the northern Muslim elite” was largely to blame for violence and poverty, especially affecting Christians. In his address he said, “We are being told that this situation has nothing to do with religion. Really? It is what happens when politicians use religion to extend the frontiers of their ambition and power…By denying Christians lands for places of worship across most of the northern states, ignoring the systematic destruction of churches all these years, denying Christians adequate recruitment, representation and promotions in the State civil services, denying their indigenous children scholarships, marrying Christian women or converting Christians while threatening Muslim women and prospective converts with death, they make building a harmonious community impossible.”

On March 19, Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III stated at a Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC) meeting, “We have been reading and hearing reports about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and I keep asking myself how? Christians are being killed, Muslims are also being killed and they are all lives created by God. For me, there is no persecution of anybody in this country. If you claim there is a persecution of Christians in Nigeria, there would also be claims of persecution of Muslims, but that would not solve the problem. People claim they are denied places to build mosques, churches in some parts of the country. But the right thing to do in such cases is to approach relevant authorities and not to make claims of persecution. I can quote from now till the next 100 years of things that have been done or not done to Muslims, but we usually approach relevant authorities in ways that we believe would bring solutions to the problems.”

Some religious freedom activists said the Buhari administration was sympathetic to foreign Fulanis and that many state governors made it easy for foreign Fulanis to receive documents referring to one’s ancestral home that could facilitate access to government services or certain privileges, which compounded resource disputes and sectarian conflict. Some civil society representatives protested President Buhari’s appointment of primarily Muslim northerners to high-level positions. They said there was a culture of impunity in the country and a lack of accountability for those who commit mass civilian killings.

In June, the UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief released a report, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?, in which the group stated, “Another of the main drivers of the escalating violence is the Nigerian Government’s inability to provide security or justice to farmer or herder communities.” The report stated the parliamentary group agreed with Amnesty International’s conclusion that “failure to protect communities, as well as cases of direct military harassment or violence, combined with an unwillingness to instigate legitimate investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, ‘demonstrate, at least, willful negligence; at worst, complicity’ on the behalf of some in the Nigerian security forces.” The government responded in August by welcoming the report as well as “inputs that would help any peaceful coexistence of Nigerian citizens,” although it said it was “incorrect to assert that the government was doing nothing to address the intertwined threats” of farmer-herder clashes and Boko Haram terrorists. It also urged the authors of the report “to visit Nigeria, whether formally or informally, to discuss the points raised” in it.

According to media reports, Operation Sahel Sanity, one of multiple government paramilitary operations in the north, destroyed 197 of what it termed bandit hideouts, killed 220 bandits, arrested 892 suspects, and rescued 642 kidnap victims in the North West region during the second half of the year. Despite this, the reports said that government was unable to keep pace with the growing number and frequency of attacks, saying this was mostly because the security forces in the country were too few and spread too thin and bogged down in the northeast fighting Boko Haram and ISIS-WA. In November, President Buhari asked his chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, to engage with political, traditional, and religious leaders throughout the areas of the country that had seen outbreaks of violence to combat insecurity and engage with the country’s significant youth population. Following the National Governors’ Forum meeting on November 5, the 36 state executives committed to guidelines to engage with religious, traditional, and civil society leaders to “drive a common agenda and generate…support for security personnel who ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Nigerians.”

The government’s proscription of the IMN remained in place throughout the year, following a Federal High Court ruling in 2019 and the government’s subsequent banning of the IMN as an illegal organization. The government continued to emphasize that the IMN’s proscription “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.”

Shia Rights Watch reported on January 23 that government forces used tear gas and firearms against protesters calling for the release of IMN head Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and authorities killed one protester and severely injured another.

Shia Rights Watch reported in June that the Federal High Court in Abuja awarded five million naira ($13,000) each for wrongful death to the families of three IMN members whom the police allegedly killed in July 2019. The judge also ordered the National Hospital to release the bodies of the three men. The body of a fourth individual, whom police also allegedly killed the same day, was not released but was kept in a different hospital.

An IMN spokesperson said police killed three IMN members during the group’s annual Ashura procession in Kaduna on August 24 and a further two died in clashes with police on August 30.

On August 24, an IMN spokesperson confirmed that all IMN members arrested in the 2015 Zaria clashes with the army except Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife had been released by February, despite a December 2016 court ruling that El-Zakzaky and his wife be released by January 2017. Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a 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. The Kaduna State High Court rejected El-Zakzaky’s motion to dismiss his and his wife’s case on September 29. On October 19, IMN members protested El-Zakzaky’s continued detention on the fifth anniversary of the violent clash with police in Zaria. On November 28, the High Court adjourned the case of El-Zakzaky and his wife to January 2021.

Blasphemy laws were part of the expanded sharia laws introduced between 1999 and 2000 in 12 Muslim majority states in the northern part of the country. Although in past years blasphemy laws were rarely, if ever, implemented, authorities arrested two individuals for blasphemy during the year. In September, a Kano State sharia court convicted and sentenced 16-year-old Farouq Omar, who had no legal representation at the time, to 10 years in prison and menial labor for committing blasphemy during an argument with a friend; after his case was reported in the press, Omar gained volunteer legal representation and his lawyers appealed the ruling. Various human rights groups and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) condemned the judgment and called for its reversal. The same Kano State sharia court in August convicted and sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Aminu-Sharif to death for blasphemy after he allegedly elevated a Tijaniyyah saint above the Prophet Mohammed in lyrics for a song he had written. Aminu-Sharif’s lawyers appealed the court’s decision. On April 28, authorities arrested Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, without charge. His attorneys said they believed it was related to Bala’s alleged insulting of Islam on social media. Bala was detained in a Kano prison without formal charges but was granted access to his lawyer in October. On December 21, the High Court ordered the police and other federal authorities to release Bala; however, because he was in Kano State custody, he remained in detention at year’s end.

Criminal groups committed crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in North West and South East regions. According to security experts, this criminal activity increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year. Clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, according to Christian organizations, because they are viewed as soft targets who often travel conspicuously without security in the evenings, are typically unarmed, have access to money, and generate significant media attention. While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders. Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom. Federal and state governments responded to increased criminality in the region with new security initiatives. The Nigerian Police Force increased the number of police checkpoints on major road networks. State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Enugu Forest Guard, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services. Media reports often said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for these attacks, particularly those in the South West region, but, according to analysts, most incidents were perpetrated by local armed criminal groups.

According to Muslim leaders in Nasarawa State and Benue State governor Samuel Ortom, there were groups of foreign Sahelian nomadic Mbororo pastoralists present in the country since 2017 who were often mistaken for indigenous Nigerian Fulani herdsmen. Christian leaders throughout the country criticized what they stated was a formal role that state governments played in welcoming the influx of these foreigners in a situation of increased levels of poverty and reduced job opportunities for permanent residents. Yoruba sociocultural groups, community leaders, and politicians in Oyo, Osun, and Ekiti States increasingly employed what sources stated was incendiary speech against the Mbororo, blaming them for a rise in crime and accusing the “invading herdsman” of looking to “Fulanize the south.”

The government at both the federal and state levels put temporary limitations on public gatherings, including religious services, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most churches and mosques throughout the country closed, but state governments arrested both Christian and Muslim leaders for violating lockdown orders. In March, both Christian and Muslim communities quickly complied when the government imposed quarantine measures; religious leaders said they underscored the necessity of staying home during Holy Week, including Easter, and the run-up to Ramadan. In Kaduna State, authorities arrested and arraigned two Christians on criminal disobedience charges on March 27 for attempting to hold church services, while three Muslims were charged with similar offenses on March 30 for holding congregational services in a mosque. Abuja officials arrested a prominent imam for violating stay-at-home orders but refrained from arresting a pastor who was preaching alone on camera at the Christ Embassy Church to worshipers online on Easter Sunday, April 12. In predominantly Christian Delta State, authorities arrested three pastors on Easter Sunday for violating lockdown orders issued the previous day. In Benue State, security personnel forcefully dispersed church services in remote areas where clergy disobeyed lockdown orders, although churches within city centers complied with the lockdown.

On July 8, police in Ohafia, Abia State, arrested Ifekwe Udo, the founder of the Assemblies of Light Bearer Greater Church of Lucifer, popularly known as the Church of Satan, for violating coronavirus pandemic lockdown directives. The following day, Christian youths stormed the church and demolished it. The town banished Udo in August after authorities released him from detention. At year’s end, he remained in exile in neighboring Imo State.

Beginning in June, the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions included reopening religious houses of worship that had pandemic prevention measures in place. In September, federal mandates limited public gatherings to no more than 50 persons in enclosed spaces. State-level mandates varied on the reopening of religious services as the pandemic progressed. In September, the Delta State government urged churches to hold multiple services to reduce the numbers of congregants at any one time in their buildings in compliance with modified coronavirus pandemic protocols. Due to the pandemic and Saudi Arabia’s closure of the Muslim holy places to international Hajj pilgrims, in August the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria announced that 90 percent of intending pilgrims declined a refund of their Hajj fare in lieu of a prepayment for the following year’s pilgrimage. The government similarly curtailed its sponsorship of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem in response to the pandemic.

On August 20, Jigawa State Hisbah authorities announced they had destroyed approximately 600 confiscated bottles of beer in Tundun Babaye village. In October, the Kano State government called for the arrest and prosecution of officials of the Nigerian Breweries company for arranging for the secret importation of beer, which is banned in the state on religious grounds.

Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and federal government laws discriminated against them. In August, the Anglican Church spoke against a newly enacted Anambra State law on burials that dictated the type, manner, and time of the religious service or rites and how they would be performed. The law was passed without the Church’s input, which it said violated the country’s constitution.

While CAMA, which President Buhari signed into law on August 7, neither specifically addresses nor exempts nonprofit, nongovernmental, or religious organizations nor contains language about religion, some NGOs and religious organizations raised concerns about the law. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the prominent umbrella organization of the country’s Christian groups, and NIREC criticized CAMA as possibly unconstitutionally infringing on freedom of association and religion by placing some smaller religious organizations under the administrative control of government. Under the new law, the federal government has broad and discretionary powers to withdraw, cancel, or revoke the certificate of any business or association; suspend and remove trustees (and appoint any one of their choice to manage the organization “in the public interest”); take control of finances of any association; and merge two associations without the consent and approval of their members. On August 31, Buhari denied CAMA had any intentional religious discrimination and called on CAN to propose amendments to the law. On October 5 he appealed to those who were aggrieved with some laws to be patient and seek reforms in line with democratic practices.

NIREC, headed by the Sultan of Sokoto and the president of CAN, met in March to discuss insecurity and the rise of crime in the country as well as the probable impact of COVID-19 on the lives of citizens. NIREC called on people of all religions to follow government health regulations and maintain calm.

State-level actors, including government, traditional, religious, and civil society organizations, regularly negotiated resolution of disputes. In September, religious and community leaders in the ethnically and religiously diverse Jos North Local Government Area in Plateau State pledged to live in peace and enhance economic development and tranquility following a two-day workshop organized by the African Initiative for Peace Building and Advancement. On October 14, Nasarawa State governor Abdullahi Sule, a Muslim, inaugurated the headquarters of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Christ in Alushi, calling on all Christians and Muslims in the diverse state to support his efforts to enhance peace, unity, and the development of Nasarawa.

Due to what sources stated was the promotion of peaceful coexistence by Plateau State governor Simon Lalong, in October, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna (JIBWIS) began reconstruction of a mosque that had been demolished during sectarian riots in 2004 in the predominantly Christian state.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to estimates from the Council on Foreign Relations online Nigeria Security Tracker, Islamist terrorist violence killed 881 persons (including security forces and civilians) during the year. More than 22,000 persons, most of them children, remained missing as a result of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, according to an International Committee of the Red Cross statement in September.

Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out suicide bombings – many by drugging and forcing young women and girls to carry out the bombings – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. According to local media, on January 26, two girls blew themselves up outside a mosque in Borno State, killing two others and injuring 14 persons praying at the time. Local media further reported that on Christmas Eve, Boko Haram terrorists killed seven persons in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State and torched homes and a church.

In January, members of Boko Haram kidnapped, held for ransom, and later beheaded Reverend Lawan Andimi, a Christian pastor and chairman of a local chapter of CAN. Following the Andimi killing, President Buhari released an op-ed entitled, Buhari: Pastor Andimi’s faith should inspire all Nigerians. In January, Boko Haram released a video in which a child soldier shoots a prisoner identified as a member of the Church of Christ in Nations. In the video, the shooter said the killing was in retaliation for Christian atrocities against Muslims in the country. According to media reports in February, more than 100 Boko Haram militants opened fire on civilians, set fire to houses, and burned down at least five churches in Garkida, Adamawa State. At a press conference in February, Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said of Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, “They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos.”

ISIS-WA activity along the Maiduguri-Damaturu highway, the main humanitarian artery from neighboring Yobe State into Borno, included screenings at illegal checkpoints in Borno with the purported aim of detaining Christians, off-duty security force personnel, and humanitarian workers. On October 29, a security-focused NGO stated that suspected ISIS-WA operatives abducted three passengers they reportedly identified as Christians. Two of the three individuals were local NGO staff workers who were believed to remain in captivity at year’s end.

On the sixth anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 pupils from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in April 2014, 112 remained in captivity, according to government and media reports.

At year’s end, Leah Sharibu, captured by ISIS-WA in February 2018, remained a captive, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Numerous fatal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders of mostly Fulani ethnicity. Scholars and other experts, including international NGOs, cited ethnicity, politics, religion, lack of accountability and access to justice, increasing competition over dwindling land and water resources, population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from crime and other forms of violence as drivers that contributed to the violence. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s December 2020 report Countries at Risk for Mass Killing 2020-21, “violence [in Nigeria] is being perpetrated by many groups with a variety of motivations (e.g., land disputes, banditry, ethnic grievances, etc.) and though some may share an ethnicity and many of these groups target civilians, we do not see sufficient evidence that they are working in coordination as part of a campaign against a particular group of civilians.” Several international and domestic experts noted that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought foreign transhumance (movement of livestock) groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they were unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups. According to the UN, demographic and ecological pressures also exacerbated crime and intercommunal strife in the North Central and southern regions of the country in recent years. According to ACLED data, total civilian deaths numbered 2,454 during the year, compared with 2,198 in 2019 and 3,106 in 2018.

Multiple Christian NGOs stated that religious identity was a primary driver of the conflict between Muslim herdsmen and Christian farmers.

The president of CAN, Reverend Samson Ayokunle, stated in a press conference on January 27 that the country was “under siege” by Boko Haram terrorists, Fulani terrorist herdsmen, bandits, and kidnappers “with a goal to Islamize Nigeria.” Ayokunle stated Muslim terrorists “have been going around invading predominantly Christian villages and towns…killing, maiming…and raping.” The Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs reacted to what it said was Ayokunle’s inflammatory language and voiced concerns that CAN was playing politics, fearmongering, and fueling divisive attitudes throughout the country.

According to Morning Star News, Fulani herdsman burned down a pastor’s home and a church building on January 26 and 27 in Plateau State. Morning Star News reported that Fulani herdsman entered the home of Pastor Matthew Tagwaif of the Evangelical Church Winning All in Ngbra Zongo village, Plateau State on April 7 and killed the pastor and three others including a 10-year-old boy. According to Morning Star News, Fulani herdsman entered a church in Tegina Kabata village, Niger State, on April 12 in which a wedding was taking place. They abducted the bride and groom and several other persons in attendance. Five other Christians were also killed in a series of attacks in the village.

There were also incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian, in the North West region. On November 20, hundreds of individuals described as bandits attacked a mosque in Zamfara State during Friday prayers, killing at least five worshippers and abducting 30 members of the congregation, including the imam and other prominent members of the community. Zamfara governor Bello Mohammed Matawalle publicly condemned the attack and successfully organized the release of 11 kidnap victims.

Media reported that gang members kidnapped four Catholic seminary students on January 8 in Kaduna State. The gang subsequently released three of the victims but killed 18-year-old Michael Nnadi on January 31. On April 25, the Nigerian Police Force announced the capture and arrest of the Nnadi’s alleged kidnappers and killers.

Media reported on October 5, armed bandits ransacked the St. Augustine Catholic Church in Benue State and robbed the parish priest and the church offertory at gunpoint. According to media reports, on September 29, 10 armed gang members entered a Pentecostal church in Akwa Ibom State during Sunday morning services and shot several parishioners.

On May 28, unknown gunmen abducted the CAN chairman of Nasarawa State, who was released unharmed several days later after a ransom of 20 million naira ($51,900) had been paid.

The Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU), an organization stating it represents Christians in the southern part of Kaduna State, said that violence and criminality were neglected throughout the state, suggesting that publicized security measures were mostly for “political optics” and only served a particular segment of the population. SOKAPU said the creation of emirates and appointment of Muslim emirs in predominantly Christian chiefdoms had heightened tensions in southern Kaduna.

Interfaith activists such as Christian Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa of the Kaduna Interfaith Center said the government was not doing enough to combat thuggery and violence in their communities. In response to interethnic communal violence in southern Kaduna State in July and August, the Sultan of Sokoto decried the unwarranted killings of hundreds of Muslims and Christians as “madness that has to be stopped immediately.” CAN president Reverend Ayokunle, noting the conflict was predominantly ethnic, said he was ready to partner with the Kaduna State government to ensure the swift end of the crisis.

On October 24, in the wake of “#EndSARS” (referring to the Special Antirobbery Squad [SARS] arm of police) protests against alleged police brutality, Christian Igbo youths allegedly killed 11 Muslims in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and burned down the central mosque in Orlu, Imo State. In November, Enugu State governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi ordered the immediate rebuilding of two mosques that had been destroyed during the #EndSARS protests in the Nsukka Local Government Area in the predominantly Christian state.

On June 17, the Muslim organization Society for the Support of Islam, known as Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), released a statement condemning the violent actions of Boko Haram in the country and criticizing the government for what it said was an insufficient response to stop the terrorist group. Several Christian leaders expressed support for JNI’s statement.

There were several reported cases of young Christian girls being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam throughout the year. For example, media reported that a 17-year-old girl went missing in Kaduna State on January 5. According to the report, on January 7, several men came to her father’s house to tell him to attend a sharia court in which the judge read a predetermined judgment that the girl had to stay with her kidnappers. She later escaped, however, and returned to her parents. She said she had been kept in a locked room for more than a month and forced to convert to Islam. In April, media outlets reported there was outrage in the country concerning a video posted on social media showing the Kano State governor leading a Christian girl through the Islamic shahada prayer to show she accepted Islam. According to World Watch Monitor, a local source said the governor did not “force” anyone to convert to Islam but individuals instead came to him to convert. According to the Hausa Christians Foundation, six young women and an older married woman were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam between March 23 and April 30. Five of the women were kidnapped in Kaduna State, one in Kano State, and one in Katsina State.

In May, a federal high court in Bayelsa State sentenced Yunusa Dahiru to 26 years in prison for abducting a Christian girl and forcing her to convert to Islam and marrying her in August 2015.

On February 2, CAN estimated that five million persons in 28 of the country’s 36 states answered its call for a three-day fast, concluding in a prayer walk, to protest the persecution of Christians.

Due to restrictions on religious gatherings put into place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many religious groups moved to online services and some increased their followers through virtual means. Christian and Muslim leaders largely worked together to ensure their followers helped to prevent the spread of coronavirus while raising awareness of the hardship the lockdowns had on those who could not provide for their families. In Kaduna State, Christian clerics and their Muslim counterparts sent encouraging text messages of tolerance and brotherhood on Easter.

In October, the Bible Society of Nigeria inaugurated two new areas in Osun and Oyo States. In November, the Jewish worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement established a second emissary position in the country in Lagos in addition to a previously established one in Abuja.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 88 percent of Nigerian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among highest of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate general officials as well as visiting high-level U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in meetings throughout the year with government officials, including the Vice President, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. They also addressed religious tensions and efforts to bring religious groups together with several state governors, religious leaders, and other officials throughout the country. They discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence, combat insecurity, and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance.

Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups, including CAN, JNI, JIBWIS, and others throughout the year and delivered remarks on the importance of respect for religious freedom at large religious gatherings, such as the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace’s Third Annual Peace Conference on Interreligious Dialogue: Strengthening the Culture of Peace, Reconciliation and Justice on January 22. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders to discuss issues of peace and security and to promote religious freedom. In July, the embassy held a roundtable with prominent religious leaders from different churches and dioceses and discussed the violence occurring in the country, providing an overview of challenges and opportunities facing affected communities. In October, a visiting high-level delegation from the Department of State, led by the Counselor, met with various religious and government leaders to discuss the religious freedom environment. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives regarding the main drivers of conflict in the country.

The embassy funded peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna, Plateau, and Nasarawa. The programs trained leaders in farming and herding communities, including traditional, youth, religious, and female leaders, to build mechanisms to resolve tensions before they became violent conflicts. “Peace ambassadors” from embassy-funded projects continued to work to bridge the gap between victims, traditional/religious leaders, and the security apparatus in Kajuru, Kaduna State. During the months of the countrywide lockdown, they visited potential conflict areas to support victims of crisis, provided support to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to promote dialogue among stakeholders to deter reprisal attacks and promote sustainable peace.

The embassy expanded activities to reduce violent conflicts in the affected religious communities by promoting social cohesion, religious freedom, and the ability to mitigate community disputes peacefully without degenerating into ethnoreligious conflict. It also intensified its work on religious freedom issues through an existing five-year program in six northwest and north central states. This activity provided interfaith dialogue training to leaders with the goal of building capacity among communities to manage disputes. The program produced English and Hausa-language radio programs designed to deepen community engagement in peacebuilding and preventing violent extremism.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). A constitutional amendment approved in a July referendum cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors, the first and only reference to God in the constitution. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, and and/or physically abuse persons or seize their property because of their religious faith, including members of groups the government classified as extremist and banned, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The human rights NGO Memorial identified 228 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation and whom it considered to be political prisoners, compared with 245 in 2019. Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities again detained hundreds of its members and physically abused some of them, including one whom law enforcement agents beat, strangled, and electrically shocked to force a confession and elicit false statements against his fellow members. Five other Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids reported that law enforcement agents beat them while in custody. Religious groups said the government continued to use antiterrorism regulations to restrict religious freedom, including proselytizing and banning religious literature. Authorities designated seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong as “undesirable” foreign organizations and barred them from working in the country. Additionally, a court in Novosibirsk declared an independent regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and prohibited it from operating there. The NGO SOVA Center said that proposed amendments to the law regulating religion, pending at year end, might allow for arbitrary government interference among minority religious groups due to vague language prohibiting religious institutions from having connections with individuals the country’s courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.” A fraud case against representatives of the Church of Scientology remained pending in St. Petersburg. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported workplace harassment of members again increased, and forced resignations continued at some of their workplaces when employers discovered their religious affiliation. The country’s chief rabbi stated anti-Semitism was at a historic low, but the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities said levels of latent anti-Semitism in the country remained high. The Russian Jewish Congress reported that authorities arrested two persons suspected of planning to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar in September. According to the SOVA Center, media continued to issue defamatory reports about minority religious groups. The same group reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism. Incidents included setting fire to a synagogue in Arkhangelsk, destroying headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, vandalizing a monument to Holocaust victims in Rostov-on-Don, and breaking a Buddhist stupa near Sukhaya. A priest and former member of the ROC hierarchy made numerous anti-Semitic remarks from the pulpit during the year; he was subsequently expelled from the ROC and a court fined him 18,000 rubles ($240).

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities. The Ambassador spoke on the importance of remembering the Holocaust and combating religious persecution at a multifaith gathering at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in January. In March, the Ambassador discussed cooperation to promote religious freedom with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. The embassy condemned the attack on the Jewish synagogue and cultural center in Arkhangelsk and called for a thorough investigation. In November, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. The Ambassador then met with Jehovah’s Witness representatives to discuss the group’s ongoing persecution and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating for religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the 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 142.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A poll conducted in September by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim, while 26 percent reported having no religious faith. Religious groups each constituting approximately one percent or less of the population include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, members of the Church of Scientology, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is 172,500, while the Federation of Jewish Communities assesses there are approximately 1.5 million persons of Jewish heritage. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, there were 25 million Muslims in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia, which experts estimate at six to seven million, are mostly Muslim. Most Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

Among a set of constitutional amendments approved in a July referendum is one citing the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors. The new language is the first and only explicit reference to God in the constitution. In March, prior to the referendum, the Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed amendment’s reference to God did not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasized the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,400), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

Anti-extremism legislation stipulates that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities. Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred. The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,100), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($10,700) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities as well as to persons in management roles at commercial entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,400). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative and criminal penalties for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.

According to the 2017 Supreme Court ruling declaring the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, all Jehovah’s Witness activities, including the organization’s websites and all regional branches, are banned. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community. These organizations are on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ), of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with requisite notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, and “other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings and facilities or on lands owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel. Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

Federal law defines “missionary activity” as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400 to $670) and are subject to administrative deportation.

Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional board experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis. If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days. Very rarely, courts, in response to a legal challenge, may also reverse a decision to blacklist material deemed extremist. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($13 to $40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27 to $67) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If such a structure does not meet legal requirements or is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in-home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations but not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms. Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or stateless person from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism.”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.

The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse persons on account of their religious belief or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.

At year’s end, Memorial identified 228 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. The figure represented a seven percent decrease from the 245 reported in 2019. Memorial stated that the actual number of cases of persecution was likely three to four times higher, given the number of cases the organization identified as similar to those designated as political prisoners; however, the organization said it lacked the supporting, corroborating evidence to make designations in those instances. Memorial’s list of political prisoners included 61 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 142 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts.

At year’s end, a case filed in 2019 by Jehovah’s Witnesses with the ECHR stating the government violated their members’ freedom of thought, conscience, and religion remained pending.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and NGOs stated Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police continued to carry out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses and again detained hundreds of suspected members. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities had raided more than 1,100 homes of members between early 2017 and November throughout the country, including in Moscow for the first time. The group reported 477 searches of homes and apartments during the year, compared to 489 in 2019 and 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.

In February, Jehovah’s Witnesses and various media sources reported the FSB and other law enforcement personnel searched 50 houses in the city of Chita and other towns of the Transbaikal Region and committed numerous abuses. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported security forces handcuffed and beat a minor in front of his family. They also stated authorities beat and strangled Vadim Kutsenko, as well as subjected him to electric shocks while handcuffed to force a confession and elicit false statements against fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities released Kutsenko from detention after five days and placed him under house arrest. After 50 days, authorities released him on his own recognizance. At year’s end, Kutsenko remained a suspect in the ongoing investigation connected to the raids.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18 also reported authorities took five other Jehovah’s Witnesses seized in the raids in the Transbaikal Region to Orenburg Labor Camp No. 1, where they beat them. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because of the abuse, one Witness suffered a broken rib, a punctured lung, and damage to his kidneys. The European Union (EU), joined by six non-EU states, issued a statement expressing deep concern over the incident and calling upon the government to permit the peaceful expression of religion by all persons, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In April, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Viktor Malkov, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, died three months after his release from eight months in detention, during which he was denied care for chronic health problems.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that two of their members, Roman Makhnev and Dmitriy Kuzin, whom authorities had arrested and detained for six months in Kaluga in 2019, were released in late December of that year. After their release, a court sentenced the two to a further two months of house arrest. By year’s end, both were released from house arrest and were awaiting the results of a preliminary investigation.

On May 27, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the FSB conducted raids of adherents’ homes in Khabarovsk and Vyazembsky. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated one masked FSB agent entered the house of 68-year-old Yen Sen Li, struck him, and injured his hands while placing him in handcuffs. The FSB detained Li for 13 hours before releasing him after he agreed to sign a statement of self-incrimination. He was alleged to have organized a worship group among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On July 13, according to widespread media reports and an official press release from the government of the Voronezh Region, investigators, local police, and National Guard troops carried out 110 raids on the homes of dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that region. Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities physically abused adherents during the raids and that security forces tortured five Witnesses while in detention, demanding that they incriminate themselves. Jehovah’s Witnesses Yuri Galka and Anatol Yagupov stated the security forces placed bags over their heads and beat them during their interrogations, and in the case of Galka, twisted his arms behind his back, tightened the bag on his head until he began to suffocate, and broke one of his ribs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, security forces also repeatedly put a plastic bag over Alexander Korol’s head and tied it around his neck to coerce him to divulge information about other Witnesses until the bag broke. Korol said agents hit him in the face several times and threatened “to use needles” before transporting him 40 kilometers (25 miles) to another location for further interrogation and placing him in a holding cell for 48 hours. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Korol was forced to ask strangers for funds to return home when authorities released him without explanation after confiscating his phone.

On November 24, law enforcement officers carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and more than 20 other regions across the country. The Federal Investigative Committee said the raids and subsequent arrests were part of a new criminal case against Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they stated had illegally been carrying out activities at the organization’s headquarters in Moscow and at its regional branches since June 2019, charges the group denied. The committee did not say how many worshippers had been detained, stating only that they were both organizers and participants in the movement. Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were at least 10 raids and four detentions in Moscow. During one of the raids, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported law enforcement officers hit Vardan Zakaryan in the head with an automatic rifle. Zakaryan was hospitalized before being placed into custody. A court released Zakaryan from detention and placed him under house arrest on November 30.

Forum 18 reported officials tortured individuals detained for exercising freedom of religion or belief with impunity. Following accusations of torture by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Blagoveshchensk, Surgut, and Kaluga, Forum 18 said authorities had taken no steps to hold the officials accountable, as none had been arrested or tried in court.

As a result of what they described as increasing government persecution since a Supreme Court ruling banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in 2017, representatives of the group said that their members continued to flee the country but that there were still more than 150,000 adherents remaining.

The SOVA Center reported authorities had initiated criminal cases against 424 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 60 regions throughout the country since 2017; 110 new criminal cases were opened during the year, compared with 213 in 2019. Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that of those accused, 49 adherents were placed into pretrial detention and another 23 spent a few days in temporary detention facilities before being released.

The SOVA Center reported that of previously initiated cases, courts passed at least 25 sentences against 46 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses stated district courts convicted 39 adherents of extremism; of these, 21 were awaiting appellate hearings. At year’s end, the representatives said 46 adherents remained behind bars, including 36 in pretrial detention facilities and 10 in penal colonies.

Prior to the sentencing of Gennady Shpakovsky to 6.5 years in prison in February, the longest prison term given to a Jehovah’s Witness was the six-year sentence Danish citizen Dennis Christensen received in 2019, in the Kursk Region. In June, Christensen was scheduled for early release after agreeing to pay a fine in lieu of his remaining prison time. According to various media sources and NGOs, however, the prosecutor’s office, which had previously endorsed the early release, filed a last-minute appeal to reverse it, stating Christensen had violated prison rules, including by failing to wear a special prisoner’s jacket and being in the prison canteen at the wrong time – assertions Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs said were spurious. Christensen reported that during his ongoing imprisonment, he suffered from numerous health problems, including pneumonia, and was repeatedly refused treatment because his medical card was “lost.” In October, the Lgov District Court denied Christensen’s appeal for early release. Christensen, detained since May 2017, remained in prison at year’s end and was reportedly scheduled to complete his sentence in May 2022, which included time served during pretrial detention.

Forum 18 reported that on September 2, the Beryozovsky City Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years’ imprisonment at a labor camp for organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization. The two men had already spent more than 520 days in detention and 250 days under house arrest prior to the judge’s decision. They appealed the court’s decision and at year’s end were awaiting the decision while detained in Investigation Prison No. 4 in Anzhero-Sudzhensk.

On October 7, the Kabardino-Balkaria’s Maisky District Court acquitted Jehovah’s Witness Yuri Zalipaev, who had been charged with possession of extremist materials and inciting others to violence. Prosecutors appealed the decision, and, as of November, the case was pending in the appellate court. On October 9, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a court in the Kostroma Region, near Moscow, pronounced suspended jail sentences of eight and seven years, respectively, for Sergei and Valeria Rayman, a married Jehovah’s Witnesses couple. Sergei’s sentence was longer than the seven-year conditionally suspended sentence requested by the prosecutor and was the longest conditionally suspended jail sentence yet given to a Jehovah’s Witness. As part of their suspended sentences, the Raymans remained subject to multiple restrictions, including on personal travel and access to telephones and the internet. After a 2018 house raid, authorities had charged the Raymans with participating in religious extremism and holding a Bible discussion in their home.

The trial of Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin, two Jehovah’s Witnesses whom authorities arrested in 2019 and charged with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization,” remained pending. On April 16, the Krasnodar Regional Court ordered Kuzichkin released from pretrial detention and placed him under house arrest, where he was prohibited from correspondence and contact with other persons. On December 18, a district court in Sochi found Popov and Kuzichkin guilty of organizing extremist activities, sentencing Kuzichkin to 13 months and Popov to 22 months in prison. The court credited the time spent in pretrial detention and under house arrest towards both men’s sentences. Popov was subsequently released into house arrest from the pretrial detention center on December 29, where he had been held for 15 months.

Authorities charged 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses detained as a result of the July 13 raids in Voronezh with organizing an extremist community, preaching, and recruiting new members between 2018 and 2020. In December, a Voronezh city court released six of the Witnesses from pretrial detention and the other four from house arrest. The 10 Witnesses still faced restrictions on their personal travel and communication with others. At year’s end, the investigations remained open and trials had not been scheduled.

For the first time, authorities stripped a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses of his citizenship. Felix Makhammadiev had moved to Saratov from Uzbekistan with his mother as a minor and subsequently became a Russian citizen. Makhammadiev had been convicted in 2019 of organizing extremist activities. While serving his sentence, Makhammadiev reported he was tortured and had to undergo surgery to drain fluid from his lung caused by a beating. The Ministry of Internal Affairs in Saratov nullified Makhammadiev’s citizenship on April 17, citing his conviction for extremist activity. On December 31, authorities released him from prison before immediately placing him in a deportation center. Authorities in Saratov stripped Konstantin Bazhenov, who was convicted in the same case as Makhammadiev, of his citizenship on April 20. Bazhenov, who was born in Russia but moved to Ukraine as a child, had both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.

According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, at the end of the year, the group had 59 applications pending with the ECHR, 12 pending complaints under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the UN Human Rights Committee, and six complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings. On May 6, the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a nonbinding decision concerning 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, calling the cases brought against them unlawful and urging the authorities to immediately release those arrested. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said delays in the ECHR process were at least partially due to COVID-19.

According to Memorial, authorities had convicted, investigated, or charged 237 persons for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir since the Supreme Court first labeled the group a terrorist organization and banned it in 2003; of those, 199 had been tried and convicted. Human Rights Watch characterized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group that aimed to establish an Islamic caliphate, but which renounced violence. Since 2003, courts have sentenced 65 persons to between 10 and 15 years in prison, and 78 to 15 years or more. The total excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula whom Russian occupation authorities initially detained in Crimea before transferring them to Russia, where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir remained legal in Ukraine.

On February 10, Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported the Central Military District Court convicted Eduard Nizamov, whom the government stated was the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and sentenced him to 23 years in a maximum-security prison. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges and said authorities beat him and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention.

Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported that on February 5, a military court sentenced 10 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years. The prosecution asserted the members were involved in the creation of a local terrorism cell, assisted in terrorism, and distributed propaganda that supported terrorism. The prosecution did not allege the defendants planned or carried out any specific acts, but rather that they held meetings to discuss their faith and political views, printed leaflets, and organized public recruitment events. The accused all denied the charges, stating they condemned terrorism and questioned the validity of the evidence brought against them in the court.

On September 21, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and sentences of 18 defendants prosecuted for their membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to Memorial. The individuals, all originally convicted in Ufa in 2018, received sentences of between 10 and 24 years in a maximum-security prison colony.

Authorities continued to investigate and detain alleged members of other Islamic organizations. Local media reported on June 6 that FSB agents in Moscow conducted searches and detained several supporters of Tablighi Jamaat, an organization that Memorial characterized as a peaceful, international Islamic missionary movement. FSB investigators opened a criminal case against the individuals on the grounds that they were participating in a banned religious organization. On July 31, local media reported that FSB officers detained six members of Tablighi Jamaat in the Volgograd Region. Authorities said banned extremist literature was found on the individuals and opened a criminal investigation.

In September, according to press reports, the FSB, police, and other security agencies launched a raid in Krasnoyarsk Region in Siberia and arrested Sergei Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion, and two of his aides. Torop is the founder and leader of the Church of the Last Testament. The Novosibirsk Central District Court ordered the detention of Torop, and the prosecutor’s office in Krasnoyarsk Territory filed a suit seeking dissolution of the Church. Authorities alleged the Church was an illegal religious organization and that Torop had extorted money from his followers and subjected them to emotional abuse. As of the end of the year, Torop remained in custody while authorities conducted psychiatric evaluations, and his trial date remained pending.

The Times of Israel reported October 21 that Jewish prisoner Danil Beglets, sentenced to two years in a penal colony in 2019 for pushing a policeman during a Moscow protest, went on a hunger strike to protest being forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath. Beglets stated authorities punished him for declining to work on the Sabbath and did not provide him with kosher food. Beglets further appealed to Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar to intervene on his behalf.

Memorial said the average length of sentences for religious prisoners on their list continued to increase. The group stated that between 2016 and 2018, the average prison sentence for these persons increased from 6.6 to 9.1 years.

Forum 18 stated authorities also sought to prosecute citizens living abroad who exercised their freedom of religion or belief. The NGO said the government had issued three Red Notices (requests to law enforcement worldwide to locate and detain individuals) through Interpol, two during the year and one in 2018, to attempt to detain and extradite at least three citizens living abroad to face criminal charges under the extremism law. Two of the Red Notices were against followers of the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. At year’s end, none of the individuals had been detained or extradited.

The SOVA Center reported in April that Dagestan authorities arrested Ibrahim Murtazaliev for his alleged involvement in Nurdzhular (also known as Nursi Readers), a group the government listed as extremist, and placed him in pretrial detention for two months before eventually releasing him. According to the government, members of Nurdzhular are students of Nursi’s works, which are banned. The SOVA Center continued to state that it did not believe the group existed in the country.

Yevgeny Kim, whom authorities stripped of citizenship in 2019 because of what they said were actions that promoted the works of Nursi, remained stateless and in a pre-deportation detention center for foreign nationals. After Kim’s release from prison in 2019, authorities had charged him with violating immigration law and ordered his deportation to Uzbekistan. Kim was born in Uzbekistan but did not have Uzbek citizenship.

At year’s end, the Neva District Court in St. Petersburg accepted, but did not begin to hear, a case against Ivan Masitsky, head of the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, and three other church officers, Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva; authorities accused them of financial fraud. The case was initially launched in 2017 after an FSB raid on Church offices in which authorities claimed to have found evidence that the group had illegally received 276 million rubles ($3.71 million) in compensation for Church services.

Authorities also investigated individuals for violating the law prohibiting offending the feelings of religious believers. In January, for example, comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation following media reports that an audience member at one of his shows complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, apparently for making a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. Dolgopolov returned to the country in March, and the status of the investigation was unknown at year’s end.

According to the MOJ, as of December, there were 31,392 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated, compared with 31,379 in 2019 and 30,896 in 2018. In 2019, Orthodox organizations made up more than half of the new organizations, followed by Muslim and Protestant organizations. Among Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Adventists had the most newly registered organizations. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.

Forum 18 reported that between January 2019 and June 2020, authorities prosecuted 76 registered religious organizations and 22 individuals for carrying out their activities without indicating their official full name on their materials. According to the Administrative Code, a religious organization’s “official name” must include its religious affiliation and its organizational and legal form – the use of abbreviations may incur prosecution. Most of the cases resulted in guilty verdicts and fines, with a conviction rate of 72.5 percent.

The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ on which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”

The country’s 83 federal subjects (administrative divisions, excluding illegally Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) had varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Stavropol and Mordovia continued to prohibit the wearing of hijabs in schools, while Chechnya permitted schoolgirls to wear them. In September, the Education Department of Tatarstan instituted a policy permitting Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab in all primary schools of the republic after receiving complaints from Muslim parents regarding the prohibition of the hijab in one school.

Representatives of minority religious associations, human rights NGOs, and some independent scholars continued to state authorities at times employed the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments (Yarovaya package), enacted in 2016 for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, to limit religious freedom. Experts pointed to the government’s actions in revoking or suspending the licenses of Christian educational institutions, particularly those of Baptists, Pentecostals, and evangelicals. Experts also noted the government and ROC often viewed these institutions as sources of foreign influence. ROC educational and missionary institutions, by contrast, were not subjected to similar scrutiny by government authorities. NGOs, including the SOVA Center, Amnesty International, and Memorial, issued regular updates on individuals they deemed political prisoners due to what they described as the government’s overly broad application of the Yarovaya package.

The SOVA Center stated in its annual report that the persecution of religious organizations for “illegal” missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya package appeared to have increased from 2019, according to data available at the end of the year. Despite a slight decrease in 2019 compared to 2018, the 2020 numbers showed 201 cases reviewed by the courts, compared to 174 in the same period in 2019. Ninety individuals, three officials, and 39 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts was 1,581,000 rubles ($21,200), compared with 1,452,000 rubles ($19,500) for the same period in 2019.

In July, according to press reports, the MOJ barred seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong from working in the country, citing unspecified national security concerns, and designated them “undesirable” foreign organizations. Six of the NGOs were from the United States, and the seventh was from the United Kingdom. As a result, the government froze the groups’ assets and banned them from distributing informational materials, implementing projects, and creating branches in the country. On November 10, the Novosibirsk Fifth General Court of Appeal declared a regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and barred its activities in the region.

According to the Interfax news agency, the Pushkinsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared informational materials promoting deceased U.S. preacher William Branham’s teachings extremist and prohibited their circulation in the country. The materials related to The Evening Light Christian organization. In its decision, the court cited a 2017 review of Branham’s works by St. Petersburg State University in which the works were deemed to contain elements of “neurolinguistic programing” and insulted the feelings of certain religious believers.

Religious minorities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Falun Gong, said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,130, compared with 5,003 in December 2019 and 4,514 in October 2018.

The SOVA Center reported that Tartarstan’s Almetvevsk City Court banned two books by Islamic theologians as extremist. According to the center, the two books did not contain any direct appeals for violence or terrorism and, as such, were incorrectly labeled as extremist.

The SOVA Center also reported that in January, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the May 2019 Nevsky District Court decision to ban the Falun Gong book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party from distribution in the country. The center said the book did not promote violence and that there were no grounds for banning its distribution.

Amendments to the law, initially considered by the State Duma in September, would require clergy who received religious education abroad to undergo mandatory recertification in a Russian educational institution. Proponents said the amendments were intended to prevent the dissemination of “an extremism religious ideology.” However, after significant opposition from the Buddhist community, which does not have any religious educational institutions in Russia, the proposed amendments were modified so that they would apply only to clergy arriving in the country after implementation of the updated law. The proposed amendments would also prohibit religious institutions from having connections with individuals suspected of financing terrorism and those whom Russian courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.”

According to the SOVA Center, the vagueness of the proposed amendments might permit the government to arbitrarily interfere with the activities of religious minorities and unpopular religious groups. The ROC was the only religious institution to declare support for the amendments. At year’s end, the State Duma was considering the legislation, which was expected to pass sometime in 2021.

In January, the Constitutional Court upheld the right of the Church of Jesus Christ to hold religious services in an administrative building owned by the Church. The case was an affirmation of a 2019 decision by the Constitutional Court acknowledging the right of an individual to use his or her own residential property to provide a religious organization with a place to conduct worship services and other religious rituals.

Forum 18 reported in February that three Pentecostal churches in different parts of the country – Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, and Oryol – faced possible closure and demolition for what local authorities said were building code violations. While the court cases were still ongoing at year’s end, each of the churches said they had resolved any reported issues. According to Forum 18, the congregations were forced to spend time and money to challenge the charges and could lose access to their places of worship during court proceedings. The Jesus Embassy Church in Nizhny Novgorod remained closed after authorities shut it down on December 31, 2019, due to what they said were fire safety violations. Alexander Verkhovsky, SOVA Center director, challenged the idea that authorities were interested in fire safety, given what he said were discrepancies in the number of violations cited and the apparent hostility state security officials had demonstrated toward the church’s operations. The churches in Kaluga and Oryol remained open during the court proceedings.

According to press reporting, the city administration in Novorossiysk filed a lawsuit and asked a local court to order the demolition of Baptist community leader Vitaliy Bak’s home in April. The city administration accused Bak of holding illegal religious worship services in the house. Local authorities had closed the house in July 2019. Following a series of failed appeals, in December 2019, the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International filed an application with the ECHR on behalf of Pastor Bak, saying the authorities’ actions violated freedom of religion. The appeal remained pending at year’s end.

The Russian Bible Society reported that Moscow authorities on September 16 ordered the group to demolish the warehouses where it stored its publications within five days. The society said that the letter from the authorities warned the group that if they did not demolish the warehouses and remove the materials therein, the authorities would do it and charge the group for related expenses.

On January 17, members of the Yekaterinburg Muslim community held Friday prayers outside during inclement weather to bring attention to the destruction of the Nur-Usman Mosque, which the government tore down in 2019 to make room for a new ice arena. Members of the mostly migrant community stated city officials had granted a new plot of land for the construction of a mosque but that the plot was smaller than the members believed was appropriate.

According to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law that recognized the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. For example, in August, religious scholar Roman Lunkin cited the government’s interest in promoting the ROC as a source of symbolic patriotism during an interview with online news site Lenta.ru. According to Lunkin, the ROC continued to benefit from several formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC Patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations.

The Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists reopened as the Theological Seminary of Moscow following a 2019 decision by federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor to revoke the seminary’s status as a nationally licensed graduate school. Authorities allowed it to reopen as a training institution under the Russian Baptist Church. Rosobrnadzor had reported finding fault with the organization’s bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff.

In October, following the killing of teacher Samuel Paty in France by a Russian Muslim immigrant from Chechnya, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov accused French President Emmanuel Macron of inspiring terrorists by justifying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as protected by free speech rights. In an Instagram post, Kadyrov said Macron was forcing people into terrorism and creating conditions for extremism to grow.

Claims by Jehovah’s Witnesses for government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($97.18 million) remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Experts from Russia’s Jewish community had varying assessments of the level of anti-Semitism in the country. Chief Rabbi of Russia Lazar stated in January that the level of anti-Semitism was at its lowest point historically. He said the community felt comfortable openly demonstrating its religion and was respected by the state and others. President of the Federation of Jewish Communities Alexander Boroda said in June that he was concerned about the level of latent anti-Semitism in the country, citing public opinion polls showing the number of respondents who openly considered themselves anti-Semitic rose from 15 percent in 2017 to 17 percent in 2019.

The Russian Jewish Congress reported a taxi dispatcher in Tver refused to take an order from a customer in January after learning she had attended a Holocaust exhibition, telling her, “What they did to them [Jews] was all right.” The customer complained to the taxi company, and the dispatcher was fired. The congress reported that in September, authorities uncovered a plot to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar, Rabbi Yuri Tkach, and arrested suspects affiliated with the group “The USSR Citizens.” The congress also reported that it and the World Jewish Congress had received threatening emails from an internet user.

Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report that employers often dismissed Witnesses who had been detained by authorities, were being investigated, or received suspended sentences, and that those Witnesses were often unable to find another job, given the stigma surrounding them. Jehovah’s Witnesses also continued to report that adherents were harassed at their workplaces and, in some cases, dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious belief.

According to the SOVA Center, national and local media continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious groups were dangerous. The mass-circulation daily Izvestia, widely regarded as progovernment, published a piece against Jehovah’s Witnesses following the November raids on the group that occurred across the country. The article, citing what it described as an expert in “sectology,” stated Jehovah’s Witnesses had taken advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to recruit vulnerable members into the group to acquire their property. The “sectologist” concluded that Jehovah’s Witnesses did not value human life and were therefore susceptible to becoming terrorists.

The Russian Jewish Congress reported examples of anti-Semitism in media but stated that a trend toward a reduction in such content, observed in previous years, continued. According to the congress, anti-Semitic content was relatively infrequent on social media and was condemned or was the subject of administrative action when it appeared. The group cited an anti-Semitic statement on television station Russia-1 by Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine, who said that a number of Jewish opposition figures, including musician Andrei Makarevich, in the time of Hitler “could be turned either into ashes in the crematorium or into a lampshade.” According to President of the Russian Jewish Congress Yuri Kanner, none of the other participants in the program objected to Korotchenko’s remarks. The congress also pointed to anti-Semitism in publications by the North-West Political News Agency.

Some religious figures made anti-Semitic remarks publicly. Father Sergey Romanov, a former member of the ROC hierarchy, made multiple anti-Semitic statements from his pulpit during the year, calling the Jewish community an “accursed, ignorant” people and accusing the “Jewish regime” of being responsible for the closing of churches in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 20, the Verkhnepyshminsky City Court fined Romanov 18,000 rubles ($240) (of a maximum 20,000 rubles, $270) for “incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as the humiliation of human dignity” stemming from anti-Semitic remarks made during one of his sermons. In September, an ROC court expelled him from the Church, but he continued to perform services at a convent outside of Yekaterinburg, according to press reports. According to press reports, on December 29, authorities arrested him on suspicion of encouraging minors to commit suicide in a sermon he gave entitled “For Faith in Christ, Let Us Face Death” that was posted on YouTube. At year’s end, he remained in detention, and his lawyer said he was not permitted to communicate with Romanov in private.

