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Algeria

Executive Summary

The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. In a constitutional referendum passed on November 1 and effective December 30, voters approved a new constitution that removes language providing for “freedom of conscience.” Christian leaders expressed concern the change could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities. In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law. In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi Muslim leader to two years’ imprisonment on “unauthorized gathering” charges that followed a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. On December 22, a court in Tizi Ouzou sentenced four Ahmadis to two months’ suspended sentences and 20,000-dinar ($150) fines while releasing 27 other Ahmadis whom authorities arrested in November. Lawyers for the Ahmadis said their clients were arrested for “disseminating leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” There were 220 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end, mostly involving unauthorized gatherings. Ahmadi religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. The Ministry of Justice completed, but did not release, an investigation into the 2019 death following a 60-day hunger strike in pretrial detention of Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar. A court sentenced a prominent opposition leader active in mass popular demonstrations (known as the hirak) to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600) on charges of denigrating Islam following a raid on his house, during which police found a damaged Quran. The 18 Christian churches affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) and closed by the government since 2017 all remain closed. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work. Catholic leaders in Algiers reported the government refused to renew the residency permit of a Catholic priest in Tamanrasset, citing a meeting with foreign officials.

Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. In April, the press reported that the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.” Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed with them the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups as well as with other members of the public. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions curtailed some of these activities during the year.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern, there are approximately 600,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.

Christians reside mostly in Algiers and the Provinces of Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable. The new constitution, passed in a November 1 national referendum and effective December 30, removed language from the previous constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience. The previous constitution says, “Freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion shall be inviolable. Freedom of worship shall be guaranteed in compliance with the law.” The new constitution’s language reads, “The freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to exercise worship is guaranteed if it is exercised in accordance with the law. The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence.”

The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,600) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.

The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($380-$760) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.

The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The President appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the President on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals and correct understanding of the religion. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the President.

The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, the government required all organizations previously registered to reregister. The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters.

The law requires the Ministry of Interior to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all required documentation. The ministry has 60 days to respond to applicants following the submission of a completed application. If the ministry does not respond within the 60-day timeframe, the application is automatically approved, and the receipt may be used as proof of registration. If the ministry considers the application incomplete, it does not issue a receipt for the application. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.

The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, facilitates the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs; the presidency; national police; national gendarmerie; and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).

The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Under the law, non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place. The law states that religious demonstrations are subject to regulation, and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. Except for daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.

Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant governor at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.

The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($760) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,500) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states that such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.

The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. The decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.

The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam, although authorities do not always enforce this provision. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.

The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.

The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.

In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law.

The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions, but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the President, who appoints the committee’s members.

The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.

By law, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.

Mohamed Fali, the former head of the country’s Ahmadi Muslim community, remained in Morocco, having fled there to seek asylum in December 2019. He told the online Moroccan news outlet Yabiladi that he fled to escape religious persecution from the MRA and Ministry of Justice and said he had seven pending charges related to his faith. In September 2017, authorities arrested and charged Fali with unauthorized fundraising, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and forming an unauthorized association. Courts convicted Fali and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison term. Authorities seized his passport upon his conviction, but the government returned it in 2019, and he fled the country.

In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi leader to two years imprisonment for charges related to a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. Authorities agreed to the officers’ meeting with the Ahmadi leaders at that time, but then arrested all seven of the Ahmadi participants on charges of “unauthorized gathering” after the meeting ended. In response, the Ahmadis said that they are nonviolent Muslims who want to cooperate with the government and that the meeting was intended to open a dialogue between Ahmadis and the government. In December, authorities convicted the other six Ahmadi Muslims of the same offenses.

On November 24, a court in Tizi Ouzou summoned a group of 31 Ahmadi Muslims for what their lawyers described as “the dissemination of leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” The lawyers said that authorities had arrested their clients for their Ahmadi beliefs. In the December 22 trial, the court sentenced four of the defendants to two-month suspended prison terms and fines of 20,000 dinars ($150) while releasing the remaining 27 Ahmadis.

In August, Ahmadi leaders reported authorities summoned a member of their community in Adrar and questioned him about his religious beliefs. Police searched his home and confiscated his computer, telephone, personal notes, and his Quran, which the authorities held as evidence for a future trial on unspecified charges.

On September 30, police searched the home of well-known opposition hirak activist Yacine Mebarki and arrested him after finding an old copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped. The police charged Mebarki in connection with the damaged Quran, accusing him of inciting atheism, offending or denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. On October 8, a court sentenced Mebarki to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600). His lawyers said Mebarki stated he was a Muslim advocating for secularism and democracy.

In April, authorities arrested Hirak activist Walid Kechida in Setif Province and charged him with insulting the President and “offending the precepts of Islam” on Facebook. The government referred his case to the criminal court for trial. At year’s end, he remained in detention awaiting trial.

On December 15, a court in Amizour convicted Abdelghani Mameri, a Copt who promoted Christianity, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and denigrating Islam. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($760). On December 3, the same court tried Mabrouk Bouakkaz, also known as Yuva, who was a Christian convert. The prosecution asked for a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,500) on the same charges as Mameri. According to social media, on December 17, the court sentenced Bouakkaz to three years imprisonment.

Ahmadi leaders stated there were 220 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court at the end of the year. Charges included insulting the Prophet Muhammad, operating and belonging to an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, burning the Quran, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said that in some cases, police confiscated passports, educational diplomas, and approximately 40 laptops and 400 books. Among these cases, employers placed Ahmadi Muslims who were under investigation on administrative leave, and the government dismissed 20 public sector teachers and doctors. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prohibited from working. The government confined Ahmadi Muslims with pending cases to their wilayas and required they physically report to the local court once a week.

During the year, the Ministry of Justice completed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of prominent Berber Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar in 2019 but did not release the findings publicly. Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike while in pretrial detention. Authorities arrested him on charges of “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices against Ibadi Muslims.

NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging the completed registration application submitted by the community to the government in 2012, to reregister the group under the 2012 Associations Law. Ahmadis also reported they had not received a government response to their outstanding 2018 request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.

The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community said, after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.

The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church had yet to receive responses from the Ministry of Interior regarding their 2012 applications to renew their registrations. Both groups submitted paperwork to renew the registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015 and 2016 but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government. Neither church received receipts for their registration attempts.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication said there was no indication that the committee had ever met. They again stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment; the leaders attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.

The MRA said it does not view Ibadis as a minority group and considers the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars affirmed Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.

In January, Morning Star News reported that a pastor of an Oran church affiliated with the EPA received an order to close the church on January 11. Authorities originally ordered the church closed in 2017 because it was not registered with the government as an association. Following appeals, a court issued a judgment to close the church on November 10 but had not delivered the order to the church by year’s end, according to the pastor.

According to media reports and EPA statements, since 2017 the government closed at least 18 EPA churches, all of which remained closed. In August, the administrative court rejected the EPA’s request to reopen the EPA-affiliated Spring of Life church in Makouda, which the government closed in 2019 for hosting unauthorized gatherings. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.

In December, an international group that described itself as being comprised “of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates” signed a letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune regarding “violations of freedom of religion and belief of Christians in Algeria, including closure of numerous churches and a failure to renew the registration of the [EPA].” According to the letter, the government closed 13 churches and ordered seven more to close since 2018 because they lacked the required permit to hold non-Islamic worship services. The letter also stated that the National Committee for Non-Muslim Religious Worship, which is responsible for issuing permits, had not issued a single permit to EPA-affiliated churches.

In March, the government closed all places of worship as part of its COVID-19 response. In August, the MRA reopened larger mosques capable of supporting social distancing measures, although Friday prayer services remained limited to smaller, neighborhood mosques. Catholic and Anglican churches also reopened in August, but the government denied the EPA’s request to reopen its churches, including those which were closed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, the EPA submitted a complaint to the governor of Tizi Ouzou for closing its churches and requested permission to reopen, but local authorities ruled in the governor’s favor and denied the request. Seventh-day Adventists said they intended to reopen when mosques reopened fully.

Pastor Salah Chalah reported that the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.

MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued the MRA’s stated practice of monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventists leaders reported they did not attempt to import religious literature during the year. Anglican leaders said most parishioners preferred to download the Bible and prayer applications on their cell phones rather than carry a physical Bible. Anglican leaders also reported it remained illegal to print copies of religious texts.

Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. In 2019, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.

The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

On November 1, voters approved a new constitution. According to the BBC, the major Islamic parties, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Movement for Justice and Development, and the Nahda Movement, said the proposed new constitution was “against the Islamic values of the Algerian society,” “a threat to the future of the nation,” and backed a “no” vote. The Association of Algerian Ulema expressed its reservations about some of the articles in the draft constitution before the vote, stating, “There is…ambiguity regarding issues such as freedom of worship, national unity, and language.” Christians stated that one change regarding religious freedom in the new constitution, the deletion of a reference guaranteeing the freedom of conscience, was concerning. As one Christian publication stated, unlike the previous constitution, “There is no more ‘freedom of conscience,’ possibly a way to stop churches and their members from discussing Christianity online or having web-based religious services.” Another stated that “the new constitution’s protection of places of worship means little, given the government’s track record regarding freedom of religion.” A representative of International Christian Concern told the U.S.-based website Crux, “This removal [of the freedom of conscience] is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties.”

Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.

The MRA required that couples present a government-issued marriage certificate before permitting imams to conduct religious marriage ceremonies.

According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.

Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.

Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice, although Anglican leadership reported they usually received visas in a timely manner. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. Catholic leaders in Algiers said the government denied a Tamanrasset-based priest’s residency renewal following his November 2019 meeting with foreign officials.

The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic, although many Amazigh Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.

Religious and civil society leaders reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s struggle for independence.

Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.

Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.

In July, the Ministry of Education required teachers in the Province of Tizi Ouzou to report their religious affiliations. EPA leaders expressed concerns that Christian teachers could face religious persecution and employment discrimination, as teachers are public-sector employees.

Authorities arrested Houssame Hatri in Maghnia on July 23 and said they would try him for his role in a 2014 violent anti-Semitic attack on a young couple in Paris. In the 90-minute attack, Hatri and his companions subjected the couple to physical and verbal abuse, destroyed many Jewish religious objects in the couple’s apartment, and made jokes referring to the Holocaust. After arrest and trial in France in 2018, Hatri escaped and fled to Algeria. According to press reports, under the terms of an extradition agreement with France, authorities will try Hatri in Algeria and he will not face extradition. A French security source told AFP, “It’s a good signal.”

The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. On October 28, the government opened the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. The Prime Minister and other officials attended the opening ceremony. According to press reports, the project cost one billion dollars and faced criticism for diverting funding from social needs and being a vanity project of former President Bouteflika. The seven-year construction work was completed in April, three years behind schedule.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.

Several Christian leaders said some Muslims who converted or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity were assaulted by family members or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert back to Islam, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Media criticized religious communities they portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they considered government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued to prohibit Christians from being buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians opted to be buried under Islamic rites so their remains could stay near those of their families.

In April, the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” According to the website Middle East Monitor, the posting sparked a wave of controversy, especially on social media, where some attacked him for interfering “in a purely religious issues only Islamic and medical scholars can tackle.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 16 percent of respondents in Algeria either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” the lowest percentage in the region, which compared with 65 percent regionwide. In contrast, 63 percent of Algerians either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 72 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, which was the highest level for a single country in the region and compared with a level of 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

Some Christian leaders stated they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. EPA leaders reported Catholic and Muslim leaders sent letters in support of the EPA to the MRA. Other faiths privately expressed support to Protestant leaders, and the EPA reported excellent interfaith dialogue within the religious community. The EPA reported some local authorities expressed regret for church closures, but stated they were duty-bound to follow government directives, regardless of their personal opinions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. They also discussed church closures and jailed activists.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.

Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The government-run and funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general Islamic religious activities, as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The government continued to question, detain, and arrest clerics and other members of the majority Shia community. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the August Ashura commemoration – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Police released some the same day and held some overnight; others remained in custody for several days or weeks. On January 13, authorities charged Shia cleric Abdul Zahra al-Samaheeji with defamation of religious figures. On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Abdul Mohsin Atiyya al-Jamri for a sermon “defaming a figure that is revered by a religious group.” On August 30, the Public Prosecution Office arrested a Shia physician for making remarks in public which defamed religious figures in Islamic history. The government continued to monitor, regulate, and provide general guidance for the content of all religious sermons – of both Sunni and Shia religious leaders – and to bring charges against clerics, citing violations of topics preapproved by the government. The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, al-Fateh Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques. Many Shia mosques broadcast sermons via social media. According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for public sector positions.

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. An NGO reported that some in the country blamed the Shia community for the spread of COVID-19 after the first confirmed case was publicly linked to travel from Iran. The NGO pointed to a February statement by a member of the government’s national COVID-19 task force that sought to immediately dispel such rumors. NGOs reported on the adverse economic effect of Sunni-Shia tensions and local political divisions. Shia representatives reported persistently higher unemployment rates, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and lower socioeconomic status compared to the Sunni population. Because religious and political affiliations were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely base on religious identity.

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister, Assistant Foreign Minister, and Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to provide for the full and equal participation of all citizens, irrespective of religious or political affiliation, in political, social, and economic opportunities. In both public and private settings, U.S. officials continued to request that the government pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practice. In October, the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence and the Office of the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism signed a memorandum of understanding outlining joint cooperation to combat anti-Semitism in Bahrain and the region.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the government, there are approximately 712,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population. According to 2019 U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 73.7 percent of the total population, Christians 9.3 percent, Jews 0.1 percent, and others 16.9 percent (Hindus, Baha’is, Sikhs, and Buddhists).

The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations. Most estimates from NGOs state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the citizen population. Local sources estimate 99 percent of citizens are Muslim, while Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, and Jews together constitute the remaining 1 percent. According to Jewish community members, there are approximately 36 Jewish citizens from six families in the country.

Most of the foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arab countries. Local government estimates report approximately 51 percent of foreign residents are Muslim; 31 percent Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, and Sikh; and 17 percent Christian (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma from South India).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.” The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as they do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed. All citizens have equal rights by law. According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith. The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public and private public sectors on grounds of religion or faith. The labor law deems dismissal for religion to be arbitrary and illegal but provides for no automatic right to reinstatement. The law also prohibits wage discrimination based on sex, national origin, language, religion, or ideology. The law stipulates recourse through a complaint process to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) to legal bodies in the event of discrimination or dismissal in the workplace on the basis of religion.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine,” and do not prejudice the unity of the people or arouse discord or sectarianism.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments (MOJIA) to operate. Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf (endowment), while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf. The MOJIA endowment boards supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls. Non-Muslim groups must register with the MOLSD to operate. In order to register, a group must submit an official letter requesting registration; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses; and other information, such as the group’s bylaws and bank account information. Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or the Ministry of Interior (MOI), depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine. The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

According to the MOLSD’s official website, 19 non-Muslim religious groups were registered with the ministry: the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral and Awali Anglican Church, Full Gospel Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, and the Anglican and Episcopal Church in Bahrain. Additionally, non-Muslim, nonregistered groups include the Baha’i, Buddhist, and Jewish communities.

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The Office of the Ombudsman, as part of the MOI, addresses the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the King with recommendations from the president of the SCIA. The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites. The government has allocated 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) annually to each endowment board. Zakat (Islamic tithes), income from property rentals and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations. The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

The government-run and funded SCIA oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The council is comprised of a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 16 religious scholars eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges. The King appoints all council members to a four-year term. Independent from other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships to low-income students for advanced Islamic studies. The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by parliament to ensure the draft law’s compliance with sharia. The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers. The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs. The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.

The King has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials, including the Prime Minister. By law, construction of places of worship requires approvals from appropriate national and municipal authorities. The law permits non-Islamic houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises. Government entities involved in allocating building permits include the MOJIA for non-Islamic religious sites and either the Sunni Waqf or the Shia Jaafari Waqf under the MOJIA for Islamic sites. The construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, is based on a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area. The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system. The government funds public schools for grades one through 12; Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims. Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and foreign-operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE. Outside of school hours, Muslim and non-Muslim students may engage in religious studies that the MOJIA sponsors, as their parents deem fit.

In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence. According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded. The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas. There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad. The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.

According to the constitution, sharia forms a principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code. With regard to family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia. The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia. The personal status law states that either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce, shall govern depending on the religious affiliation of the party. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court. Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody for non-Muslims.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates. Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination. Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries. It specifies the succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son. The royal family is Sunni.

The law prohibits individuals from being members of political societies or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations. Organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.

The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

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

According to January press reports, in September 2019, Bahrain’s Special Investigations Unit referred two police officers to the Military Court on charges related to mistreatment of Shia detainees in Jaw Prison. The press reported that, in December 2019, a criminal court sentenced one of the accused officers to one year in prison. The court sentenced the other officer and four other police officers to three months in prison in the same case.

The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics.

On January 13, authorities summoned Shia cleric Abdul Zahra al-Samaheeji for questioning and remanded him for one week pending an investigation. The government charged him with defamation of religious historical figures. On January 21, authorities remanded him for additional 15 days for further investigation. On February 20, the government released al-Samaheeji without formal charge.

On March 12, the King issued a royal decree pardoning 901 inmates, many of them Shia, for humanitarian reasons against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of those released were charged with crimes related to religious expression. On May 23, the King issued a royal decree pardoning and releasing another 154 inmates who served part of their prison terms. These pardons coincided with the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

On August 12, the Court of Cassation reversed the revocation of citizenship of three Shia defendants who were sentenced to life in prison for setting fire to the Sitra Police station in 2017. However, the court did not grant their appeal and the life sentences continued. The Public Prosecution Office said that the three defendants had connections with the February 14 Movement, named for the 2011 uprising against the government and associated with the Shia community.

On August 25, the Court of Cassation upheld a one-year prison sentence against Shia religious preacher Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri for a 2019 sermon “defaming a [historical] figure that is revered by a religious group.” During a sermon delivered in 2019, the preacher reportedly defamed Mu’awiya I, who assumed the caliphate in 661 after the assassination of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali.

On August 30, the Public Prosecution Office arrested a Shia physician, Wissam Khalil al-Arayedh, for defaming historical religious figures during his public reflection to mark the commemoration of Ashura. The Public Prosecution Office said that al-Arayedh’s message promoted violence and sectarian sedition. Activists and rights groups stated that authorities misinterpreted his remarks. The government released al-Arayedh on September 1 on bail, banned him from overseas travel, and referred his case to the High Criminal Court.

In November, the press reported the Third Lower Court sentenced an unnamed defendant to a six-month prison term for insulting religious symbols and persons of reverence in Islam in sermons he had given. The press stated that the sermons contained “expressions of insult and cursing” aimed at companions of the Prophet Muhammad.

In September, the Public Prosecution Office summoned several Shia preachers because of the content of their sermons: Ebrahim al-Ansari, Qassim Zainuldin, Naji Ahmed Eid, Abdul Nabi al-Gharifi, Nasser Ali, and Ebrahim al-Sammak. The government accused them of “spreading sectarianism” after delivering sermons “defaming revered religious figures.” Activists said that the sermons were part of the Shia observance of Ashura. Authorities sentenced al-Sammak to one year in prison and Ebrahim al-Ansari to six months in prison. The government released the others after detaining them for seven days.

Authorities prosecuted defense attorney Abdulla al-Shamlawi, who defended opposition figures, including Ali Salman and other members of the now-banned opposition group al-Wifaq, which had strong ties to the country’s Shia community, for “defamation.” On September 14, an appeals court gave al-Shamlawi a six-month suspended sentence for “inciting sectarianism.” Some of the charges against al-Shamlawi involved two tweets that he sent in 2019 in which he criticized Sunnis for fasting during Ashura and for considering it a joyful day. The appeals court decision overturned the June 30 verdict of the High Criminal Court, which sentenced al-Shamlawi to eight months in prison for “humiliating an Islamic sect” and “misusing a telecommunications device.”

On September 8, the MOI Anti-Cyber Crime Directorate arrested an individual who circulated a video on social media defaming Shia beliefs. The directorate said that legal proceedings are underway against him.

On September 11, the Court of Cassation reviewed the verdicts of 20 defendants who participated in what the government called an illegal sit-in in front of senior Shia Sheikh Isa Qassim’s house in Diraz that began in 2016. The court upheld sentences in 16 of these cases, rejected two appeals, ordered a reduced prison term in one case, and ordered a retrial in one other. The suspects in this case, known as the “Diraz sit-in case,” were among 146 individuals that the Public Prosecution Office had accused of possessing explosives, having connections with terror cells based abroad, and attempting to kill police officers.

International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 10 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the August Ashura commemoration – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated the individuals for the content of their sermons and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight while others were detained and released the same day; others remained in custody for several days or weeks.

On June 15, 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld the death sentences of Zuhair Ebrahim Jassim and Hussain Abdulla Khalil Rashid. The government prosecuted both on charges of targeting security forces and killing a police officer in a bomb explosion in 2014. A New York Times report identified the men as members of the Shia community who previously expressed opposition to the government.

On September 17, the Public Prosecution Office filed an urgent motion against a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions after she published defamatory pictures and tweets on social media platforms. The Public Prosecution Office ordered the woman held pending trial.

On September 21, the Court of Cassation overturned the conviction of a citizen charged with blasphemy and misuse of telecommunications and referred the case back to the lower criminal court for retrial.

Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end. They had been associated with opposition to the government and were given prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred. Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.

In January, the MOI summoned historian Jassim Hussain al-Abbas for a speech he gave at a conference in which he discussed the history of mosques in the country and alluded to Shia rulers of Bahrain before the first al-Khalifa emir.

In February, the NGO Bahrain Interfaith reported the one-year anniversary of a complaint submitted to the King by Mohsin al-Asfoor, the former head of the Jaafari Waqf, regarding MOI interference in Jaafari Waqf affairs and MOJIA actions affecting the Shia community. These included measures that hampered the funding, construction, and licensing of new religious endowments, mosques, and maatams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries), specifically the acquisition of new properties for new mosques and maatams, and government delays in approving construction of new mosques and maatams and renovation of existing ones. In June, the King appointed a new head of the Jaafari Waqf. The NGO stated that despite a change in leadership in the Jaafari Wafq, the government had not addressed the issues raised in al-Asfoor’s original complaint.

On February 16, Bahrain Interfaith issued a separate report regarding a decision by the country’s Electricity and Water Authority, part of the Ministry of Electricity and Water (EWA), to charge facilities that Shia community members identify as maatams for electricity and water. The NGO stated that the authority based its decision on a 2012 law promulgated by the MOJIA which held that, unlike Sunni or Shia mosques, maatams were not houses of worship, which are exempt from utility fees, but were public facilities, which are not. Government officials, on the other hand, dated the decision to a 2016 review of all maatams registered with the Jaafari Waqf, which found that approximately 200 registered maatams were actually residences or shops and not maatams. At that time, the government informed the owners of these buildings that they would need to address the status of their properties and would be responsible for the payment of electric bills. According to a November 2019 article in the newspaper al-Ayam, more than 600 of these facilities had not changed their status, had not paid past-due electric bills, and were subject to having their power shut off by the EWA.

According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that restrictions imposed by prison authorities effectively denied Shia prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. NGOs continued to state that prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment.

In August, inmates in Building 14 at Jaw Prison undertook a hunger strike to protest religious discrimination, lack of access to medical facilities, and limits on family visitation due to COVID-19-related restrictions. There were reports authorities denied prisoners access to religious services during special commemorations such as Ashura, and prayer time. Some detainees said prison officials limited time for practicing Ashura rituals due to COVID-19 mitigation efforts. A government human rights institution that monitored complaints of human rights violations said, however, that inmates were given additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas, adding that religious rituals were not permitted in prison cells as a matter of general policy.

The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees. The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation. The National Institution for Human Rights, a quasi-governmental organization responsible for investigating complaints of abuse in prisons, stated its investigations did not find widespread harassment or mistreatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation. NGOs, however, cited several instances of prisoner abuse.

The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public sector employees, members of parliament, or ministers. According to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 19 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni Muslims. Following parliamentary elections in 2018, of 40 seats on the elected Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia. Five of the 24 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

The government reported 598 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers; authorities increased the number of licensed Shia places of worship to 754 mosques, while the number of maatams remained at 618, the same number as in 2019. The government reported it granted 30 permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and an additional 30 permits to build Shia mosques and maatams. NGOs stated authorities did not allow the construction of new mosques in Rifaa or maatams in Hamad Town, despite numerous requests from community members. The government stated that determining whether a mosque would be Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds that their actions jeopardized national security. The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

On August 26, the MOI Anti-Corruption and Economic and Electronic Security Directorate warned against social media accounts that spread sectarianism. The MOI stated that these accounts were managed by political groups operating in Lebanon and Iran, including the dissolved al-Wifaq political society and al-Wafa Islamic movement, both of which had strong ties to the country’s Shia community.

In March, hundreds of Shia pilgrims reported they were stranded in Iran due to flight cancellations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At least four persons died in Iran while waiting to be repatriated. The government chartered special flights to allow the stranded pilgrims to return home, but the process ultimately took months due to public safety concerns, airport closures, and the unavailability of flights. Rights groups accused authorities of sectarianism and stated that they were reluctant to repatriate the Shia pilgrims. On March 1, 18 members of parliament (MPs) called on authorities to postpone the return of Bahrainis from the “endemic countries,” of which Iran was one. They argued that repatriating Bahrainis at that time would rapidly increase the number of infected persons at home. The Gulf Institute for Democracy and Human Rights said that the MPs’ statement “promotes sectarian discrimination and creates discord among people.”

On February 29, the Jaafari Waqf issued a statement calling on maatam administrators to freeze all activities (marriages, funerals, and social gatherings) until further notice because of the pandemic and announced that mosques would also be closed for all prayers. The government allowed maatams otherwise to remain open but did not allow maatams to hold or facilitate gatherings of more than five people. The Sunni Waqf ordered Sunni mosques closed on March 23.

The government also closed non-Islamic houses of worship and other places of congregational worship in late April due to concerns about COVID-19. Before the government’s decision, many non-Muslim religious groups had voluntarily closed their houses of worship due to the pandemic. The government started to ease official restrictions for all non-Muslim groups beginning in mid-August.

On August 11, due to public health concerns, MOI officials reportedly warned leaders of maatams that hosting Ashura-related activities despite COVID-19 restrictions could result in imprisonment or fines, according to opposition-linked social media accounts. On August 16, the Supreme Council of Health restricted Ashura ceremonies to online events and urged maatam representatives to abide by preventive measures put in place by the Ministry of Health (MOH).

On August 23, NGOs reported that a maatam in Hamad Town was shuttered by the MOI and that maatam representatives in A’ali and in Manama were summoned by the authorities. The MOI and the MOH cited violations of social distancing regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the reason for these actions.

On August 26, following meetings with the Jaafari Waqf, the National Task Force to Combat COVID-19 said it would allow Shia mourners to sit in chairs outside maatams during Ashura sermons while maintaining two meters’ (six feet) distance between the attendees in all directions. Some members of the Shia community stated that these restrictions were much stricter than those applied to other public buildings such as shopping malls. The task force also stated it would allow Ashura processions in the vicinity of maatams to proceed, providing that social distancing was maintained and other precautionary measures implemented, such as wearing face masks and regularly using disinfectant. The government continued to prohibit large Ashura processions in Manama’s city center and in the market area.

On August 26, MOJIA announced the progressive opening of all mosques beginning August 27. The ministry added that all mosques would be open only for Fajr (dawn) prayers and that Friday prayers would be performed in Al-Fateh mosque. The MOJIA also said it would suspend prayers in mosques that failed to follow safety and social distancing measures. On September 7, the Jaafari Waqf issued a statement suspending gatherings in maatams following an increase in positive COVID-19 cases subsequent to Ashura commemorations.

The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura in August and Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura, commemorating the death of Hussein) in October, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission. During the annual two-day public holiday for Ashura, most public schools and government offices were closed. The government permitted public reenactments of the death of Hussein and public processions in commemoration of Ashura.

In August, social media accounts reported that the MOI had summoned mosque representatives in Hamad Town and directed them to suspend broadcasting Ashura sermons due to concerns about crowds gathering to listen to those sermons in contravention of COVID-19 social distancing regulations. A former member of the Wifaq opposition society stated that the Shia community was forced to use mosques to observe Muharram due to the lack of maatams. Social media accounts also reported that a maatam in Hamad Town was locked by the MOI and that the government summoned maatam representatives in A’ali and in Manama and required the maatam officials to sign a pledge to observe social distancing. On August 26, the media reported that Isa Qassim, whom the media have identified as the leading Shia cleric from the country and who was living in Iran in exile, stated that the government had closed mosques in Hamad Town in the days before Ashura. According to the press report, Qassim said that “No mosque is ever owned by any country.”

On August 20, local NGOs reported that the MOI removed several Ashura banners in Ras Rumman, Al-Sahla, and Al-Maameer. The MOI also removed some Ashura flags and banners from streets and private property in Shia villages, but not at the main procession areas in Manama, according to Shia leaders.

Shia Rights Watch, a U.S.-based NGO, stated that authorities announced restrictions on religious congregations and public organizations holding Muharram commemorations, which the government said were based on COVID-19 concerns. According to the NGO, authorities warned that some religious centers would be fined and shut down for three years for hosting Muharram rituals if they violated COVID-19 social distancing protocols. At the same time, Shia representatives stated that malls, swimming pools, and other businesses where customers congregate were allowed to open or continue their operations.

The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. Security forces stated they continued to monitor religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications that were perceived to criticize Islam. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The MOJIA also reviewed books that discussed religion. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and publicly encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions. In September, the King’s Representative for Humanitarian Work and Youth Affairs, Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, participated in the celebration of the Hindu festival of Onam and said that the observance of Onam confirmed the importance of dialogue and understanding in the country. In August, the government announced that it would allow a large-scale renovation and extension of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple in the Manama souq.

Authorities permitted some churches to build larger premises on different locations, but at year’s end, these churches had not received MOLSD’s final approval for the location of the new facilities. Government sources reported that land scarcity was the reason for this delay.

There was no progress reported on the construction of a Coptic Orthodox church in Manama following the King’s 2016 announcement that he would permit the church’s construction. A construction start date had still not been established. Construction continued on a Catholic cathedral, intended to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which was scheduled for completion by mid-2021.

On August 15, a woman destroyed several Buddhist statues in a shop in Juffair. The following day, after a video of the incident appeared on social media, the MOI arrested the woman on a charge of publicly attacking and degrading a religious sect. Authorities referred the case to the Public Prosecution Office. According to the MOI, she faced charges of intentional criminal damage as well as publicly insulting and desecrating items associated with a religious faith. The King’s diplomatic advisor tweeted that the woman’s actions were “a crime…of hatred and is [sic] rejected. Here, all religions, sects, and people coexist…”

The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, Al-Fateh Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques. Many Shia mosques broadcast sermons via social media.

According to the MOJ, officially registered organizers of Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages needed to abide by strict rules to maintain their licenses. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no organized pilgrimages to the holy sites.

According to the law, Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence are eligible to apply for citizenship. Government representatives stated that in recent years, it has received citizenship applications from persons born in Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, and Morocco. The government stated that foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.

According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military. They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates. Other community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally. The MOLSD reported it organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods. The ministry, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year. Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination, so they did not utilize them.

Two public schools provided more thorough religious instruction for students from elementary school through high school; the remainder of their curricula was consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools. The MOE’s Jaafari Institute provided religious instruction in Shia Islam. The MOE’s Religious Institute provided education in Sunni Islam.

The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students. There were five registered institutes, publicly funded and overseen by the Sunni Waqf, offering religious education for Sunnis. There were several dozen hawzas, six of them registered and authorized by the SCIA.

Human rights activists continued to report discrimination against Shia in education. On August 29, the MOE said it had granted all high-scoring students from government and private schools their initial choices for universities and major placements. The MOE stated that the students could track their own placements and grants on the ministry’s website. The government reported the flagship Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP) continued to have both Shia and Sunni representation, but it again did not provide a statistical breakdown of participants. A list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools was published on the CPISP website. Some Shia business leaders again reported that government officials had overturned decisions to deny scholarships to Shia students over concerns the decisions had been biased and did not reflect student merit. There were continued reports that the MOE refused to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations. The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.

At year’s end, the government had still not filled the position of ambassador at large for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom. In 2018 the Foreign Minister announced the government planned to create such a position.

Representatives of the King Hamad Center for Peaceful Coexistence, led by a Board of Trustees comprised of representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, met with governmental and religious groups in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, where they also met with government and civil society leaders. Marking the end of Ashura on August 31, the King expressed thanks to the Shia community for taking steps to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus during recent religious observances, noting that such caution reflected the country’s “humane reference in the exercise of religious freedoms, respect for religious pluralism, and … the general values of [Islam].” On September 15, the diplomatic advisor to King Hamad received the country’s Jewish community representative.

Christian community leaders stated they continued the search, which began in 2012, for a suitable location for a new non-Islamic cemetery. While the government continued to work with them to identify a location, they did not identify a site during the year.

On September 1, the Muslim Council of Elders, an independent international organization based in the United Arab Emirates that promotes unity and an end to sectarianism in Islamic societies, offered membership to the SCIA’s head, Abdulrahman bin Mohammed bin Rashid al-Khalifa, in recognition of his efforts to encourage religious coexistence and tolerance.

In a September 21 speech, the King said, “We want the world to know that peace is our message and strategic choice and that tolerance and peaceful cohabitation have long characterized the Bahraini peoples’ identity.” He added, “True peace means accepting others, and this is the true essence of Bahrain citizens,” and that the country was a “lighthouse for intellectual, cultural, religious, and sectarian diversity.” Bahrain Interfaith, however, stated in February that it “has not witnessed any positive practical developments on the official level regarding religious freedom, cultivating tolerance, and religious coexistence.” The NGO said the government’s “policies and practices on the ground are inconsistent with its positions that are more rhetorical than practical.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. Posts stated that former Shia leaders were “traitors,” “agents of Iran,” “terrorists,” “killers,” “criminals,” plotters,” and, occasionally, “rawafid” (a derogatory term that describes Shia who refused to accept the early caliphates). Anti-Sunni commentary often was characterized by the use of anti-Shia slurs.

Shia Rights Watch reported that some in the country blamed the Shia community for the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The NGO pointed to a statement made in late February by Dr. Manaf Al-Qahtani, a member of the national COVID-19 task force, that sought to dispel such rumors: “Neither the virus nor the disease has any relation to a specific race or a particular sect. It is a widespread virus that anyone may catch. We wish no one would nickname the virus by linking it to a specific party or doctrine.” On February 26, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa delivered remarks that stressed that COVID-19 does not discriminate based on race, ethnicity, or religion and called for a united effort to confront the pandemic.

Non-Muslim religious community leaders reported there continued to be some Muslims who changed their religious affiliation, despite ongoing societal pressure not to do so. However, those who did so remained unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.

NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have an economic effect. Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia, exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.

Several Hindu and Sikh temples operate throughout the country. The Shri Krishna Hindu Temple, more than 200 years old, is an important center of Hindu worship in the country. The country is also home to a historic Jewish synagogue that is undergoing renovation to include a museum on the history of the local Jewish community. There are more than one dozen Christian churches, which include a 100-year-old evangelical Christian church and an 80-year-old Catholic church. There is no registered Buddhist temple; however, some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.

According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam. Local news reports during the year featured activities of minority religious communities, including announcements of changes in leadership, Muslim bands performing at Christmas festivities, and sports events organized by the Sikh community.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year involving a team of international experts, 32 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 27 percent overall for the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it related to religious practices. These exchanges included the Ambassador’s phone calls and virtual meetings, necessitated by COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, with Sunni and Shia officials, businessmen, and civil society groups during Ramadan. The Ambassador and embassy staff members visited various houses of worship and attended religious events during the year, including the observation of Ashura, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, and Diwali. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

On October 22, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the Chairman of the King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence, Khalid bin Khalifa al-Khalifa, signed a memorandum of understanding outlining joint cooperation to combat anti-Semitism in both Bahrain and the region.

The embassy continued to encourage the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability. The embassy also continued to support religious freedom through its online presence.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states, “Freedom of belief is absolute” and “The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine [i.e., Abrahamic] religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the law” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each for setting fire to the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On December 6, a Cairo court extended the detention of Coptic rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied. In September, press and NGOs reported that police detained Quranist Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate, on charges of joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, reportedly based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his August 22 arrest. Authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention on December 31. On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict and upheld his sentence of three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. On June 27, a court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men to one year in prison each on charges of “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed, including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belongs to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year, resulting in a total of 1,800 buildings legally registered since the law’s enactment in 2017. According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands to build 10 new churches in eight cities. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. In a June 28 cabinet meeting, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the government should give “the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of religion, including freedom of belief.”

Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides. Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man uploaded posts to social media viewed as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor in the High Institute of Social Service in Alexandria, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed, which resulted in the Ministry of Higher Education suspending Mahdaly. On February 24, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post on social media in which he suggested that a Christian cardiac surgeon would not enter heaven due to his religious affiliation. In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers.

U.S. officials, including the Ambassador, other embassy representatives, senior Department of State officials, and the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development met with government officials and religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, bishops and senior pastors of the Coptic Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches, and the Jewish community. In the meetings, embassy officials raised the importance of the need for accountability for sectarian violence, protections for victims of sectarian attacks, and concerns about religious discrimination, including through the inclusion of official religious designations on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on issues such as legalization and construction of churches, and the restoration and protection of Islamic, Christian, and Jewish religious sites.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 104.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Most experts and media sources estimate that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population. These include Anglican/Episcopalian, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches. Most Protestant denominations are members of the umbrella group known as the Protestant Churches of Egypt (PCE), also known as the Evangelical Church Association. These include the Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (al-Mithaal al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), Grace (al-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-Day Adventists. There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses and an estimated 150 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates. Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population. Baha’i representatives estimate the size of the community to be between 1,000 and 2,000 persons. There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and expatriate members of various groups.

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are six to 10 Jews.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation. The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. The constitution prohibits political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents as defined by the government to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. The constitution states that al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The Grand Imam is elected by al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the President for a life term. The President does not have the authority to dismiss him. The constitution declares al-Azhar to be an independent institution and requires the government to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes.”

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out. The Grand Mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the sentence.

The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) depending upon their official religious designation. The Ministry of Interior issues national identity cards that include official religious designations. Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens. Although the government designates Jehovah’s Witnesses as “Christian” on identity cards, a presidential decree bans their religious activities. Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash. The Minister of Interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize. The law states individuals may change their religion. However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but generally not from Islam to any other religion. The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to a Ministry of Interior decree pursuant to a court order. Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints. After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims. When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women are not required to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that personal status matters for Christian and Jewish communities are governed by their respective religious doctrine.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife; demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; or harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar al-Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar al-Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of the Interior’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and al-Azhar. The President then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both. The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons written and disseminated by the Ministry of Awqaf. Ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques, and an imam who fails to follow the guidelines for ministry sermons may lose the bonus and be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.

The Prime Minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith) and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates. The governor is to respond within four months of receipt of an application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe. The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches. It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. Construction of new churches must meet specific land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum of 500 meters (1,600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1,884 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Schools determine the religious identity of students, and the religious studies courses they should take, based on official identity card designations, not personal or parental decisions. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other. A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including parochial schools. Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves an estimated two million students from kindergarten through secondary school using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to… religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment, a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both, as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,200) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,400).

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems and is recognized in the law in instances that do not involve serious crimes such as homicide, serious injury, or theft. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations bring together opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Muslim and Christian religious leaders said that in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo and Alexandria, it has become largely inactive.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens with documentation from a cleric and does not recognize civil marriage for citizens. Marriages of Shia are recognized as Muslim. The government recognizes civil marriages of individuals from other religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, if one or both are foreigners. Authorities deny Baha’is the rights of married couples pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse. In practice, however, Baha’is are able to file individual petitions for recognition of their marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program called “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain conditions are met, including requirements that the guardians share the same religion as the child and have been married to one another for a minimum of five years.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament under a 2016 law, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “No political activity may be engaged in, or political parties formed, on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location.

The constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, as of year’s end, parliament had not acted to implement the mandate.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

On February 24, the government executed eight men at Borg al-Arab Prison in Alexandria for their role in attacks on churches in Alexandria and Tanta on Palm Sunday, 2017, that resulted in 88 deaths. The men were among a group of 17 defendants who were tried and sentenced to death in 2018 for their involvement in these and other attacks.

On June 2, the Giza Criminal Court sentenced seven defendants to 15 years’ imprisonment each on charges of membership in a banned group, possession of firearms, setting fire to a religious establishment, and other charges for their roles in the arson attack on the Kafr Hakim Church in Kerdasa in Giza Governorate in 2013. On September 17, the Court of Cassation ordered that an additional 22 defendants, who in 2018 were each sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for the attack on the church, have their sentences reduced to between two and five years’ imprisonment.

On June 27, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies condemned the continued detention of human rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied Salid and other activists. Authorities originally arrested Kamel in November 2019 following his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a UN forum in Geneva, where he had previously presented issues affecting the Coptic community. The government charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. On December 6, a Cairo court renewed his detention for 45 days.

On August 22, authorities arrested Reda Abdel-Rahman, a teacher in Kafr Saqr in Sharqia Governorate and member of the Quranists (Quraniyyun), who believe that the Quran is the sole source of Islamic law and reject the authenticity and authority of the hadith (the body of sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed). In September, press and NGOs reported that authorities were investigating Abdel-Rahman for joining ISIS, adopting takfiri extremist ideas, and promoting those ideas in print, based on papers seized from his residence at the time of his arrest. According to the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), security officers questioned Abdel-Rahman and seven of his relatives arrested at the same time about their relationship with Quranist leader Dr. Ahmed Sobhi Mansour and their adoption of Quranist principles before releasing the seven relatives. EIPR called for Abdel-Rahman’s release and for dropping the charges against him. On December 31, authorities renewed Abdel-Rahman’s detention.

On January 11, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced three defendants in absentia to 10 years’ imprisonment each for a 2016 attack on Souad Thabet, a Christian who was stripped and dragged through her village of Karm in Minya, in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities originally charged four persons with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. According to the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, Thabet welcomed the convictions and praised President al-Sisi for his public support for her and her family. Three defendants, sentenced in absentia, surrendered to authorities and faced automatic retrial on the same charges in the Minya Criminal Court. (The status of the fourth defendant remained unknown.) After announcing that it would hand down its verdict on August 24, the Minya Criminal Court ordered the case returned to the Beni Suef Criminal Court, which acquitted the three men on December 17. The same day, the Public Prosecutor ordered the formation of a technical committee to review and challenge the acquittal. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms told the al-Monitor news website the verdict demonstrated the deep-rooted bias within the judicial system against Christians. According to an analyst of customary reconciliation sessions from EIPR, local Christians whose houses had been damaged in the incident agreed to hold a customary reconciliation session with the alleged assailants after facing pressure from the local Muslim community in February.