The SOVA Center reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with at least 20 incidents (revised number) in 2019, 32 in 2018, and more than 100 such incidents at their peak in 2010.

Media reported on April 15 that police detained a woman who broke a Buddhist stupa with a sledgehammer near the village of Sukhaya. The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it would open a criminal case against her on charges of vandalism and destruction of a religious structure.

Media reported several cases of anti-Semitic vandalism. For example, on April 13, unidentified perpetrators set fire to the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk. No one was injured, but a Jewish community leader estimated property damages at 1.5 million rubles ($20,100). Two months after the incident, police detained a suspect. Authorities initiated a criminal case based on intentional damage to property rather than anti-Semitism. In July, according to press reports, vandals smashed dozens of headstones at Aleksandrovskaya Farm Avenue Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg. Police did not identify any suspects. In September, police arrested a man for painting a cross and pouring yellow paint on a monument for Holocaust victims in Aksay, a village outside the city of Rostov-on-Don near the border with Ukraine. Also in September, the Russian Jewish Congress reported that a drunken man shouting anti-Semitic slogans tried unsuccessfully to enter the Shamir Jewish Community Center in Moscow. He then threw down a chanukiah from the front steps, tore off a nameplate, broke a mailbox, and tore off the license plate of the rabbi’s car.

A variety of religious congregations stated they pursued ties with other faith communities. For example, ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye said the ROC held regular meetings with faith leaders in the city, including with leaders from the Muslim and Jewish communities. Kirill also said the ROC regularly communicated with Protestant groups in Yekaterinburg, including the local Methodist, Baptist, and evangelical communities. The leaders of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan said they communicated and cooperated with other faiths, holding interfaith events, such as soccer tournaments, in Kazan.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities.

In January, the Ambassador spoke at a multifaith gathering hosted by the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. In his remarks, the Ambassador underscored the unwavering U.S. commitment to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and doing everything possible to prevent similar acts of genocide and religious persecution from happening again. The embassy also highlighted this message on its social media platforms.

In March, the Ambassador and Yekaterinburg Consul General met with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. During the visit, the Ambassador toured the Church on the Blood, built on the site of the 1918 killing of the Romanov family, and he relayed a message of cooperation between the people of the two countries, including in the promotion of freedom of religion.

Embassy officials continued to monitor the situation of U.S. citizens working with religious institutions and organizations in the country to ensure authorities did not improperly target them for their faith or religious work.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the embassy moved its outreach efforts online and continued to use its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom issues. On February 18, the embassy expressed concerns on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses; the embassy spokesperson posted, “We welcome news that Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko was released today, after reports that Chita law enforcement abducted & tortured him on basis of his peaceful religious beliefs. We urge Russian authorities to fully investigate incident, respect #humanrights #religiousfreedom,” and on June 9, “#JehovahsWitness Gennady Shpakovsky was sentenced today to 6.5 years in prison for reading the Bible and collecting donations for his community. Russia must stop selectively prosecuting believers and let them practice their religion in peace.” On April 14, the embassy posted about anti-Semitism on Twitter, writing, “We strongly condemn the April 13 attack on the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk, the third such attack since 2015. We urge a thorough investigation into this heinous act. #CombatAntisemitism.”

The embassy also communicated the importance of religious freedom by celebrating major religious holidays of Christians, Jews, and Muslims via its social media platforms. These messages included video greetings from the Ambassador to mark Easter and the end of Ramadan; posts marking the contributions of various religions to American history and culture; and posts highlighting events that underscored tolerance and that commemorated victims of violence motivated by religious hatred.

On September 2, the embassy sponsored a virtual commemoration concert entitled “Music of World War II: Remembering the Shared Sacrifice of the Allied Nations.” Among the repertoire were compositions by Jewish artists of the World War II era: Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, a performance by the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella Choir of the prayer “Ki lekach tov,” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed and first performed in a concentration camp. The virtual concert attracted 6,400 viewers on Facebook and 1,200 on YouTube, as well as drawing media coverage on various online and broadcast outlets. The embassy also highlighted the liberation of concentration camps during its World War II commemorations, posting videos about the Allied Forces’ liberation of Dachau and Ravensbruck.

On November 25, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning the November 24 raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. On November 30, the Ambassador met with Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives to discuss the most recent raids and the group’s ongoing persecution. The Ambassador said the United States would continue to highlight the government’s violations of the rights of members of their group and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Mohammed). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In practice, there is some limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious exercise, but religious practices at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations (of the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) were marked by improved sectarian relations and public calls for mutual tolerance. Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of their community on a religious basis with security operations and legal proceedings. In July, Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that security forces raided the largely Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one injury. In September and October, rights groups reported the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) in Riyadh issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics arrested in 2017, sentencing them to between three to 10 years in prison. In February, rights groups reported the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat, who was convicted on charges including disrupting security and participating in demonstrations. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a member of the Council of Senior Scholars (CSS), delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.” Government leaders, including the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League, continued to advocate for interreligious tolerance and dialogue and to denounce religious extremism. In September, following the UAE and Bahrain’s agreement to normalize ties with Israel, the government-appointed imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca said in a televised sermon that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors, and he urged listeners to avoid “passionate emotions.”

The Saudi-owned MBC television network aired a historical drama series during the prime Ramadan viewing season centered on a Jewish midwife living in an unnamed multireligious Persian Gulf community in the 1930s to 1950s. Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world. Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 34.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners. Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population. Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shia who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province. The Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region. Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000. Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari school of jurisprudence. Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam). Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they are believed to constitute a majority of the province’s inhabitants. Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, reportedly number several hundred, most of South Asian origin. Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering in total approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam. The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed) and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.” The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion. Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland. Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize. The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority. Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person CSS that reports to the King. By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna. The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority. The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia. The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.” In the absence of a common law system and comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely. Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision. Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff. In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would. In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia. The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints. There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC. During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

Blasphemy against Islam is legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992. Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences. Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In April, the Supreme Court instructed all courts to end flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and to replace it with prison sentences or fines. As a result of this decision, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes. However, judicial officials noted that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law): drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In April, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors. (The Juvenile Law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri calendar.) Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty. The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites. The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina. Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year. The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims. The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities. Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Sunni Muslim clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA. Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by the MOIA in advance.

Clerics traveling abroad to proselytize must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence. Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum. Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week. Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The CPVPV’s powers have been significantly curbed in recent years and its activities are now limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; these actions are explicitly reserved to the purview of law enforcement officials. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anticybercrime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000).

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations. The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

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

Government Practices

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities. While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

In February, online activists reported that the Supreme Court upheld a death sentence against Shia activist Mustafa al-Khayat. The court convicted al-Khayat on charges including participating in demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, according to the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR).

On June 8, ESOHR reported that on January 24, 2019, the Public Prosecutor’s Office sought the hudood penalty for hirabah (unlawful warfare or insurgency) against Shia Jalal Hassan Labbad on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor. ESOHR also stated that authorities tortured Labbad during his imprisonment.

In July, SRW stated that security forces raided the predominately Shia town of Safwa, resulting in several arrests and one individual being shot and injured.

As many as 53 individuals, most believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling. International human rights NGOs stated that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On October 29, ESOHR reported the SCC held a new hearing in the trial of eight Shia detainees, including five minors (Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al Bati, Mohammed Hussein al Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj). Human Rights Watch reported that prosecutors were seeking the death penalty for the eight men under hudood, which would leave them ineligible for pardons if sentenced to death. They faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.” ESOHR reported that a total of 13 Shia youth who were arrested for crimes committed as minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher.

On August 26, the HRC said in a statement that the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered a review of the death sentences of al-Nimr, al-Zaher, and al-Marhoon as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in April abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors. The HRC stated that under the decree, the three will be resentenced based on the Juvenile Law, which provides for a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

The Washington Post reported that authorities refused to return the bodies of at least 33 Shia Muslims executed in April 2019, ignoring repeated pleas from the families. ESOHR stated this refusal was “part of a cycle of persecution” against Shia and reported that from 2016 through the end of 2019, the bodies of at least 84 Shia men executed or killed in Saudi security raids were not returned for burial.

Shia inmates were in some cases held in separate wings of prisons and reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

On August 25, ESOHR reported that the Public Prosecutor’s Office no longer sought the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests, but that the Public Prosecutor’s Office was still pursuing the death penalty for her codefendants, including her husband Moussa al-Hashim. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals.

On September 4, the Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that in August, security forces arrested Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. It added that authorities also arrested the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, Dr. Saud al-Fanisan, in March. There was no further information on the charges; observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk, and when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views that are counter to government policy.

In February, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC in Riyadh upheld an eight-year prison sentence and travel ban against Murtaja Qureiris, a 20-year-old Shia whom authorities had arrested as a juvenile after he participated in protests when he was between the ages of 10 and 13. The SCC issued its verdict following a 2019 decision that had reversed the death sentence initially imposed on Qureiris. On May 11, seven UN special rapporteurs sent a letter to the government regarding Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed Hassan al-Habib and Murtaja Qureiris expressing concern at the use of torture and mistreatment to extract confessions and possible incriminating evidence.

The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.

Raif Badawi remained in prison based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols. On April 30, Badawi’s wife said authorities referred Badawi’s case to court after he staged a hunger strike to protest poor treatment and because he did not feel safe in prison after he was attacked by a fellow inmate. Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes. The impact on Badawi’s case of the April Supreme Court directive ending flogging and replacing it with prison sentences or fines remained unclear at year’s end.

According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end. It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

In September, local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery. A court in Jeddah sentenced an African businessman to six years in prison and deportation after serving his sentence on charges of fraud, impersonating a diplomat, and sorcery.

On March 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported the arrest of Islamic scholar Abdullah al-Saad after he posted a video online denouncing the government decision to suspend all prayers at mosques to limit the spread of COVID-19. Prisoners of Conscience reported in April that authorities released al-Saad 10 days after his arrest. On March 27, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered the arrest of four individuals for claiming the spread of novel coronavirus was a “punishment from God.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement that it ordered the arrest of another three individuals who “exploited social media to interpret God’s will amid the coronavirus.”

On July 12, the Saudi Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) issued a statement announcing the suspension of the children’s television show Green Wish after the host asked members of the audience to pin their wishes on a wishing tree and hope they would come true, which many viewers said was “a call for polytheism.” In the statement, the SBC affirmed the adherence of its programs to “tolerant” Islam.

On March 21, local media reported that Mecca police arrested a Saudi man and two female Yemeni residents in Jeddah for “mocking Islamic religious rituals” after the man appeared in a photo kneeling down before one of the women as a sign of worship in front of a mosque in Jeddah.

On April 30, local media reported that Riyadh police arrested a man for posting a Snapchat video “mocking prayers.”

During the year, the SCC held at least three hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by Human Rights Watch as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. Following a December 25 hearing, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed). According to Human Rights Watch, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC, which specializes in terrorism and national security cases, continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam. The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. Most of the 37 charges against al-Odah concerned alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Qatari government as well as his public support for imprisoned dissidents. Al-Odah’s son stated in a December press article that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during three years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence. Beginning in mid-May through mid-September, activists said authorities denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls.

Prisoners of Conscience stated a number of clerics were detained, charged, or sentenced for offenses related to their religious opinions, although the charges were not specified. In September, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics and religious leaders arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views, including Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, Abdullah al-Maliki, Khalid al-Ajeemi, Ahmed al-Suwayan, Dr. Yousef Ahmad al-Qasem, Sheikh Ghorom al-Bishi, Rabea Hafez, Fahad al-Sunaidi, and Dr. Ibrahim al-Faris. According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between three and 10 years in prison.

On October 9, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced cleric Naif al-Sahafi to 10 years in prison. Authorities arrested al-Sahafi in a wide-ranging crackdown on Shia clerics in 2017.

On October 14, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC sentenced cleric Ali Badahdah, detained since 2017, to six years in prison. On October 15, Prisoners of Conscience said the SCC sentenced Habib bin Mualla, in detention since 2017, to three-and-a-half years in prison. Mualla previously served as an advisor at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

On October 12, Prisoners of Conscience said authorities suspended clerics Khaled al-Mushaiqeh and Abdulrahman al-Aqel from preaching and giving religious lectures.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities. Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons. It restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval. However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas (prayer halls) were found in areas inhabited by Shia residents. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas. In 2018, the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. On May 26, Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif al-Sheikh announced Sunni imams were required to select their sermons from among those published on the MOIA portal. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

According to a report in the newspaper al-Watan, the government fired 100 imams and preachers for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by MOIA.

On February 27, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, authorities suspended the Umrah for pilgrims traveling from outside the country and did the same on March 4 for citizens and residents of the country. The MOIA announced that on March 17, it was suspending daily prayers and weekly Friday prayers at all mosques in the country, except for the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The government also closed Shia husseiniyas, allowing them to reopen in late-July to be used for August Ashura commemorations. On March 20, the Grand Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques announced that it would stop worshippers from entering the two Holy Mosques. Prayers resumed at mosques outside Mecca on May 31 and resumed in Mecca on June 21.

On June 22, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that the 2020 Hajj would be limited to approximately 1,000 pilgrims, all living in-country, approximately 700 of whom would be noncitizens representing 160 nationalities. On September 23, the government announced that it would start allowing pilgrims to perform Umrah in gradual stages beginning on October 1. On October 18, the government allowed citizens and noncitizen residents to pray in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.

The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population, a practice begun in 2016. According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities; such events were also scaled down during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance. In one instance, a photograph of a Sunni police officer aiding an elderly Shia follower was shared across social media platforms, drawing praise for the message of tolerance it depicted. In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.

On October 6, according to SRW, authorities arrested two orators, Muhammad Bou Jabara and Ali Khulayya, for their participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after the Day of Ashura).

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times, per Sunni practice) or in some instances not to close at all. Residents in Sunni and Shia communities noted that although businesses historically were required to close after the call to prayer, there appeared to be a gradual but growing tendency for businesses to remain open during prayer times.

According to the NGO SRW, on April 17, authorities bulldozed Shia graves in Awamiya, Qatif, damaging historical structures and monuments. SRW also reported that on May 14, military forces raided the neighborhood of Umm al-Jazm in Qatif, to prevent use of the Shia variant of the call to prayer. According to SRW, raids by government forces occurred in Shia-dominant neighborhoods in October, July, February, and January.

The al-Awamiyah mosque of former Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was demolished by authorities in December.

While authorities indicated that they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and community members said the mainly foreign-resident Ahmadi Muslims hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

In January, Muslim World League (MWL) secretary-general Mohammed al-Issa announced that Saudi Arabia will stop funding mosques in foreign countries. According to the Swiss newspaper Le Matin Dimanche, the country planned to establish local administrative councils for each of these mosques in cooperation with the local authorities, in order to transfer these mosques to “secure hands.”

Observers stated that judges sometimes discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims. Under their interpretation of sharia and the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases, such as financial disputes or criminal charges.

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. On October 13, local media reported that the CPVPV in Khobar Governorate intensified its field presence with foot and vehicle patrols in markets, malls, and streets to implement the programs and events of the “Prayer is Light” campaign, which aimed to highlight the importance of prayer. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country. There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty. There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran only available to Saudi Aramco employees. Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. According to a February report by the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), Saudi curricula for the years 2016-2019 taught students that non-Muslims – including Christians and Jews – were infidels and described them as enemies of Islam. Christians were referred to derogatorily as “polytheists.” In addition, textbooks also taught students to consider Jews “monkeys” and “assassins” and “eternally treacherous, murdering prophets, committing irreparable evil, and determined to harm Muslim holy places.” In a separate study published in December on a review of textbooks used in the 2020-2021 school year, IMPACT-se found a notable reduction in anti-Semitic content. In a statement about the report, the NGO said, “While the latest…report did not find that new tolerant material had been injected into the curriculum, it did find that a substantial amount of offensive material had been removed.” IMPACT-se’s CEO said, “The Saudi authorities have begun a process of rooting out anti-Jewish hate.”

On February 19, Minister of Education Hamad bin Mohammed al-Sheikh dismissed Dr. Jamil bin Abdulmohsin al-Khalaf, dean of the Sharia Faculty at Imam Mohammed Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, after he reportedly invited “people with deviant ideology” to a faculty event. In a statement, the university said the decision was intended to “purify” its campus of intellectual impurities that could harm national security or contradict moderate Islam.

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import Bibles for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed. The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the cybercrimes law. The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence. In 2017, authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain applications, including FaceTime and Facebook Messenger. However, some users continued to report that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype remained blocked.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion when seeking government employment. Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including in the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education. According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia Saudis as members to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.

Shia stated the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious training centers for employment credit and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.

According to human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals were Sunni, although some teachers were Shia. Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons. The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits. The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs. Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars. Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to officially endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs. Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques. Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques. Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers. There were no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers, such as Jeddah and Riyadh. Shia in those areas had to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment. Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province. Media and other sources additionally reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in Qatif and al-Ahsa. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

On April 16, Minister of Islamic Affairs al-Sheikh said the MOIA would refer to the Public Prosecutor’s Office a number of women preachers who delivered religious sermons and lectures without prior permits from the MOIA, which constituted a violation of the law.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.” Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations, such as “Christian.”

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials. The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.

Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances such as prayers.

The government did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain in-person contact with clergy not resident in the country, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.

On January 23, MWL secretary general al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim leaders to visit the Auschwitz death camp to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. The visit was part of a joint enterprise between the MWL and the American Jewish Committee. In a June 9 online ceremony, the Combat Anti-Semitism Movement and the American Sephardi Federation presented al-Issa with their inaugural Combat Anti-Semitism Award. On February 20, King Salman received a delegation from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue that included Israeli Rabbi David Rosen, who became the first Israeli rabbi to meet with a Saudi king in recent history.

In February, a delegation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited the country and met with senior government officials and MWL secretary-general al-Issa to discuss countering violent extremism in the Middle East. This was believed to be the first official visit to the kingdom by an American Jewish organization since 1993, when the American Jewish Congress sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia to endorse the Oslo agreements.

On June 14, MWL Secretary-General al-Issa said that Jews and Muslims working together could defeat “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or any other form of prejudice.” In a speech delivered at the American Jewish Committee Virtual Global Forum 2020 and posted to YouTube, he said the MWL was proud to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Jewish brothers and sisters to build understanding, respect, love, and interreligious harmony.”

In August 22 remarks to an online media forum, al-Issa stressed the need for promoting coexistence among different faiths and cultures, and he called for confronting perpetrators of the ideology of hatred and racism to achieve lasting global peace.

On September 4, shortly after the UAE and Bahrain agreed to normalize ties with Israel, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Abdulrahman al-Sudais, said in a televised sermon that Muslims should avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” toward Jews, and he emphasized that the Prophet Mohammed was good to his Jewish neighbors and the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well.”

On October 13, the country hosted a virtual global interfaith forum as part of its presidency of the Group of 20, with participation from Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Christian leaders, among other religious representatives. The online forum was accessible to Saudis and international participants.

Instances of anti-Semitic statements by public officials continued. On May 24, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered an Eid al-Fitr sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In February, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi said during a media interview that secularism was not tantamount to atheism and that it did not force people to renounce their religion or deny them the right to religious exercise.

In April and May, during the prime viewing month of Ramadan, the Saudi-owned, Dubai-based MBC network aired Umm Haroun, a historical drama series centered on the life of a Jewish midwife in an unnamed, multireligious Persian Gulf community. The New York Times stated, “Fans laud the program, set in the 1940s and 1950s, for highlighting an often-overlooked aspect of the region’s past – Jewish communities in the Persian Gulf – while providing a much-needed example of coexistence among different faiths.” Observers praised the series for promoting a vision of a tolerant Middle East; one writer called it “daring” to explore the social history of Jewish presence in the Arab world.

Journalist Wafa al-Rashid wrote two editorials in the daily Okaz urging authorities “to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, the civil state, or the separation of religion and state.” She emphasized that separating religion from the state did not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conformed to certain ideas in the Quran. She called for embracing change, religious enlightenment, and the application of reason in religious interpretation to bring the younger generation closer to Islam.

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals. While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media remained prevalent when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family. Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms like “rejectionists” (of the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Mohammed’s legitimate successors), which Shia consider insulting, were common in public discourse. In September, cleric Nasser Saleh al-Muazaini referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet under the hashtag “rejectionists’ creed.”

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution. The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy and consulate officials engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance issues. The Ambassador and embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, the National Society for Human Rights, members of the Shura Council, the National Committee for Interreligious and Multicultural Dialogue, the MFA, the MOIA, the MWL, and other ministries and agencies during the year. Senior U.S. officials pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.

Senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards. They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices. Embassy representatives also met with non-Islamic religious leaders to discuss their ability to gather and practice their faith.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to inquire about the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns with members of religious minority communities, including Shia and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents. Embassy officials attended or sought access to a number of trials related to religious freedom. The embassy and Department of State officials also engaged Saudi officials regarding these detainees.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Tibet

Read A Section: Tibet

China | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.” CCP regulations allow only Chinese citizens to take part in officially approved religious practices and stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security.” CCP regulations control all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools, and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities said included Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. The CCP continued to promote “Sinicization” policies that aimed to interpret religious ideas in accordance with CCP ideology and to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations regulation, released in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions, including Tibetan Buddhism. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices. There were reports of individuals dying in custody after being beaten, and one nun in a detention facility committed suicide. There were multiple reports of individuals who had been released from detention dying as a result of long-term illnesses and injuries suffered following beatings and mistreatment during incarceration. According to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and academic research, the PRC government undertook a large-scale and aggressive campaign of “reeducation” or “vocational training” in military-style camps to conduct forced political indoctrination and to transform traditional farmers and herders into laborers in other industries; the vocational training process required “diluting the negative influence of religion.” In some cases, this program involved transferring Tibetans away from their home districts as part of so-called labor transfer programs. Authorities arrested multiple writers, singers, and artists for promoting Tibetan language and culture. Media and human rights groups reported that local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized-crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform security officials of anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” The PRC government continued to restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries and prohibit them from practicing elsewhere. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain because access to Tibetan areas remained restricted, according to multiple sources, between 2016 and 2019, authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Satellite imagery and photographs showed that thousands of dwellings at these locations had been destroyed since 2018. PRC authorities continued to restrict the religious practices of monks, nuns, and laypersons. Travel and other restrictions hindered monastics and laypersons from engaging in traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression, including arbitrary surveillance, increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. The government canceled some religious festivals, citing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, although some sources stated this was a pretext. The government surveilled religious sites, encouraged families to inform on their neighbors, and attempted to control access to social media. It continued to force monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag and required Tibetans to replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas with portraits of prominent CCP leaders, including Chairman Mao and General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping, in their homes. Media and NGOs reported that authorities erected two Chinese-style pagodas in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site generally considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet, and closed the square in front of the temple to worshippers. PRC authorities continued to restrict children from participating in many traditional religious festivals and from receiving religious education. As part of efforts to Sinicize the population, schools in some areas required instruction in Mandarin, and some students were sent to other parts of the country to expose them to Han culture. Authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in monastic practices, including by appointing government and CCP personnel and government-approved monks to manage religious institutions. The government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervised their religious and political education. It continued to force monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Religious leaders and government employees were often required to denounce the Dalai Lama and express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama and promoting the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. In a statement issued in December, the Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress stated reincarnations of lamas were to take place in accordance with state laws regulating religious affairs and the reincarnation of living buddhas. The statement said the 14th Dalai Lama’s own selection had been reported to the government for approval. Authorities continued in state media to justify interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities.

Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources.

The PRC continued to tightly restrict diplomatic access to the TAR and deny the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the then-open consulate in Chengdu requests to visit the area. No U.S. diplomats were allowed to visit the TAR during the year. The outbreak of COVID-19 in January led to country-wide restrictions on travel within the PRC and entry into the PRC, which also affected the ability of foreign diplomats, journalists, and tourists to travel to the TAR and other Tibetan areas. U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns about religious freedom in Tibet with Chinese government counterparts at multiple levels. U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Ambassador to China, and other embassy officers continued sustained and concerted efforts to advocate for the rights of Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the succession of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and raised concerns about the continued disappearance of Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, missing since 1995. On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials that it had determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018. In November, Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) President Lobsang Sangay met in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities. The embassy and consulates used social media to deliver direct messaging about religious freedom in Tibet to millions of Chinese citizens.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to official data from the 2018 estimate of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the total population of the TAR is 3,371,500, of which Tibetans make up approximately 90 percent. Han Chinese make up approximately 8 percent. Other ethnicities comprise the remainder. Some experts, however, believe the number of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans living there is significantly underreported. Outside the TAR, official census data show Tibetans constitute 24.4 percent of the total population in Qinghai Province, 2.1 percent in Sichuan Province, 1.8 percent in Gansu Province, and 0.3 percent in Yunnan Province, although the percentage of Tibetans is much higher within prefectures and counties of these provinces designated as autonomous for Tibetans.

Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion. Small minorities practice Islam, Catholicism, or Protestantism. Some scholars estimate there are as many as 400,000 Bon followers across the Tibetan Plateau, most of whom also follow the Dalai Lama and consider themselves also to be Tibetan Buddhists. Scholars estimate there are up to 5,000 Tibetan Muslims and 700 Tibetan Catholics in the TAR. Other residents of traditionally Tibetan areas include Han Chinese, many of whom practice Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism), Taoism, Confucianism, or traditional folk religions, or profess atheism, as well as Hui Muslims and non-Tibetan Catholics and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The majority of ethnic Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China live in the TAR, Tibetan autonomous prefectures (TAPs), and counties in Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces. The PRC constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” The constitution bans the state, public organizations, and individuals from compelling citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution states religious bodies and affairs are not to be “subject to any foreign control.” The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services or other religious ceremonies and activities.

CCP regulations regarding religion are issued by the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD’s Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Work manages religious affairs through the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA).

The UFWD controls the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including lamas. Regulations stipulate that, depending on the perceived geographic area of influence of the lama, relevant administrative entities may deny permission for a lama to be recognized as reincarnated (a tenet of Tibetan Buddhism), and that these administrative entities must approve reincarnations. The UFWD claims the right to deny the recognition of reincarnations of high lamas of “especially great influence.” The regulations also state no foreign organization or individual may interfere in the selection of reincarnate lamas, and all reincarnate lamas must be reborn within China. The CCP maintains a registry of officially recognized reincarnate lamas.

Regulations issued by the UFWD allow only Chinese citizens to take part in officially approved religious practices; these regulations assert CCP control over all aspects of religions, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools. Through local regulations issued under the framework of the national-level Management Regulation of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, governments of the TAR and other autonomous Tibetan areas control the registration of monasteries, nunneries, and other Tibetan Buddhist religious centers. The regulations also give the CCP formal control over building and managing religious structures and require monasteries to obtain official permission to hold large-scale religious events or gatherings.

The central government’s Regulations on Religious Affairs require religious groups to register with the government, impose fines on landlords who provide facilities for unauthorized religious activities, and restrict contact with overseas religious institutions. The regulations require religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities say include Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. The regulations submit religious schools to the same oversight as places of worship and impose restrictions on religious groups conducting business or investments, including placing limits on the amount of donations they may receive, thereby constraining property ownership and development. Publication of religious material must conform to guidelines determined by the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee.

The regulations also require that religious activity “must not harm national security.” While the regulations stipulate that religious groups must abide by the law, safeguard national unity, and respond to “religious extremism,” the term “extremism” is undefined. Measures to safeguard unity and respond to “religious extremism” include monitoring groups, individuals, and institutions, and recommending penalties such as suspending groups and canceling clergy credentials. The regulations stipulate that the online activities of religious groups must be approved by the provincial UFWD.

Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules vary widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. These regulations have effectively barred Tibetan youth from entering monasteries prior to reaching 18 years of age.

On January 11, the government adopted the “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region.” These require “equal opportunities” for non-Tibetan ethnic groups at all levels of government and in schools, private business companies, religious centers and the military in the TAR.

A government policy introduced in 2018 requires Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in CCP ideology. Monks and nuns must not only demonstrate competence in religious studies, but they must also show “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and a willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.”

Self-immolation (setting oneself on fire as a form of protest) is considered homicide, and family members, teachers, and religious leaders may be charged as accessories to homicide if a relative, pupil, or follower chooses to self-immolate.

To establish formal places of worship, religious organizations must receive approval from the local UFWD, both when the facility is proposed and again prior to the first time any services are held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have an established facility or worship meeting space; they must seek a separate approval from CCP authorities each time they want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel or an apartment. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity that may be criminally or administratively punished.

Individuals must apply to the TAR CCP Committee to take up religious orders and the committee may deny any application. Regulations also require monks and nuns to obtain permission from officials in both the originating and receiving counties before traveling to other prefectures or county-level cities within the TAR to “practice their religion,” engage in religious activities, study, or teach. TAPs outside the TAR have similar regulations.

At the central level, the CCP Central Committee’s Central Tibet Work Coordination Group and the UFWD are responsible for developing and implementing religious management policies, which are carried out with support from the five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations: The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, and the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). At local levels, party leaders and branches of the UFWD, SARA, and the BAC are required to coordinate implementation of religious policies in monasteries.

CCP members and retired government officials, including Tibetans, are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. CCP members who are found to belong to religious organizations are subject to various types of punishment, including termination of their employment and expulsion from the CCP.

Government Practices

The government continued carrying out its 2019-2024 five-year plan to Sinicize all religious groups in China by emphasizing loyalty to the CCP and the state. The plan included Tibetan Buddhism, with the involvement of the state-run BAC. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations regulation, released in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions, including Tibetan Buddhism. Article 17 stated that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

Human rights groups and media reported that during a high-level meeting in Beijing held August 29-30, President Xi announced plans to intensify efforts to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism and the “reeducation” of Tibetans. According to the government media outlet Xinhua, “Xi stressed that patriotism should be incorporated into the whole process of education in all schools. He called for continuous efforts to enhance recognition of the great motherland, the Chinese nation, the Chinese culture, the [CCP], and socialism with Chinese characteristics by people of all ethnic groups. Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to the socialist society and should be developed in the Chinese context, Xi said.”

During President Xi’s remarks at the Seventh Tibet Work Forum in September, he stressed the PRC should help guide Tibetan Buddhism “to adapt to the socialist society and promote the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.” Many Tibetan organizations condemned Xi’s remarks, including the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), which said, “Xi’s campaign of Sinicization is a model of anti-rights policies, especially as far as religious freedom is concerned.”

Human rights groups stated authorities used the “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region” that were adopted in January to further impose central government control and Han culture on the Tibetan population and to encourage Tibetans to become informants on each other. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) stated, “The regulations reflect the culmination of Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping’s focus on consolidating power in the party and eliminating threats, as well as the ideas of a new generation of ethnic policy thinkers who advocate for the dilution of ethnic difference. These thinkers seek to force the assimilation of Tibetans and therefore further undermine Tibetans’ inherent freedom to preserve their unique culture, religion and way of life.”

On September 28, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) published a report entitled In Prison for their Faith 2020. In the report, HRWF stated, “Due to [the] strong link to the Dalai Lama, the CCP considers religious beliefs in Tibet to be intrinsically opposed to socialism and the Chinese state. As a result, the CCP suppresses their Tibetan Buddhist religious identity, including any association with the Dalai Lama. Instead, the aim is to establish Buddhism with so-called Chinese characteristics and without Tibetan characteristics, in line with Chinese socialism. The religious laws in place allow for this state intervention into religious affairs since religious activities must align with political goals to safeguard ethnic unity and preserve socialism.” HRWF stated the CCP “seeks to gain maximum control over every aspect of societal activities that it considers a threat to its legitimacy, by using any means possible. Although the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the CCP’s objective is to control the lives of all Buddhists, their temples and their institutions.” According to HRWF, every monastery and nunnery had an official state-imposed management committee that was involved in the internal decision-making process of that institution. In its report, HRWF stated, “It is the politicisation of Buddhism that drives the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet.”

In October, HRW reported a herder named Lhamo from Driru County, Nagchu Prefecture, died in August in a hospital where police sent her for treatment of injuries she suffered while in police custody. Sources said police detained Lhamo and her cousin, Tenzin Tharpa, in June on charges of sending money to family members and other Tibetans in India. According to HRW, Lhamo was in good health prior to her arrest, but when family members were summoned to the hospital, they found her badly bruised and unable to speak. Konchog Rinchen, a Tibetan living in exile, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), “Her family believes her death was caused by severe torture she suffered in custody.” Rinchen said the family wanted to perform traditional funeral ceremonies, but authorities forced them to cremate the body immediately. HRW noted the cremation also prevented Lhamo’s family from obtaining an autopsy.

There were no reported cases during the year of Tibetans self-immolating as a means of protesting against government policies, compared with one individual in 2019. According to the ICT, from 2009 to December 2019, 156 Tibetans set themselves on fire in protest against what they said was the occupation of Tibet and abuses of Tibetans’ religion and culture under PRC rule. Some experts and local sources attributed the decrease in the number of self-immolations to tighter control measures by authorities and the fear that family members and associates of self-immolators might be punished, including by being charged as accessories to homicide.

The whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama and most Tibetan Buddhists, remained unknown since his 1995 forced disappearance by Chinese authorities. Nyima was six years old at the time he and his family were reportedly abducted. Media reported that on May 19, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Nyima “received free compulsory education when he was a child, passed the college entrance examination, and now has a job.” Zhao said neither Nyima nor his family wished to be disturbed in their “current normal lives.” The Panchen Lama is considered by the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism to be the second-most-prominent leader after the Dalai Lama. On April 25, Tibetans in exile marked the occasion of Nyima’s 31st birthday. Advocacy groups called on the government to release him and allow him to resume his religious duties.

In September, Tenzin Dhadon, a member of the UN and Human Rights Desk staff of the CTA (the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India) stated, “Chinese authorities disappearing and secretly sentencing Tibetans are their key political tool in suppressing the Tibetan dissent in Tibet. The Chinese government has been practicing enforced disappearances by detaining incommunicado Tibetans deemed a threat to PRC’s unity and stability.”

Media reported that on December 2, authorities arrested Tibetan writer and poet Gendun Lhundrup in Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) County, Malho (Huangnan) TAP, Qinghai Province. Lhundrup, a former monk, was a proponent of preserving Tibetan culture and language, and he released an anthology of poems entitled Khorwa (cycle of repeated birth) in October. He also contributed to a website called Waseng-drak that promotes freedom of expression for writers and artists. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

In December, the ICT issued a statement calling for the release of Rinchen Tsultrim, a Bon monk whom authorities continued to hold incommunicado following his arrest in August 2019 for “suspected incitement to split the country.” According to the ICT, police originally took Tsultrim into custody in Barma (Waerma) Township, Ngaba County, Sichuan Province for “peacefully expressing his thoughts on a range of Tibetan political, social and culture issues” on WeChat. The ICT stated it was concerned Tsultrim might be tortured while in custody.

Sources reported that the whereabouts of several monks remained unknown. These included Dorje Rabten, who in September 2018 protested against government policies restricting young people from becoming monks; Tenzin Gelek, who had protested Dorje’s detention; Lobsang Thamke, who was arrested in 2018 and sentenced on July 30 to four years in prison on unknown charges; Lobsang Dorje, who was arrested in August 2018; and Thubpa, whom police took from the Trotsik Monastery in Ngaba County, Sichuan Province, toward the end of 2017.

Sources told media that authorities routinely abused Tibetan prisoners. In May, a Tibetan former political prisoner told RFA, “Living conditions in Chinese prisons are extremely poor. Especially while inmates are being pressed to confess under questioning, interrogators use extreme violence against them that is beyond anyone’s imagining.”

Sources told RFA many monks and nuns who were evicted from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute were placed in internment camps, where treatment of detainees was poor. RFA reported that an unnamed nun who had been expelled from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute in 2019 and held at an internment camp in Sichuan Province committed suicide in February at the camp due to the harsh conditions. According to a source, “She was defiant of the political reeducation in the camp and always protested against the Chinese officials’ instruction and education, which often resulted in her being beaten.”

There were multiple reports of individuals who had been released dying as a result of illnesses and injuries suffered following beatings and mistreatment during incarceration. In August, RFA reported that authorities released a woman named Dolkar due to failing health after 15 months’ incarceration. She was convicted in May 2019 of telling others that her nephew publicly called for the release of the Panchen Lama. Sources told RFA, “While she was in prison, she was tortured and made to lift heavy stones and do other hard work, and her body is all bruised. Because she was not able to get treatment on time, her limbs are crippled, and she is now immobilized.”

Media reported that Gendun Sherab, a Tibetan monk arrested in 2017 and charged with sharing politically sensitive materials on social media, died in April shortly after being released. According to a source, authorities had charged Sherab with “sharing and disseminating politically sensitive documents on WeChat and social media.” He had shared a letter from the Dalai Lama on WeChat that recognized the reincarnation of religious figure Choedon Rinpoche, from Sera Je Lhopa Khantsen. The source said that during his incarceration, Sherab’s health deteriorated due to beatings, torture, and poor prison conditions, while authorities denied him medical treatment. The source said, “The torture was so bad that he could not even move his body and was unable to speak. They only let him go because it was pretty clear he was about to die.” Before his arrest, Gendun had been expelled from Rongpo Rabten Monastery in Sog County, TAR, for holding what the source said were controversial political views.

Tibetan Review reported that in May, Choekyi, a former monk, died at home in Serthar (Seda) County, Sichuan Province, after authorities denied him permission to travel to a hospital in Lhasa to be treated for damage to his liver and kidneys suffered as a result of torture during his incarceration from 2015 to 2019. According to Tibetan Review, Choekyi had been jailed in 2015 in Sichuan’s Mianyang Prison for making a T-shirt that celebrated the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama.

The India-based Tibetan media outlet Phayul reported that in February, Samdup, a former monk from Drepung Monastery in TAR, died of diabetes-related complications linked to his seven-year incarceration. Authorities had arrested Samdup for taking part in peaceful protests in 1992 and had not allowed him to return to his monastery after his release.

RFA reported that Tsering Bagdro, a former monk at the Ganden Monastery, died on April 26 in Maldro Gongkar (Mozhugongka) County, near Lhasa. A source told RFA, “His untimely death is certainly related to the physical torture and suffering he endured while he was in prison.” Authorities had arrested Bagdro and others in 1992 for demonstrating in Lhasa for Tibetan independence and carrying the Tibetan flag. He was released in 2000. One source said, “During his time in prison, he experienced physical torture and psychological trauma like the other political prisoners held there…. He was not really free even after his release, though. Like other former political prisoners, he lived under constant surveillance by the Chinese authorities, and his movements, activities, and speech were restricted.”

In September, the Jamestown Foundation published a report entitled Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet. The report noted that government documents indicated TAR authorities had launched a large-scale and aggressive “reeducation” or “vocational training” campaign to transform farmers and herders into laborers. The report also stated the vocational training process required “diluting the negative influence of religion.” Satellite imagery from 2018 showed that facilities built for “reeducation” purposes included high walls and large-scale, barracks-style buildings. According to the report and human rights advocates, the government claimed the campaign was aimed at poverty alleviation, but there was evidence that farmers and herders were forced to participate in the program and were then subjected to coercive labor practices. According to the report, CCP documents showed these programs used “military drill and military-style training to produce discipline and obedience; emphasize the need to ‘transform’ laborers’ thinking and identity, and to reform their ‘backwardness’; teach law and Chinese; aim to weaken the perceived negative influence of religion; prescribe detailed quotas; and put great pressure on officials to achieve program goals.” The report stated, “While some documents assert that the [training and labor assignment] scheme is predicated on voluntary participation, the overall evidence indicates the systemic presence of numerous coercive elements.”

The report stated there was evidence that internment camps in the region were increasingly transitioning from political indoctrination to labor training facilities, with detainees being sent to other regions within the TAR, as well as to other parts of the country, to work in low-skilled jobs that included road construction, cleaning, mining, cooking, and driving as part of so-called labor transfer programs. In September, RFA reported Tibetans were also being forced to work in cotton and textile factories.

Limited access to information and travel restrictions, due both to government policies limiting access to Tibetan areas and to the COVID-19 pandemic, made it difficult to ascertain the exact number of individuals imprisoned because of their religious beliefs or affiliation, or to determine the charges brought against them or assess the extent and severity of abuses they suffered.

In its report In Prison for Their Faith, HRWF stated “It is common for Buddhists to be imprisoned with no official criminal charges or convictions. Instead, they often face vague accusations such as: ‘possession of banned photos of the Dalai Lama’, ‘praying to the Dalai Lama’, ‘found with books and religious audio recordings of the Dalai Lama’, ‘taking part in birthday celebrations of the Tibetan spiritual leader’, ‘inciting self-immolation and sending information on self-immolations abroad’, and ‘leading a conspicuous protest in public against the law of the land, calling for the release of a Tibetan spiritual leader.’ These accusations have no legal basis in the Constitution or the Penal Code and are often related to the Dalai Lama. As the Dalai Lama is considered to be a ‘splittist’ by the CCP, any affiliation with him is seen as against the communist state.”

In July, authorities sentenced lyricist Khadro Tseten and singer Tsego to seven years and three years in prison, respectively, for “subversion of state power” and “leaking state secrets” after they composed and circulated a song praising the Dalai Lama on social media.

Sources told media that officials handed down long prison sentences to writers, singers, and artists for promoting Tibetan national identity and culture. The NGO Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) reported that in June, authorities sentenced Tibetan singer Lhundrub Drakpa to six years in prison for performing the song “Black Hat,” which denounced years of repressive policies and practices. Authorities arrested Drakpa two months after “Black Hat” debuted and held him in pretrial detention for one year with no access to legal representation.

According to multiple sources, political prisoners, particularly monks and nuns, often were forced to perform patriotic songs and dances praising the CCP and to watch propaganda films. If participants seemed uninterested, authorities considered it evidence of disloyalty to the state and subjected them to severe punishment, including beatings, and refused them permission to receive gifts of food or clothing from visiting family members.

In September, Tibet.net, the news outlet of the CTA, reported that according to official sources, in September, authorities released Phagba Kyab, whom the CTA described as a Tibetan political prisoner, in Khanlo TAP, Gansu Province. Authorities had arrested Kyab in 2012 and had held him for more than eight years in a Chinese prison for his involvement in the case of a Tibetan who self-immolated in 2012. According to local sources, during a series of interrogations, authorities beat him, deprived him of sleep and food, and told Kyab to denounce the Dalai Lama. Following his release, he was forbidden to travel outside his home village.

The NGO Dui Hua reported that from June to August, the Kardze (Ganzi) TAP Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province convicted nine individuals of “inciting splittism.”

According to Dui Hua’s political prisoner database, at year’s end there were 1,008 known cases of Tibetans detained due to “ethnic minority activism.” It was unclear how many of these cases were connected to religion, but often charges contained vague references to political or religious activities. Observers stated they believed the actual number of Tibetan political prisoners and detainees to be much higher, but the lack of access to prisoners and prisons, as well as the lack of reliable official statistics, made a precise determination difficult. Authorities continued to hold an unknown number of persons in pretrial detention facilities and in “reeducation centers” rather than prisons. Human rights groups continued to report extensions of pretrial detention periods were common for Tibetans accused of engaging in prohibited political activities or threatening national security, resulting in suspects spending long periods of time in jail without being formally charged or brought to trial.

Security officials could confine citizens to reeducation centers without formal legal procedures. Local sources said stays in reeducation centers could last more than one year.

Media and human rights groups reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform on anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” In January, authorities charged 12 villagers from Sog County, Nagqu Prefecture, TAR, for running a “criminal gang.” Court documents stated these individuals had disseminated “negative religious influences” throughout their village.

Sources told tibet.net that from November 2019 through January, officials in Dze Mey Township, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, arrested nearly 30 persons, including monks from the Dza Wonpo Ganden Shedrub Monastery, on a variety of charges, including scattering pro-independence leaflets in front of a government building, using social media, displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama, and having contact with individuals outside of Tibet. Sources said authorities held the detainees for more than a month. The detainees were fed only barley flour and attended political reeducation classes for two weeks. One source told RFA that following the arrests, Chinese police patrolled the streets in Wonpo Township and other nearby townships, conducted mobile phone searches and interrogations, and extracted forced confessions.

RFA reported that in January and February, authorities detained seven Tibetans in Chamdo (Changdu) Prefecture, TAR, and charged them with “spreading rumors” about the spread of COVID-19. Tengchen County authorities punished a man identified as “Tse” for posting messages to WeChat asking readers to recite prayers 10 times in order to protect themselves against the virus. Tse also requested that readers share the post with their friends and families. Local authorities held him in administrative detention for seven days for positing information that did not comply with laws and regulations.

Media reported that sources said on or about December 30, 2019, police in Dzogang (Zuogong) County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, arrested 75-year-old Jampa Dorje and his son for listening to recordings of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on a mobile phone and for communicating with Dorje’s daughters living in exile in India. A source said authorities subsequently released them after recording the phone numbers on their phones and forcing them to sign a document stating they would not communicate with the women or listen to recordings of the Dalai Lama again.

The NGO Free Tibet reported that in February, authorities released a man named Chochok, a monk at the village monastery in Zamey Wonpo, Serchul County, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, after imprisoning him for two years for a message he posted on WeChat in which he used the picture of Konpe, a Tibetan monk who self-immolated in December 2017, as the background.

RFA reported that on December 14, the Golog People’s Intermediate Court in Qinghai Province sentenced Lhundup Dorje, a nomad, to one year in prison, followed by one year of probation, for promoting “separatism.” According to a source, in 2019 Dorje posted a New Year’s greeting message to the CTA on his Weibo account and a 10-second video clip of teachings by the Dalai Lama. The source said that on March 11, he posted slogans calling for Tibetan independence, and that on May 3, Dorje posted a picture of the Dalai Lama as a young man, “along with praises and compliments to him.” According to the source, these postings were viewed on social media at least 2,383 times, and all were listed separately in the indictment against Dorje.

Media reported that in late March or early April, authorities released a shopkeeper named Sonam Dhargyal from prison. According to sources, Ngaba County police had arrested Dhargyal in 2015, two months after he attended the Monlam prayer festival at Ngatoe Goman monastery, where he carried a blue religious flag showing a world peace symbol and a color photograph of the Dalai Lama with two other prominent Tibetan figures.

The government continued to place restrictions on the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain, human rights groups and local sources said that between 2016 and 2019, authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes, both in Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. Monastics expelled from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes were specifically prohibited from transferring to other monasteries to continue their religious education.

In October, India.com reported that authorities destroyed large portions of the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. Accompanying the article were before-and-after photographs of each institute showing large areas where structures had been demolished. Media and local sources stated that during the year, authorities completed demolition of many structures at both Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes, and that authorities encouraged Han Chinese to visit the sites as tourists or to move there.

During the year, the government reportedly continued its policy of resettling previously nomadic Tibetans in government-subsidized housing units. In many areas, these were located near township and county government seats or along major roads that had no nearby monasteries where resettled villagers could worship. The government prohibited construction of new temples in these areas without prior approval. Traditionally, Tibetan villages were clustered around monasteries, which provided religious and other services to members of the community. Many Tibetans continued to view such measures as CCP and government efforts to dilute religious belief and weaken the ties between monasteries and communities.

The TAR government reportedly maintained tight control over the use of Tibetan Buddhist religious relics and declared them, religious buildings, and religious institutions to be state property. Sources continued to report that while authorities permitted some traditional religious ceremonies and practices, they continued to exercise control over the activities of religious leaders and religious gatherings of laypersons, confining many such activities to officially designated places of worship and preventing monks from traveling to villages for politically sensitive events and religious ceremonies. Religious figures and laypersons frequently reported difficulty traveling to monasteries outside their home regions, both within the TAR and in other parts of the country. Travelers said they encountered roadblocks and police checkpoints surrounding major monasteries, with security personnel often checking their identity cards and refusing entry to nonresidents. Tibetans wishing to visit family members residing in monasteries noted frequent refusals or limits on their ability to visit. Local sources reported similar restrictions on their movements and said checkpoints and fear of detention prevented them from visiting monasteries and participating in religious events. Many monks expelled from their monasteries after 2008 protests in Lhasa and other areas, such as Ngaba, had not returned, some because of government prohibitions.

According to sources, PRC authorities, citing COVID-19 concerns, continued to restrict many major monasteries across the Tibetan Plateau from holding large scale religious events. Many of these sources said officials were using pandemic restrictions to prevent individuals from participating in religious activities. In March, ICT reported that authorities cancelled public religious festivals and prayer ceremonies for Losar (Tibetan New Year) in February, citing COVID-19 restrictions.

On April 17, ICT reported that in similar notifications, dated April 14 and 15, respectively, Samye and Yasang Monasteries in Lhokha (Shannan) Prefecture, TAR announced they were closed as “per circular from higher authorities, and in accordance with the need of work relating to the prevention of the infectious coronavirus.” According to ICT, “These announcements are surprising, as China claims that there were no newly confirmed or suspected cases for 78 consecutive days in the TAR.” ICT stated the PRC, “to bolster its image internationally and indicate a sense of normalcy after the coronavirus crisis,” announced on March 30 that some monasteries in Lhasa would reopen, but with restrictions.

Local sources said the government continued to suppress religious activities it viewed as vehicles for political dissent. There were reports that local authorities again ordered many monasteries and laypersons not to celebrate or organize any public gatherings to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 85th birthday on July 6, or to commemorate the anniversary of the March 10, 1959, Tibetan uprising or the March 14, 2008, outbreak of unrest across the Tibetan Plateau. TAR authorities banned monks and nuns from leaving their monasteries and nunneries during such times, and pilgrimage sites were heavily policed.