On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan to a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page. Authorities arrested Hassan in 2019 for publishing atheist ideas and criticizing the “divinely revealed religions.”

NGOs and press reported that on May 20, authorities assaulted a priest and arrested 14 Copts who were protesting the destruction of their church in Beheira Governorate. The lawyer for the Coptic community said that the church had been used for 15 years before the Abu al-Matamir city council ordered it removed. According to NGOs, after the church opened, local Muslims built a mosque next to the church with the aim of preventing the church from being legalized. According to NGO reports, security forces razed both the church and the adjacent mosque, since both appeared to encroach on agricultural land owned by the state. Church officials later stated that the government was within its rights to dismantle the church.

Although in late 2018 President al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing,” efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support. In 2019, al-Azhar founded a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa to “counter atheism” and prevent youth from “falling into disbelief.” The Bayan Unit published several social media pieces that were critical of atheism, and on August 25, as part of a training program, al-Azhar organized a workshop on “atheism, its types, and the most important methods of dealing with adherents of its ideas.”

On April 13, authorities in Beheira Governorate detained three Muslim teenagers on suspicion of blasphemy after they posted a video showing one of them smoking while performing prayers. According to local press, the three minors confessed, and said they posted the video to become famous.

On June 27, the State Security Misdemeanor Court in Mashtoul al-Souk in Sharqia Governorate sentenced two men initially arrested in 2019 to one year in prison each for violating laws against “contempt of religions” for spreading and promoting Shia Islam. According to an international NGO, the government based its prosecution of the two men on provisions in the penal code that criminalize the defamation of religion and spreading propaganda “insulting ‘the heavenly [Abrahamic] religions.”

On February 23, an administrative court ordered all Shia websites and television channels closed including the well-known website elnafisbook.com, which belonged to Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis, a doctor and professor who converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. The court’s decision followed a lawsuit filed by activist lawyer Samir Sabry, whose office told the press after the decision, “The reasons behind this verdict are based on the dangers of Shiite ideology on Egyptian society and national security, as Shiites in Egypt use religion for political manipulation.” Al-Nafis said the country’s Shia community was not interested in conversions and added, “We are not hurting anyone.” One press report stated that the verdict was issued despite the fact that there are no laws prohibiting the promotion of Shia beliefs and that a 1959 fatwa from al-Azhar recognized the legitimacy of the Shia Jafaari school along with the four main Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

On August 26, a Port Said criminal court sentenced a man in absentia to 15 years in prison for allegedly “distorting” the text of the Quran after he said he had received a divine revelation. The court convicted the man of producing a “new Quran” in violation of laws that regulate the printing of the Quran.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. On August 28, the MOI announced the arrest of Mahmoud Ezzat, acting supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ezzat had been a fugitive since 2013 when he was sentenced in absentia to two death sentences and life imprisonment on multiple terrorism-related charges. Following his arrest, the law required he face retrial on those charges. Upon Ezzat’s arrest, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated sources announced that Ibrahim Mounir, who lives in the United Kingdom, had become the new acting supreme guide.

The Court of Cassation in July upheld a life sentence for Mohammed Badie and five other Muslim Brotherhood leaders convicted for involvement in political violence in 2013. Essam al-Erian, whom the press identified as a senior Muslim Brotherhood leader who served as vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, died of a heart attack in Tora Prison on August 13.

On February 6, security authorities arrested Ahmed Sebaie, who managed a YouTube channel with 404,000 followers that focused on religion. Sebaie produced several videos in which he discussed Christian doctrinal issues, commented on social media posts of atheists, and discussed Islam. After 29 days in detention, authorities released Sebaie without charges. On November 27, authorities arrested Sebaie again after he posted a video discussing the Bible and Christian doctrine to social media and charged him with reading false news and misuse of social media.

On May 5, authorities in Alexandria arrested 10 persons for holding Ramadan night prayers in contravention of the Ministry of Awqaf’s closure of mosques due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All were subsequently released without charges.

On February 2, the director of the Alexandria Ministry of Awqaf ordered a deduction of three months’ salary from preacher Mohammed Kamal Mohammed for failing to adhere to the ministry’s official topic for Friday sermons. In August, the Ministry of Awqaf revoked the preaching license of an al-Azhar preacher after accusing him of membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and calling for violence.

According to the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, imprisoned labor activist Khalil Rizk asked a warden of Tora Prison that he be allowed to attend Coptic Christmas services on January 1. Although authorities told Rizk his request had been approved, they did not allow him to attend Christmas prayers or allow a priest to visit him.

On January 6, EIPR issued a statement criticizing the pace of legalization of churches and subsidiary buildings that had filed applications since 2016 and called for a single, uniform decree granting final legal status to all churches and subsidiary buildings.

According to official statistics, the government approved 478 applications for legalization for churches and related buildings during the year. Since September 2017, it approved 1,800 of the 5,415 pending applications for licensure of churches and related buildings.

According to a report issued by the media center of the cabinet, the government allocated lands during the year to build 10 churches in eight cities (Sadat, New 6th of October, New Beni Suef, Badr, Nasser, and New Sohag). At the May 21 inauguration of Project Good Hope 3 in Alexandria, a complex that will provide housing for 50,000 individuals and feature a centrally located new cathedral and mosque in close proximity, President al-Sisi stated, “The idea is that when we built the schools, the church, and the mosque, our young children will see that we are one country, one people.”

In September, the government announced that it would open and renovate more than 300 mosques in several governorates across the country in September and October. According to press reports, the step came in response to accusations by the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups that authorities had been demolishing mosques in a crackdown on illegal buildings.

A cabinet report stated that the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities allocated 41 million pounds ($2.61 million) for the Journey of the Holy Family project, a 2,100 mile trail that will extend from Sinai to Assiut, and will include stops at churches, monasteries, and water wells in 11 governorates. Those governorates have provided 448 million pounds ($28.55 million) for related development projects, according to the report.

According to a 2019 report by Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) in the country, and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. Members of the Shia community risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services, and from the security and intelligence services.

The press reported that a government committee charged with the seizure of Muslim Brotherhood assets filed a lawsuit in September to confiscate the funds of 89 Muslim Brotherhood members, including the heirs of former President Mohammed Morsi. The court scheduled a hearing for January 2021.

In January, the General Egyptian Book Organization, the government authority that oversees the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), announced that it had excluded a number of publishers of Islamic titles from participating in the fair, held in January and February, and barred the sale of several authors for their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including Sayyed Qutb, Hassan al Banna, and Youssef Qaradawi. A CIBF representative said publishers were required to submit lists of titles that they intended to display for approval, and security officials reportedly rejected some of the applications submitted by Islamic publishing houses. In a January 25 statement, the chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization said that it took the actions to “prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from carrying out its activities.” On February 25, the Anti-Defamation League published a letter it had sent to President al-Sisi that condemned the presence of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other anti-Semitic literature at the book fair. The General Egyptian Book Authority did not bar the publishers, one of which was affiliated with the government, from participating in the fair or order the books removed, citing the government’s commitment to freedom of speech. The Simon Wiesenthal Center published a letter which stated that the CIBF continued to allow the publisher Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi to display anti-Semitic publications.

On September 26, the Supreme Administrative Court denied an appeal against a 2014 decision by the Alexandria Judicial Court upholding a prohibition of the annual celebration of the birth of Rabbi Yaqoub bin Masoud, also known as Abu Hasira, at his tomb in the Beheira Governorate; ordered the removal of the shrine from the government’s list of Islamic, Jewish, and Coptic antiquities; and rejected a request to move the rabbi’s remains to Israel. The court justified its decision to prohibit the annual celebration, citing “moral offenses and disturbances to public order,” and ruled that the shrine lacked archaeological significance. The government first listed the tomb and the Jewish cemeteries surrounding it as antiquities in 2001. The court ordered the government to inform UNESCO of its decision.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. At least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt continued to refuse to participate in reconciliation sessions, criticizing such sessions as substitutes for criminal proceedings which would address attacks on Christians and their churches. Other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions. Human rights groups and some Christian community representatives characterized the practice as an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship that regularly pressures Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On March 20 and 21, the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Awqaf announced the closure of all churches and mosques to curb the spread of COVID-19. Churches and mosques remained closed through August. Religious institutions made concerted efforts to persuade the population to address the spread of COVID-19. On March 29, the Ministry of Awqaf, explaining its decision to close mosques, said that a fundamental goal of Islamic law was to preserve life. On March 15, al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the highest Islamic advisory body, declared it religiously permissible to suspend communal prayers in mosques to curb the spread of the pandemic. On March 17, Grand Mufti Shawky Allam said Egyptians should follow government guidelines on social distancing and hygiene, and on April 1, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa encouraging the distribution of alms to workers affected by COVID-19.

On July 4, the Ministry of Awqaf ordered barriers placed around the tomb of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, located inside al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, an action the ministry said was intended to stem the spread of COVID-19 after some worshippers kissed the shrine. In previous years, the government closed the room containing the tomb during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura.

On January 26, the High Administrative Court upheld a final verdict banning faculty and teaching staff of Cairo University from wearing the niqab (face veil) during classes, putting an end to a case first filed by 80 faculty members in 2015. The ban only applied to lecture halls during classes and did not apply to students. The ban came into force on February 8, with instructions that professors who did not comply were to be prohibited from teaching. On January 30, Ain Shams University issued a similar ban on the niqab for university staff.

The government largely continued to allow Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims to worship privately in small numbers but continued to refuse requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.

According to local media, on May 30, the Supreme Administrative Court dissolved the Islamist Building and Development Party based on an allegation of the Political Parties Affairs Committee, which oversees political parties, that the party was affiliated with an Islamist group in violation of the law. While authorities did not ban other Islamist parties, including the Strong Egypt Party, they added Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to a list of designated terrorists on November 19.

The Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. The governors of the Damietta and Ismailia governorates are Christian, as is a deputy governor of Alexandria Governorate. The governor of Damietta was the country’s first female Christian governor. The electoral laws governing the 2020 House of Representatives elections reserved 24 seats for Christian candidates in the closed-list portion of the electoral system. Three Christians won elections as independent candidates to the House of Representatives in November. In addition, 17 Christian senators and two Christian representatives were elected, and President al-Sisi appointed seven Christian senators. President al-Sisi has approximately five senior Christian advisors.

Christians reported being underrepresented in the military and security services, and they stated that those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education and Technical Education continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, third grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum. On September 8, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki said in a press conference that President al-Sisi directed third grade classes to begin universal instruction from the book Values and Respect for Others, a text to teach ethics drawn from Islamic and Christian religious traditions.

On February 18, the cabinet announced that the Ministry of Social Solidarity, in cooperation with the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents and the Ministries of Education and Technical Education, Awqaf, Culture, and Youth and Sports and the National Council of Women, signed eight protocols of cooperation with a number of Muslim and Christian NGOs to launch a program to promote equality in Minya Governorate, a region with a significant Christian population and a history of sectarian tensions. The cabinet announced a budget of 12 million pounds ($765,000) for the program that would target 44 villages.

Grand Imam El-Tayyeb made multiple public references to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed with Pope Francis in 2019, as a framework for “a world full of prosperity, tolerance, peace, and love.” In a January 18 meeting with a delegation of French Catholic bishops, El-Tayyeb said the document’s principles offered a “safe way out of the problems of the East and West.”

In January, the al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced that in addition to highlighting unity between Muslims and Christians and the concept of citizenship without distinction to religious belief, new textbooks in the 11,000 schools under its purview would include material based upon the principles of the Document on Human Fraternity. In 2019, the committee announced the introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff of approximately 100 individuals monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the al-Azhar International Academy, also continued to offer courses to imams and preachers in 20 countries on a wide range of subjects related to Islam. Al-Azhar largely curtailed travel and in-person training during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to offer training virtually.

In a June 28 meeting with his cabinet, President al-Sisi urged “giving the highest priority to spreading awareness among students of the principles of all religions, including freedom of belief, tolerance and acceptance of differences.” On October 21, after images of the Prophet Mohammed that Muslims widely considered blasphemous were published and displayed in France, the President gave an address to commemorate the Prophet’s birthday during which he said freedom of expression should have limits if it offended more than 1.5 billion people. Al-Sisi said, “We also have rights. We have the right for our feelings not to be hurt and for our values not to be hurt,” adding that he firmly rejected any form of violence in the name of defending religion, religious symbols, or icons.

While the constitution declares al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion pounds ($1.02 billion).

Dar al-Iftaa and al-Azhar issued several fatwas and statements permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays, to assist non-Muslims in need, and to “stop using [religious] beliefs as means to harm or diminish others.” On April 18, Grand Imam El-Tayyeb congratulated Christians on Easter Sunday, stressing the bond of “brotherhood and love” between the country’s Muslims and Christians and highlighting that Christians were “good people (who) set the most wonderful example of solidarity and cohesion in critical moments, especially during this pandemic.”

On May 14, Dar al-Iftaa issued a fatwa stating that it is permissible for Muslims to give zakat (religiously mandated charitable donations) to non-Muslims in need of treatment for COVID-19 or other diseases or to meet any other material needs.

On June 16, Dar al-Iftaa issued a series of statements on social media following the death due to suicide of Sarah Hegazy, an Egyptian lesbian activist, writer, and reported atheist. Dar al-Iftaa wrote that “all heavenly religions” prohibit homosexuality and that atheism was an “intellectual problem” and a “psychological disease” requiring treatment. However, the statement continued, Muslims claiming “with full certainty” that a person “will never enter paradise” were “absolutely wrong, because such judgement of who goes to heaven and who does not is up to Allah.”

Following a government investment of 60 million pounds ($3.82 million), on January 10, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MOTA) reopened the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue in Alexandria. Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled al-Anani noted in his remarks at the opening ceremony that “the opening of the Jewish synagogue in Alexandria after its restoration is a message to the world that the Egyptian government cares about the Egyptian heritage of all religions.” On February 14, the government sent a representative to a rededication ceremony of the synagogue honoring 174 members of the diaspora Jewish community from approximately a dozen countries.

On July 20, the government demolished several Islamic cemeteries it said dated from the early 20th century as part of a roadworks project, but denied reports that it had demolished parts of Cairo’s oldest Islamic cemetery, the Mamluk Desert Cemetery. Activists asserted that the tombs were part of the country’s Islamic heritage and that the cost of moving the graves was prohibitive for the families of the deceased.

On January 27 and 28, under the auspices of President al-Sisi, al-Azhar held the International Conference on the Renovation of Islamic Thought attended by Muslim scholars from 47 countries. Al-Azhar announced the opening of a new center for the renewal of Islamic thought during the conference. In remarks made on behalf of President al-Sisi, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly urged the acceleration of reforming religious discourse, stressed the importance of countering “bogus” messaging and “pretentious” religious scholars who “hijack the minds of youth,” and called for practical solutions to the problems that divide Muslims. Al-Azhar Grand Imam El-Tayyeb criticized extremist religious thought and what he labeled as distorted and mocking images of Islam in the West. In an accompanying panel discussion, El-Tayyeb and Cairo University president Mohammed al-Khost presented contrasting views of the nature of possible reforms. Khost called for revisiting and revising sharia and the hadith for a modern world, while El-Tayyeb said that Muslims should build on, not abandon, Islamic tradition and attributed extremism in the Islamic world to politics, not to religious heritage.

A columnist in the government-owned newspaper Al-Youm7 wrote that the conference showed that the leaders of al-Azhar were “not concerned with the issue of renewing thought and enlightenment, but rather … in preserving the heritage that enables them to keep their great privileges in power and [to] collect the spoils and remain in the spotlight, using religion as a vehicle.” Former Minister of Culture and public intellectual Gaber Asfour told international press that “The current leadership of al-Azhar does not believe in renewal and is comfortable with the way things are.”

In July, press reported that al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars released a letter it had sent to the parliamentary speaker in February that rejected, on constitutional grounds, a proposed law drafted by the government that would have changed the status of the Dar al-Iftaa and the Grand Mufti, making them independent of al-Azhar. Sources told the press that the main objective of the proposed law was to create a parallel entity to al-Azhar, under the direct control of the government. The draft legislation, introduced in parliament in August, would have granted the President the right to appoint the Mufti. The State Council ruled the draft law was unconstitutional and returned it to parliament where the Religious Affairs Committee withdrew it from further consideration. After the decision to withdraw the bill, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb said that the decision to withdraw the bill demonstrated that the country continued to respect its constitution and appreciate its national institutions, including al-Azhar.

On June 22, the Ministry of Awqaf announced the formation of a committee “to counter extremist ideology.” The ministry said the committee was tasked with developing plans to confront extremist thought among ministry preachers and employees.

In 2019, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country, and that in the future, only mosques that complied with approved designs would be granted construction permits. Implementation of the new directive was pending at year’s end.

In 2019, the state-run University of Alexandria and the state-run University of Damanhour established centers of Coptic studies in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes include courses on the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art. The center at the University of Alexandria first began accepting applications in 2019. On March 4, the state-run Zagazig University and the Institute of Coptic Studies in Cairo signed an agreement for institutional cooperation in the fields of art, education, music, and the sciences. The agreement allows for an exchange of library services and publications and jointly held academic conferences.

On July 13, the Cairo Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 lower court ruling granting a Christian woman equal distribution of inheritance with her male siblings and declaring that the case was subject to Christian customary laws of inheritance rather than Islamic law.

On October 15, representatives from the Coptic Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic churches submitted a draft unified personal status law to the cabinet, covering such issues as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. In December, senior Coptic Orthodox Church representatives and the press announced that the cabinet had concluded its review of the draft law, which, according to press reports, incorporates and regulates personal status matters that the churches hold in common, while retaining articles specific to the doctrinal teachings of the three denominations.

On February 20, Grand Mufti Shawki Allam met with the World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, in the council’s Ecumenical Center in Geneva to discuss promotion of interreligious dialogue and combating extremism.

In January, Mohammed Fayek, president of the National Council for Human Rights, called on parliament to approve two draft laws on equal opportunity and preventing discrimination and to establish the constitutionally mandated independent commission to eliminate all forms of discrimination.

On July 21, Prime Minister Madbouly visited the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage site, built in the sixth century. On the occasion of the visit, the government announced that it would allocate 40 million pounds ($2.55 million) to restore and develop the monastery and its neighboring city.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Terrorist groups, including Islamic State-Sinai Peninsula (formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis) among others, conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets in the North Sinai Governorate.

In April, security forces said that a shootout with militants in the Amiriyah neighborhood of Cairo disrupted a plot against Coptic Orthodox Easter.

Press and NGOs reported that a fight broke out between Muslims and Christians in Dabbous in Minya Governorate on October 3 during a Coptic wedding that led to further violence two days later. Police arrested 12 individuals from both sides.

Newspapers reported that a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian homes and a church in the village of al-Barsha in Minya Governorate on November 25 after rumors circulated that a local Christian man had social media posts deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. There was minimal damage and no casualties, and police made multiple arrests of Muslims and Christians.

On January 12 in Cairo, a man attacked a Christian woman with a knife, injuring her neck. According to media reports, the man said he attacked the woman because “she was not covering her hair.” Authorities arrested the attacker and, according to press reports, the prosecutor referred him to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation.

According to an NGO, Mohammed Mahdaly, a sociology professor at the High Institute for Social Service, posted a video on his personal Facebook account that mocked the Prophet Mohammed and was “insulting” to the Quran. A Ministry of Higher Education official told the press that it had suspended the professor and referred the matter for investigation to a committee of professors at the University of Alexandria. The ministry referred Mahdaly’s case to the Public Prosecutor. Mahdaly, who had been experiencing health issues, passed away on December 24.

On May 16, authorities arrested a man after he reportedly threw a Molotov cocktail at the Virgin Mary and the Martyr St. George Church in Alexandria. There were no casualties or property damage. Prosecutors subsequently requested that the man undergo a psychiatric evaluation and said he had previously been under psychiatric care.

While there have been reports of abducted Coptic girls and women, government officials, leaders in the Christian community, and NGOs stated that they were skeptical of the classification of the cases as abductions. In a report released September 10, “Jihad of the Womb:” Trafficking of Coptic Women & Girls in Egypt, the NGO Coptic Solidarity reported on what it described as “the widespread practice of abduction and trafficking of Coptic women and girls…and how they are a particularly vulnerable group.” In March, MRGI reported that there were at least 13 reported cases of abducted Coptic women since October 2019.

Eshhad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction of intercommunal violence in recent years.

The Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR), the country’s media oversight agency, opened an investigation of television personality Radwa al-Sherbini after she said that women who wear the hijab are “100,000 times better than me and non-hijab [wearing] women…” and that “the devil inside women [who do not wear hijabs] is more powerful than their faith and strength.” The SCMR said it had received complaints from the public about the comments, and others criticized Sherbini on social media. One prominent women’s rights advocate said Sherbini’s statements instigated violence against nonveiled women. Sherbini later apologized for her comments.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, according to human rights groups and religious communities.