A source told RFA that officials visited monasteries in Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces and parts of Kanlho (Gannan) TAP, Gansu Province, warning staff not to host “outside visitors” on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. In Kardze Prefecture, Sichuan Province, a government group led by Wang Shu Yin, a CCP official and head of the local police department, inspected Ganden Phuntsok Ling Monastery in Rongdrag (Danba) County on July 5. The source said that during their tour, the Chinese officials “urged the residents to become ‘exemplary and patriotic’ monks and watch out for any outside visitors in the area and in the monastery itself. The officials urged the monks to report any suspicious persons to the local government or police department.”

In May, Asianews.it reported authorities banned Tibetan students and civil servants from participating in religious events during Saga Dawa, the month-long festival that marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. Sources said authorities threatened there would be “serious consequences” for individuals who defied the ban. Authorities intensified surveillance of and restrictions on access to the Jokhang Temple complex on the fifteenth day of Saga Dawa, the holiest day of the month. Free Tibet reported, “The residents of Lhasa have been watched carefully by the local police, military personnel and officers dressed in civilian clothes. The offering sites at the temple and the circumambulation areas were packed with these police officers patrolling around. Tibetans who intended to go to the temple to carry out circumambulations and make offerings were stopped and their mobile phones were checked, reportedly making some of them feel anxious.”

According to local sources, security forces continued to block access to and from important monasteries during politically sensitive events and religious anniversaries. Police maintained heavy security during the Shoton festival held from August 15-25 in Lhasa. There were large numbers of uniformed and plain-clothes police monitoring crowds of worshippers. Officials delivered speeches at the festival denouncing the Dalai Lama and urging attendees to be loyal to the CCP.

In August, the NGO Tibet Watch reported authorities barred Tibetan government workers, school children, and retirees from entering the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, considered the most sacred temple in Tibet, while an increasing number of Chinese tourists were allowed in during the year. A source told Tibet Watch the Chinese tourists did not respect sacred Buddhist spaces. The source said, “The Chinese visitors smoke in holy sites like the central Barkhor area and the Potala Palace. They litter the ground with empty bottles and throw waste everywhere.”

In August, the government again banned the annual Dechen Shedrub prayer festival from occurring at the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. Authorities cited overcrowding and COVID-19 concerns as reasons for the ban. The ban marked the fifth consecutive year the government prohibited the 22-year-old festival from taking place.

According to local sources, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provincial authorities warned major monasteries in Tibetan areas, including Labrang, Amchok, and Bora monasteries, that those holding special events or celebrations would face unspecified “severe consequences.”

Local authorities often invoked regulations concerning safeguarding national unity and responding to “religious extremism” in order to monitor individuals, groups, and institutions, and to punish adherents of religious leaders, such as the Dalai Lama.

There were reports that party leaders and branches of the UFWD, SARA, and the state-controlled BAC continued to station party and government officials, including security agents, in monasteries in Tibetan areas. Provincial, prefectural, county, and local governments continued to establish police stations or security offices adjacent to or on the premises of many monasteries and nunneries. While no updated statistics were available, sources estimated that in 2018, more than 15,000 government employees were working in approximately 3,000 Tibetan monasteries.

According to human rights groups and local sources, authorities continued to install overt camera surveillance systems at monasteries. RFA reported in October that authorities had opened “security centers,” or convenience police stations, throughout Lhasa. RFA described the security centers’ role as “subverting local indigenous populations through surveillance.”

According to multiple sources in Ngaba County, Sichuan Province, officials there continued to maintain a security watch list of family members, relatives, and close friends of self-immolators to prevent them from meeting and communicating with international visitors and, in some cases, deprived them of public benefits.

The report Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet stated that the government employed “grid management” and a “double-linked household” system to surveil and control communities. Under the grid management system, neighborhoods and communities were divided into smaller units with dedicated administrative and security staff who maintained detailed databases on everyone living in that grid. The “double-linked household” system “corrals regular citizens into the state’s extensive surveillance apparatus by making sets of 10 ‘double-linked’ households report on each other.”

According to human rights groups and media sources, authorities frequently checked mobile phones for pictures of the Dalai Lama and other content that was considered sensitive. There were reports that authorities surveilled ordinary Tibetans for years after finding such material. In May, RFA reported authorities continued to surveil a walnut seller named Jampa Sonam eight years after police arrested him for a photograph of the Dalai Lama they found on his mobile phone in a random search. A Tibetan living in exile told RFA, “Now, whenever Jampa Sonam needs to go outside his place of residence, he needs to ask permission from the Chinese authorities, first at the village and then at the township level. Thus, he has remained in a virtual prison for the last eight years.”

In a March report entitled Repressed, Removed, Re-Educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China, the NGO CSW (formerly Christian Solidarity Worldwide) reported the presence of military surveillance and armed police in riot gear at monasteries during religious occasions such as prayer days. CSW wrote “religious ceremonies can resemble military exercises.”

Sources stated authorities forced monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag.

In April, Free Tibet reported authorities expanded the requirement that families replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas with portraits of preeminent CCP leaders, including Chairman Mao and President Xi, in their homes. Previously, this policy was only compulsory for families that were dependent on state support under the poverty alleviation program. According to Tibet Watch’s sources, authorities in the region stated that, in order to “remember the gratitude of the party and in the spirit of following the party, all households, monasteries, schools and offices must display the portrait of top party leaders.” As part of the program, authorities across Tibet gathered villagers together and distributed images of party leaders for them to hang on their walls or altars. Authorities also distributed images to be hung in schools, monasteries, and offices. Sources said authorities conducted inspections of each household to check for compliance. Tibet Watch reported an estimated 14,000 images of President Xi and other CCP leaders were distributed.

In June, RFA reported authorities ordered that prayer flags and the flagpoles from which they hung be taken down in TAR villages as part of what sources said the government called an “environmental cleanup drive” and “behavioral reform” program. One source said this was “an act of contempt and utter disregard for local Tibetans’ customs and faith.” In June, Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in China, reported TAR officials embarked on a campaign to remove Tibetan prayer flags from hilltops and villages. Bitter Winter stated the CCP “is trying to destroy Tibetan religion and culture, leaving only a ‘Disneyfied’ version for the benefit of naive tourists.”

According to HRW, the department under the TAR party committee in charge of overseeing retired government employees issued an official notice requiring TAR party and government officials, including nonparty members, to submit a list by August 18 of any retired personnel performing the kora, a Tibetan practice of circumambulating a sacred site or temple while reciting prayers or mantras. The kora is a standard form of religious devotion among Tibetan Buddhists, particularly the elderly, for whom it is often a daily religious practice, as well as a form of exercise. Those named faced the potential loss of pensions and social benefits.

The CCP reportedly continued to forbid its members from participating in religious activities of any kind, despite reports that many local government officials and CCP members held religious beliefs. The TAR regional government punished CCP members who followed the Dalai Lama, secretly harbored religious beliefs, made pilgrimages to India, or sent their children to study with exiled Tibetans.

According to The Diplomat, on April 1, officials used bulldozers to demolish a building under construction that was to house 16 monks at Langdi Monastery in Markham County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR. The building was reportedly built by the local community in traditional Tibetan style. The abbot of the monastery appealed against the demolition, but he was beaten. Authorities threatened to imprison him and two other monks. According to The Diplomat, photographs taken prior to the demolition showed two Chinese flags displayed on the main building, with Tibetan prayer flags beside them. The Diplomat reported, “Now the monastery is empty, as all the [20] monks were compelled to leave.”

Sources reported that authorities destroyed Tibetan religious sites outside the TAR. According to Bitter Winter, in July, the local government demolished the Fuyan Temple, a 1,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Jinzhong City, Shanxi Province, and expelled the monks. The Fuyan Temple was a popular tourist attraction, but in November 2019, local authorities ordered the removal of Tibetan prayer flags and two statues of Buddha. Accompanying the article were “before” photographs that showed the temple, which contained both Tibetan and Chinese architectural styles, and “after” images of the barren field where the temple had stood. According to an eyewitness, prior to bulldozing the temple, police, urban management officers, and village officials had broken some statues, looking for valuables inside them, and taken away all mahogany tables and chairs.

Media and NGOs reported that in April, authorities began erecting two Chinese-style pagodas in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site originally built in 652 that is generally considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet. In February 2018, a fire had damaged the temple complex, and the government started renovations that included laying pipes under the square in front of the temple that were aimed at improving security and firefighting facilities at the complex. ICT said the alterations appeared to be incompatible with traditional Tibetan architecture. In October, RFA reported the construction was completed in August but that the square in front of the temple remained closed to worshippers. One source told RFA the square was surrounded by fencing that barred entry to devotees. The source said, “The pilgrims have nowhere to prostrate and worship, and only Chinese police and Chinese visitors can come inside the fenced enclosure. You don’t see any activities by Tibetan Buddhist devotees.”

In addition to the prohibition on the open veneration of the Dalai Lama, including the display of his photograph, the government continued also to ban pictures of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama and nearly all Tibetan Buddhists recognize as the 11th Panchen Lama. In some counties of the TAR, punishments for displaying images of the Dalai Lama included expulsion from monasteries. Local sources told RFA that officials from government bureaus monitoring religious practice visited Tibetan schools and warned teachers and students not to keep or display photographs of the Dalai Lama.

Local sources reported that “The 20 Prohibitions” were still in force. These regulations, instituted in the TAR in 2019, forbade monks from using social media to “incite subversion, defame or insult others, assist extremist religious groups, provide undisclosed information of the state to domestic or foreign individuals or organizations, or receive or release illegal information.” TAR government offices also announced that those who misused social media could be imprisoned for up to eight years.

Authorities increased the surveillance of and efforts to restrict access to WeChat and other social media. In May, HRW stated that a TAR official from Lhasa said, “The government monitors the WeChat and social media activity of monks even more strictly than that of ordinary citizens.” In June, Tibetan Review reported that according to Free Tibet, TAR officials also blocked the WeChat accounts of monks and nuns living outside the PRC. According to Tibet Watch, these measures were designed to restrict and control communication between Tibetan monks living abroad and friends and family inside Tibet. According to Tibet Watch, TAR officials investigated 4,000 to 5,000 Tibetan households with family ties to exiles living in Nepal and India.

In December, TCHRD reported that on November 24, Chinese internet police in the TAR again announced criminal prosecutions against individuals who used online communication tools to “split the country” and “undermine national unity.” The notice listed a range of illegal online activities, such as using virtual private networks (VPNs) and joining discussion groups. The notice said authorities would “strike hard” against offenders “in accordance with law.” TCHRD stated that in February 2019, authorities had released a similar notice that criminalized online activities that purported to “collect, produce, download, store, publish, disseminate, and publicize malicious attacks against the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, the socialist system, the regional ethnic autonomy system, and the party and the government’s policy of managing TAR.” The 2019 notice offered rewards of up to 300,000 renminbi (RMB) ($45,900) for information regarding violators of the policy.

According to HRW, in anticipation of National Uprising Month in March (which commemorates the 1959 Lhasa uprising and large riots in 2008 protesting Beijing’s rule over Tibet), the PRC increased its censorship and security posture in Lhasa to deter any public gatherings or displays of support for the Dalai Lama. HRW reported the PRC staged mass rallies in Lhasa and other provincial cities on March 7. In Lhasa, thousands of armed police and other security forces from across the region gathered to “pledge” loyalty to the party and its political objective of “comprehensive, long-term stability.” Ding Yexen, head of the TAR Stability Maintenance Command, addressed the police, calling on them to “intimidate and terrify hostile forces and splittist forces, giving them nowhere to hide.” This was followed by a parade of armored vehicles and military equipment through the city.

Multiple sources reported the government continued to interfere in the religious education of laypersons and children. According to Bitter Winter, during the Seventh Tibet Work Forum organized by the CCP Central Committee on August 28 and 29, President Xi said the CCP should build a “new modern socialist Tibet that is united” and that this would be achieved through school reforms that “plant the seeds of loving China deep in the heart of every youth.” Authorities in the TAR required monks to cancel all classes with children, warning that monks and parents could have their social security benefits restricted or be detained if classes continued. The ban on religious education was also implemented in some places outside of the TAR.

A source told Bitter Winter that one of the government’s strategies to Sinicize Tibet was to send high performing students from Tibetan areas to other parts of the country to expose them to Han culture and Mandarin so that these students could become “reliable successors who will build Tibet and guard borders, [and] shoulder the great mission of ethnic unity.” The students were required to live with Han families with “strong political views and [the] correct ethnic minority outlook.” Host families were instructed to “pay attention to students’ spiritual growth” and to educate them with “correct” views that conformed to CCP ideology. Discussing Tibetan Buddhism and other “sensitive topics” was strictly forbidden in Han homes and in schools. A Tibetan college student studying in Qinghai Province told Bitter Winter that students who were found to possess images of the Dalai Lama on their computers were subject to academic probation and other punishments for “being anti-Communist” or “having ideological problems.” The student said this might affect their studies, graduation, and future employment. The student said, “No one dares to touch the topics of religion.”

In September, RFA reported authorities closed primary schools in several towns in Rebkong County, Qinghai Province and forced the students to attend boarding schools in other regions of the country against the wishes of their parents. A source told RFA that police suppressed a protest by parents using police vehicles and blaring sirens and took one protester into custody. Authorities merged two middle schools in Themchen (Tianjun) County, Qinghai Province and changed the curriculum so that only the Tibetan-language class was taught in Tibetan, while all other subjects were taught in Mandarin.

Local sources reported that during the year, provincial officials in the TAR and other Tibetan areas again banned all underage students from participating in religious activities during school holidays. School officials again required students to sign an agreement stating they would not participate in any form of religious activity during the summer.

Local sources stated authorities in the TAR and some areas in Sichuan Province continued to prohibit Tibetan students from undertaking long-distance travel to other parts of the country during their two-month winter break. It was the fourth consecutive year authorities had implemented such restrictions. Tibetan rights advocates said the prohibition was an effort by authorities to stop parents from taking their children to visit temples outside the capital during the break.

During September testimony before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington, DC, Zeekgyab Rinpoche, Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, which serves as the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, said, “The Chinese government interferes and intervenes in the functioning of the monastic education system by imposing restrictions on our monks and nuns. Even in schools, we see this malign design to wipe out our unique identity in the form of restructuring the curriculum and banning the learning of Tibetan language.”

The government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, whom it selected in 1995, was the Panchen Lama’s true reincarnation, and not Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom authorities had disappeared that same year. Norbu remained the vice president of and highest-ranking Tibetan in the government-affiliated BAC. According to numerous Tibetan Buddhist monks and scholars, SARA and provincial religious affairs bureau officials frequently pressured monks and laypersons, including government officials, to attend religious study sessions presided over by Norbu.

In accordance with official guidelines for monastery management, leadership of and membership in committees and working groups remained restricted to individuals the guidelines described as “politically reliable, patriotic, and devoted monks, nuns, and party and government officials.” General administrative affairs in TAR monasteries, which monks traditionally managed, continued instead to be overseen by monastery management committees and monastic government working groups, both of which were composed primarily of government officials and CCP members, in addition to a few government-approved monks. Since 2011, the government has established such groups in all monasteries in the TAR and in many major monasteries in other Tibetan areas.

The traditional monastic system reportedly continued to decline as many senior Buddhist teachers remained in exile or died in India or elsewhere. The heads of most major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – including the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, Sakya Trizin, and Khatok Getse Rinpoche, as well as Bon leader Kyabje Menr Trizin – all continued to reside in exile. The government also banned India-trained Tibetan monks, most of whom received their education from the Dalai Lama or those with ties to him, from teaching in Tibetan monasteries in China, although there were reportedly rare exceptions made for progovernment monks.

As in previous years, senior monks at some monasteries continued to report informal agreements with local officials whereby resident monks would not stage protests or commit self-immolations as long as the government adopted a hands-off approach to the management of their monasteries. Sources said authorities monitored all financial transactions involving monasteries inside Tibet and entities abroad.

According to media and NGO reports, the CCP maintained a list of state-approved “living buddhas.” Such individuals reportedly continued to undergo training on patriotism and the CCP’s socialist political system. In 2018, the BAC announced its database contained 1,311 “living buddhas” that it deemed “authentic.” The Dalai Lama was reportedly not on the list.

According to sources, “Every single individual now on the official reincarnation database has to go through an entire political procedure, entirely separate to religious training, in which they are advised about the need for their career and role in the religious community to motivate religious believers to love the party, love the country and social stability maintenance work, as well as fight against ‘separatism’ and the Dalai Lama…This means that now the Tibetan reincarnations are becoming Communist-trained talents rather than religious leaders.” Religious leaders continued to report that authorities were incentivizing lamas and monks to leave monastic life voluntarily by emphasizing the attributes of secular life, as compared to the more disciplined and austere religious life. Monastery leaders cited continued revisions to education policies, religion regulations, and government control of monastery management as reasons for the declining numbers of young monks. Religious leaders and scholars continued to say these and other means of interference continued to cause them concern about the ability of religious traditions to survive for successive generations. In a June letter about the continued enforced disappearance of the Panchen Lama, three UN special rapporteurs, including the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and representatives of two UN working groups, wrote, “Many Tibetan Buddhists have expressed their concerns about the regulation of reincarnation as it undermines the Tibetan religious traditions and practices while such regulation allow the State to interfere in the choice of their religious leaders.”

The government continued to require Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Monks and nuns were required to demonstrate – in addition to competence in religious studies – “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.” Since the policy’s inception in 2018, many major monasteries and religious institutes have implemented political training programs.

According to media reports, authorities continued “patriotic reeducation” campaigns at many monasteries and nunneries across the Tibetan Plateau. All monks and nuns were required to participate in several sessions of “legal education” per year, during which they were required to denounce the Dalai Lama, express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, study President Xi’s speeches, learn Mandarin, and hear lectures praising the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system.

According to the government media outlet China Tibet Net, from November 6 to 14, 168 Tibetan Buddhists in Lhasa attended training sessions on the constitution, religious affairs regulations, cybersecurity laws, and other subjects. Sources stated that 26 Buddhist nuns in Lhatse County of Shigatse (Xigaze) City, TAR, completed a similar training session. One participant, Luosang Taba, Executive Deputy Director of the Kangma Temple Management Committee in Dangxiong County, said that after the training he had “the determination and confidence to take the lead in educating and guiding the monks and religious believers to firmly support the leadership of the party, adhere to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, take a clear-cut stand against division, safeguard the unity of the motherland, [and] strengthen national unity.”

According to Tibet Watch, on May 1, the Department of Justice and the TAR Religious Affairs Bureau conducted online training for more than 30,000 monks and nuns in “popularization activities” that included lessons on the constitution, national security law, antiterrorism law, and cyber security law.

Authorities continued to ban minors younger than age 18 from participating in any monastic training. Multiple sources reported authorities forced underage monks and nuns to leave their monasteries and Buddhist schools to receive “patriotic education.” Journalists reported that some underage monks who refused to cooperate were arrested and, in some cases, were beaten by police, and that parents and other family members were also threatened with loss of social benefits if underage monks did not comply.

Government officials regularly denigrated the Dalai Lama publicly and accused the “Dalai clique” and other “outside forces” of instigating Tibetan protests, stating such acts were attempts to “split” China. In March, TAR Communist Party Secretary Wu Yingjie publicly criticized the Dalai Lama’s “reactionary” nature and called on all Tibetans to strictly adhere to the CCP’s “guiding principles.” In July, Wu publicly called on security officials to crack down on the “Dalai Lama clique’s infiltration and destructive activities” and to “educate the masses to draw a clear line between them and the Dalai Lama.”

Tibet Watch reported that from July 6 to 8, Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, toured monasteries, nomadic areas, and sites of relocated settlements in and around the cities of Lhasa and Shigatse. During the inspections, he reportedly said, “Tibetan religion is tied to the long term stability of Tibet, primary effort should be made on integrating Buddhism into China’s socialist society, and religious activities and monasteries should be strictly managed according to the law.” He also said laws of the state “are above religion. Tibetans should resolutely fight against the force of separatism… Training of model individuals and monks and promotion of patriotism should continue.”

In comments broadcast on CCTV on July 9, Wang said leaders needed to “thoroughly study and comprehend Xi Jinping’s ideas on Tibet and the CCP’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era.” Wang said it was necessary to focus on improving the level of Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.

The government outlet Chinese Communist Party News reported that at a province-level party meeting on September 2, TAR Party Secretary Wu vowed to “eliminate the negative religious influence of the 14th Dalai Lama” in order to implement the CCP Central Committee’s Tibet policy.

The Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress issued a statement in December that said, “Living Buddha reincarnation is a unique way of inheritance of Tibetan Buddhism, with fixed religious rituals and historical customization. The Chinese government has promulgated the ‘Regulations on Religious Affairs’ and the ‘Administrative Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism’ to respect and protect the inheritance method of Tibetan Buddhism.” The statement, which was published in response to passage of the U.S. Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2020, said the 14th Dalai Lama’s own selection had been reported to Chinese authorities for approval.

Authorities continued to justify in state media the interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities.

During the year, there were no reports that the Boundary Management System Agreement signed by the PRC and the government of Nepal in 2019 had been used to return long-staying Tibetan refugees to the PRC from Nepal. Tibetan advocacy groups had stated when the agreement was signed that the provision that would require both countries to hand over citizens who illegally crossed the Nepal-China border was potentially in conflict with Nepal’s international commitments under the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well the “gentlemen’s agreement” with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which provides for Tibetan refugees in Nepal’s custody to transit to India.

Many Tibetans, including monks, nuns, and laypersons, reported continued difficulties traveling to India for religious training, meetings with religious leaders, or to visit family members living in monasteries. In many cases, Public Security Bureau officials refused to approve their passport applications. In other cases, prospective travelers were able to obtain passports only after paying bribes to local officials. Some individuals seeking to travel said they could only obtain passports after promising not to travel to India or not to criticize government policies in Tibetan areas while overseas. In some cases, family members were required to sign a guarantee that passport applicants would return from their travel. According to local sources, numerous Tibetans in Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan Provinces waited up to 10 years to receive a passport, often without any explanation for the delay. There were also instances of authorities confiscating and canceling previously issued passports, reportedly as a way of preventing Tibetans from participating in religious events in India involving the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans who traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their families’ homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. Sichuan Province and TAR officials continued to require religious travelers returning from India to attend political training sessions. According to sources, these restrictions had prevented thousands of Tibetans from attending religious training in India.

Restrictions remained in place for monks and nuns living in exile, particularly those in India, which made it difficult or impossible for them to travel into Tibetan areas.

Tibetans who returned from India reported facing difficulties finding employment or receiving religious or secular education. Returning Tibetans were not allowed to study at Chinese monasteries, and most were denied admission to secular schools because they did not have education certificates recognized by the government. Local sources said they were subject to additional government scrutiny as a result of having relatives at religious institutions in India.

According to sources, authorities in some areas continued to enforce special restrictions on Tibetans staying at hotels inside and outside the TAR. Police regulations forbade some hotels and guesthouses in the TAR from accepting Tibetan guests, particularly monks and nuns, and they required other hotels to notify police departments when Tibetan guests checked in.

RFA reported that on June 11, a recruitment notice for government jobs restricted employment to those who “have a firm stand on the political principals of anti-secession, criticizing the Dalai [Lama], safeguarding the reunification of the motherland, and national unity.” According to RFA, applicants for low-wage positions such as drivers, office cleaners, and kitchen staff were required to support the CCP’s leadership and socialist system.

In June, RFA reported that according to Shide Dawa, a Tibetan living in exile in India, Tibetans wishing to join the PRC army were required to have no record of engaging in political activities. A former resident of Chamdo Prefecture living in exile in India told RFA, “My younger brother tried to enroll in the Chinese police force. But because I’m now in India, they have denied my brother the job.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because expressions of Tibetan identity and religion are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religion. Tibetans, particularly those who wore traditional and religious attire, regularly reported being denied hotel rooms, refused service by taxi drivers, and discriminated against in employment and in business transactions.

Many Han Buddhists continued to demonstrate interest in Tibetan Buddhism and donated money to Tibetan monasteries and nunneries, according to local sources in such monasteries and nunneries. Tibetan Buddhist monks frequently visited Chinese cities to provide religious instruction to Han Buddhists. In addition, a growing number of Han Buddhists visited Tibetan monasteries, although officials sometimes imposed restrictions that made it difficult for Han Buddhists to conduct long-term study at many monasteries in Tibetan areas.

Media and NGOs reported that monasteries collected donations to purchase and distribute personal protective equipment to local residents and populations in other parts of China during the COVID-19 pandemic. The India-based Tibetan media outlet Phayul reported that in February, Kumbum Jampa Ling Monastery in Amdo Prefecture, Qinghai Province, donated RMB 1,000,000 ($153,000) to the city of Wuhan, then the epicenter of China’s COVID-19 outbreak, to purchase items such as masks and goggles for affected people. Sera Monastery in Lhasa conducted prayers and collected donations for COVID-19 patients. A monk from the Shedrup Tenphel Choeling Monastery in Tawu (Daofu) County, Kardze Province said, “This is the least we can do in service to the people living in Tawu. We can only hope that we can be of some help in preventing [the further spread of] this pandemic.” Monks of the Minyak Pel Lhagang Monastery in Dartsedo, Kardze contributed RMB 130,000 ($19,900). ICT reported that Tibetans posted images on social media of butter lamps they lit in memory of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Han physician whom authorities arrested for attempting to warn the public about the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns about religious freedom in Tibet with Chinese government counterparts at multiple levels. U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Ambassador to China, and other Department and embassy officials continued sustained and concerted efforts to advocate for the rights of Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. U.S. embassy and consulate officials regularly expressed concerns to the Chinese government at senior levels, including central government and provincial leaders, regarding severe restrictions imposed on Tibetans’ ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom and cultural rights. The Ambassador pressed senior PRC officials on the government’s refusal to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama. U.S. officials continued to underscore that only the Dalai Lama and other faith leaders could decide the succession of the Dalai Lama, and they also raised concerns about the disappearance of the Panchen Lama. In addition to raising systemic issues, such as impediments to passport issuance to Tibetans, U.S. officials expressed concern and sought further information about individual cases and incidents of religious persecution and discrimination, and they sought increased access to the TAR for U.S. officials, journalists, and tourists, including religious pilgrims and those traveling for religious purposes.

Due to COVID-19 and tight PRC restrictions on access to the TAR, U.S. officials were not allowed to visit the TAR during the year. Before the PRC ordered the closure of the consulate in Chengdu in retaliation for the closure of the PRC consulate general Houston, the Consul General’s request to visit the TAR was denied. In July, the PRC extended an invitation to the Charge d’Affaires to visit the TAR but rescinded it after the U.S. government announced that same month visa restrictions in accordance with the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On May 17, on the 25th anniversary of the disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Secretary of State said in a statement, “The United States remains deeply concerned about the PRC’s ongoing campaign to eliminate the religious, linguistic, and cultural identity of Tibetans, including through the ongoing destruction of communities of worship and learning, such as the Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Buddhist Institutes. Tibetan Buddhists, like members of all faith communities, must be able to select, educate, and venerate their religious leaders according to their traditions and without government interference. We call on the PRC government to immediately make public the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts and to uphold its own constitution and international commitments to promote religious freedom for all persons.”

On June 3, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom told participants at an online forum organized by the ICT, “They [Tibetans] need to be able to practice their faith freely. The Dalai Lama needs to be able to go and return to his homeland if he would so choose. And yet these are all denied.”

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018. In making the announcement, the Secretary stated, “The United States will continue to work to advance the sustainable economic development, environmental conservation, and humanitarian conditions of Tibetan communities within the People’s Republic of China and abroad. We also remain committed to supporting meaningful autonomy for Tibetans, respect for their fundamental and unalienable human rights, and the preservation of their unique religious, cultural, and linguistic identity.”

On September 2 remarks to the press, the Secretary of State said, “We’re also concerned about Chinese actions in Tibet, in light of the general secretary’s recent calls to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism and fight ‘splittism’ there. We continue to call upon Beijing to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions, to reach a settlement that resolves their differences.”

In November, at the virtual global Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said, “Tibetan Buddhists have successfully picked their leader for hundreds of years…. [T]he United States supports that religious communities have the right to pick their own leadership.”

On October 14, the Secretary of State designated the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to serve concurrently as the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. In his announcement, the Secretary said the Special Coordinator would “carry forward the Department’s engagement with and support for Tibet’s global diaspora and their many courageous advocates for the protection of human rights, including the freedom of religion or belief.” The Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues continued to coordinate U.S. government efforts to preserve Tibet’s distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identity, as well as efforts to promote dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. In November, CTA President Lobsang Sangay met with the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in Washington, DC.

On December 4, the Special Coordinator for Tibet Issues spoke at a forum hosted by the US Mission to International Organizations in Geneva entitled, “Religious Freedom in Tibet: The Appointment of Buddhist Leaders and the Succession of the Dalai Lama.” The Special Coordinator said, “The United States is committed to helping Tibetans safeguard their way of life – not just in Tibet but also in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and everywhere that it flourishes.” The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva also pressed the PRC to respect the unique language, culture, and religion of Tibetans.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states (in part): “(1) decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and in the context of the will of practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism; (2) the wishes of the 14th Dalai Lama, including any written instructions, should play a determinative role in the selection, education, and veneration of a future 15th Dalai Lama; and (3) interference by the Government of the People’s Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear violation of the fundamental religious freedoms of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan people.” The law further states the U.S. government may impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and visa restrictions under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act on Chinese officials “who are responsible for, complicit in, or have directly or indirectly engaged in the identification or installation of a candidate chosen by China as the future 15th Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism[.]”

Although U.S. officials were denied access to the TAR during the year, they maintained contact with a wide range of religious leaders and practitioners, as well as NGOs in other Tibetan areas, to monitor the status of religious freedom, although travel and other restrictions made it difficult to visit and communicate with these individuals.

The embassy and consulates delivered direct messaging to the public about religious freedom in Tibet through social media posts on Twitter and on the embassy’s official website, which is required to be hosted on a PRC server and registered in an official PRC domain. In addition to more than 100 general messages promoting religious freedom posted by the embassy and consulates on Twitter and the PRC-controlled Weibo and WeChat platforms over the course of the year, the embassy also published many social media messages on Twitter that directly and indirectly promoted the religious freedom of the Tibetan people. Over the course of the year, statements from the Secretary of State and others supporting religious freedom for Tibetans reached millions of Chinese social media users. The Secretary’s call on Beijing to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions, the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, and statements of concern over continuing interference with the religious freedom of Tibetans drew particularly high attention on social media despite China’s online censorship.

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China | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Xinjiang

Read A Section: Tibet

China | Tibet | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.” The U.S. government estimated that since April 2017, the government has detained more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as some Christians, in specially built internment camps or converted detention facilities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) under the national counterterrorism law and the regional counter-extremism policy. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics estimated the number of individuals detained in internment camps or other facilities was higher. Authorities subjected individuals to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. There were reports that authorities moved tens of thousands of individuals from their home areas to work elsewhere in the region and the country. One researcher stated that, based on a survey of Chinese academic research and government figures, up to 1.6 million transferred laborers were at risk of being subjected to forced labor. The government continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification for enacting and enforcing restrictions on religious practices of Muslims and non-Muslim religious minorities. During a speech in September, PRC President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping said the government’s actions to Sinicize Islam were “totally correct and must carry on for a long time.” In February, new analysis of 311 entries in the “Karakax List,” a set of PRC government documents originally leaked in 2019 that described the systematic targeting and imprisonment of Muslim populations in Karakax (alternate Uyghur spelling: Qaraqash, Mandarin spelling: Moyu) County, Hotan (Hetian) Prefecture, showed that the government recorded the personal details of individuals living in the region and listed reasons for detaining them, including violating the government’s family planning policies. The whereabouts of hundreds of prominent Uyghur intellectuals, religious scholars, cultural figures, doctors, journalists, artists, academics, and other professionals, in addition to many other citizens who were arrested or detained, remained unknown. There were reports of individuals dying as a result of injuries sustained during interrogations, medical neglect, and torture. One Uyghur advocacy and aid organization reported that since 2018, authorities have detained at least 518 Uyghur religious figures and imams. PRC government documents, eyewitness accounts, and victims’ statements indicated the government sharply increased the use of forced sterilization and forced birth control to reduce the birthrate among Muslims. Authorities implemented a variety of different methods, including home inspections, to ensure families were not observing religious practices such as praying, and it forced people to consume food and drink during Ramadan. According to government sources and eyewitness accounts, the government encouraged – and in some cases required – neighbors to spy on each other. Other surveillance included behavioral profiling and forcing Uyghurs to accept government officials and CCP members living in their homes. Government documents revealed extensive use of surveillance cameras and security checkpoints in public spaces. In September, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report based on satellite imagery and other sources that estimated that approximately 16,000 mosques in the region (65 percent of the total) had been destroyed, damaged, or desecrated, and a further 30 percent of important Islamic sacred sites had been demolished. Research conducted during the year estimated that by 2019, nearly 900,000 children, including some preschool-aged children, were separated from their families and were living in boarding schools or orphanages, where they studied ethnic Han culture, Mandarin, and CCP ideology. The government sought to forcibly repatriate Uyghur and other Muslim citizens from overseas and detained some of those who returned. The government harassed and threatened Uyghurs living abroad and threatened to retaliate against their families in Xinjiang if they did not spy on the expatriate community, return to Xinjiang, or stop speaking out about relatives in Xinjiang who had been detained or whose whereabouts were unknown.

Unequal treatment of Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uyghur language, culture, and religious practices while promoting the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life. Muslims reported severe societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities. There were reports that some Han Chinese living in Xinjiang described Uyghurs in derogatory terms.

U.S. embassy officials met with national government officials regarding the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other Muslim and non-Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. The embassy and consulates general delivered direct messaging about religious freedom in Xinjiang through social media posts and promoted online engagement on the issue of religious freedom for Xinjiang’s ethnic minority Muslim populations. On June 17, President Trump signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against individuals responsible for the detention and other human rights abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The act also directed U.S. agencies to take steps to hold accountable PRC officials, or individuals acting on their behalf, who harassed, threatened, or intimidated Uyghurs within the United States. During the year, the Department of Commerce placed one PRC government entity and 19 commercial industries on the “Entity List” for being implicated in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance in Xinjiang, making them subject to specific license requirements for export, re-export, and/or transfer in-country of specific items. On July 1, the Departments of State, the Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued the Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa sanctions on three senior CCP officials and their families for their involvement in gross violation of human rights in Xinjiang. The Secretary also placed additional visa restrictions on other CCP officials believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang. Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on one government entity and four current or former government officials in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed additional sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and its current and former senior officials for serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang. On May 1, June 17, and September 14, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups being held in internment camps. On December 2, CBP announced it would detain all shipments of cotton and cotton products originating from the XPCC because of forced labor concerns. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.

Section I. Religious Demography

A 2018 report on the XUAR issued by the Department of Population and Employment Statistics of the National Bureau of Statistics estimates the total population was 24.87 million. The report states Uyghurs, along with Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups constitute approximately 14.9 million residents in Xinjiang, or 60 percent of the total population. According to the BBC, of these, 12 million are Uyghurs. The largest segment of the remaining population is Han Chinese, with additional groups including Mongols, Tibetans, and others. Most Uyghurs are Muslim. The Globe and Mail reported in September 2019 that according to sources in the region, Christians likely number in the thousands.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.” The constitution also stipulates the right of citizens to believe in or not believe in any religion. The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services or other religious ceremonies and activities.

In addition to the national counterterrorism law, Xinjiang has its own counterterrorism law and de-extremification laws that went into effect in 2016 and 2017, respectively, containing similar provisions to the national law regarding “religious extremism.” These laws ban the wearing of long beards, full-face coverings, religious dress, expanding halal practice beyond food, daily prayer, and “interfering” with family planning, weddings, funerals, or inheritance, among other provisions. The law limits the information that may be released to the public following an incident the government defines as a terror attack.

Regional regulations passed in 2018 to implement the national counterterrorism law permit the establishment of “vocational skill education training centers” (which the government also calls “education centers” and “education and transformation establishments”) to “carry out anti-extremist ideological education.” The regulations stipulate that “institutions such as vocational skill education training centers should carry out training sessions on the common national language, laws and regulations, and vocational skills, and carry out anti-extremist ideological education, and psychological and behavioral correction to promote thought transformation of trainees and help them return to the society and family.”

Regulations in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, prohibit veils that cover the face, homeschooling children, and “abnormal beards.” A separate regulation bans the practice of religion in government buildings and the wearing of clothes associated with “religious extremism.” Neither “abnormal” nor “religious extremism” are defined in law. Similar regulations are in effect in other parts of Xinjiang.

Authorities in the XUAR have defined 26 religious activities, including some practices of Islam, Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism, as illegal without government authorization. Regional regulations stipulate no classes, scripture study groups, or religious studies courses may be offered by any group or institution without prior government approval. No religious group is permitted to carry out any religious activities, including preaching, missionary work, proselytizing, and ordaining clergy, without government approval. Regional regulations also ban editing, translation, publication, printing, reproduction, production, distribution, sale, and dissemination of religious publications and audiovisual products without authorization.

Xinjiang officials require minors to complete nine years of compulsory education before they may receive religious education outside of school. Xinjiang regulations also forbid minors from participating in religious activities and impose penalties on organizations and individuals who “organize, entice, or force” minors to participate in religious activities. A regulation in effect since 2016 further bans any form of religious activity in Xinjiang schools and stipulates parents or guardians who “organize, lure, or force minors into religious activities” may be stopped by anyone and reported to police. Xinjiang’s regional version of the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency Law states children affected by ethnic separatism, extremism and terrorism, and/or committing offenses that seriously endanger society but do not warrant a criminal punishment may be sent to “specialized schools for correction” at the request of their parents, guardians, or school.

Government Practices

According to media and NGO reports, the central government and XUAR authorities continued to cite what they called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups. Police raids and the government’s restrictions on Islamic practices, carried out as part of “strike hard” campaigns, the latest iteration of which began in 2014, continued throughout the year. Local observers said many incidents related to abuses or pressure on Uyghurs and other Muslims went unreported to international media or NGOs due to government restrictions on the free flow of information.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), during a speech at the September 25-26 Xinjiang Central Work Forum, President Xi said the government’s strategy and policies in Xinjiang were “totally correct and must carry on for a long time.” He also said, “We must also continue the direction of Sinicizing Islam to achieve the healthy development of religion,” and he stated the government’s policies brought stability and economic growth to the region.

According to multiple human rights NGOs and academic sources, authorities held more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups as well as some Christians, in a vast network of camps since 2017, many of them co-located with factories, where sources said detainees were subjected to forced labor and “re-education.” Several human rights groups estimated the number of individuals interned to be higher. The government continued to use detentions to implement a XUAR-specific counterextremism policy that identifies “extremist” behaviors (including growing beards, wearing headscarves, and abstaining from alcohol) in concert with the National Counterterrorism Law, which contains provisions on “religious extremism.”

In September, researchers at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre published the Xinjiang Data Project, an online database that used satellite imagery, Chinese government documents, official statistics, and other sources to document human rights abuses in the region. The project located, mapped, and analyzed suspected detention facilities. According to the data, the government built or expanded 381 detention centers between 2017 and 2020, including at least 61 facilities that were built or expanded between July 2019 and July 2020. Based on satellite imagery analysis of security features including high perimeter walls, watchtowers, internal fencing, and other features and usage patterns, analysts concluded 108 were low security facilities, 94 were medium security facilities, 72 were high security facilities, and 107 were maximum security facilities.

In a press release about the launch of the Xinjiang Data Project, ASPI stated, “The findings of this research contradict Chinese officials’ claims that all ‘re-education camp’ detainees had ‘graduated’ in December 2019. It presents satellite imagery evidence that shows newly constructed detention facilities, along with growth in several existing facilities, that has occurred across 2019 and 2020.”

The Washington Post reported in September that one new facility that had opened “as recently as January” in Kashgar (Kashi) City, Kashgar Prefecture, was a 60-acre compound, with 45-foot-high walls and guard towers and 13 five-story residential buildings that could house more than 10,000 individuals. According to the Washington Post, at least 14 new facilities were under construction during the year. In November, RFA reported police officers from Uchturpan (Wushi) County, Aksu (Akesu) Prefecture, said that at least three camps were still in operation in the county and estimated that together they likely held more than 20,000 detainees, nearly 10 percent of the county’s population.

On November 16 and November 24, 2019, the New York Times (NYT) reported on the leak of 403 pages of purported internal government and CCP documents describing the government’s mass internment program in Xinjiang; these leaked documents were later called “The Xinjiang Papers.” NYT was one of 17 media outlets to partner with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) regarding release of the leaked documents. Also in November 2019, the ICIJ reported on an additional 24 leaked government and CCP documents, later referred to as the “China Cables.” The leaked documents obtained by the ICIJ included a CCP manual, called a “telegram,” for operating internment camps, which it referred to as “vocational skill education training centers.” According to the ICIJ, this manual “instructs camp personnel on such matters as how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, methods of forced indoctrination, how to control disease outbreaks, and when to let detainees see relatives or even use the toilet.”

On February 17, the ICIJ, human rights NGOs, and international media provided additional analysis of the “Karakax List” (also referred to as the “Karakax Document,” “Qaraqash Document,” or “Qaraqash List”) that was originally made public in November 2019. The list contained the personal details of 311 individuals being held in camps in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture, as well as official determinations on whether they could have contact with their families and the grounds upon which they could be released. Reasons for detention included wearing a veil, having a wife who wore a veil, growing a beard, having a household with “a dense religious atmosphere,” applying for a passport, obtaining a passport but not leaving the country, visiting a foreign website, and being related to a person living outside China. The number one reason for imprisonment was violating the government’s family planning policies. Authorities sentenced one man to five years for having a beard and organizing religious study groups. CNN stated it had independently corroborated the details of eight families mentioned in the document.

CNN reported that in a press conference on February 22 in Urumqi, Mehmutjan Umarjan, governor of Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture, said “after careful investigation,” many of the residents mentioned in the Karakax List had never been in the camps. At the press conference, a Uyghur man told reporters he had been to a “training center” but it had been “for his own good.” In a video released by state broadcaster CCTV, the man said, “My mind used to be filled with religious extremist thinking. Not only did I not earn a living for my family, but I also prohibited my wife from doing so, because I believed it was against Muslim practices for women to earn money. At the center, I learned to speak Mandarin and [learned] about national laws and regulations. I also got lessons in business management.”

The Economist reported in 2018 that authorities used detailed information to rank citizens’ “trustworthiness” using various criteria. According to the Economist, “The catalogue is explicitly racist: people are suspected merely on account of their ethnicity.” Being labelled “untrustworthy” could lead to being detained by authorities. Officials deemed individuals as trustworthy, average, or untrustworthy depending on how they fit into the following categories: aged 15 to 55 years old (i.e., of military age); of Uyghur ethnicity; unemployed; possessed religious knowledge; prayed five times a day; had a passport; had ever overstayed a visa; wore religious clothing or had long beards; had family members living abroad; homeschooled their children (which was prohibited throughout the country); or had visited one of the “sensitive countries.” According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the 26 “sensitive countries” were Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

In December, HRW reported what it called the “Aksu List,” a leaked list, dated 2018, of more than 2,000 detainees from Aksu Prefecture that the government had identified through its “predictive policing program based on big-data analysis,” called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which collects a variety of personal information on the lives and movements of individuals. According to HRW, “The Asku List provides further insights into how China’s brutal repression of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology.” According to HRW, the Aksu List showed authorities consider behaviors that included certain Islamic traditions to be suspicious, such as: studying, reciting, or preaching the Quran without state permission; wearing religious clothing or having a beard; having children in excess of the government’s family planning policy; “marrying through a nikah (an Islamic law marriage contract), or practicing polygamy”; going on the Hajj; and “performing the Hijra, a form of migration to escape religious persecution.” HRW stated the list indicated that in at least one case, authorities in 2019 detained a woman, identified as “Ms. T,” whose sister lived in one of the “sensitive countries.” Ms. T’s sister told HRW that upon her release, Ms. T was forced to work in a factory five days a week against her will and was allowed to go home only on weekends.

There were numerous reports of individuals being incarcerated, sometimes for lengthy periods of time, held under harsh conditions, physically and sexually abused, and subjected to involuntary sterilization. Many individuals disappeared in prior years, but relatives only learned what happened to them in 2020. Some ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh individuals who had been held in detention facilities managed to emigrate abroad during the year, where they were able to speak with human rights NGOs and journalists about their experiences.

In February, when COVID-19 was spreading throughout the country, a report from the Australian outlet SBS News that included interviews with Uyghur refugees stated that in the camps, “Access to hospitals, quarantine areas, food, and hygiene products is severely restricted, according to human rights organizations and former detainees. Showers are rare and monitored; washing your hands or feet is considered a Muslim ablution, and therefore very controlled.” Munawwar Abdulla, cofounder of the Uyghur diaspora organization Tarim Network, told SBS News, “Each camp holds thousands of inmates in highly unsanitary conditions. There are also reports of sexual abuse, lack of medical care, neglect, psychological stress, and injections of unknown substances; these all create ripe conditions for a virus to spread.”

In October, RFA reported that Qelbinur Sidik, a former Mandarin-language instructor at two internment camps who subsequently left China, described harsh conditions at one camp holding approximately 3,000 men and a second camp holding approximately 10,000 women in Urumqi. She said at the men’s camp, the prisoners were rushed under unreasonable time constraints to use the bathroom, which had only one toilet, and to wash their hands and faces. They did not have access to shower facilities. She said that the men’s camp also had an underground interrogation room, and that at times she could hear screams coming from this room. Sidik also said she heard of one case in which a man was “very badly hurt in the process of interrogation” and that he later died of his injuries. At the women’s camp, there were more than 50 women in each cell, and they were not provided with appropriate privacy – only a partial wooden partition separated a bucket that was used as a toilet from the living space in the cell. There was a communal shower that each woman could use for 10 minutes once per month.

In August, the BBC reported that Uyghur fashion model Merdan Ghappar sent a video of himself in a cell in a detention center. There were bars on the windows, and one of Ghappar’s hands was handcuffed to the metal frame of a bed. Accompanying the video, Ghappar sent a series of text messages in which he described 18 days spent shackled and hooded in a jail with more than 50 other Uyghurs in Kuchar (Kuche) City, Aksu Prefecture. He said he was later moved to his own cell after showing signs of being ill and was given access to his phone. Relatives said authorities forcibly transported Ghappar back to Xinjiang in January after he completed a 16-month sentence for a drug offense in Foshan City, Guangdong Province, where he had been living and working. In August, Ghappar’s uncle told RFA that Ghappar and his aunt, who sent the video out of the country, had both disappeared and their whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

In October, Zumrat Dawut, a Uyghur woman living in exile who spent two months in an internment camp, told the Economist that during her time there, every day the female inmates would gather in a classroom to study “Xi Jinping Thought.” As they left, guards would ask them, “Is there a God?” If an inmate answered “yes,” she would be beaten. According to Dawut, guards would then ask if there was a Xi Jinping, and say, “Your God cannot get you out of here, but Xi Jinping has done so much for you.”

According to Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in China, on June 13, the People’s Court in Korla City, Bayingolin (Bayinguoleng) Mongol Autonomous Prefecture sentenced 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses to imprisonment, with sentences ranging from two and a half years to six and a half years and a 30,000 renminbi (RMB) ($4,600) fine for “using or organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” According to Bitter Winter, this was the first case of using Article 300 of the criminal code, which covers “cult” offenses, against Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to a report by Weiquanwang, a Chinese blog that reports on human rights abuses in the country, most of the 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to physical punishment and mistreatment while in detention, and one of them attempted suicide.

According to CNN, shortly after former Xinjiang resident Yerzhan Kurman, an ethnic Kazakh who moved to Kazakhstan with his family in 2015, returned to Xinjiang to visit his mother in 2018, authorities placed him in a “political educational school.” Speaking to CNN in October, Kurman said authorities placed him in a cell with nine other men, with whom he shared a bucket as a toilet. Police continuously monitored them via cameras, did not allow them to talk to each other, and required them to ask permission to use the bucket. If they disobeyed the rules, police punished them by making them stand upright all night or by denying them food.

In October, a former Xinjiang resident, an ethnic Kazakh living in exile, said authorities placed her in a camp in 2017 when she returned to Xinjiang from visiting her family in Kazakhstan. She said cameras monitored her every movement. According to the former detainee, “If we cried, they would handcuff us, if we moved, they would also handcuff us…They would allow us to go to the toilet for two minutes only. If anyone exceeded that time, they would hit us with electric sticks.” She also stated that authorities cut her hair and took blood samples.

In August, the German media outlet Deutsche Welle reported that Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh born in Ili Kazakh (Yili Kasake) Autonomous Prefecture and a former camp detainee, said she was aware of “reports of mass rapes, mock trials, suspected drug experiments – and a ‘black room’ where she was imprisoned.” Sauytbay said authorities tortured detainees in an electric chair in the “black room,” and that she said personally had experienced this.