EIPR continued to call on the authorities to provide persons of unrecognized religious groups the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials, and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. On February 24, Dar al-Iftaa criticized commenters on social media who wrote that Christian cardiac surgeon Magdi Yacoub would not enter heaven due to his faith. In its statement, Dar al-Iftaa said Yacoub “never looked at the religion of those he treated and saved from death but regarded them with compassion, mercy, and humanity.” The Ministry of Awqaf on February 24 suspended well-known al-Azhar cleric Abdullah Rushdy for a post he made on social media that was believed to have targeted Yacoub. Commenting on the controversy, the al-Azhar International Center for Electronic Fatwa urged Egyptians to recognize that “the belief of every human being…is a personal thing between him and his creator, and only Allah will inquire into it.”

In March, Islamic scholar Dr. Haitham Talaat posted a video online in which he said atheists were social outcasts, infidels, and apostates, and were worse than terrorists or armed robbers. Talaat said that engaging in dialogue with atheists could lead to the “inevitable outcome” of suicide.

In a January 24 interview with Russia Today TV, historian Mohammad al-Shafi said Jews benefitted the most from World War II by using the Holocaust to “extort the international community” and that other countries harmed by the war “did not receive booty, nor did they profit like the Jews did.” On April 25, the Israeli Foreign Ministry criticized the Ramadan science fiction television series The End as “unfortunate and unacceptable” for portraying a dystopian future in which “all of the Jews of Israel have returned to their countries of origin.”

A poll of Arab populations conducted between January and March by a Dubai-based public relations firm and involving a team of international experts, indicated that 69 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 – one of the highest results in the region – agreed that religion is “particularly important” to their personal identity.

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C., and released in November, 87 percent of respondents in the country either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” compared with 65 percent or respondents region-wide.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Ambassador, the acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other embassy officials, regularly raised religious freedom concerns. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed attacks on Christians, church legalization and construction, interfaith dialogue, and countering extremist thought with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, governors, the Grand Imam, the Grand Mufti, and the Coptic Orthodox Pope as well as with civil society and minority religious groups. In their meetings with government officials, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly.

Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant and Anglican churches. In these meetings, embassy staff members raised cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations including on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues such as issuance of permits for and new construction of churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the protection and restoration of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites. In February, the Ambassador delivered remarks on religious pluralism during the February rededication of Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in meetings with government officials. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts describing the context of religious freedom that reached 25,306 persons.

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.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces (ISF) remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018 and 2019. In September, a Sunni Muslim parliamentarian from Diyala Province said government-affiliated Shia militia continued to forcibly displace Sunnis in his province, leading to widespread demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS. Christians said the PMF continued to control territory in Christian areas and trade routes in the Ninewa Plain, and militias reportedly coerced Christians to pay bribes to pass through PMF checkpoints. In August, former parliamentarian Kamil al-Ghurawi, a Sunni from Baghdad, accused government-affiliated Shia militia groups of forcibly displacing Sunni residents in al-Madain District on the outskirts of Baghdad and attempting to alter the district’s demography. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, 2,874 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. Representatives of minority religious communities said that despite occasional harassment from local authorities, the central government generally did not interfere with religious observances by members of minority groups.

According to multiple sources in Khanaqin, ISIS attacks in May and June on several Kaka’i villages wounded and killed a total of 13 persons. In June, the director of the Kaka’i-affiliated Chraw Organization for Documentation reported that attacks of this kind were not isolated and were increasing. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced in March that 18 additional mass graves had been discovered throughout the country, marking more than 200 such graves discovered since 2017; they contained victims of al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, with some remains dating back decades. Two additional mass graves were discovered in Sinjar District during the year. In October, forensic teams, with support from the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began the exhumation of the last of 17 mass graves in Kocho and began work at a site at Solagh, known as the “Grave of Mothers,” where ISIS killed dozens of Yezidi women considered too old to be sold into sexual slavery. The Yezidi community in Sinjar District reported in August that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children with the aim of recruiting them in the years since ISIS was defeated in Sinjar in 2015 and that 70 children were still missing.

In July, the Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organization Aid to the Church in Need released a report stating that the country’s Christian community faced “extinction” and that 87 percent of Christians living in the Ninewa Plain reported feeling a lack of security “remarkably” or “very much.” According to media and human rights organizations, societal violence perpetrated by sectarian armed groups, mainly pro-Iran Shia militias, continued, although there were no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Members of non-Muslim minority groups reported abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, including Father Yaqoub al-Saedy of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Father Bihnam Banoqa of the Syriac Catholic Church, both located in Bartella, and said they received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade. Interreligious entities, including the Masarat Foundation and the Iraqi Institute for Diversity, continued their work to promote respect for the country’s religious diversity, including through contributions of information on religious minority groups to school textbooks.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The bilateral strategic dialogue held in Washington, D.C. in August provided additional opportunities to highlight the need for outreach to the country’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of members of religious minority groups. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for these communities and to assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics – the most recent available – 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

According to Christian leaders as well as NGO and media reports, fewer than 250,000 Christians remain in the country, down from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Anglican, and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice secretly.

Yezidi leaders continue to report that most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, with approximately 200,000 to 230,000 remaining displaced as of October 2020. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk as well as in Diyala and Erbil. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary, but according to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 to 15,000 members remain in Iraq, mainly in the south, with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians, both Armenian Apostolic Church (Armenian Orthodox) and Armenian Catholic. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.

There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are approximately 80 Jewish families, according to the KRG international advocacy coordinator, although some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) and NGO sources, and the number could be higher. According to the KRG MERA, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR. Zoroastrian sources report there are approximately 20,000 to 25,000 Zoroastrians in the country.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), approximately 1.2 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Ninewa, Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kirkuk Governorates, compared with 1.5 million persons at the end of 2019. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center, there are approximately 700,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the IKR. Forty percent of IDPs throughout the country are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurds (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.

According to the IOM, there were more than 205,000 IDPs in camps and approximately 104,000 in critical shelters throughout the country at year’s end.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state and a “foundational source” of legislation. It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, specifying Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans; it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. The KRG, however, does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion, while in other parts of the country the law generally is not enforced.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions. The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and they require the administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape. Civil status law allows all non-Muslim women who are identified in their official documents as non-Muslims to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and are registered with the government: Muslims, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Assyrian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholics, Roman Catholics, National Protestants, Anglicans, Evangelical Protestant Assyrians, Seventh-day Adventists, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandeans, and Jews. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions, such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups in the country, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country: the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan. The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

The law does not specify penalties for the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Yarsanism; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

Outside the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA. To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not “anti-Islam.” Eight faiths are recognized and registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

According to the KRG MERA’s Directorate of Christian Affairs, there are 11 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the IKR, several with multiple branches: Nahda al-Qadassa, Nasari Evangelical, Kurd-Zaman, Ashti Evangelical, Evangelical Free, Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd, al-Tasbih International Evangelical, Rasolia, the United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist groups.

In the IKR, to register with the KRG MERA, private schools need to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance and to undergo an inspection.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis but not for the other five registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (26 cents) for such crimes.

Government regulations require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students are not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christians, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac – typically spoken by Christians – and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 49 Syriac- and 18 Turkoman-language schools.

The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and charitable donations. Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith. The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court. In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between members of the same religion while the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information, and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim. There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslims, or a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian. Without an official identity card, one may not register a marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.

By law, children with one parent who converts to Islam must be listed as Muslim on the application for the national identity card, even if the other parent is of another religion.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion.

The constitution guarantees the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

IKR law forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The antiterrorism law defines terrorism as “every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.” Anyone found guilty under this law may be sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of having ISIS links. In July, parliamentarian and member of the Security and Defense Committee Mohammed al-Karbuli criticized the “random arrests of Sunnis in areas north of Baghdad.” Al-Karbuli said, “The security forces returned to committing past’s mistakes by arresting innocent people and terrorizing them.” According to al-Karbuli, more than 50 young Sunni men were arrested in those areas “in a humiliating manner and with false accusations.”

Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the PMF, a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS. According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some operating under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. In October, Salah al-Din Province Police Commander Major General Qandil al-Jabouri said police had found eight bodies belonging to residents of al-Farhatiyeh Subdistrict of Balad District in Salah al-Din Province, out of 12 civilians who were kidnapped by an unidentified armed force; the whereabouts of the other four was unknown. According to the families of the victims, the 42nd Brigade of the PMF, tied to U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), was responsible for the killings and kidnappings.

In December, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein stated that the country’s security situation had improved compared with previous years and that the government was making great efforts to return IDPs to their places of origin and to create a safe environment for them.

In September, parliamentarian Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of continued forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala by PMF forces or associated militias. Al-Dahlaki stated that government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in widespread demographic change along the border with Iran. Sunni parliamentarian Nahida al-Daini, also of Diyala Province, reported similar acts of intimidation.

Sources said some government officials continued to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartella Subdistrict, and Sunni areas in Diyala Province and Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District. According to parliamentarian Rihan Hanna, a Christian from Kirkuk, the Iran-aligned Shabak PMF and the 50th (Babylon) PMF Brigades were making demographic changes by facilitating and giving permission to Arab and Shabak Shia to move into Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, while Christians refused to return to the area because they feared these forces. In August, former parliamentarian Kamil al-Ghurawi, a Sunni from Baghdad, accused government-affiliated Shia militia groups of forcibly displacing Sunni residents in the al-Madain District on the outskirts of Baghdad in order to make the district majority Shia.

In October, the administrator of the minorities’ portfolio of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, Ammar Polos, said the forcible return of displaced Christians in Baghdad’s Virgin Mary camp to the old city of Mosul, where their homes remain demolished and uninhabitable, amounted to a second displacement for Christians, adding, “We will not tolerate this measure.” Also in October, Christian parliamentarian Yonadum Kanna said he rejected the forced return of IDPs, considering it another displacement, especially in the absence of the government’s capabilities to reconstruct the IDPs’ destroyed homes and the state’s inability to provide employment opportunities and a decent standard of living for the IDPs.

Representatives of minority religious groups continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities.

Christians continued to report abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the Shabak Shia-backed 30th Brigade in Bartella, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. The AAH reportedly was building an office in Bartella, while the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf reportedly controlled the local real estate market, selling land to non-Christians from outside the district, granting questionable security approvals, and taking bribes. The 30th Brigade also reportedly controlled trade routes in the Ninewa Plain through checkpoints, forcing Christian merchants to pay bribes to gain access. According to Father Behnam Benoka of the Syriac Catholic Church in the Bartella Subdistrict, on February 14, gunshots were heard near the construction site of the AAH office, after which the AAH closed the road in the area, inhabited mostly by Christians, and started investigating Christian families in the area. According to some of the families, AAH members were behind the shooting and sought to frighten Christians and convince them to leave the area.

According to Father Benoka, in July, four Christian women reported that Bartella’s police commander, Ghazwan Ali Qasim (Arab Sunni), attempted to coerce them into prostitution based on their difficult economic situations. Benoka added that although the community had raised complaints about Qasim’s conduct many times, the commander had been “promoted instead of being punished.” According to Father Yaqob Saedy of the Syriac Orthodox Church, 30th PMF Brigade members assaulted two Christians in July when the pair tried to pass through Bartella’s main checkpoint. Following an argument, Shabak PMF members forced the two Christians out of their car and beat them.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartella and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartella said the brigade’s actions threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias continued to post pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani, as well as of Iraqi militia leaders, such as AAH Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Chief of Staff Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on shops in Bartella. They also stated that the 30th Brigade continued to disregard 2019 government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak members threatened priests, including Father Banoqa and Father al-Saedy, both in Bartella, on social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the 30th Brigade. According to al-Saedy, “some parties” in the Ninewa Plain were trying to change the demography of the traditionally Christian city. Although al-Saedy did not specify which group, his statement drew condemnation from members of the Shabak community.

In August, Shia Shabaks raised Shia ritual banners in front of a historic church in Karmles Town, which Christians said was an act of provocation. Local sources said that as of year’s end, two of six Shabak Sunni families had returned home after having left their homes in Bashiqa District in 2019 because the 30th Brigade had verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their land.

Yezidi community leaders continued to report that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. According to Yezidi journalist Khudar Domli, “What ISIS did to them by force, this [National Card] Act does by law.” The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered a member of the community. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community. Some of the women preferred to stay in the camps’ harsh environment with their children rather than leave them behind.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, after the Zoroastrian NGO Yasna opened a branch in Duhokin, Salafist Islamist groups criticized the Zoroastrian religion’s practices and beliefs. According to one Zoroastrian representative, Zoroastrians in the IKR received death threats on social media from Salafists, who accused the Zoroastrian community of infidelity and incest. Zoroastrian leaders also reported that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by members of unrecognized religious minority groups due to the country’s constitution and its personal status law.

During the year, the NGOs CAPNI for Humanitarian Aids in Iraq (CAPNI) and Hammurabi Human Rights Organization sought amendments to the national identification card law that requires minor children to be listed as Muslim on the identification application form if one parent converted to Islam. The NGOs said the law was a “flagrant violation” of the rights on non-Muslims in the country. During a conference in December, CAPNI representatives said non-Muslim religious groups requested the government amend the national identity card law so that minor children would continue to follow the original religion of their parents before one parent converted to Islam until they became adults and could decide for themselves.

According to Christian leaders, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith continued to be forced to either register their children as Muslims or to have the children remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented affected the family’s eligibility for government benefits, such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depend on family size. Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Throughout the year, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam said he continued to resist political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue land grants in Hamdaniya, Ninewa Province, to the families (mostly Shia Muslim) of PMF victims who fought ISIS.

The committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders created in 2019 by the OPM to return all Christian properties in Ninewa Province to their Christian owners continued to operate. During the year, the committee returned dozens of houses to their Christian owners. According to Christian parliamentarians, there was no similar committee to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian parliamentarian Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders continued to work individually to help Christians return to their homes. During the year, he managed to return fewer than 10 homes to their original occupants, compared with 180 homes returned in 2019. According to Kanna, during the year, he received fewer complaints from Christians because the security situation had significantly improved following the defeat of ISIS. He also said there were also fewer complaints of confiscated homes being occupied by someone other than the original occupant. Kanna said he had worked with the Higher Judicial Council to place restrictions on selling or buying real estate owned by Christians, making it more difficult for militias or others to use falsified documents to assume ownership of Christian properties. In November, unknown gunmen attacked a lawyer working with the Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad working to return houses to members of the Christian community.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported 2,874 Yezidis, mainly women and children, were still missing both inside and outside the country, compared with up to 3,000 reported missing in 2019. According to the Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, during the 2014-2020 period, approximately 100,000 Yezidis left the country, mostly moving to Germany and others to Turkey, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, the United States, Australia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Approximately 62 Christians also remained missing, compared with 150 in 2019. According to the KRG MERA, as of September 5, more than 3,543 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or released from ISIS captivity since 2014, compared with 2,500 through 2019. According to Shabak parliamentarian Qusay Abass (Ninewa, Shia) via a media statement in August, 233 Shabak individuals kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 were still missing. According to Ninewa Governorate’s Advisor for Women’s Affairs Sukina Ali (Shia Turkoman of Ninewa), 900 Shia and Sunni Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS were still missing at year’s end.

According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported that Shia militias and the Shia Endowment confiscated properties owned by the Sunni Endowments in Diyala and Ninewa Provinces, leading to sectarian tensions in those provinces. According to Sunni Endowment representatives, the Shia Endowment confiscated a shrine and cemetery in Baquba District in Diyala, while Shia militias, including AAH, Badr, and Khurasani, turned Sunni mosques into PMF headquarters in other Sunni areas in the province. In Ninewa, the Sunni Endowment reported that the Shia Endowment worked secretly to confiscate properties owned by the Sunni Endowment in Mosul by using false documents or claiming Shia Endowment jurisdiction over the properties based on some of the shrines and mosques bearing Shia religious names.

Some militias in Ninewa drew their ranks from local Yezidis and Christians but were subordinate to larger organizations – the PKK in the case of the YBS (Sinjar Resistance Units), for example, and larger Iran-aligned militias in the cases of the 30th and 50th Brigades. According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some received support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG. Representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean parliamentarians, stated they needed to have a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities. Others asked to join regular law enforcement units, but by year’s end, none had because the government had not implemented a recruitment process.

NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. During the year, however, there were again no court challenges filed to invalidate the laws, and no legislation proposed to repeal them.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Followers of recognized religious groups, including Baha’is (recognized only in the KRG) and Yezidis (recognized by both the central government and the KRG), reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation. Provincial governments also continued to designate festivals as religious holidays in their localities.

According to the Syriac Orthodox Parish of Mosul, in October, following a Ninewa court decision, Bishop Necodemos Dawod Sharf received 23 Syriac-language manuscripts that ISIS had stolen from the Tahera Church in the old city of Mosul. The manuscripts were part of a larger group of ancient manuscripts stolen in 2014.

In October, Yezidi NGOs in Sinjar reported that the PKK had seized control of local schools, transforming them into military camps and PKK indoctrination centers. In October, the Kurdish Directorate Deputy Manager in Sinjar, Shahab Ahmed, told media that the PKK had taken over a primary school in Sinjar City and transformed it into a military camp. Shahab said the PKK refused to leave the school and that his directorate had asked authorities in Ninewa to intercede. Despite the requests, the PKK refused to vacate these schools through year’s end.

The KRG Council of Ministers issued an executive order establishing a high committee with representatives from the IKP, IKR Presidency, KRG Judicial Council, KRG Ministries of Justice, Agriculture, Municipality, and Finance, and the head of IKR’s Independent Human Rights Commission to resolve outstanding land disputes affecting Christian communities. According to committee members, by year’s end, the committee had not taken any concrete steps.

In November, Christian sources reported the ISF had seized Christians’ houses in Talkayf District, Ninewa Province, and repurposed them as military barracks. The sources also reported that the ISF continued to use a youth center as a jail for ISIS prisoners in Talkayf, intimidating Christians in the district. In November, Mayor of Talkayf District Bassim Balo said civilians were concerned about the possibility that ISIS forces might attempt to break into the jail and free the ISIS detainees. He said some Christians had decided to leave the area because of ISF searches and restrictions of movement on residents in the area. According to Balo, the ISF used many houses belonging to Christians without compensating the residents.

Some non-Muslim students reported pressure from instructors and classmates to participate in Islamic education classes, even though they were not required to take part. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and the lack of religious minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students. The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which were intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum in these schools did not contain religious or Quranic studies. During the year, minority NGOs along with the NGO Minority Alliance Network held numerous seminars and workshops to discuss education curriculum reform in IKR schools, recommending amendments to the current curriculum to emphasize religious minority rights.

In July, KRG State Minister for Component (Minority) Affairs Ayden Maroof announced the KRG Education Ministry was working on new curricula covering the history of religious and ethnic minority groups to be included in IKR history textbooks. According to Maroof, the adoption of the new curricula followed the KRG Prime Minister’s decision in July to embrace diversity and to challenge false stereotypes in IKR society.

In June, the head of the interreligious Masarat Foundation for Cultural and Media Development, Saad Salloum, announced the launch of a special curriculum for understanding different religions in the country, to be taught through the Iraqi Institute for Diversity. Religions included in the curriculum are Christianity, Yazidism, Sabean-Mandeanism, Judaism, the Baha’i Faith, Zoroastrianism, and Kaka’ism. According to the foundation, which includes both governmental and nongovernmental representatives, the curriculum would be used to instruct religious leaders, clerics, journalists, and university professors on the country’s diverse religions and the need to respect all faith traditions.

In September, the Ministry of Education allocated five billion dinars ($3.4 million) to build new schools in majority-Yezidi Sinjar District and to develop the district’s education sector.

According to a representative of the Yezidi NGO Yazda, KRG authorities continued to discriminate against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country. In October, Yazda representative Jameel Shumar said Yezidi faced difficulties if they self-identified as Yezidis rather than Kurdish Yezidis, especially at IKR checkpoints. He said Yezidi politicians known for considering Yezidis a separate group from the Kurds were not allowed to enter the IKR.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and the renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities. The KRG MERA finished building the St. Peter and Paul Chaldean Church in Ankawa near Erbil and handed it over to the Chaldean Archdiocese in 2017. Restoration of the Syriac Orthodox Um al-Nour Church in Erbil continued through year’s end.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minority groups, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous three years. Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’is and Sabean-Mandeans, continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government – among them Minister of Displacement and Migration Evan Faiq Jabro, a Christian from Basra Province, and KRG Minister of Transportation Communication Ano Abdoka, a Syriac Orthodox Christian from Ankawa. Several KRG district and subdistrict mayoral positions were reserved for members of religious minority groups, in particular for Yezidis and Christians. Minority leaders, however, said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, and that the overall underrepresentation limited members of minority groups’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. In December, Christian parliamentarian Yonadam Kanna said Christians in the country were marginalized and not given high-ranking positions. In May, parliamentarian Nawfal al-Nashi said Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi had marginalized minority groups when he formed his cabinet. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.

Although the IKP had 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law did not restrict who could vote in quota seat races. Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority populations said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the minority quota seats and diluted the voice of members of minority groups in government, while others opposed restricting who could vote in quota seat races. Christian parliamentarians Rehan Hana and Yonadam Kanna supported restricting quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity, while Christian parliamentarians affiliated with Shia political coalition parties drawing votes from Shia-majority provinces opposed imposing restrictions.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as PMF “taxation” on goods transported from Erbil or Mosul into the Ninewa Plain. Sabean-Mandeans, Yezidis, and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits, despite receiving permits. The ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol. Community sources reported the continuing practice of Muslim businessmen using Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

In October, unknown individuals bombed a Christian-owned liquor store in Baghdad. According to local residents, the attackers were PMF-associated militia members who may have attacked the store after its owners refused to pay bribes.

Kaka’i community members said the central government’s Shia Endowment continued to occupy places of Kaka’i worship in Diyala and Baghdad, converting them into Shia mosques. In 2019, the Shia Endowment seized the Kaka’i House of Worship Baba Mahmud in Khanaqin District, Dyala Province, stating that Baba Mahmud was one of the Shia Imam Ali’s sons and therefore, the place of worship should be under the Shia Endowment’s control. According to Kaka’i representatives, the government did not respond to their request for the return of the Baba Mahmud House of Worship and because there was no endowment for the Kaka’i, the group had no legal recourse. Kaka’i representatives also reported that the Sunni Endowment continued to occupy Kaka’i houses of worship in Kirkuk.

In October, the central government and KRG reached an agreement on cooperation with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) on a framework for the security and political administration of Sinjar District as well as a pledge of future reconstruction and development efforts. According to Yezidi parliamentarian Saeb Khudur, the agreement, although criticized by members of the Yezidi community for not having involved Yezidis in the negotiations, included many longstanding Yezidi requests, including providing a framework for appointing a mayor, the removal of the PKK from the district, and the recruitment of 2,500 Yezidi local police. The United Nations and several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, and Jordan, among others, stressed that for implementation to succeed, diverse sections of the Yezidi community, as well as others in Sinjar, needed be included in discussions on implementation. Yezidi leaders said they were particularly apprehensive about what removal of the PKK would entail, given the membership of several thousand Yezidis in the PKK-affiliated YBS.

Based on local media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide that ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place on August 3 for the third consecutive year. On August 3, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani issued a statement on the sixth anniversary of the genocide against the Yezidis, calling on “all parties to reconstruct Sinjar, normalize the conditions in the city, and to ensure that they are free of any foreign armed forces or militias,” adding, “The security and stability of the region should be protected in coordination between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government.” Barzani stated, “The efforts of the Kurdistan Regional Government are still ongoing in order to liberate the remaining kidnapped Yezidis,” and he called on “the federal government to work to compensate and assist the displaced Yezidis.”

In October, Yezidi parliamentarian Khaleda Khalel of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) submitted a bill to the Iraqi COR presidency to recognize the 2014 Yezidi genocide, stating that the law would compel the government to take responsibility for the victims, strengthen accountability for those who committed crimes against humanity, and provide psychological and medical care as well as reparations to the victims and survivors of ISIS crimes.

According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

In September, the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs announced the first Zoroastrian temple would soon open in Erbil. According to a community source, the temple, supported by Yasna and located in a Yasna-run facility, was opened in December with the participation of Zoroastrian worshipers and a representative from KRG MERA in attendance.

In August, as part of an initiative to encourage minority religious groups to remain in the country, Prime Minister Kadhimi called on Christian emigres to return to the country. Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.

On November 14, Ammar Hakim, a politician and cleric as well as the head of the National Wisdom Movement, a coalition of political parties, said Christians were an important part of the country and emphasized the need to support Christians and others who suffered because of ISIS, including IDPs in the Ninewa Plain. On December 19, Hakim called for justice for Yezidis and the reconstruction of their cities.

The Central Post Office, under the authority of the Ministry of Communications, issued a set of postage stamps in October celebrating churches in Baghdad and their history. The stamps were designed by the Christian Endowment and printed at the Central Post Office. The issuance was part of an initiative by the Ministry of Communication to document the religious diversity of Iraqi society.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were continued reports of societal violence by sectarian armed groups across the country, but no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country continued to improve, reports of societal violence, mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias, continued. Members of non-Muslim minority groups reported abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Shia religious and government leaders continued to urge PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses. In November, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNAMI, told the UN Security Council during a videoconference that she was encouraged by improvements in the security situation in the country, with dramatically reduced levels of violence. She said that notwithstanding the improvements, forced disappearances and killings continued, and there was still a pressing need for justice and accountability.

In August, security forces reported that unidentified individuals set fire to a house belonging to a Kaka’i family in the Arab village of Kewey, in Kirkuk. No causalities were reported. Kaka’is said they believed the arson was the result of an Arab-Kaka’i land dispute.

On November 14, al-Abbas Combat Division, one of the brigades of the “PMF of the Shia Marjaiya in Najaf,” announced it had organized an aid campaign for Yezidis living in Ninewa Province.

On November 18, Yezidi Prince Hazim Tahseen Beg named Ali Elias Hajj as the new baba sheikh, following the death of Baba Sheikh Khartu Haki Ismail on October 1. According to some Yezidis, the selection of Ali over Khartu’s son Farhad sparked controversy within the Yezidi community because Farhad reportedly enjoyed widespread support of Yezidi religious, tribal, and community leaders. Yezidis opposed to naming Elias Hajj stated there was undue political influence by the KDP in the selection process.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when these observances coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura. There were continued reports that members of non-Muslim minority groups felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after experiencing continual harassment.

In July, the Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organization Aid to the Church in Need released a report saying that the country’s Christian community faced “extinction.” The report stated that Christians living in the Ninewa Plain reported lack of security, and that 87 percent said they experienced this lack “very much,” or “remarkably.” Almost 70 percent of Christians cited violent local militia activity and the possibility of a return of ISIS as among the main reasons for this fear; 69 percent said these concerns were the primary reason they were considering emigrating. Christians also listed unemployment (70 percent), financial and administrative corruption (51 percent), and religious discrimination (39 percent) at the social level as the major challenges that pushed them to emigrate.

According to media reports, a mob set fire to the Dijla television station in Baghdad after it aired a program featuring music around the Ashura commemoration. A court issued a warrant for the station’s administrative head for “intentionally insulting the rites of a religious sect.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy addressed at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including then Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance. The bilateral Strategic Dialogue held in Washington, D.C. in August provided additional opportunities to highlight the need for outreach to the country’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities.

Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of members of religious minority groups – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist in addressing these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of members of minority groups into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and the embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, the central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, medical supplies, psychosocial support, and other interventions, including for education and livelihoods.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional ministries of education, justice (which includes the functions of the former national Ministry of Human Rights), labor, and social affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of members of religious minority groups and the protection of their rights.

The U.S. government awarded $9 million in small grants directly to seven local faith-based and community organizations in the north of the country for programs that were in progress during the year. In the Ninewa Plain, U.S. government officials or staff worked with an additional 83 local organizations and 17 faith-based organizations to provide assistance with recovery, including livelihoods, health, legal, and social cohesion services to minority communities in the northern part of the country. The U.S. government continued to rebuild critical infrastructure with the aim of restoring essential services, while also rebuilding heavily damaged and destroyed shelters in religious and ethnic minority communities.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Erbil continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address the groups’ concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities.

Jordan

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. It does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their “true” religious beliefs and practices. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In October, the government eased COVID-19-related restrictions, allowing movement on all days of the week except Fridays. The government amended this decision after Muslim worshippers organized small-scale, uncoordinated, nationwide protests about what they viewed as an unfair limit on attendance at Friday prayers. On July 15, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) branch in country, saying the organization had failed to resolve its legal status. The court’s decision did not affect the MB’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which won 10 seats in the November 10 parliamentary election, down from 15 in the previous election. Members of some unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children, and also renewing their residency permits. The government continued to monitor mosque sermons and required that preachers refrain from political commentary and adhere to approved themes and texts

Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism, as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some worshipped in secret due to the social stigma they faced. Some converts reported persistent threats of violence from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor. Religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Some social media users defended interfaith tolerance, with posts condemning content that criticized Christianity, or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. There were instances of anti-Semitism in the press and online. In media commentary, writers made anti-Semitic comments, saying, in one newspaper column, that “Jewish families” had taken over the global economy, and in an online article, “Judaism is a cancer.”

U.S. embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the Minister of Awqaf, Grand Mufti, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of expatriate religious workers and volunteers. Embassy officers also engaged with Muslim scholars, Christian community leaders, and representatives of nonrecognized religious groups to promote interfaith tolerance and dialogue. The embassy supported programs promoting religious tolerance, as well as civil society programs seeking to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population. Some church leaders estimate Christians make up approximately 1.8 percent of the country’s population. Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered as Muslims by the government). According to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS), there is also a small community (consisting of a few families) of Zoroastrians. Most of the approximately one million migrant workers are from Egypt, South and Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia are often Christian or Hindu. There are an estimated 770,000 refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including more than 670,000 Syrians and 100,000 of other nationalities. The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim. Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites,” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion and states the King must be a Muslim. The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and ecclesiastical courts for Christian denominations recognized by the government. According to the General Ifta’ Department, in adjudicating personal status cases, sharia courts follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims; these courts do not recognize converts from Islam to other religions. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy. Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the case of a will that states otherwise. Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution. The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations, before converting a Christian to Islam to make sure the conversion is based on religious conviction and not for purposes of marriage and/or divorce. The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying citizens in a manner that violates their dignity. The penal code criminalizes insulting the Prophet Muhammad, punishable by one to three years imprisonment. The law also provides a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding 20 Jordanian dinars ($28) for anyone who publishes anything that offends religious feelings or beliefs.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.” Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to three years or a fine of up to 200 dinars ($280).

Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register with the government. Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration. If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage. Recognized religious groups may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts. Religious groups may alternatively be registered as “associations.” If so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but they may own property and open bank accounts. They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding. Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax-exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.

Religious groups not recognized as denominations or associations lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff. Individuals may exercise such activities on behalf of the unrecognized group, however. To register as a recognized religious denomination, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine. In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the Prime Minister confers with the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) and the CCL. Although the practice is not explicitly mandated by law, church leaders have stated that the CCL must endorse recognition for new Christian groups prior to the Prime Minister’s approval. To achieve official recognition as denominations, Christian groups must be recommended by the MOI and approved by the cabinet. The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups: the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

An annex to the 2014 Law for Councils of Christian Denominations lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic. In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), were recognized by the MOI as associations, but none have been permitted to establish an ecclesiastical court: the Free Evangelical Church, Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptist Church. The government granted legal status as an association to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

The CCL serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents related to marriage or inheritance. In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries. Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task. Non-recognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.

According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments). Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places (Ministry of Awqaf) manages mosques, appoints imams, pays mosque staff salaries, manages Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizes certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances. Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Ifta’ Department, which issues fatwas.

The government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes for Friday sermons. Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from the Ministry of Awqaf. In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month or given a fine not to exceed 20 dinars ($28).

The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless authorized by an official committee headed by the Grand Mufti in the General Ifta’ Department. This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf, with the rank of Grand Mufti being equal to that of a government minister.

The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or that are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and it imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 dinars ($28,200). The government’s Media Commission regulates the publishing and distribution of all books and media. If the Media Commission deems that passages “violate public norms and values, are religiously offensive, or are insulting” to the King, it can request a court order to prohibit the distribution of the book.

By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out. Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction. The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but which, according to the legal code, includes religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) the right to establish their own schools, provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.” To operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards. The ministry does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship. In several cities, Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity. Private schools, both nonreligious and religious, are open to adherents of all religions.

Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools but is optional for non-Muslims. Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in their final year of high school that includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran. The Islamic religion is an optional subject for secondary education certificate exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum, or for Muslim students following international curricula.

The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other religious communities. According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts. Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts. A personal or family status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court. Per the constitution, matters of the personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities, except for matters of inheritance, when sharia is applied to all persons, regardless of religious affiliation. Such ecclesiastical courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities. According to the law, members of recognized religious groups lacking their own courts may take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court. There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of nonrecognized religious groups. Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.

The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Islamic religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal. The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Islamic religious (ecclesiastical) court. All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.

According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf. Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.

Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status. Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.

According to sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal. If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert to Islam for their marriage to remain legal. If a Christian man converts to Islam while married to a Christian woman, the wife does not need to convert to Islam for the marriage to remain legal. There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of nonrecognized religious groups. Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, may obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination such as the Anglican Church, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father. The Personal Status Law (PSL) stipulates that mothers, regardless of religious background, may retain custody of their children until age 18. Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion. Like citizenship, religion is transmitted only via the father.

In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise. All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to the PSL, which mostly follows Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion. In practice, Christian ecclesiastical courts use sharia-based rules to adjudicate inheritance.

National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records. National identification cards are renewed every 10 years. Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion. Passports are renewed every five years. Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their fathers as their own. Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam to Christianity are not allowed to change their religion on electronic records. Converts from Christianity to Islam must change their religion on their civil documents, such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family), and on electronic records.

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine of 130 parliamentary seats. Christians may not run for additional seats. No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups. The law stipulates that Muslims must hold all parliamentary seats not specifically reserved for Christians. There are no reserved seats for the Druze population. The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office as Muslims.

The National Center for Human Rights, a quasi-independent institution established by law, receives both government and international funding. The Prime Minister nominates its board of trustees, and the King ratifies their appointment by royal decree. The board appointed in 2019 includes Islamists, former ministers, former judges, members of parliament, religious leaders, and civil society representatives.

Political parties may not be formed on the basis of religion.

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

Government Practices

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as some instances of surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits. Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials. Because of the sharia ban on conversion, government officials generally refused to change the religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion. Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

During the year, the government Media Commission banned distribution of 20 books for insulting religion as well as displaying pornographic images and promoting homosexuality.

Members of religious groups unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the MOJ. The chief of the OSJ continued to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce. The OSJ continued to enforce the interview requirement for converts to Islam, introduced in 2017, to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.

In March, as part of its COVID-19 response and prevention measures, the government ordered comprehensive lockdowns on Fridays and Saturdays. In October, the government eased the lockdown restrictions to Fridays only, allowing movement every other day of the week. On the day after that announcement, in response to the change, Muslim worshipers organized small-scale, uncoordinated, protests across the country. Protesters stated they viewed the decision as unfairly limiting religious services for Muslims, who attend prayers on Friday. Subsequently, the government amended its decision, lifting the lockdown for one hour on Fridays and allowing worshipers to commute to their local mosques by foot. Churches reported they continued to meet online and in-person.

The Ministry of Awqaf continued to monitor sermons at mosques and required that preachers refrain from political commentary. Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons. Imams violating these rules risked being fined or banned from preaching. Unofficial mosques continued to operate outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, and imams outside of government employment preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision. Ministry of Awqaf investigations uncovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year. In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam. Friday prayers in major cities were consolidated into central mosques, over which the Ministry of Awqaf had more oversight, continuing a process that began in 2018. The Ministry of Awqaf allowed smaller mosques to continue Friday sermons along with their areas’ central mosque.

During the year, expatriate religious volunteers from the evangelical Christian community continued to report bureaucratic delays in the renewal of residency permits. In 2018 the government began enforcing a new residency policy to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency. Observers suggested that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims. Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the MOI and a letter of sponsorship from the church. Volunteers were required to obtain additional approvals, including from the Ministry of Labor, lengthening the average renewal process by several months, according to church officials. Some expatriate religious volunteers reported the government refused to grant residency permission, forcing them to depart the country.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to privately practice their religion and included them in interfaith events. Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security. The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim. In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in family books and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school. The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees that sometimes amounted to more than 500 dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five dinars ($7) through religious courts.

There continued to be two recognized cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government. Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is. In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process that created a large financial burden. Baha’i leaders said they were using the civil courts to challenge their group’s property registration restrictions. The Baha’i community’s request for religious exemptions for property registration fees remained pending.

The government continued to deny official recognition to other religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals and they were able to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

Security forces were largely diverted to COVID-19 response and prevention measures, and the nationwide ban on large gatherings negated any need for enhanced security or protection for Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, unlike in previous years.

Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, continued to serve in parliament and as cabinet ministers. Christians served as deputy prime minister, cabinet ministers, senators, and ambassadors. The cabinet appointed in October 2020 included one Druze member and two Christian members, unchanged from the previous cabinet.

The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze. Druze continued to report discrimination hindered their coreligionists from reaching high positions in government civil service and official departments.

On July 15, the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court, dissolved the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) legal identity, according to the AFP, saying the organization had failed to resolve its legal status. Authorities shut down the Brotherhood’s headquarters and several offices in 2016 and transferred ownership of the property to a government-authorized offshoot, which claimed to have severed ties with the broader movement. In 2019, the court ruled the original group be dissolved on the grounds it did not renew its license as required by the law. Sheikh Hamza Mansur, head of the MB’s ruling council, said his group would appeal the decision. The court’s decision did not affect the MB’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which won 10 seats in the November 10 parliamentary election, down from 15 in the previous election.

The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion. Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.

The national school curriculum, including materials on tolerance education, did not mention the Holocaust, but some private schools included it in their curricula.

Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for disrupting public order if they proselytized Muslims. Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks, according to multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations.

In a March 8 program on Yarmouk TV, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Ahmad al-Shahrouri, a professor of sharia at the public Al-Zaytoonah University and also the imam of the university’s mosque, said that the Jews were more dangerous than coronavirus, AIDS, cholera, and every disease in the world.

The government deemed some children, including children of unmarried women or interfaith marriages involving a Muslim woman and converts from Islam to another religion, “illegitimate” and denied them standard registration. The government issued these children, as well as orphans, special national identification numbers, which made it difficult for these children to attend school, access health services, or receive other documentation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation, from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members. Some reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts, while others reported persistent threats of violence from family members protecting traditional honor. According to international NGOs, female converts from Islam were particularly vulnerable to harassment. Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and persons in interfaith romantic relationships; the latter continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward those involved. Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence. Converts from Christianity to Islam also reported social stigma from their families and Christian society. Nonbelievers reported societal intolerance and discrimination.

Religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech, frequently through social media, directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation. One NGO reported increased online hate speech towards the Christian community in direct response to radio and internet broadcasts of Christian services. Religious broadcasts were an alternative to regular in-person services, which were not allowed under comprehensive lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same NGO reported some negative responses to the presence of an Orthodox bishop during televised, and widely viewed, COVID-19 updates from the government. NGO sources said the negative responses were the reactions of Muslims to their first real exposure to Christianity.

Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions. Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance. Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.

Observers reported friction between Christian denominations on the CCL and evangelical churches not recognized by the government. Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches said there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services. Members of the evangelical community said that some CCL leaders applied pressure on the government to not recognize evangelical churches in the country.

In an article posted in March on the website Al-Awai News, Kafa al-Zou’bi, a journalist and author, stated that “Judaism is a cancer that has harmed humanity since the dawn of civilized history” and that “capitalism could have been less barbaric had it not been anchored in the sources of Jewish philosophy.” In his July 11 column in the newspaper Al-Dustour, Abd al-Hamid al-Hamshari wrote that “Jewish families” took over the global economy in order to subordinate the world to the Zionist movement, and that the Rothschild family ordered the assassinations of U.S. presidents Lincoln and Kennedy because they threatened its economic interests.

In a September 15 television interview with a Lebanese channel, former Minister of Health and Deputy Prime Minister Mamdouh al-Abbadi said that neither the UAE nor Bahrain were familiar with Israel, which they had recently recognized and that the Jews were only “Shylocks” who were interested in Gulf money.

On a January 27 show on Yarmouk TV, host Omar Ayasra said the story of the Holocaust was not about massacres, crimes against humanity, and anti-Semitism but a story used by Israel to promote itself and to extort the West to garner sympathy and support. In the same program, he criticized the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League for his visit to Auschwitz earlier in the month.

In a November 3 post on social media, Abu Qatada al-Filastini recommended that his followers read Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Hitler’s Mein Kampf if they wished to understand modern political history. Abu Qatada said the texts had been misrepresented due to a “propaganda campaign against them run by the Jews, as well as by their negative reputation among the public.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 79 percent of Jordanian respondents either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” compared with 65 percent of the broader Arab world. On a separate question, 73 percent of those polled strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “The government has no right to use religion to win support for its policies,” compared with 71 percent of others in the region.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 20 percent of Jordan’s citizens aged 18-24 agreed religion was “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers, including the Ambassador, continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the Minister of Awqaf, Grand Mufti, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to advocate for the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of expatriate religious workers and volunteers.

Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, expatriate religious volunteers, and interfaith institutions, such as RIIFS and the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.

The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and understanding. The embassy continued to advise the government’s Baptism Site Commission on its efforts to increase revenue from religiously-based tourism, create jobs, preserve the country’s religious heritage, and highlight religious pluralism. The embassy used social media to promote religious tolerance and mark religious holidays, including through posting video messages.

Lebanon

Executive Summary

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a provision amended by the Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated proportional representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the cabinet, and other senior government positions. On March 9, President Michel Aoun publicly expressed support for a unified personal status law as part of the civil code to replace current personal status laws, which are based on religious affiliation, but no legislation was drafted or considered. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) questioned journalist and activist Nidal Ayoub on January 7 in relation to posters she carried during protests with slogans such as “God is great but the revolution is greater.” Authorities released Ayoub after questioning. On June 23, the Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor of the Appeals Court pressed charges against anti-Hizballah Shia cleric Sayyed Ali al-Amine, accusing him of “attacking the resistance and its martyrs,” “inciting strife among sects,” “violating the legal rules of the Shia sect,” and for meeting with Israeli officials at a conference in Bahrain. Authorities postponed al-Amine’s hearing until January 15, 2021. On November 13, a young man attacked the muezzin of the Sultan Abdel Majid bin Adham mosque in Jbeil, prompting condemnation from across the religious and political spectrum. Authorities detained the attacker the same day. On April 16, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Military Intelligence Bureau detained activist Michel Chamoun for posting a video in which he criticized Maronite Patriarch Rai. Authorities later released Chamoun after the Patriarch said he did not want the matter pursued. Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and unrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.

Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over some territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut, parts of the Bekaa valley, and southern areas of the country, which are predominantly Shia Muslim. Hizballah supporters clashed with other Shia groups, including members of the Amal Movement, and with Sunnis in Loubye, Nabaa, and Khalde around the Ashura holiday over the hanging of banners, resulting in three deaths and multiple injuries. In a June 18 report, Teaching Antisemitism and Terrorism in Hezbollah Schools, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that textbooks used in schools run by Hizballah’s education branch “are filled with systematic and egregious incitement to antisemitism and support for terrorism.”

Shia and Sunni protesters clashed in Beirut on June 6. Two persons were injured during the clashes and Shia protesters, mostly supporters of Amal and Hizballah, led chants disparaging the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Aisha. The Jewish Community Council reported that dumping of trash and rubble at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon continued during the year. Muslim and Christian community leaders said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. The press reported that in a series of Sunday sermons, Maronite Patriarch Rai appeared to criticize Hizballah, stressing the need to both expand the country’s policy of distancing the country from regional conflicts and maintain the current sharing of political power among the country’s religious groups.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious communities and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador spoke with Christian, Shia, Sunni, and Druze religious leaders throughout the year to discuss the impact of the economic situation on different religious communities. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups, including through interfaith programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations estimate the total population includes 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.5 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for more than 70 years. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East estimates there are more than 180,000 currently in the country.

Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 67.8 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (31.9 percent Sunni, 31.2 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis). Statistics Lebanon estimates 32.4 percent of the population is Christian. Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox. Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists), Roman (Latin) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).

According to Statistics Lebanon, 4.5 percent of the population is Druze, concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut. There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus. The Jewish Community Council, which represents the country’s Jewish community, estimates 70 Jews reside in the country.

UNHCR reports that the refugees from Syria in the country are mainly Sunni Muslims, but also Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze. Palestinians live in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas. They are mostly the descendants of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s. Most are Sunni Muslims but some are Christians.

UNHCR states there are approximately 12,200 UNHCR-registered Iraqi refugees in the country. Refugees and foreign migrants from Iraq include mostly Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims, and Chaldeans. There are also Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan. According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 4,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country. According to the same NGO, the majority of Iraqi Christian refugees are not registered with UNHCR and so are not included in their count. The NGO noted that the population size of Iraqi Christians had decreased by 60 percent since 2019, largely because of emigration driven by the country’s economic crisis.

Persons from all religious groups emigrated from the country during the year, in large part due to the country’s deteriorating economic situation. There is anecdotal evidence that Christians constituted a significant portion of those who left the country, especially following the August 4 Beirut Port explosion, with some citing fears for their security and potential treatment in an unpredictable political environment as a reason for their departure.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group. The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.

By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change. The newly joined religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s (MOI’s) Personal Status Directorate. The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents.

Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed. Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials and does not change or remove the individual’s registration with the Personal Status Directorate.

The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.” It does not provide a definition of what this entails. A publications law regulates print media. The law includes provisions that impose potential fines or jail terms for sectarian provocation and prohibit the press from publishing blasphemous content regarding the country’s officially recognized religions or content that may provoke sectarian feuds.

The law governing audiovisual media bans live broadcasts of certain religious events and prohibits the broadcast of programs that seek to harm public morals, ignite sectarian strife, or insult religious beliefs. Websites are censored through court orders filed with the ISF’s Cybercrimes Bureau for further investigation, which issues a final order to the Ministry of Telecommunications. Elements of the law permit censorship of religious material considered a threat to national security or offensive to the dignity of the head of state or foreign leaders. The law includes guidelines regarding materials deemed unsuitable for publication in a book, newspaper, or magazine. Any violation of the guidelines may result in the author’s imprisonment or a fine. Officials from any of the recognized religious groups may request that the Directorate of General Security (DGS) ban a book. The government may prosecute offending journalists and publications in the publications court. Authorities occasionally also refer such cases to criminal courts, a process not established in law.

The penal code criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years for either of these offenses.

By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition. To do so, a religious group must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accord with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution. Alternatively, a nonrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by seeking affiliation with another recognized religious group. In doing so, the nonrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies. This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.

There are 18 officially recognized religious groups: five Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic), and Jews. Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, several Protestant groups, and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government recognition, which also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters. By law, the government permits recognized religious groups to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law. While the religious courts and religious laws are legally bound to comply with the provisions of the constitution, the Court of Cassation, the highest civil court in the judicial system, has very limited oversight of religious court proceedings and decisions.

There are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce. The government recognizes heterosexual civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage. While some Christian and Muslim religious authorities will perform interreligious marriages, clerics, priests, or religious courts often require the nonbelonging partner to pledge to raise his or her children in the religion of the partner and/or to relinquish certain rights, such as inheritance or custody claims, in the case of divorce.

The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations and representing those churches to the government.

According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may operate their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security. The government permits but does not require religious education in public schools. Both Christian and Muslim local religious representatives sometimes host educational sessions in public schools.

The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general. It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the major religious groups. This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country). According to the pact, the President shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the Prime Minister shall be a Sunni Muslim. This proportional distribution also applies to high-level positions in the civil service; the judiciary, military and security institutions; and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government. Parliament is elected on equal representation between Christians and Muslims, and cabinet positions must be allocated on the same basis. Druze and sometimes Alawites are included in this allocation within Muslim communities.

The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that agreement is neither an official component of the constitution nor a formally binding agreement.

The Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates elections based on the principle of proportional representation between Muslims and Christians in parliament but reaffirms the Christian and Muslim allocation at 50 percent each. The agreement reduced the constitutional powers of the Maronite Christian presidency and increased those of the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister while also subjecting the designation of the Prime Minister to binding consultations with parliament and the designations of all ministers to a parliamentary vote of confidence.

In addition, the Taif Agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces. Customarily, a Christian heads the army, while the directors general of the ISF and the DGS are Sunni and Shia, respectively. Several other top positions in the security services are customarily designated for particular confessions as well. While specific positions are designated by custom rather than law, deviating from custom is rare and any change or accommodation generally must be mutually agreed by the confessions concerned.

The Taif Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation among members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus they cannot hold a seat designated for a specific confession. Authorities allocate every government-recognized religion, except Ismaili Islam and Judaism, at least one seat in parliament, regardless of the number of its adherents.

By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql, its most senior religious leader. The cabinet must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries. The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges. By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.

The government issues foreign religious workers a one-month visa; to stay longer a worker must complete a residency application during the month. Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel. If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.

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

Government Practices

The ISF’s Cybercrimes Bureau questioned journalist and activist Nidal Ayoub on January 7 about posters she carried during protests with slogans such as “God is great but the revolution is greater.” Authorities released Ayoub after questioning.

On June 23, Mount Lebanon Public Prosecutor of the Appeals Court pressed charges against anti-Hizballah Shia cleric Sayyed Ali al-Amine following a lawsuit filed by lawyer Ghassan al-Mawla. The lawsuit accused al-Amine of “attacking the resistance and its martyrs,” “inciting strife among sects,” “violating the legal rules of the Shia sect,” and meeting with Israeli officials in a conference in Bahrain. The court scheduled al-Amine’s hearing to begin September 18 but postponed it to January 15, 2021.

On November 13, a young man assaulted the muezzin of the Sultan Abdel Majid bin Adham mosque in the town of Jbeil. The LAF Military Intelligence Bureau arrested the perpetrator the same day and referred him to the ISF for investigation. The LAF Military Intelligence Bureau issued a statement reporting that the incident was a personal dispute that led to the injury of the muezzin. Jbeil Sunni Mufti Sheikh Ghassan Laqqis condemned the attack and described it as “brutal,” while the press office of the Jbeil Maronite Archbishopric issued a statement saying, “Jbeil will remain a city of coexistence.” Grand Mufti of the Republic Abdel Latif Derian called on authorities to investigate and reveal what happened. The Prime Minister-designate and other political figures condemned the attack and stressed the importance of peaceful coexistence between religious groups.

On April 16, the LAF Military Intelligence Bureau detained activist Michel Chamoun for posting a video in which he criticized Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai and asked him to use the Church’s funds to help the poor during the difficult economic situation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Authorities later released Chamoun after the Patriarch said he did not want the matter pursued.

The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion.

The DGS reviewed all films and plays released in the country during the year, although it did not ban any. NGOs said this had more to do with the lack of film releases in the country due to prevailing economic and social circumstances rather than any loosening of censorship. Civil society activists continued to state that the DGS’s decision-making process lacked transparency and that the opinions of religious institutions and political groups influenced it.

According to local NGOs, some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. Many Baha’is said they chose to list themselves as Shia Muslims in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ said they registered as evangelical Protestant.

The government again failed to take action to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israelite Communal Council (the group’s officially recognized name). Additionally, the Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites; customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script due to a national ban on trade of Israeli goods. During the year, the council faced difficulty in renewing the mandate of its members, a legal requirement for groups that wish to continue to be recognized by the government, due to government officials’ unwillingness to put their signatures on any document with the group’s name on it, owing to concern this might be misinterpreted as support for Israel. The council’s lawyer reported that the MOI official told him they were “not prepared to sign anything for the Jews.”

Jewish community representatives reported that the MOI delayed the verification of the results of the Jewish Community Council’s election of members that occurs every six years. Regulations governing such councils require ministry verification of council election results. The council, which represents the interests of the country’s Jewish citizens, has repeatedly submitted requests to change its government-appointed name to reduce social stigma, with no success. The council blamed its official name in part for the difficulties experienced with renewals every six years. The issue continued as of November 17, when the Minister of Interior said that he was conducting investigations into allegations that several council members were forging signatures of nonresident Lebanese Jews to illegally acquire property. As of December 31, the case had not been referred to the judiciary.

Non-Maronite Christian groups reiterated criticisms made following the May 2018 parliamentary election that the government had made little progress toward the Taif Agreement’s goal of eliminating political sectarianism in favor of “expertise and competence.” Members of these groups, which include Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, and Chaldeans, among others, said the fact that the government allotted them only one of the 64 Christian seats in parliament constituted government discrimination. The Syriac League and other organizations such as the Syriac Union Party continued to call for more representation for non-Maronite and non-Greek Orthodox Christians in cabinet positions, parliament, and high-level civil service positions, typically held by members of the larger Christian religious groups. During protests that occurred across the country beginning in 2019, some of the protesters, religious figures, and politicians began calling for an electoral law that was not based on religious affiliation. In August, shortly before a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron, who was expected to encourage governmental reform, President Aoun publicly called for a secular state.

Some women’s rights advocates who helped lead the protests highlighted the absence of a civil code governing issues of personal status and objected to the country’s reliance on gender-discriminatory family codes adjudicated solely by religious courts.

Members of all confessions may serve in the military, intelligence, and security services. While most confessions had members serving in these capacities, some groups did not do so, usually because of their small number of adherents in the country. Members of the largest recognized confessions dominated the ranks of senior positions.

On March 9, President Aoun publicly expressed support for a unified personal status law as part of the civil code to replace current personal status laws, which are based on religious affiliation, but no legislation was drafted or considered.

According to NGO representatives, civil society figures cautiously engaged both Christian and Muslim leaders to assuage fears that civil marriage would pose a threat to religious leaders’ ability to administer their own confessional affairs. During the year, the MOI took no action on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the ministry since 2013.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Shia and Sunni protesters clashed during wider demonstrations against official corruption and failed economic policies in Beirut on June 6. Two persons were injured during the clashes, and Shia protesters, mostly supporters of Amal and Hizballah, led chants disparaging the Prophet Mohammed’s wife, Aisha. Political and religious figures including President Aoun, Amal chief and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and head of the Shia Higher Islamic Council Sheikh Abdul-Amir Qabalan spoke out strongly against the religious slurs. A group of 43 Shia intellectuals also released a statement denouncing the sectarian slogans and stressing that sectarian behavior was part of a “petty policy that feeds on divisions and discord.”

The Jewish Community Council restored and cleaned the Sidon cemetery at the end of 2019 after a municipality permit was issued to the council following several years of administrative inaction after acts of vandalism damaged the cemetery in 2018 and in previous years. During 2020, the council hired a custodian to maintain the cemetery. The council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site, and was unresolved by year’s end. During the year, dumping of rubble continued in the Jewish cemetery in Beirut despite the fact the council submitted a formal complaint to the municipality of Beirut in 2019. The council did not receive a response to this complaint.

On February 8, singer Ali al-Attar uploaded a performance of a song titled “We will Pray in Jerusalem” to YouTube and Facebook. The lyrics of the song included a verse that said, “There will be no trace of Zionism left on the land …, the final war will soon be waged upon the land, and Zionism will suffer the most horrible holocaust […], in Israel the temple will be destroyed when we meet, and the Star of David will be buried in the ground.”

On March 29, during an interview on OTV channel, associated with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) political party, political satirist Charbel Khalil said, “Personally, I believe that atheism is the religion of donkeys. I see atheists as donkeys.”

According to press reports, May Khoreiche, a senior FPM official, tweeted a recommendation for the book, The Last Days of Mohammed. This led the Dar al-Fatwa, the country’s highest Sunni religious authority, to state that it “regretted and condemned” the publicity that Khoreiche created for the work, saying that the tweet endangered “civil peace and coexistence.” The Dar al-Fatwa demanded an official apology for the tweet’s “blasphemous” message, saying it “violated” the country’s constitution. A group of Muslim lawyers transmitted an information note to the prosecutor of the Court of Cassation, describing the tweet as an “incitement to discord” and a “mockery of the sacred” and calling for the arrest of its author. A member of parliament said that those who recommended the book were “blind fanatics” who “persecute Islam”; another said the book was “an attack on the sacred truths of Islam.” In response, Khoreiche apologized for the tweet, saying she respected all faiths and had no desire to attack the Prophet Mohammed. She deleted the tweet and reiterated her support for diversity and freedom.

The press reported that in a series of Sunday sermons, Maronite Patriarch Rai appeared to criticize Hizballah. He stressed the need to maintain the country’s neutrality beyond the current policy of distancing the country from regional conflicts and the current sharing of political power among its religious groups. Observers said they interpreted Rai’s comments as an implicit criticism of Hizballah’s support for Iran. The Patriarch also called for the disarming of militias and state control of ports and weaponry. Without mentioning them specifically, Rai singled out Shia parties’ insistence on retaining the finance portfolio in any new government as being responsible for blocking government formation and for causing the country’s continuing political paralysis. The Shia Supreme Islamic Council, without naming Rai, said that comments by a “major religious leader” amounted to “sectarian incitement that stirs up bigotry and distorts the facts.”

Religious leaders stated relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable. During a September 3-4 visit of Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Muslim and Christian religious leaders gathered with him at St. George Cathedral and the al-Amine Mosque in downtown Beirut for interfaith prayers.

At year’s end, approximately 70 percent of students, not including students from the refugee population, attended private schools, many of which were tied to religiously based organizations. These include schools subsidized by the government. The schools generally continued to accommodate students from other religious and minority groups.

Local pluralism and religious freedom NGO Adyan Foundation initiated a project titled “Women, Religions, and Human Rights in Lebanon.” The project’s stated long-term objective was to end discrimination against women through reforms that would amend the country’s laws by altering or ending the role played by religious communities and their courts in personal status issues.

During the year, Adyan published the results of a 2019 survey conducted with Peace Labs on the attitude and views of the country’s youth towards sectarianism. More than half of respondents stated that they considered themselves to be religious, but the vast majority also said that their religious views were a personal matter between them and God and did not affect their attitude and relationship with others. The survey showed that approximately 82 percent of Alawites, 67 percent of Sunnis, and 63 percent of Shia considered themselves religious, compared with approximately 50 percent of Maronite, Orthodox, and Greek Catholic respondents. Sixty-seven percent of respondents of all faiths supported mixed marriages between Muslims and Christians.

In partnership with the German organization Kinder Mission, in 2018 Adyan launched the Alwan Junior Program for students in grades three and four to introduce education on religious diversity at an early age. During the year, Adyan implemented the program in 19 schools, reaching 1,482 students.

According to the NGO Middle East Media Research Institute, Hizb ut-Tahrir preacher Ahmad al-Qasas in a January 31 televised sermon said that the Prophet Mohamed “had predicted that the Jews will fight the Muslims, but that the Muslims will kill the Jews until they hide behind rocks and trees, which will call out to the Muslims to kill the Jews hiding behind them.” He added that the Jews are “the most cowardly of God’s creations” who do not live lives of “honor and glory.” The International Crisis Group describes Hizb ut-Tahrir as a political party whose ideology is based on Islam and whose views “are highly radical, advocating the overthrow of governments throughout the Muslim world and their replacement by an Islamic state in the form of a recreated Caliphate.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, DC and released in November, 84 percent of respondents in Lebanon either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” among the highest in the region, which compared with 65 percent region-wide.

In a regional poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 30 percent of Lebanese citizens ages 18 to 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor in their personal identity, compared with 40 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

In a poll conducted by the Pew Trust in the second half of 2019 and released in July, 72 percent of respondents in the country agreed that “Belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values,” with the median result for the 34 countries included in the survey at 45 percent. Ninety-two percent of respondents said that religion was “somewhat important” or “very important,” compared with 47 percent of those included in the overall survey.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage government officials on the need to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious groups.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss their views, including on relations with other religious groups, and to promote religious tolerance.

The Ambassador met on multiple occasions throughout the year with the leadership of the Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian communities to promote interfaith dialogue and urge them to take steps to counter violent extremism. Embassy officers often met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages.

On February 20, the embassy hosted an event on religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue that brought together 24 youth leaders from across the religious spectrum for discussions on religious freedom and tolerance.

In March, embassy officials met with Chaldean Bishop of Beirut Michel Kassarji to explore opportunities for enhanced engagement and to identify steps to improve the eparchy’s communication and cooperation in providing assistance from international agencies, including UNHCR.

The embassy’s six-year Building Alliances for Local Advancement, Development, and Investment – Capacity Building program worked with 12 faith-based organizations affiliated with Sunni, Druze, Alawite, Chaldean, Maronite, Catholic, and Protestant religious groups to build their organizational capacity and improve their financial management capabilities, internal administrative systems, and governance structures so they could better support their communities. The Acting Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and embassy officials met with religious leaders associated with the program in Beirut on August 11 to discuss the impact of the August 4 Beirut Port explosion on their communities.

During the year, as the Jewish Community Council faced delay in the government’s verification of the election of its members, the embassy worked with the MOI to renew the council’s mandate, allowing it to continue to function.

The embassy continued for the 10th consecutive year to fund and manage a scholarship program at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University that brings together religiously and geographically diverse students to increase their understanding of religious diversity. Nearly 740 religiously diverse students from 42 high schools participated during the year. Students from a variety of religious backgrounds also collaborated to develop and lead community service projects serving geographically and religiously diverse communities across the country as part of a project that directly served more than 4,000 high school students since 2007.

For the 10th consecutive year, the embassy continued a program sponsoring several students between the ages of 18 and 25 to participate in a five-week visitor exchange program at Temple University, where they learned about religious pluralism in the United States, visited places of worship, and participated in related cultural activities. The program was cancelled for the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic after funding was allocated but before the student lists were finalized.

Libya

Executive Summary

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution and states that Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing the country’s “social structure,” which were used to ban circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.” The criminal code effectively prohibits conversion from Islam, according to scholars and human rights advocates. According to one press report, the Rada Special Deterrence Forces (SDF), a militia nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected. Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east, where non-GNA entities competed for control over territory and governance by setting up parallel government institutions. Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. Some of these detainees reported they were tortured and otherwise abused.

Some areas of the country, including the eastern part, operated under the influence of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and LNA-affiliated armed groups. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in parts of Tripoli and in Benghazi, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. According to media reports, elements of the Madkhali Salafist movement affiliated with the LNA continued to crack down on activities not sanctioned by their strict interpretation of Islam including the sale of books deemed un-Islamic and events where men and women mixed. According to the Christian rights advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings. Salafist and Islamist groups, some nominally aligned with the GNA, assumed law enforcement functions. One press report stated that in the western part of the country, these elements replaced imams, preachers, and the heads of Awqaf offices with individuals with a more Salafist orientation. U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS continued to operate within the country.

According to international media, former Muslims faced intense social and economic pressure to renounce their faith and return to Islam. Sources also reported converts to other religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and hostility from their families and communities because of their beliefs.

The U.S. Embassy to Libya operated from Tunis, Tunisia; its officials made periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. In September, the Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and establish a unified, stable, democratic, and tolerant Libyan state, and continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with authorities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and other human rights advocates.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to reports by the International Organization for Migration, 12 percent of the population are migrants. Sunni Muslims represent between 90 and 95 percent of the population, Ibadi Muslims account for between 4.5 and 6 percent, and the remainder includes small communities of Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and Buddhists. Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims. Nearly all non-Muslim residents in the country are foreigners.

Estimates of the number of Christians in the country vary. According to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List Country Profile, there are 34,500 Christians. In 2015, Open Doors USA estimated 150 to 180 of these were Libyan nationals who converted from Islam.