In January, sources told RFA that in 2018 authorities jailed Ekber Imin, a Uyghur businessman who ran a real estate firm based in Urumqi, his two brothers, Memetturdi Imin and Memetjan Imin, and 20 employees, including company drivers, on charges that included “extremism.” A police officer in Hotan Prefecture told RFA that one of the crimes of which Ekber Imin was convicted was “propagating extremist ideology by incorporating ethnic and religious elements into building designs.” A source from the prefectural legal and political bureau said Ekber Imin had been sentenced to 25 years in prison, while a Hotan City police officer said he had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

In January, RFA reported that the niece of Abidin Ayup, a 90-year-old Uyghur imam of the Qayraq Mosque in Atush (Atushi) City, Kizilsu Kirghiz (Keleisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, learned that authorities had arrested her uncle in 2017 for “religious extremism.” She said since his being taken into custody, Ayup’s condition was unknown. Ayup’s family only became aware of his arrest after a CCP official, Song Kaicai, was charged with corruption and criminal negligence after he permitted Ayup to visit a hospital to treat an illness he experienced while being incarcerated. Ayup’s niece told RFA, “It appeared that [my uncle] got sick around May of [2017] and was taken to the Atush City Hospital.” Song reportedly gave permission for Ayup’s sons and other relatives to visit him in the hospital. Song was later arrested for taking bribes.

In August, Buzzfeed News interviewed multiple ethnic Kazakhs born in China and living in Kazakhstan about their experiences in internment camps. Former inmates said that “vocational training” consisted of being taught Mandarin and CCP ideology and working in factories without pay. In the classrooms, the teacher at the front was separated from the detainees by a transparent wall or a set of bars. Guards flanked the classroom, and some former detainees said they carried batons and even hit “pupils” when they made mistakes about Chinese characters.

In August, Buzzfeed News reported that authorities first detained Dina Nurdybai, an ethnic Kazakh who ran a clothing manufacturing business, on October 14, 2017. Nurdybai was moved between five different camps, ranging from a compound in a village to a high security prison. She told the media outlet that in the first camp, “It seemed like 50 new people were coming in every night. You could hear the shackles on their legs.” After some time, authorities told her she had been detained for downloading WhatsApp – which authorities described as “illegal software” – to her mobile phone.

Human rights groups reported that at year’s end, the whereabouts and welfare of Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University, remained unknown, following his disappearance in 2017. International media reported in 2018 that Tiyip had been sentenced to death, with the sentence suspended for two years. On April 20, Amnesty International wrote on its website, “While Chinese authorities have since indicated that he is being tried on corruption charges, his current condition and whereabouts remain unknown. Without any official information about the charges and proceedings against him, there are grave fears for Tashpolat Tiyip’s future.”

Human rights groups reported the whereabouts of Rahile Dawut, a prominent professor at Xinjiang University who disappeared in December 2017, remained unknown. The Open Society University Network marked the third anniversary of her disappearance by naming Dawut an Honorary Professor in Humanities. Prior to her disappearance, Dawut had told a relative that she planned to travel from Urumqi to Beijing. Scholars at Risk, an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom, awarded Dawut its Courage to Think Award for 2020. The organization recognized Dawut “for her own work, as well as that of all the scholars and students of the [XUAR], who together struggle for academic freedom and freedom of opinion, expression, belief, association, and movement.”

Human rights groups and family members reported in December that authorities sentenced Gulshan Abbas, a Uyghur doctor missing since September 2018, to 20 years in prison on terrorism-related charges. The sentence had been issued in March 2019 following a secret trial, but Abbas’ family only learned of the sentence in December 2020. On September 25, at a virtual event at the UN General Assembly hosted by the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Ziba Murat, the daughter of Dr. Abbas, said, “Innocent people are being abducted, and my mother, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, a Uyghur retired medical doctor, was not spared from this tragedy, and as of now has been in a concentration camp for the past two years…I am trying every moment of my day to receive news about my mother, to fight to free her. Every day I’m left wondering where she is being held, if her delicate health is being taken care of, if she is mentally strong without a contact for two years…I would not wish this pain on my worst enemy and I cannot bear it any longer.”

RFA reported in March that authorities sentenced Rashida Dawut, a well-known Uyghur singer who had been missing since 2018, to 15 years in prison in late 2019, reportedly on “separatism” charges. Although the sentencing took place in 2019, RFA and Dawut’s family only learned of it (from multiple sources) in March 2020.

In March, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that a Uyghur woman living in exile in Turkey said she and her daughter fled Xinjiang in 2016 while she was pregnant with her fifth child. Her husband and three other children planned to follow but went missing in Xinjiang in January 2017 after her husband sent her money in Turkey. She subsequently heard that police arrested him on the charge of “investing in terrorism.” The woman said she did not know the whereabouts of her three children, but that she heard they were taken to Chinese military-style schools surrounded by barbed wire.

In October, Voice of America (VOA) reported on several cases of Uyghur individuals living outside the country who were directly contacted by Chinese officials or learned through foreign missions, UN working groups, or Chinese government press conferences that authorities had imprisoned their missing family members in the XUAR. Abdurehim Gheni, a Uyghur man living in Netherlands, had not heard from his family since 2017. The Chinese embassy in the Netherlands conveyed to Gheni a letter via the Dutch Foreign Ministry, received on September 29 according to RFA, that stated two of his brothers, a niece, and two brothers-in-law had been sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 16 years for such crimes as disturbing social order. Nursiman Abdureshid, a human rights activist living in Turkey, had not heard from her family since 2017, according to VOA. In July, the Chinese embassy in Ankara called to inform her that her parents and two brothers had been imprisoned for “terrorism,” and that their sentences ranged from 13 to 16 years in prison. A Uyghur woman living in Europe, who asked to remain anonymous, said she received a video call from a Chinese official on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, informing her that her parents, who disappeared in 2018, had been sentenced to more than 10 years in prison on unspecified charges.

RFA reported that in March, authorities detained Subhi Mevlan, an ethnic Uyghur cosmetics shop owner and amateur singer from Ghulja (Yining) City, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, purportedly for watching a Turkish television show about the Ottoman Empire. According to RFA, “References to the Ottoman Empire are associated in Beijing with ideas of ‘separatism’ and opposition to its rule in the region.” Mevlan, his mother, and his sister were detained after authorities searched Mevlan’s house and found a recording of the television show. Authorities released Mevlan’s mother and sister 15 days later, but Mevlan remained in detention. Six months after taking Mevlan into custody, authorities came to the house to pick up his clothes. At year’s end his whereabouts were unknown.

There were multiple reports that women were sexually assaulted in internment camps. In October, RFA reported that Qelbinur Sidik, who formerly taught Mandarin to inmates in men’s and women’s detention centers, said that one female camp officer told her, “The police officers would take groups of four or five girls in for interrogation and take turns with them.”

In March, Bitter Winter reported on several members of The Church of Almighty God (CAG) living in Xinjiang who said authorities imprisoned and tortured them in internment camps. One church member said that after she refused to sign statements saying she would abandon her religious beliefs guards beat her, put a hood over her head, and handcuffed her to a chair for three days. She said that at one point female guards forcibly stripped her of her clothes to bathe her and she narrowly avoided being sexually assaulted by a male guard. Another CAG member held in a camp said she attended indoctrination classes every day and was told to sign statements saying she would abandon her religious beliefs. Authorities punished those who did not sign these statements, including by forcing them to stand still for long periods of time for several days in a row and by rationing their food.

According to media, authorities continued to have more than one million CCP officials from other parts of the country live part-time with local families. According to a 2018 CNN report, the government instituted these home stays (the “Pair Up and Become a Family” program) in 2014 to target agricultural households in southern Xinjiang. The government said the program was part of efforts to combat “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.” The government required families to provide detailed information on their personal lives and political views during to the officials’ visits to their homes. Live-in officials also subjected families to political indoctrination. In October, the Economist reported that Han “relatives” sometimes stayed with Uyghur families for up to 10 days every month.

In September, Bitter Winter reported on sexual assaults that occurred in Uyghur homes as a result of the “Pair Up and Become a Family” program. Speaking of her experience, Qelbinur Sidik said Uyghur families “were asked to ‘live together, cook together, eat together, learn together, sleep together’ with Han cadres assigned by the local government. Women must have a male Han cadre ‘relative,’ and men must have a Han female ‘relative’.” According to Sidik, “We had no option but to accept the arrangements, and no right to object.” Sidik said her family was assigned her husband’s boss and his wife as “relatives,” but the wife stopped visiting. The man repeatedly made lewd and suggestive comments to Sidik’s husband about her and “playful” advances to her, which gradually progressed to sexual molestation. Sidik said Han male “relatives” bragged about sexually abusing young women and girls. “How could [the girls] resist? Their fathers, brothers, and mothers were all in camps. They were powerless to repel the men and were terrified themselves of being taken away.” Zumrat Dawut told the Economist her 10-year-old daughter was assigned a 20-year-old man as “kin,” a relationship that made Dawut extremely uncomfortable.

In June, VOA reported that according to Uyghur Hjelp, a Norwegian-based Uyghur advocacy and aid organization, since 2018, authorities detained at least 518 Uyghur religious figures and imams. In October 2019, NPR reported that according to family members, courts handed down prison sentences of up to 20 years to religious students, imams, or persons who prayed regularly. Imam Abdurkerim Memet from Yengisar County, Kashgar City was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017, according to his daughter, who only learned of his whereabouts in 2020.

In November, RFA reported that according Abduweli Ayup, a fellow at the International Cities of Refuge Network, XUAR authorities arrested and detained in camps at least 613 imams between early 2017 and June 2020. He said that in interviews with Uyghurs, they told him Uyghurs in Xinjiang were afraid to die because there would be no one to oversee their funeral rites. One academic said authorities also targeted female religious leaders who traditionally officiated at the funerals of women, taught children to recite the Quran, and conducted other rituals within the home.

On June 8, Deutsche Welle reported that it conducted separate interviews with four former detainees. The former detainees said that after they had been held under arrest for several months in 2017 and 2018, authorities handed them a list of 70 crimes and forced them to pick one or more from the list, after which they were then convicted of these crimes in sham trials devoid of due process. According to the former detainees, most of the “crimes” on the list were religious acts, such as praying or wearing headscarves.

In February, the Associated Press (AP) reported that information from the Karakax List indicated authorities detained Uyghur Memtimin Emer, a former imam in his 80s, and his three sons in 2017 and sentenced Emer to up to 12 years in prison on charges of “stirring up terrorism,” acting as an unauthorized “wild” imam, following Wahabbism, and conducting illegal religious teaching. One of Emer’s former students told AP that Emer practiced a moderate Central Asian form of Islam and had stopped preaching and teaching in 1997. The Karakax List indicted that in 2017, Emer’s sons were held in detention for having too many children, trying to travel abroad, being “untrustworthy,” being “infected with religious extremism,” and going on the Hajj.

In April, RFA reported on several cases that came to light during the year in which Uyghurs were given long prison sentences. In 2019, taxi driver Shireli Memtili received a 16-and-a-half-year sentence for “illegally gathering and disturbing the social order,” “endangering national security,” receiving “illegal religious education,” and driving an “illegal” religious figure, which RFA stated likely meant an unlicensed imam. Abduhaliq Aziz, a Uyghur studying in Egypt, told RFA he learned in February that his mother, who disappeared in 2017, had been sentenced to six years in prison. Aziz said he had no news of his father, who disappeared in 2016. Aziz said she was likely sentenced for sending him to study abroad to study Islam. According to Aziz, “The fact that they sent me money [while I was abroad] is also a possible reason.”

RFA reported in November that Kastar Polat, an ethnic Kazakh from Chaghantoqay (Yumin) County, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined RMB 30,000 ($4,600) for “promoting religious extremism.” Polat, a locally well-known wrestler, was detained in 2019 for posting a song by Kazakh singer Didar Kamiev on his social media page. According to sources quoted in the RFA report, the song Polat posted did not “directly challenge” Chinese authorities, but instead encouraged people to “preserve the traditions and culture of the Kazakh people.” Polat’s family received a written notification of his sentencing in August.

In May, Amnesty International reported that Ekpar Asat, a Uyghur journalist and entrepreneur who founded the popular Uyghur-language website Baghdax.com, was convicted of “inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination” and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Public security officers in Xinjiang first detained Asat in April 2016 after he returned from a U.S. Department of State-sponsored leadership program in the United States. He was among a group of six Uyghur webmasters and writers detained between March and May of that year.

In November, NPR reported that authorities sometimes forced Muslims who were registered in Xinjiang but residing elsewhere in China to return to Xinjiang. A source told NPR that in December 2019, authorities sent one Hui Muslim woman who taught at a religious school in a mosque located outside Xinjiang, together with her infant child, back to her hometown of Tacheng City, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, where she was questioned and received a seven-year prison sentence. The woman had previously completed theological studies at a university in Egypt. The source stated he did not know the crime for which the woman had been convicted.

According to Bitter Winter, on June 9, authorities sentenced Jiang Yanghua, a CAG member in Aksu City, to 15 years in prison and a fine of RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for “using or organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” The court determined that she kept CAG e-books, videos, and audio recordings in her home and allowed other CAG members to gather there.

RFA reported that officials threatened to take residents to internment camps as a means of enforcing COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. When Kashgar underwent lockdown in July, residents reported to RFA that authorities posted police and placed barricades on every corner and cautioned that “whoever leaps over [the barricades] will be taken for ‘re-education.’”

In March, ASPI published a report, ‘Re-education’, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang, stating that authorities facilitated the mass transfer of more than 80,000 Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from the region to factories across the country between 2017 and 2019, and that some of them were sent directly from detention camps. ASPI stated, “The estimated figure is conservative and the actual figure is likely to be far higher.” One independent researcher stated that, based on a survey of Chinese academic research and government figures, up to 1.6 million transferred laborers were at risk of being subjected to forced labor.

In its detailed analysis of the Karakax List, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) stated that some entries indicated the individual had “found employment.” According to the UHRP, “The term used, jiuye can have the innocuous meaning of simply getting a job, but it is also associated with China’s longstanding ‘re-education through labor’ or laogai system, describing people being released from a re-education camp or prison into a factory or other facility where they work with little or no pay and remain under state monitoring and control.” UHRP stated the document, coupled with other official media, indicated some individuals worked in factories located within detention camps.

Satellite imagery analyzed by ASPI’s Xinjiang Data Project appeared to indicate factories were located within medium-security detention facilities. In its September report, entitled Documenting Xinjiang’s Detention System, ASPI stated, “There is evidence that detainees ‘released’ from these camps have gone into either forced labour assignments or strictly controlled residential surveillance.” In November, RFA reported that satellite imagery provided to it by Bahtiya Omar of the Norway-based Uyghur Transitional Justice Database showed that factories were constructed adjacent to detention camps outside Aksu City between 2017 and 2019. Omar told RFA that the images were “irrefutable proof” that “China’s camp policies have been combined with forced labor from 2018 onward.”

In September, media reported that the government released a white paper, entitled Employment and Labor Rights in Xinjiang, that stated the government had provided “vocational training” for an average of 1.29 million persons in the region each year from 2014 to 2019. The paper said the government carried out this program to educate the workforce and combat poverty. One academic speculated the government may have released the paper in response to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was under consideration in the U.S. Congress at the time.

In February, RFA reported that authorities sent hundreds of Uyghurs to other parts of China to work in factories affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, millions of people throughout the country were in quarantine under government orders. Dolkun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) based in Munich, Germany, said, “It is clear that the Chinese government is placing these Uyghurs in harm’s way because Uyghur lives don’t matter to China.” A Uyghur researcher based in the U.S. said, “China is sending Uyghurs because they have no means to oppose the authorities, they can be forced to work as cheap labor, and the companies that employ them won’t be held accountable, even if they get sick or die due to the coronavirus.”

In December, the Newlines Institute for Strategic Policy released a report indicating that in 2018 in Aksu, Hotan, and Kashgar Prefectures, at least 570,000 persons were mobilized involuntarily to work in cotton-picking operations, according to official government figures. The report stated the actual number of laborers could be higher by several hundred thousand.

During the year, academic studies and media investigations indicated that authorities administered unknown drugs and injections to women in detention, forcibly implanted intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) prior to and during internment, coerced women to accept abortion and surgical sterilization, and used internment as punishment for birth control violations. Multiple eyewitness and victims’ accounts supported these findings. In an AP investigative report published on June 29, a U.S.-based academic stated said the intention “may not be to fully eliminate” the Uyghur population, “but it will sharply diminish their vitality. It will make them easier to assimilate into the mainstream Chinese population.” In an academic paper, a United Kingdom-based scholar stated, “It’s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing, on-the-spot-type genocide, but it’s slow, painful, creeping genocide.” According to the scholar, the aggressive birth control measures were a “direct means of genetically reducing” the Uyghur population.

On July 21, the Jamestown Foundation released a report, Sterilizations, IUDs, and Coercive Birth Prevention: The CCP’s Campaign to Suppress Uyghur Birth Rates in Xinjiang, based on further analysis of the Karakax List, government statistics, and other documents. According to the report, natural population growth in Xinjiang’s minority regions began declining dramatically in 2017. Growth rates fell by 84 percent in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018 and declined further in several minority regions in 2019. In 2020, one Uyghur region set a near-zero birth rate target of 1.05 per million. The report stated, “This was intended to be achieved through ‘family planning work.’” It cited Chinese academic articles linking “religious extremism” to birth rates in Xinjiang, including one article that said, “It is undeniable that the wave of extremist religious thinking has fueled a resurgence in birth rates in Xinjiang’s southern regions with concentrated Uyghur populations.”

According to the Jamestown Foundation report, government documents “bluntly mandate that birth control violations are punishable by extrajudicial internment in ‘training’ camps. This confirms evidence from the leaked ‘Karakax List’ document, wherein such violations were the most common reason for internment.…” The report stated government documents from 2019 laid out plans to sterilize 14 percent of all married women of childbearing age in one primarily Uyghur county and 34 percent in another during that year. The project continued in 2020 with increased funding. The report concluded that the campaign “likely aims to sterilize rural minority women with three or more children as well as some with two children – equivalent to at least 20 percent of all childbearing-age women.” Government documents show that in 2019, authorities planned to insert IUDs or sterilize 80 percent of women of childbearing age in four minority prefectures in southern Xinjiang. According to the report, “In 2018, 80 percent of all net added IUD placements in China (calculated as placements minus removals) were performed in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region only makes up 1.8 percent of the nation’s population.”

According to the government-affiliated media outlet ECNS, in response to the Jamestown Foundation report, Xinjiang Health Commission Director Mutalif Roz said in an August press conference that authorities in Xinjiang had applied the same family planning restrictions on ethnic Han and all ethnic minorities in the region since 2018. Roz said the government’s family planning policy had historically permitted Uyghurs to have more children than Han Chinese, but in 2017 the same restrictions were placed on all ethnic groups: Couples in urban areas could have two children, while couples in rural areas could have three. ECNS reported that Tursunay Abdurehim, an official from Xinjiang’s Bureau of Statistics, said the Jamestown Foundation report was biased, used incorrect data, and cited fake cases.

On June 29, AP released an article based on its investigation of government statistics, state documents, and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members, and a former detention camp instructor. AP stated the government “is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uyghurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children.” AP stated, “The campaign over the past four years in the far west region of Xinjiang is leading to what some experts are calling a form of ‘demographic genocide.’” The AP reported PRC government statistics showed birth rates in Hotan and Kashgar fell by more than 60 percent from 2015 to 2018, the latest year government statistics were available. Across the XUAR, birth rates fell by 24 percent in 2019, compared with 4.2 percent nationwide. According to AP, “The state regularly subjects minority women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands…Even while the use of IUDs and sterilization has fallen nationwide, it is rising sharply in Xinjiang.” AP reported that authorities threatened to detain women who did not comply, and parents with three or more children were often detained in camps or fined. Former detainees said authorities also detained doctors and medical students who helped Uyghur women give birth at home to evade the birth control policies. On June 29, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, when asked about the AP article, said, “Everyone, regardless of whether they’re an ethnic minority or Han Chinese, must follow and act in accordance with the law.”

In the same article published in June, AP reported, “The parents of three or more [children are] ripped away from their families unless they can pay huge fines. Police raid homes, terrifying parents as they search for hidden children.” According to government notices obtained by AP, authorities offered rewards to individuals who reported “illegal” births. Gulnar Omirzakh, an ethnic Kazakh, told AP that in 2016 authorities forced her to get an IUD and threatened to detain her if she did not pay a large fine for giving birth to her third child. In January 2018, four officials in military camouflage came to her home and told Omirzakh she had to pay a fine equivalent to $2,685 for having more than two children. The officials threatened to send her husband to a labor camp if she did not pay.

In its June article, AP also reported that a former detainee named Tursunay Ziyawudun said that during her internment, authorities injected her with drugs until she stopped menstruating and repeatedly kicked her in her lower stomach during interrogations. She said as a result, she was no longer able to have children and still sometimes doubled over in pain and bled. Ziyawudun said authorities forced her and the 40 other women in her “class” to attend weekly family planning lectures. She said married women were rewarded for good behavior with conjugal visits from their husbands, but only on condition that they took birth control pills beforehand.

The Financial Times reported that the Karakax List contained an entry dated March 7, 2018, for one Uyghur woman. The reasons listed next to her name for her internment were “having one more child than allowed by family planning policies” and “having a passport.” The Financial Times confirmed with her sister living in Turkey that she lost contact with the woman at that time.

In July, RFA reported that local sources said authorities in Suydung Township, Qorghas (Huocheng) County, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture gathered local residents together and ordered them not to tell outside visitors, including both Chinese nationals and foreigners, about the forced birth control practices in the region, should inspections by such groups occur. A neighborhood committee chief in Suydung Township said, “They [the authorities] said that we should say the birth control policy is good, but that we shouldn’t give really detailed answers. They said to say ‘no’ if asked whether [residents] had IUDs inserted.” Instead, authorities instructed residents to “talk at length” about topics such as free health checks, home construction, and social security.

According to RFA, there were cases of Uyghur women who faced long-term health problems due to forced birth control procedures. A Uyghur doctor living in exile in Turkey said that since 2013, she had seen at least 200 Uyghur women fitted with IUDs and at least 80 who were forcibly sterilized. She said there were cases in which the IUDs were stuck in the uterine walls, causing physical problems. She said there were also women with psychological problems due to undergoing the procedures.

In October, the Economist reported that “when Uyghur girls grow old enough to wed (the legal age for which is 20 [for women] in China), they can expect to be cajoled by officials into marrying Han men. Nowadays refusal can incur retribution for the woman’s family.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report entitled Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience, along with Falun Gong practitioners, were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ transplant market. In November, RFA reported that an infectious disease hospital in Aksu City had been turned into an internment camp, which experts said they believed indicated authorities could be harvesting organs from detainees.

Media reported authorities conducted regular, sometimes daily, inspections of private homes to ensure no religious activities were occurring. On April 27, Dili Shati, spokesperson for the WUC, told RFA that during Ramadan, in places such as in Kashgar, Hotan, and Aksu Prefectures, and other areas in the south, “The Chinese government used the political excuse of so-called poverty alleviation” to enter the homes of Muslims and encourage them to drink tea and eat fruits.

Reports published in June on the official websites of local governments in the XUAR indicated authorities restricted or banned certain groups of Muslims, including CCP members, their relatives, students, and employees of state-owned enterprises and state-run organizations, from observing Ramadan.

In May, RFA reported that authorities ordered residents in Makit (Maigaiti) County, Kashgar Prefecture to report anyone who fasted during Ramadan. A Uyghur working for the Makit County government said authorities threatened residents with punishment, including detaining them in internment camps, if they did not comply. Another Uyghur government employee said the reason for the order was to maintain “national security.” An official in Peyziwat (Jiashi) County, Kashgar Prefecture said his township scheduled dawn flag raising ceremonies and evening political study sessions specifically to interfere with fasting during Ramadan.

In April, a Kazakh human rights activist told RFA that in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, “[E]very community and every unit must organize a large-scale group meal at noon. For those who do not have a work unit or retired people, all units must gather them for lunch together.” According to the activist, authorities placed fruits, cookies, and other foods at expressway toll booths, and required ethnic minorities to eat them, and, in some areas, officials put beer at the table and demanded Muslims drink it. The activist said village committees, town governments, and county governments organized home inspection teams to prevent observance of Ramadan fasting. “Everyone must be checked from 12 to 1. They [the inspection teams] also need to bring biscuits, sugar, and fruit, and ask people at home to eat at noon.”

In September, RFA reported that Xinjiang authorities continued to maintain a ban, enacted in 2017, on daily prayers for anyone younger than 65 years old. A village police officer in Atush City, Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture said officers did not allow those younger than 65 to enter mosques. Local sources also said authorities restricted all individuals receiving government welfare benefits from saying daily prayers, including those older than age 65. According to sources, neighbors were encouraged to monitor each other and report to police on anyone “guilty” of religious practices, such as observing daily prayer. The police officer in Atush said, “We tell the offenders that they have violated the law, and we turn them over to the village brigade. The village brigade takes them for re-education, and we then inform their family about what happened. That’s how it goes.”