Foreign Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan African migrants and Filipino foreign workers, with smaller numbers of Egyptian migrants and a small number of other foreign residents of European nationalities. According to Christian groups in Tripoli, most of the Egyptian Christians are Copts. Most Filipino and some sub-Saharan African migrants are Catholic; the Catholic diocese of Tripoli estimates its followers include 5,000 sub-Saharan and 1,500 Filipino individuals. Estimates on the numbers of other Christian groups vary. According to Open Doors USA, these include Anglicans, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and nondenominational Christians.

According to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, no Jews reside permanently in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution. It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws. The Constitutional Declaration prohibits any form of discrimination based on religion. Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs. Sharia, however, applies in any case in which a Muslim is involved. The interim constitution also states, “There shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights. The penal code and other laws provide criminal penalties for conviction of defamation and insults to religion. Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law. The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict.

The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) administers mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.

Sharia courts govern family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under the law, a Christian or Jewish woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal, and such marriages are not recognized, even when contracted abroad. The MEIA administers non-Muslim family law issues, although there is no separate legal framework governing non-Muslim family law. The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.

Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools. Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students, with no opt-out provisions.

There is no law providing for individuals’ right to choose or change their religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate their religious beliefs. There is no civil law explicitly prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion or prohibiting proselytization; however, the criminal code effectively prohibits missionary activities or conversion. It includes prohibitions against “instigating division” and insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, charges that carry a maximum sentence of death. The criminal code prohibits the circulation of publications that aim to “change the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental rules of the social structure,” which are used to criminalize the circulation of non-Islamic religious materials and speech considered “offensive to Muslims.”

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

Government Practices

Since religion, politics, and security are often closely linked in the country, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers, a situation which worsened during the LNA offensive to seize the capital from April 2019 to June 2020. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east. The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups within the parts of the country it controlled was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.

According to one press report, the SDF, a nominally GNA-aligned militia in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians. Detainees of the SDF reported torture and other abuse while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.

Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. One Christian group operating in the country reported multiple accounts of a section within the SDF-run detention center at the Mitiga airbase where detainees who were Christian converts, “freethinkers”, or critics of Islam were concentrated. Some detainees in this section were reportedly subjected to torture.

Some detention facilities had no provision for non-Islamic burials.

The government permitted religious scholars to form organizations, issue fatwas, and provide advice to followers. The fatwas did not have legal weight but conveyed considerable social pressure, according to tribal and religious leaders. The GNA, however, did not exercise effective administrative control of mosques or supervision of clerics.

Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani, who is regarded by the Muslim Brotherhood and others as the country’s Grand Mufti, said in a video broadcast on Al-Tanasuh TV, “If detonating oneself while carrying out a fedaai [self-sacrificial] operation rattles the enemy and brings upon it a crushing defeat, then it is allowed by sharia law. Many of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions threw themselves from walls. They sacrificed themselves and died in order to breach the enemy’s ranks.”

On June 17, in a program that aired on Al-Tanasuh TV, Al-Ghariani said that supporters of the LNA were in violation of sharia and were fighting as a proxy for a “Zionist project” meant to protect Israel and the enemies of God.

In Tripoli, according to civil society sources, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias and armed groups, such as the SDF, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed “un-Islamic.” There continued to be no laws, however, imposing restrictions on dress.

The Ministry of Education continued to work to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four through nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance. The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.

According to human rights activists, civil society figures, and politicians, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religion and politics.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Arab Organization for Human Rights – Libya (AOHRL) continued to report a restrictive social environment for religious freedom throughout the country. This included intense social and economic pressure on former Muslims to return to Islam. NGOs stated Salafist interpretations of sharia continued to contribute to this restrictive environment. Religious minorities said converts to other religions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious persons, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and from their families and communities because of their beliefs or lack of belief.

International observers said Christians who converted from Islam practiced their faith in semi-secrecy and faced violence and intense pressure from their families and communities to renounce their faith. Christians said they felt pressure to refrain from missionary activities as a result of security threats and social pressure from the local community, as well as because of legal prohibitions against conversion and missionary activity.

Christian communities continued to exist in Tripoli, where Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches operated for foreigners. Christian communities were also present in Misrata, Al-Baida, Benghazi, Tubruq, Sebha, Ghat, Ubari, and Murzuq, among other cities. In some cases, such as in Benghazi, Catholic communities continued to worship in places other than church buildings after ISIS destroyed church properties there in 2015. The Catholic cathedral in Benghazi remained damaged and inaccessible after fighting in 2013-15.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 30 percent of the country’s citizens aged 18-24 agreed that religion was “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 41 percent overall of youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey and to 61 percent of youth polled in all of North Africa.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Since the 2014 embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations there, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and to establish a unified, stable, democratic and tolerant Libyan state.

The Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora on September 16. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including MEC, the AOHRL, Human Rights Watch, and independent activists and researchers to address religious freedom issues. The embassy also continued to partner with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance.

Morocco

Executive Summary

The constitution states the King holds the title “Commander of the Faithful” and that he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. It prohibits political parties founded on religion, as well as political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. The law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. The government claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the area it controls by the same constitution, laws, and structures as elsewhere in the country, including laws that deal with religious freedom. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization seeking the territory’s independence, disputes this claim to sovereignty over the territory. In May, authorities arrested movie actor Rafik Boubker for making “blasphemous remarks against Islam and attacking the sacredness of worship” in a social media posting. After the government ordered the closure of mosques in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some Salafists objected to the closures as an assault on faith. After Salafist leader Abou Naim criticized the government’s decision in a March 16 Facebook post, authorities arrested him the next day and indicted him for incitement and compromising public order. On April 3, the Rabat Court of Appeal sentenced Naim to one year in prison and a fine of 2,000 dirhams ($220). In February, the Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the King’s spiritual authority, protested in Rabat and Tangier a decision made in 2019 to close unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of JCO members. On February 20, Agadir University expelled three students affiliated with JCO on charges of “insulting public officials and defamation of things intended for public benefit.” Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests. The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism. The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam. In January, the King inaugurated Bayt Dakira, a Jewish cultural museum in Essaouira.

On April 1, police in Casablanca arrested a man for hate speech for social media posts accusing a Jewish citizen and a foreign national of being directly responsible for the infection of a large number of persons with COVID-19. Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. Foreign clergy discouraged some Christian citizens from attending services for fear of societal harassment. A member of the local Christian community stated that Christian services were held in secret house churches to avoid such harassment. According to the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) annual report for 2018-19, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and in Friday sermons. Christian and Jewish representatives stated that they had seen a positive change in regard to societal tolerance, which they attributed to the 2019 visit of Pope Francis and statements at that time by the King. Representatives of Christian minority groups in the Western Sahara said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families and social ridicule, was the main reason leading them to practice their faith discreetly.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials, including from the Ministry of Interior and the MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities. In regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, embassy and consulate general representatives highlighted the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, and less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca. Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the Moroccan Association of Human Rights estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and 10,000 Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked in the country for generations but do not hold citizenship. There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier. There are an estimated 3,000 foreign residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca. Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north. In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Iraq. Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 750. Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350 to 400 members throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state and Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his or her religious affairs. The constitution states the King holds the title “Commander of the Faithful” and that he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society. According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam. A political party may not legally challenge Islam as the state religion. Religions other than Islam and Judaism are not recognized by the constitution or laws.

The government claims the territory of Western Sahara and administers the area it controls by the same constitution, laws, and structures as elsewhere in the country, including laws that deal with religious freedom. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia el Hamra and Rio de Oro (POLISARIO), an organization seeking the territory’s independence, disputes this claim to sovereignty over the territory.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media or in public speeches. Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years and a fine of up to 200,000 dirhams ($22,400).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or converts a Muslim to another faith by exploiting their weakness or need for assistance or through the use of educational, health, or other institutions. It provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22 to $56) for violations. The same penalties apply to anyone who intentionally interferes with religious rites or celebrations where this causes disturbances or affects the dignity of such religious acts. The law also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense. Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law. The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22 to $56). The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22 to $56). Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate 5 percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country. A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters. Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts. Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam. Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children. Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and it requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some “foreign” Christian churches). The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group (e.g., open and hold bank accounts, rent property, acquire land and building grants, and have access to customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities) or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters. An individual representative of a religious group that is neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, or petitions to the government. The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters. The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the right to organize themselves and conduct their activities freely within the scope of the constitution. The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches (churches run by and attended by foreign residents only) are registered as associations. The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status. The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively. Protestant churches and the Catholic Church, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government, which allows them to preserve houses of worship and assign foreign clergy.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence. Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of including or omitting religious instruction within the school’s curriculum. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the King with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the King’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliament. Such fatwas are considered binding only on Maliki-Ashari Sunni Muslims. If the King or parliament declines to ratify a decision of the council, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

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

Government Practices

In May, authorities arrested movie actor Rafik Boubker for making “blasphemous remarks against Islam and attacking the sacredness of worship.” According to the Agence France Presse news agency, in a video posted to social media, Boubker appeared to insult imams, to call for making religious ablutions with “whiskey and vodka,” and to praise the benefits of alcohol for “connecting with God.” Boubker, who was released on bail pending a court hearing, faced a possible sentence of between six months and two years in prison and a fine of 20,000 to 200,000 dirhams ($2,200 to $22,400). On July 14, the Ain Sebaa Court of First Instance in Casablanca postponed his trial. At year’s end, the date of the trial remained unknown.

On March 16, the King ordered the High Council of Ulema to issue a fatwa mandating the immediate closure of mosques to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to the government, the mosques were opened four months later under strict compliance with COVID-19 measures.

Some Salafists who oppose the government objected to the closures as an assault on faith. One Salafist leader, Abou Naim, called on the government to close “casinos, bars, and debauchery…instead of talking about mosques.” He also said, “The country that closes its mosques renounces its religion. Do not despise the mosque, otherwise God will punish you.” Police arrested Abou Naim on March 17, the day after he posted a video on Facebook containing his criticism. After the government indicted him for inciting hatred and violence and compromising public order, the Rabat Court of Appeal sentenced him on April 3 to one year in prison and a 2000-dirham ($220) fine.

Authorities continued to deny Christian citizen groups freedom of worship in churches, the right to Christian or civil marriage and funeral services, and the right to establish churches (or, unlike foreign churches, to establish an association). The government denied official recognition to NGOs that it considered to be advocating against Islam as the state religion.

In February, the JCO protested in Rabat and Tangier a decision made in February 2019 to close unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of JCO members. According to press reports, on February 20, Agadir University expelled three students affiliated with JCO for “insulting public officials and defamation of things intended for public benefit.”

The JCO remained banned but largely tolerated, although the government continued to monitor its activities. It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered. The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations. According to media, there were instances in which the government prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO publications. On June 25, the JCO announced it did not consider itself a religious minority, but rather an Islamic advocacy organization deprived of basic rights.

During the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting nonregistered religious groups from practicing their religion in private.

Community leaders from various Christian groups said authorities continued to make telephone or house calls to demonstrate that they continued to monitor Christian activities. According to various sources, authorities said the purpose of such monitoring was to protect minority religious communities. Authorities also informed all religious communities they would be monitoring their compliance with COVID-19 restrictions, as they did with the general population.

A number of religious groups reported occasionally informing authorities of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious observations. There were no known Shia mosques. According to Shia community members, they were able to pray in Sunni mosques, but they risked criticism from other worshippers for their religious practices. Shia representatives reported they did not attempt to register during the year because they feared security forces would harass them, as had been the case in previous years.

AMDH applied for registration in 2019 but remained unregistered. At year’s end, a foreign religious association was still waiting for its organization’s registration to be renewed, limiting its ability to hold meetings and raise funds.

The U.S. NGO Open Doors stated in its annual World Watch List report for 2020 that the penal code, which criminalizes “shaking the faith” of a Muslim, put many Christians who talked to others about their faith at risk of criminal prosecution and arrest. The NGO also stated that while the penal code provision “only punish[ed] proselytization, converts to Christianity [could] be punished in other ways, such as loss of inheritance rights and custody of their children.”

Christian leaders said there were no reports of authorities pressuring converts to renounce their faith by informing friends, relatives, and employers of the individual’s conversion.

The government continued to allow the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. Christian citizen leaders reported that Christian citizens generally did not attend those services out of fear of incurring governmental harassment, including the opening of a file with security authorities. Some foreign-born clergy and Christian citizen leaders stated that some citizens who were well known to be Christian encountered no harassment from government security officers when they attended the services of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. Foreign residents and visitors attended religious services at those churches without restriction.

The 2017 ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa remained in effect. The Ministry of Interior cited security concerns as justification for the ban. The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use. Authorities continued to prohibit anchors on national television and police and army personnel in uniform from wearing a hijab or burqa.

MEIA’s Mohamed VI Institute remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious life and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 2,100 morchidines (male Muslim spiritual guides) and 901 morchidates (female Muslim spiritual guides) in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country. The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning. The institute continued to provide government-required one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year. It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country. The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for religious leaders. On July 1, the Mohamed VI Institute announced that training would continue during the COVID-19 pandemic and released a number of future morchidine (150) and morchidate (100) openings for 2021.

The government required religious leaders who worked in the country to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher. The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.

On February 15, MEIA suspended the imam of an Oujda mosque because he criticized “the deal of the century,” a reference to potential normalization of ties between Arab states and Israel, during the Friday sermon. In response, an expert close to the Movement for Unity and Reform, the social Islamist movement closely linked to Party of Justice and Development, criticized the MEIA for limiting the imam’s freedom of speech and defended the suspended imam and his views.

The MEIA continued to monitor Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and to ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.

The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism. Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.

The government’s policy remained to ban the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered religiously extremist.

The government permitted the display and sale of Bibles in French, English, and Spanish. A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in higher education courses.

Some Amazigh (Berber)-rights activists reported intolerance and suppression of traditional Amazigh customs in rural Amazigh villages by government-appointed morchidates.

The government continued drafting and implementing an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” The Ministry of Education continued a review of the religion curriculum used in primary and secondary education to make reforms based on “universal values of liberty, empathy, solidarity, and honesty.” Since the review began in 2016, 29 textbooks have been rewritten, and modifications to textbooks continued during the year.

On November 19, King Mohammed VI approved a decision to teach Jewish history and culture as part of the Arabic-language curriculum in public primary schools. A joint statement from the American Sephardi Federation and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations called the decision an “enduring commitment to recognizing a pluralist past” and stated, “at the core of this effort is enhancing understanding and fostering the connection between Muslims and Jews.” MEIA in July announced plans to encourage public universities to include teachings about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The University of al-Quaraouyine in Fez offered courses on the history of Judaism, Hebrew culture and language, and the Old Testament. Coursework also included the history of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.

Jewish and Christian citizens continued to state that elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam and Judaism over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Six) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegeses, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam. For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.

From April to September, the Baha’is of Morocco community invited followers of its Facebook page from different faiths to pray for relief from COVID-19 and organized several online conferences.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance. According to the government and Jewish leaders, MEIA did not interfere in operations of or practices in synagogues after COVID-19 outbreaks in March that followed Purim celebrations and a wedding in Agadir.

The Prison Administration authorized religious observances and services, provided by religious leaders, for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

On March 30, the government launched an investigation into a list of members of the Jewish community that were said to have COVID-19. The list was posted on social media and contained names, contact information, and other sensitive personal information. Some sources from the Jewish community also said the list was used to refuse treatment at some private medical clinics.

On January 22, the King received Catholic Archbishop of Rabat Cristobal Lopez Romero to offer congratulations on his elevation to Cardinal. The King stated that the audience represented the values of coexistence, compassion, and understanding.

On January 16, the King visited Bayt Dakira, a museum and synagogue in a historic 19th century home that preserves the heritage of the country’s Jewish community in Essaouira and in the country more broadly. The King also held a banquet in honor of members of the Jewish community present.

According to press and NGO reports, Ahmed Abbadi, the head of the government-sponsored Rabita Mohammedia of Religious Scholars, an institute that promotes tolerance, participated in a January 23 visit by a delegation of senior Islamic scholars to Auschwitz. During the visit, he stated his condemnation of the Nazis’ “barbarity” and “crimes against humanity.”

Ministry of Interior and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. On June 21, St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca, which is home to an expatriate Anglican community, hosted the grand opening of its community center, built with approval from government authorities. The church building was undergoing government-approved renovation at year’s end, with an expected grand opening in 2021.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. Foreign clergy discouraged some Christian citizens from attending services for fear of societal harassment. A member of the local Christian community stated that Christian services were held in secret house churches to avoid such harassment.

Christian and Jewish representatives stated that they had seen a positive change in regard to societal tolerance, which they attributed to the 2019 visit by Pope Francis and statements at that time by the King.

On April 1, police in Casablanca arrested a man for hate speech for social media posts accusing a Jewish citizen and a foreign national of being directly responsible for infecting a large number of persons with COVID-19.

According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, a U.S. NGO, a man living in Tangier posted a video to YouTube on April 28 in which he stated that Jews were not the “offspring of apes and pigs” but rather the brothers of apes and pigs, because they resembled them in “conduct and traits.”

According to Mimouna, an NGO founded by young Muslims to promote and preserve the country’s Jewish heritage, a primary school textbook in Arabic introduced during the year featured the January 2020 royal visit to Bayt Dakira, a museum and synagogue that celebrates Jewish heritage in Essaouira. The text accompanying the pictures of the visit celebrated Jewish culture and heritage as well.

According to the 2018-19 AMDH annual report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shia beliefs and practices in the press and through Friday sermons. Shia reported they observed Ashura in private to avoid societal harassment. Shia Muslims said that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

There were reports from media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends. Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families reportedly did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Representatives of Christian minority groups in the Western Sahara said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families and social ridicule, were the main reasons leading them to practice their faith discreetly.

Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety. They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations.

Baha’i leaders said they did not experience harassment during the year. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering a good education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

According to the Arab Youth Survey, an annual poll conducted by a consulting firm based in the United Arab Emirates, 62 percent of the country’s youth reported that religion, not family, politics, language, or nationality, was the most important factor in their personal identity.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials, including from the Ministry of Interior and the MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities.

In regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, embassy and consulate general representatives highlighted the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue. Due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, U.S. officials were unable to meet with members of religious groups in Western Sahara.

In October, the U.S. Department of State Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs and the Ambassador visited the Museum of Moroccan Judaism in Casablanca and held meetings with the president of the Jewish Moroccan Cultural Heritage Foundation.

In early October, the CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation and the Ambassador attended Yom Kippur services in Casablanca.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief. Proselytizing in public is illegal. All religious organizations must register with the government. The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration. Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship. Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material. In February, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) again called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair.

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. In January, al-Bawaba, a regional news website, reported that activist Majda al-Balushi, who now lives in the United States, had received “massive backlash” on social media after she announced her conversion from Islam to Christianity, including criticism from some of her fellow citizens.

At various times throughout the year, the Ambassador and U.S. embassy officers met with government officials and religious minority leaders to discuss the needs and support the worship practices of all religious groups. In October, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion with religious minority leaders to communicate U.S. support for religious freedom and to assess the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective beliefs in Oman.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The government’s National Center for Statistics and Information estimates the population at 4.5 million; citizens constitute 61 percent of the population (data as of December). The government does not publish statistics on the percentages of citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia forms of Islam. In 2015 the Dubai-based al-Mesbar Center estimated Sunni Muslims at nearly 50 percent of the citizen population, Ibadhi Muslims at 45 percent, and Shia Muslims, Hindus, and Christians at a combined 5 percent.

Academic sources state the majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia. Noncitizen religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians. Christians are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah and include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares sharia is the basis for legislation. It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion. According to the Basic Law, the Sultan must be a Muslim.

There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.

The penal code sets the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran,” “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion,” or “promoting religious and sectarian tensions” at 10 years. The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment. Holding a meeting outside government-approved locations to promote another religious group is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three-years’ imprisonment. The law allows authorities to prosecute individuals for any message sent via any medium that “violates public order and morals.” Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is a crime that carries a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 Omani rials ($2,600).

All religious organizations must register with the government. The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval. Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by MERA. New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from MERA before they may register. Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor. MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form. For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors. The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with MERA. The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must deliver sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters. Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.

The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the Sultan for the purpose of collective worship.

The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”

The law states the government must approve the construction or leasing of buildings by religious groups. In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.

Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction. The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking, and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another. Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.

The Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation. Principles of sharia inform the civil, commercial, and criminal codes, but there are no sharia courts. Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code. The law states that Shia Muslims, whose jurisprudence in these matters differs from that of Sunni and Ibadhi Muslims, may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts, and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition. The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.

Citizens may sue the government for abuses of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.

Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion. Other official identity documents do not do so.

Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship. Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member’s entry.

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

Government Practices

According to an NGO report, Zaher al-Abri, an Islamic scholar who serves on the government-appointed Council of State, said in a televised interview that women should wear the hijab and only expose their palms and faces in public. He also said that cosmetics lack divine sanction.

According to religious leaders, MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics. The government required all imams, regardless of their branch of Islam, to preach sermons within what the government considered politically and socially acceptable parameters. These parameters, which the government outlined monthly, included the distribution of a list of acceptable topics along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams. Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring. The government-appointed Grand Mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside the designated government parameters. In November, the Grand Mufti criticized on Twitter the Pope’s comments expressing support for civil unions for lesbian and gay couples, describing this concept as “shameful and fallen.”