In May, Taiwan News reported that a high school teacher in Shandong Province said the school forced all Uyghur children to eat pork with their Han classmates. According to the teacher, “To turn them into Chinese is the end goal of the education.”

The government continued to administer mosques and restrict access to houses of worship, requiring worshipers to apply for mosque entry permits. In September, ASPI stated in its report Tracing the Destruction of Uyghur and Islamic Spaces in Xinjiang, “In many cases, otherwise undamaged sites appear to have installed security checkpoints at the entrances or have been fully enclosed by walls, restricting access.”

In November, RFA reported on satellite imagery provided to it by the Norway-based Uyghur Transitional Justice Database. The imagery appeared to show that two camps with adjacent factories located outside Aksu City were constructed between 2017 and 2019. These were separated by a cemetery and a crematorium. Sources told RFA individuals who died in the camps were cremated, contrary to Uyghur religious and funeral traditions.

Witnesses and former prisoners stated authorities forced Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims in custody to renounce Islam, criticize their own Islamic beliefs and those of fellow inmates, and recite CCP propaganda in the internment camps.

RFA reported that on April 28, a United Kingdom-based professor posted a series of time-lapsed satellite images on social media of authorities systematically demolishing plots in the Sultanim Cemetery in Hotan City and erecting a parking lot in 2019 and 2020. The professor stated, “This is not just a run-of-the-mill graveyard. It is a well-known sacred site, the only major one inside the city. People would go there to pray for healing, fertility, forgiveness, etc.”

According to RFA, on May 22 authorities announced plans to demolish a Uyghur cemetery in Urumqi on June 10. A document making the announcement circulated on social media. It stated those with family members buried in the cemetery needed to register to exhume their remains.

According to human rights groups and international media, in addition to the IJOP big-data collection program, authorities in Xinjiang continued to maintain extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. Human rights groups said surveillance was more severe in parts of the country where religious minorities predominated, including the XUAR, compared with other parts of the country with ethnic Han Chinese majorities, due to the connection between religion and the ethnic and cultural identities of these groups.

Government documents stated that Han Chinese officials continued to implement a surveillance system, in which teams of six – composed of police or local officials and one Uyghur language speaker – went to each house and compiled information on occupants. Since the program began in 2014, more than 200,000 cadres from all levels of the government were sent to more than 8,500 villages. The teams reported on “extremist” behavior, such as abstaining from alcohol, fasting during Ramadan, and wearing long beards. They reported on the presence of “undesirable” items, such as Qurans, or occupants’ perceived propensity for “extremist” ideology.

In October, the online magazine ChinaFile published a report entitled State of Surveillance, examining 76,000 government procurements throughout the country related to surveillance equipment dating back to 2004. The report stated Xinjiang’s surveillance apparatus was among “the most pervasive and invasive” in the world, using facial recognition software to identify ethnic minority community populations. “A person’s facial hair, family size, even a person’s name: all are traits local governments in Xinjiang have viewed as signs of danger,” the report stated. According to the report, the surveillance system also included “QR codes on people’s front doors, which police can scan for information about the household” and required residents to “swipe ID cards to fuel up their cars.”

According to ChinaFile’s report, a 2017 government procurement notice for Shawan County, Tacheng Prefecture, stated the county would acquire computer systems that could “automatically identify and investigate key persons involved in terrorism and [threatening social] stability.” The report stated that a 200-page Shawan government surveillance feasibility study in 2015 found the 484 existing cameras for its population of 200,000 (77 percent Han Chinese, 18 percent ethnic Kazakh, and five percent ethnic Uyghur) was insufficient, and recommended authorities install “4,791 networked HD cameras, 70 of which were to be facial recognition units” in public spaces, including crowded places, and on buses and trains. Fifty of the 70 facial recognition units would be installed in mosques.

In its October report, ChinaFile stated there was a sharp increase in recent years of security cameras in “core” checkpoints (e.g., airports or subway stations), “key” checkpoints (e.g., schools, hospitals, hotels, shopping malls, and entertainment venues), and “auxiliary areas,” areas without a single point of entry or exit (e.g., sidewalks, crosswalks, or scenic areas). Photographs taken at these additional checkpoints, together with other data, fed into “surveillance algorithms.” There was also an increase of neighborhood “convenience police stations.” According to ChinaFile, “In Shawan, where people have to provide their ID number and have their picture taken in order to enter subways, hotels, Internet cafes, and other such places, authorities hoped to use this information to train an integrated tracking system.”

According to HRW, turning off one’s mobile phone repeatedly was also considered a suspicious behavior, as was using a cellular phone that was not registered to the individual. Both actions could lead to detention.

In December, the Economist reported that authorities in Urumqi visited schools weekly to question children about their home lives. Zumrat Dawut said every Friday authorities questioned her three children and others about whether their parents prayed or used Islamic greetings at home or talked to the children about the Prophet Mohammad. Each Monday, all residents were required to attend a ceremonial raising of the national flag in the courtyard of her apartment block. Dawut said every family was told to keep watch on 10 neighboring families and report anything suspicious by putting notes in a box during the ceremony. In September, Dawut told RFA, “The Chinese [government’s] hatred of religion has gotten out of control…They’ve now put up things inside people’s homes, things that record voices, and there’s even the possibility that they’re filming people at home.” According to RFA, anyone who did not report a “mistake” within a given week was labeled as having “ideological problems” and taken to the village cadre’s office for questioning, a threat which “effectively compelled neighbors to find fault in their neighbors’ smallest, most innocuous everyday actions.”

In September, RFA reported that in Kashgar, a volunteer responsible for monitoring and reporting on 10 households said Uyghur residents there were so worried about being suspected of performing morning prayer ablutions that since 2018 they no longer washed their faces in the mornings. The brigade leader said, “In the mornings, we go and ask people what they’re up to, see what they’re doing – are people doing namaz [morning prayer] or not, are they washing themselves? We look at these kinds of things.”

A Xinjiang government statement available online in 2018 indicated officials had to inspect the homes in which they were staying for any religious elements or symbols, and the statement instructed officials to confiscate such items if found. In an op-ed published on January 9 in the Turkey-based Daily Sabah, a U.S.-based academic wrote that authorities looked for items such as prayer mats and Qurans.

Demolition of mosques continued under a campaign that began in 2016 called “Mosque Rectification.” Based on analysis of satellite imagery, ASPI, in its September report entitled Tracing the Destruction of Uyghur and Islamic Spaces in Xinjiang, estimated approximately 16,000 mosques in Xinjiang (65 percent of the total) had been destroyed or damaged as a result of government policies, mostly since 2017. An estimated 8,500 had been demolished outright, with satellite images showing vacant land where they previously stood. Approximately 7,500 had sustained damage. A further 30 percent of important Islamic sacred sites, including shrines, cemeteries, and pilgrimage routes, had been demolished across the region, mostly since 2017, and an additional 28 percent were damaged or altered in some way. ASPI stated, “The Chinese government’s destruction of cultural heritage aims to erase, replace and rewrite what it means to be Uyghur.” According to the Wall Street Journal, in response to the report, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said there were 24,000 mosques in the region.

In August, RFA reported that authorities built a public toilet on the site of the Tokul Mosque, which authorities had demolished in 2018 in Suntagh Village, Atush City, Kizilsu Kirghiz Autonomous Prefecture. A Uyghur neighborhood committee chief from Suntagh said the toilet was built approximately three kilometers (1.85 miles) outside central Atush City in an area that saw few to no tourists who would require access to a washroom. The committee chief said authorities likely built the facility to cover up the ruins of the Tokul Mosque as well as for the needs of inspecting groups or cadres visiting the area. Another resident of Suntagh said authorities tore down another mosque in the village in 2019 and built in its place a convenience store that sold alcohol and cigarettes, which Muslims generally do not consume for religious reasons.

RFA also reported in August that a public security official in Suntagh Village stated that in 2019 the government destroyed Azna Mosque and Bastaggam Mosque, leaving only Teres Mosque standing. Teres Mosque was reportedly small and in poor condition. According to the official, the Anza and Bastaggam Mosques were constructed of brick, whereas the Teres Mosque had earthen walls that were “covered with older wood.” The official said, “[The destroyed] mosques were more solid because the roofs were poured…with cement,” while the Teres Mosque could barely keep out the rain.

On August 24, Made In China Journal published an article analyzing the widespread destruction of mazars, which it defined as locations that hold particular spiritual significance, “a connection to and presence of the divine that surpasses the sacredness even of the mosque as a physical structure…Mazars are nearly always marked by some physical construction, ranging from high domes with green, glazed tiles to nothing more than a few flags on crooked twig poles.” According to the article, sometime between March 10 and 17, 2018, authorities destroyed a six-meter (20-foot) high grave marker for Imam Jefiri Sadiq, who died there 1,000 years earlier, and removed the flags surrounding the site. The pilgrimage site was located on a high sand dune 75 kilometers (47 miles) from the town of Niya. According to the article, following the destruction and removal of the flags, all that remained was “an empty dune.” Accompanying the article were before and after photographs of Imam Asim mazar, also located in the desert near Khotan, in 2010. The 2010 photograph showed pilgrims praying at Imam Asim mazar, a grave marker atop a low intact mudbrick building on a sand dune surrounded by and adorned with dozens of flags upon which pilgrims tied prayers. The 2018 photograph showed a plain, low, crumbling structure with a collapsed outer wall on a barren sand dune.

In September, NYT published an article on destruction of Islamic holy sites that included photographs taken in Kashgar. One showed a Uyghur muezzin calling the evening prayer from the rooftop of a partially destroyed mosque in Kashgar, and another showed a closed mosque from which the crescent symbol had been removed. Another showed the interior of a former mosque that had been turned into a bar, while a fourth showed a mosque turned into a shop. According to the article, journalists found four sites in Hotan City where mosques had been torn down and replaced with public parks or empty lots. The article also included before and after satellite imagery at the Ordam Padishah mazar, located in the desert near Yensigar Town, 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Kashgar, that showed the shrine’s mosque, prayer hall, and housing where custodians lived had been completely obliterated by 2018. A Uyghur man from Kashgar who was living in Australia, said, “It’s like I’m losing my family members because our culture is being taken away. It’s like our flesh, our body, is being removed.”

In October, a research study published online on parent-child separation in Yarkand County, Kashgar Prefecture, analyzed data from government spreadsheets not previously available. The study found that government statistics showed that between 2017 and 2019, the number of boarding students in primary and middle schools (grades 1 to 9) increased by 76.9 percent, from 497,800 to 880,500. According to NYT, children in these schools studied ethnic Han culture, Mandarin, and CCP ideology.

In October, the Economist reported that in 2018, the state newspaper Xinjiang Daily described a visit by Zhu Hailun, deputy party chief of Xinjiang, to a “Kindness Pre-school” at a camp in Hotan Prefecture. He was told that the children, some aged less than a year, all had parents who could not take care of them “for various reasons.” In May, RFA reported that the government education authority in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture, circulated an official notice saying that all preschools in the county must convert into boarding schools. It required guardians to drop off children on Monday morning and not pick them up until Saturday. The online study concluded that this was part of the government’s effort to assimilate children and control their culture, language, and traditions.

According to the online study of parent-child separation in Yarkand County, Kashgar Prefecture, a region with approximately 900,000 residents, there were approximately 100,000 children aged seven to 12. In 2018, the government classified more than 10,000 of these as being “children in difficult circumstances” or “children in especially difficult circumstances,” based on whether they had one or both parents in internment camps. Government records showed more than 1,000 children had both parents interned. Nearly all of the children were Uyghur, apart from 11 who were of Kazakh and Tajik ethnicity. No ethnic Han child had a parent in custody. The data indicated that 53.1 percent of all students in Yarkand lived in boarding facilities.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that in a boarding school in southern Xinjiang, some children were allowed to visit their relatives once every two weeks, but others had to stay at the school. There, teachers made them watch propaganda films praising the CCP. The report stated that in Korla City, Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture, police officers took children aged 3-6 whose parents were in internment camps to “welfare houses” after school.

The Islamic Association of China, managed by the State Administration for Religious Affairs under the leadership of the United Front Work Department, passed regulations in 2019 regarding the qualifications for Muslim clerics throughout the country. The national level regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22 years old.” In addition to these, XUAR regulations on the administration of religious affairs, revised in 2014, required clerics to “uphold the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system, safeguard the reunification of the motherland and ethnic unity, be patriotic and loyal, and have high prestige and religious knowledge.”

To apply to become a cleric, applicants had to first submit an “Application Form for the Qualification of Islamic Clerics.” In addition, they had to provide a certificate of education from an Islamic school, an education certificate from junior high school or above, and a physical examination certificate issued by a designated hospital (which included items such as “mental history”). Applicants were also required to submit a household registration certificate and national ID card. The applicant had to receive a letter of recommendation written by the Administration of Islamic Activity Sites where the applicant’s household registration was located and submit it to the Islamic Association of the province, autonomous region, or municipality after review and approval by the local Islamic Association.

International media and NGOs reported Chinese authorities or their representatives pressured Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other Muslims from Xinjiang to spy on fellow expatriates, return to China, or cease advocacy on behalf of residents of Xinjiang, and threatened retaliation against family members still in Xinjiang if they did not comply. The Karakax List contained personal data on more than 300 Uyghurs living abroad.

In May, a WUC representative told the U.S.-based Vice News that every two months the organization received more than 100 reports of CCP officials harassing Uyghurs living outside of China and pressuring them to inform on fellow Uyghurs abroad. The representative said, “The past year we have noticed it more than ever. People are breaking down because they are so mentally exhausted. Many won’t talk to us. We can understand why – families are being targeted because their relatives abroad are criticizing the Communist government.” According to Vice News, during the year, Uyghurs living in exile became more likely to give information on their community to protect family in Xinjiang from being sent to internment camps, where there were fears of COVID-19 outbreaks. The news outlet interviewed 12 Uyghurs living in London, 11 of whom reported suffering serious psychological trauma – including paranoia, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and night terrors – since the internment camps first opened.

In February, Amnesty International published a report stating authorities continued to pressure Uyghurs, ethnic Kazaks, and other Muslims living abroad to return to China and threatened to retaliate against their families in Xinjiang if they spoke out about human rights abuses there. In August 2019, the Atlantic published “Conversations with Uyghurs in Belgium, Finland, and the Netherlands reveal a systematic effort by China to silence Uyghurs overseas with brazen tactics of surveillance, blackmail, and intimidation.” The article described Chinese authorities monitoring Uyghurs abroad by surveilling their contacts and family members in Xinjiang via phone or social media and pressuring them to cease advocacy efforts on behalf of Uyghur rights or speak out about relatives in Xinjiang who had been detained or whose whereabouts were unknown. A Uyghur woman living in Turkey told NPR in March that one day she received a call from a Chinese area code. The man on the line identified himself as a police officer in Xinjiang. Referring to herself and her husband, she said, “He knew everything about us. He even sent us photos of our families in China. The man told me we had to spy on other Uyghurs. He said: If you don’t, you don’t know what bad things might happen to you.”

In January, Agence France Press reported that the Chinese embassy in Saudi Arabia had stopped renewing passports for Uyghurs and only issued documents that enabled their one-way return to China. In March, NPR estimated there were 35,000 Uyghurs living in Turkey and many of them had expired Chinese passports. A Uyghur activist living in Turkey, told NPR that he knew of many people who had attempted to renew their passports at the Chinese consulate in Turkey, only to have Chinese officials destroy them. He said officials then presented them with documents that enabled their one-way return to China. In January, one Uyghur student told RFA the Chinese embassy did renew passports for Han Chinese.

Media reported the PRC placed pressure on foreign governments to repatriate Uyghurs living in exile. On December 26, the PRC announced that the National People’s Congress had ratified an extradition treaty with Turkey, which it said would be used for counterterrorism purposes. China and Turkey signed the bilateral treaty agreement in 2017, but Turkey’s parliament has not ratified it. A number of Uyghur diaspora organizations raised concerns that Turkish ratification of the treaty could result in the extradition of Uyghur refugees living in Turkey back to China; however, local Uyghur community sources said they knew of no cases of deportations of Uyghurs to the PRC during the year. Turkish government officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, reaffirmed their commitment not to return Uyghurs to China. On December 31, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu stated, “Until now, there have been requests for returns from China related to Uyghurs in Turkey. And you know Turkey hasn’t taken steps like this.”

According to VOA, in an interview with the government-affiliated China Global Television Network (CGTN) in April, Elijan Anayit, a spokesperson for the XUAR government, said foreign officials and media spread “rumors” about the detention and persecution of Uyghurs. He said the government subsidized Islamic schooling, including the Xinjiang Islamic Institute, which he said had more than 1,000 students at eight branches around the region. Anayit said, “The criminals who have been prosecuted are neither religious personages nor religious staff. They are criminals who spread extremism and engage in separation, infiltration, sabotage, and terrorist and extremist activities under the banner of Islam.”

On July 19, BBC interviewed China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming. The interviewer showed Liu drone footage appearing to show Uyghur men with their heads shaven who were blindfolded and shackled and being forced onto trains. Liu denied claims that the government was abusing Uyghurs and questioned the authenticity of the video. He said, “You know, sometimes you have transfers of prisons and prisoners in any country…There is no such a [sic] concentration camp in Xinjiang.” Asked about reports of forced birth control and forced sterilization, he said the population in Xinjiang had doubled in the past 40 years. He stated, “So there is no so-called restriction of population and there is no so-called forced abortion, and so on…Government policy is opposed to this kind of practice. But I cannot rule out, you know, single cases for any country.” Liu said, “People in Xinjiang enjoy happy life…People call for good order to [be] restored in Xinjiang. China, of course, is opposed to any torture, any persecution, and discrimination of any ethnic group of people.”

Media reported that on August 30, at a conference at the French Institute of International Relations, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “The rights of all trainees in the education and training program, though their minds have been encroached by terrorism and extremism, have been fully guaranteed. Now all of them have graduated, there is no one in the education and training center now. They all have found jobs.”

CGTN reported the third Central Symposium on Work Related to Xinjiang was held in Beijing on September 25-26. President Xi delivered the keynote speech, during which he lauded the CCP’s work in economic development, education, health care, and other sectors since the second central symposium in 2014. Xi stated the CCP needed to continue to promote “economic development” in Xinjiang and continue to strive to implement the Party’s “Xinjiang policy” to build a Xinjiang with “Chinese characteristics.”

In October, the government-affiliated media outlet Tianshan Network reported Xinjiang’s Development Research Center conducted an employment survey, purportedly to challenge reports by “Western think tanks” that forced labor was occurring in the region. According to media, the center’s report found no examples of forced labor, instead stating that minorities in Xinjiang had a “strong desire” to work, and that residents “hoped” the government would increase employment opportunities.

According to Tianshan Network, on October 16-17, Minister of Education Chen Baosheng visited the region to evaluate its “educational work.” During the visit, he said local authorities must continue to “strengthen the Party’s overall leadership over education” and “strengthen the work in the ideological field, guard the ideological front, and carry out the project of saturating Xinjiang with culture.”

The government-affiliated outlet Xinhuanet.com reported in October that XUAR government spokesperson Zuliyati Simayi held a press conference to refute allegations by international organizations and media that forced labor was taking place in Xinjiang. Simayi said all “trainees” from “vocational training centers” had finished their studies and returned to normal lives. She said the “three evils” still existed and that Xinjiang authorities would “continue to deepen the fight against terrorism and de-radicalization based on the realities of the region.” At the same press conference, Rehemanjiang Dawuti, director general of the Human Resources and Social Security Department, said Xinjiang’s “labor employment” policies had increased the total number of employed workers in the region.

On December 18, at the PRC’s daily Ministry of Foreign Affairs press briefing, spokesperson Wang Wenbin was asked to comment on U.S. and international Uyghur and Muslim organizations’ calls for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to speak out against China’s treatment of Uyghurs. Wang replied, “The human rights of the people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are well protected in accordance with the law, and Xinjiang has made positive achievements in economic and social development. In these respects, we believe that such prejudice and smearing by relevant organizations and individuals on Xinjiang-related issues has no factual basis.”

In November, Reuters reported that in his book entitled Let Us Dream: The Path to A Better Future, Pope Francis wrote, “I think often of persecuted peoples: the Rohingya, the poor Uighurs, the Yazidi.” Reuters reported that on November 24, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a press conference, “The Chinese government has always protected the legal rights of ethnic minorities equally.” He stated people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang enjoyed full protection of their subsistence rights, developmental rights, and religious freedom, and that “the remarks by Pope Francis are groundless.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity. Unequal treatment of Uyghurs and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uyghur language, culture, and religion, and the promotion of the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life. Muslims in Xinjiang faced discrimination in hiring and in retaining their positions, and in pursuing other business opportunities.

In June, Amnesty International published an article by Cha Naiyu, an ethnic Han Chinese man who grew up in Xinjiang. Cha stated one friend who worked at a state-owned enterprise said there were no ethnic minorities at the company and no plans to recruit any. Another friend said she disliked encountering Uyghurs on the train because they were “noisy, smelly, and dirty.” A relative told Cha that ethnic minorities at the factory where he worked were slow to learn their jobs.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials routinely raised concerns about the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and members of other Muslim and non-Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang with government officials. Embassy staff visited the region during the year, although at a reduced rate compared with previous years due to COVID-19 restrictions. When the region was not under travel restrictions, embassy staff could travel there without requesting prior permission, but local governments denied or impeded access to schools, “re-education camps,” and residences.

The embassy and consulates general delivered direct messaging about religious freedom in Xinjiang through social media posts on Weibo and WeChat as well as on the embassy’s official website. Throughout the year, the embassy expressed to the broader Chinese public the U.S. government’s concern about the PRC’s repression of the Uyghur Muslim community with a series of posts focusing on millions of Uyghurs and other minorities in internment camps being subjected to forced labor, disappearances, sterilization, torture, and abuse.

On March 4, the Secretary of State hosted the annual International Women of Courage Awards in Washington, D.C., which honored women who demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership to bring positive change to their communities. Awardee Sayragul Sauytbay, a Muslim of Kazakh descent born in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, was one of the first victims in the world to speak publicly about the CCP’s repressive campaign against Muslims in the region. From November 2017 to March 2018, the government forced Sayragul to teach Chinese to ethnic minorities in a detention camp. In an interview with RFA following the awards ceremony, Sayragul, speaking of the detention and forced assimilation of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim groups in Xinjiang, said, “The current situation has already surpassed ethnic and religious issues and has risen to a level of humanitarian tragedy.”

In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” On October 16, at an online event hosted by the Aspen Institute, the National Security Advisor said of the CCP’s treatment of Uyghurs, “If not a genocide, something close to it [is] going on in Xinjiang.”

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 “to direct United States resources to address human rights violations and abuses, including gross violations of human rights, by the Government of the People’s Republic of China through the mass surveillance and internment of more than 1,000,000 Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” The law directed U.S. agencies to take steps to hold accountable PRC officials, or individuals acting on their behalf, who harassed, threatened, or intimidated persons, including Uyghurs and members of other Muslim minority groups, within the United States. The law authorized the imposition of sanctions, including asset blocking and the restricting of U.S. visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and other violations of the human rights of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. The law extends to family members of these officials. The President issued a statement accompanying the passage of the law, stating, “The Act holds accountable perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses such as the systematic use of indoctrination camps, forced labor, and intrusive surveillance to eradicate the ethnic identity and religious beliefs of Uyghurs and other minorities in China.”

On July 1, the Departments of State, the Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued the Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials under Section 7031(c) of the Fiscal Year 2020 Department of State Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act for “their involvement in gross violation of human rights,” rendering them ineligible for entry into the United States. The officials were Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region XUAR party secretary Chen Quanguo, XUAR Political and Legal Committee party secretary Zhu Hailun, and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB) party secretary Wang Mingshan. In making the announcement, the Secretary stated, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Secretary also placed additional visa restrictions on other CCP officials believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang.

Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed additional Global Magnitsky sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and its current and former senior officials, Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC. The Department of the Treasury issued a statement which read, in part: “The entity and officials are being designated for their connection to serious human rights abuse against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, which reportedly include mass arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse, among other serious abuses targeting Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim population indigenous to Xinjiang, and other ethnic minorities in the region.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, re-export, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being implicated in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations from entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the CBP agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps. The December Withhold Release Order applied to “all cotton and cotton products produced by the XPCC and its subordinate and affiliated entities as well as any products that are made in whole or in part with or derived from that cotton, such as apparel, garments, and textiles.”

On October 6, the United States joined a group of 39 countries in signing onto a joint statement on the human rights situation in Xinjiang and recent developments in Hong Kong. The statement read, in part, “We are gravely concerned about the existence of a large network of “political re-education” camps where credible reports indicate that more than a million people have been arbitrarily detained. We have seen an increasing number of reports of gross human rights violations. There are severe restrictions on freedom of religion or belief and the freedoms of movement, association, and expression as well as on Uyghur culture.”

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.

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