Religious groups continued to report opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration, but none reported they were actively seeking to register with the government. While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, leadership structure, and the availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration. MERA reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim. Observers said details of the process remained vague, although there were reports MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group. According to MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register. Representatives of some religious groups said that additional communication from MERA would help their communities navigate the process for obtaining property for religious facilities or clarify legal provisions governing religious practices.

The Church of Jesus Christ remained without a registration sponsor or a permanent place of worship. MERA was working with the Church, the Sikh community, and other groups to identify suitable, permanent places of worship, a MERA official said. Other religious minority groups, such as the Buddhist community, reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups, even though they represented a significant population in the country, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations. Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship. According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship. MERA was willing to work with other government ministries to secure additional, government-approved land to relieve the overcrowding that some minority groups were experiencing, a MERA official said. Although at least one of the groups said that it had submitted requests in the past to acquire land for a house of worship, these groups stated that they were not actively pursuing land with MERA during the year, in part because of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the past several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country, which they coordinated with MERA by submitting an annual calendar of events. Pandemic precautions precluded such large celebrations during the year.

Religious groups said that, consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership. Religious groups stated they did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship. The government also continued to require religious groups to notify MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to MERA. Religious minority leaders said the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all approved religious groups to build and maintain religious facilities in the country. Christian community leaders and MERA said that they were coordinating to establish a second Christian cemetery, since the first was reaching capacity. As of December, MERA officials stated that they had enlisted the help of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Planning to identify land for this site.

According to members of the legal community, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings, although there is no law stating that custody is tied to religious affiliation.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

In February, the ADL again called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair. According to the ADL, the listings included “numerous copies” of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and Henry Ford’s The International Jew, as well as “over a dozen” additional anti-Semitic books.

In November, the MFA’s Chief of Global Affairs participated in a two-hour virtual meeting with American Jewish Committee (AJC) officials as part of the country’s outreach to representatives of non-Muslim religious groups.

The government, through MERA, continued to publish al-Tafahum (Understanding), a quarterly periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although not prohibited by law, according to some minority religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. In January, al-Bawaba, a regional news website, reported that activist Majda al-Balushi had received “massive backlash” on social media after she announced her conversion from Islam to Christianity, including criticism from some of her fellow citizens. Al-Bawaba stated that in a now deleted tweet, al-Balushi said, “I am very fortunate to be in America, because if I were in Oman, they would kill me and imprison me as soon as I criticized or left Islam.”

The interfaith al-Amana Center, which was founded and is supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it shifted to hosting virtual programs in conjunction with MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations. The center also worked closely with MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.

In a poll of 200 of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm and involving a team of international experts, only 12 percent agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, among the lowest in the broader Middle East.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In October, the Ambassador hosted a roundtable discussion with religious minority leaders to communicate U.S. support for religious freedom and to assess the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective beliefs in the country.

In December, the embassy posted a video message on social media promoting tolerance and diversity, exemplified by Americans of diverse backgrounds who come together and respect various holiday traditions in the United States.

Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its efforts to support the worship practices of all religious groups. Embassy officers raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religious groups’ places of worship and encouraged MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship. Embassy officers also met with religious minority leaders to discuss the needs of their religious groups and the challenges they faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The embassy also promoted religious freedom through its online presence by posting a message to social media on the 22nd anniversary of the International Religious Freedom Act.

Qatar

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal, but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately. The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. In July, the government issued administrative deportation notices to four longtime resident Indian-national Christians and their families. The deported individuals attributed the deportations to their religious activities. After closing all mosques and churches in mid-March as part of its measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, the government allowed the reopening of 500 mosques in June and the reopening of other houses of worship and all other mosques in mid-August. In September, the government sent a letter to nearly 150 unregistered religious groups temporarily banning any worship outside the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, which is located on government land and provides worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, justifying the ban on its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 and for security reasons. Sixty-one church villas were slated to open but had not received permission from the government by year’s end. Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971. The Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that some particularly offensive material was removed from school textbooks and the “curriculum does not meet international standards of peace and tolerance.” The NGO stated, “Elements of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood dominate the religious tenor of the curriculum” and “In Islamic religious studies there is very little improvement. Jihad war, martyrdom and violent jihadi movements are praised.”

The Doha branch of Northwestern University cancelled an event by the pro-LGBTQI rock band Mashrou’ Leilaa after the booking created controversy in the country. A faculty member at a private graduate school posted a tweet that criticized Northwestern for its sponsorship of the event, stating that the concert crossed a “red line” for observant Muslims. In June, the privately owned newspaper al-Raya published an article by Khalifa al-Mahmoud, later removed from the daily’s website, which stated that Jews over the course of history had infiltrated international power centers and shaped decision-making, including through the overthrow of governments, to serve their own interests. In his June 25 column in the online newspaper al-Arab, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman wrote that secularism was to blame for the “horrific state” of Arab and Muslim societies, stating, “This is one of the gravest forms of treason against the noble Islamic nation, faith and culture.…In our Islamic society, secularism represents a position of hostility to Islam and Muslims.”

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with relevant government bodies as well as with quasigovernmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and anti-Semitism. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue throughout the year with the Ministry of Education (MOE) about newly published Islamic studies textbooks for public school students in grades seven through 12, including a discussion during a December 15 visit by the Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism. In March, the embassy participated in a religious freedom conference among various faiths and academics hosted by the government-funded Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), which included embassy-funded guest speakers. Throughout the year, the embassy met with various faith communities, including the Hindu, Shia Muslim, Baha’i, and evangelical Christian communities, and the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern. Embassy representatives continued to meet with Ministry of Culture and Sports officials regarding anti-Semitic books being available at the annual Doha International Book Fair.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population as 2.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent. Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all of the remaining citizens are Shia Muslims. Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriates suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population. The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.

Other religious groups, which are composed exclusively of expatriates, include (in descending order of size) Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia. Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. According to the constitution, the Emir must be Muslim. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the Emir’s branch of the al Thani family. The Emir exercises full executive power. The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.” It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and is illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions. The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations, which are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Interdenominational Christian Churches. Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the government with the support of the CCSC, an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations.

Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA. Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures, such as private villas, recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution. Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public. The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment. The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity. The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials. The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities. To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity. All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The law designates the MEIA Minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers. The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the emir.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.

A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim, however. The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools. Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services. All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools. These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims. The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters using Shia interpretations of religious law. In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam. Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia. The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence. There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging. Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases. The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia. Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned. Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies. The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018, and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia. The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”). The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

In July, the government issued administrative deportation notifications to four longtime resident Indian-national Christian expatriates and their families. The deported individuals attributed the deportations to their religious activities. Petitions to the government and requests to clarify the decisions were left unanswered.

As part of the government’s measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, all churches and most mosques were closed down from mid-March until mid-August. The government allowed the reopening of 500 mosques in June as part of a graduated reopening. (There are an estimated 2,100 in the country.) Although Christian congregations within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex were allowed to resume activities in August, the government sent a letter to nearly 150 unregistered religious groups in September banning any worship outside the complex and asking all house churches to find space inside the already over-crowded complex. In December, the government said 61 congregations out of the 150 under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) could reopen as a temporary solution until the alliance establishes its permanent premises in the complex. At year’s end, however, the 61 churches had not yet reopened, and the MFA had not responded to inquiries by the ECAQ management regarding the government’s reopening announcement.

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.

In a May 6 interview on the Al Jazeera network, Dr. Ahmad al-Farjabi, identified by an NGO as a MEIA sharia expert, said that when a man suspects his wife might become “disobedient” and “rebellious,” he should take the measures prescribed by the Quran, which include beating her. Al-Farjabi added that even Western psychologists have said that wife-beating is “inevitable” in the case of women who had been beaten while they were growing up and for women who have no respect for their husbands. He said that these kinds of women must be “subdued by muscles,” and that some kinds of women “may be reformed by beating.” Al-Farjabi also said that he even heard from women at his lectures that it is preferable to beat one’s wife than to allow her to ruin the home and lose her children.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions were unable to follow up on their 2019 visit. During that visit, the UN representatives said there were approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors prohibited by sharia.

In its 2020 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “Christians in Qatar, especially converts from Islam to Christianity, remain under extremely high pressure from the government and society – risking discrimination, harassment, police monitoring and intimidation. Even one’s family can be dangerous in a culture that sees conversion as a betrayal. In the Persian Gulf country, Islam is seen as the only acceptable faith, and conversion remains a capital offense. As for church gatherings, while Muslims are free to worship in public, Christians can only worship in private houses or designated places.”

Representatives of the Baha’i community stated that the community faced challenges with 13 cases of longtime (in some cases, lifelong) Baha’i residents who were either prevented from reentering the country or from renewing their residency permits. In 2019, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion cowrote a letter to the government expressing concern over discriminatory treatment of Baha’is, including in the 13 Baha’i deportation and residency refusal cases, and over the challenges Baha’is faced in registering marriages. The government denied the allegations.

The CCSC continued to meet regularly with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space for the large number of parishioners. The MFA also met with unregistered congregations to discuss their interests and needs.

The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques. The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths. The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties. There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking in public during daylight hours in Ramadan. All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The Saudi Arabian government greatly reduced the number of pilgrims allowed to make the Hajj due to concerns regarding COVID-19. In the previous three years, however, the government had already discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in Umrah and Hajj due to an ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia that started in 2017 and resulted in the severing of diplomatic ties. Officials at MEIA stated that concerns for pilgrims’ security due to the lack of diplomatic representation and coordination with Saudi authorities were behind discouraging citizens and expatriates from performing the Hajj and Umrah.

In a May 16 Al Jazeera interview, Dr. Abduljabbar Saeed, a department chair in the sharia faculty at the state-run Qatar University, cited a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad said that Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews, who will hide behind rocks and trees, which will in turn call upon Muslims to kill the Jews hiding behind them. Saeed referred to a version of the hadith in which a type of tree called a gharqad will not call out to the Muslims. He said that he rejected this version and that he believed that every rock and every tree will call out to the Muslims. Saeed said that victory would only be achieved through sacrifice of all that is precious and through the “blood of the martyrs and over the skulls of the enemies.”

In August, the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) issued a comprehensive interim report on religious textbooks in the country from 2016 to 2020. The report said, “The Qatari curriculum appears to be in a phase of transformation. While somewhat less radical than previous versions, the process of moderation is in its infancy. Some particularly offensive material has been removed after decades of radical propaganda in Qatari schools, but the curriculum does not meet international standards of peace and tolerance.” The report stated, “Elements of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood dominate the religious tenor of the curriculum.” It added, “In Islamic religious studies there is very little improvement. Jihad war, martyrdom, and violent jihadi movements are praised….Christians are still seen as infidels (kafirun) and are expected to go to hell. Some anti-Christian material has been removed. Jew hatred continues to be a central problem for this curriculum, while slightly less widespread than previous iterations. Israel is demonized. Textbooks teach [that] Jews control and manipulate world powers and markets.”

The Anti-Defamation League reported that the government appeared to have eliminated nearly all of the anti-Semitic book titles from the 2020 Doha International Book Fair, provided its online catalogue for the event was still an accurate representation of what was for sale onsite. The NGO described these efforts as “significant improvements” in this area.

Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites. The government, however, continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards. Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Journalists and publishers at times said they practice self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings. The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.

According to church leaders, approximately 75,000 to 100,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend these services. Representatives of the CCSC continued to state there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing. In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside of the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these holidays. The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors. Ministry of Interior (MOI) security personnel continued to ask churchgoers to show identification at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, continued to be prohibited access to the complex.

Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions. In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches. Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

The government-funded DICID postponed its international religious freedom conference originally scheduled for March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country continued to host the headquarters of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a group widely viewed in the press and academia as being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although IUMS stated that it was an independent association of scholars, observers said that its close relationship with the government helps it to serve as an instrument of the country’s soft power.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to press reports, the local branch of Northwestern University cancelled an event by the pro-LGBTQI rock band Mashrou’ Leilaa, whose booking created a controversy. A faculty member at a private graduate school posted a tweet that criticized Northwestern for its sponsorship of the event, stating that the concert crossed a “red line” for observant Muslims.

On June 3, the privately owned newspaper al-Raya published an article by Khalifa al-Mahmoud that was later removed from the daily’s website. In the article, al-Mahmoud claimed that Jews over the course of history infiltrated international power centers and shaped decision-making, including through the overthrow of governments, to serve their own interests. Pointing to the Rothschild family as an example, al-Mahmoud said that members of the family spread throughout Europe, taking over economies and profiting from wars. He also stated that the family controls the price of gold, media, and important banks to this day.

In his June 25 column in the online newspaper al-Arab, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman wrote that secularism is to blame for the “horrific state” of Arab and Muslim societies. He stated that colonial powers realized that “the idea of exporting the concepts of secularism or of the separation of religion and state to the Arab and Muslim world had no merit and would not last long. [They also realized] that it would expose [their own] ideology, which is hostile to the principles of religion and of the Islamic sharia.” Abd al-Rahman continued, “If we regard Islam as a spiritual connection [to God] and nothing else, or as a religion that is confined to the domain of the individual and his personal life, as reflected in his relationship with God – which is what the West or secular Christianity wants – this interpretation would divest the Islamic character of its cultural, educational, and behavioral content.…This is one of the gravest forms of treason against the noble Islamic nation, faith, and culture.…In our Islamic society, secularism represents a position of hostility to Islam and the Muslims…”

In poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 58 percent of respondents in Qatar either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels.” The rate of agreement in Qatar was among the lowest of the 13 regional countries included in the poll, where 65 percent of respondents either strongly or agreed with the statement.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In September, embassy officials met with the MFA, MOI, and the MOE to discuss concerns of the evangelical church congregations following an MOI decision to ban house churches outside the religious complex.

In March, embassy officials attended a religious freedom conference hosted by DICID, which included embassy-provided guest speakers.

In October, embassy representatives met with leaders from the evangelical Christian community, CCSC, and small Shia community to learn about their ability to freely practice their faiths in the country.

Embassy representatives continued to meet with Ministry of Culture and Sports, MFA, and MOE officials regarding anti-Semitic books being available at the annual Doha International Book Fair. Partially as a result of these discussions, the government did not allow three publishers who sold offensive materials at previous fairs to return. Organizers also did not allow anti-Semitic books sold at the 2019 fair to be sold at this year’s event. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue throughout the year with the MOE about newly published Islamic studies textbooks for public school students in grades seven through 12. In December 15 meetings with senior MFA officials, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism discussed a newly released NGO report and press coverage on anti-Semitism in the country’s textbooks as well as an invitation from the government for the U.S. government to participate in a government-sponsored interfaith conference in 2021.

Embassy officials continued to facilitate an agreement between the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs and the CCSC to raise awareness among churchgoers about ongoing changes to the labor law, including amendment of the kafala (labor sponsorship laws), which affected the expatriate population, and the procedures for submitting complaints to authorities.

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.

Syria

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and media sources, was exacerbated by government actions, the deterioration of the economy, and the broader ongoing conflict in the country. At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced, including 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and approximately 5.6 million refugees. Government and progovernment forces continued major aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture areas of the northwest of the country, killing more than 1,000 civilians and forcing nearly one million people to flee prior to the brokering of a ceasefire in March that largely held through the remainder of the year. The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit human rights abuses and violations against its perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims, as well as widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 Syrians who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing. The government continued to use Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country designated for reconstruction, to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs who wished to claim their property or return to their homes. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but the Alawi minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services. A March study by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center (Carnegie Middle East Center) noted that all of the top 40 posts in the armed forces were held by Alawites. In a joint paper, the Middle East Institute and NGO Etana stated that there are 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia Muslims in the country’s southwest than when the Syrian conflict began. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable with imprisonment or death.

The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that it had reasonable grounds to believe some Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) committed abuses that may have amounted to war crimes, including torture, rape, hostage-taking, looting, and appropriating private property, particularly in Kurdish areas, as well as vandalizing of Yezidi religious sites in areas under their control. The COI, human rights groups and media organizations reported multiple firsthand accounts of killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, and torture of civilians; the desecration and looting of minority religious and cultural sites; and the looting and seizure of private properties in and around Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Community representatives, human rights organizations such as the NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation-gathering groups reported victims of TSO abuses were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin. The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the country. In the northeast, formerly the stronghold of the ISIS caliphate, thousands of former ISIS members and their family members were being held either in detention centers or were living in the closed al-Hol camp at year’s end. Many former victims of ISIS remained missing.

Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups. NGOs reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly. The state news agency SANA reported that Adnan al-Afiyuni, the Sunni mufti for Damascus Province, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the town of Qudssaya. International observers considered al-Afiyuni to be close to President Bashar Assad.

The President and Secretary of State of the United States continued to state that a political solution to the conflict must be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and respect for the human rights of the country’s citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced; there were approximately 5.6 million refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries as well as 6.6 million IDPs. Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

The U.S. government estimates 10 percent of the population is Christian. However, there are reports that indicate that number was considerably lower – approximately 2.5 percent. Of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in the country prior to the war, it is estimated that only approximately one-third of them – or approximately 450,000 – remain. Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, but in June, the Jewish Chronicle reported that there were no known Jews still living in Syria. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

Sunni Muslims are present throughout the country. Shia Muslims live mostly in rural areas, particularly in several majority-Shia towns in Idlib and Aleppo Governates. Twelver Shia Muslims generally live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs. The majority of Alawites live in the mountainous areas of the coastal Latakia Governorate, but they also live in the cities of Latakia, Tartous, Homs, and Damascus. The highest concentration of Ismaili Muslims is in the city of Salamiyeh, Hama Governorate.

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox Churches, Eastern Catholic Churches, or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian Churches. Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast of the country. While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq. Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Sweida Governorate, where they constitute a majority of the local population. Yezidis previously lived in Aleppo, but now live mainly in northeast Syria areas controlled by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The legal framework described in this section remains in force only in those areas controlled by the government, and even in those areas there is often a breakdown in law and order, leaving militias, often sectarian in nature, in a dominant position. In areas of the country controlled by opposition or terrorist groups, irregular courts and local “authorities” apply a variety of unofficial legal codes with diverse provisions relating to religious freedom.

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these do not disturb public order. There is no official state religion, although the constitution states “Islam is the religion of the President of the republic.” The constitution states Islamic jurisprudence shall be a major source of legislation.

The constitution states, “The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected,” and “Citizens shall be equal in rights and duties without discrimination among them on grounds of sex, origin, language, religion, or creed.” Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it violated their rights. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case being decided.

According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees. This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism. Neither the government broadly nor the state security court has specifically defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity. Affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment. The law prohibits political parties based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests.

The government bans Jehovah’s Witnesses as a “politically-motivated Zionist organization.”

The law restricts proselytizing and conversion. It prohibits the conversion of Muslims to other religions as contrary to sharia. The law recognizes conversion to Islam. The penal code prohibits causing tension between religious communities.

The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.”

By law, all religious groups must register with the government. Registered religious groups and clergy – including all government-recognized Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups – receive free utilities and are exempt from real estate taxes on religious buildings and personal property taxes on their official vehicles.

The law regulates the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The law provides for a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist thought or deviate from approved discourse. The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” activity, including “Wahhabism.” The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight of the country’s religious affairs.

All meetings of religious groups, except for regularly scheduled worship, require permits from the government.

Public schools are officially government-run and nonsectarian, although the government authorizes the Christian and Druze communities to operate some public schools. There is mandatory religious instruction in public schools for all students, with government-approved teachers and curricula. Religious instruction covers only Islam and Christianity, and courses are divided into separate classes for Muslim and Christian students. Members of religious groups may choose to attend public schools with Islamic or Christian instruction or to attend private schools that follow either secular or religious curricula.

For the resolution of issues of personal status, the government requires citizens to list their religious affiliation. Individuals are subject to their respective religious groups’ laws concerning marriage and divorce. Per the personal status code, a Muslim man may marry a Christian woman, but a Muslim woman may not legally marry a Christian man. If a Christian woman marries a Muslim man, she is not allowed to be buried in an Islamic cemetery unless she converts to Islam and may not inherit any property or wealth from her husband, even if she converts. The law states that if a Christian wishes to convert to Islam, the presiding Muslim cleric must inform the prospective convert’s diocese.

The personal status law on divorce for Muslims is based on an interpretation of sharia implemented by government-appointed religious judges. In interreligious personal status cases, sharia takes precedence. A divorced woman is not entitled to alimony in some cases; a woman may also forego her right to alimony to persuade her husband to agree to the divorce. In addition, under the law, a divorced mother loses the right to guardianship and physical custody of her sons when they reach the age of 13 and of her daughters at age 15, when guardianship transfers to the paternal side of the family.

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.

An individual’s birth certificate records his or her religious affiliation. Documents presented when marrying or traveling for a religious pilgrimage also list the religious affiliation of the applicant. There is no designation of religion on passports or national identity cards except for Jews, who are the only religious group whose passports and identity cards note their religion.

Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.

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

Government Practices

The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit indiscriminate human rights abuses and violations against civilians, as well as participate in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. According to press and NGO reporting, the government continued its widespread use of unlawful killings, attacks on civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims.

Some opposition groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Muslim in statements and publications. According to observers, these opposition groups drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis. Some NGO sources stated that the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from attacks by violent Sunni extremist groups. Other NGO sources said that some minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists. A May report by the Carnegie Middle East Center stated, “The destruction during the conflict was not solely collateral damage. Its scale, nature, and consequences implied that it was used as a weapon of war to eradicate the populations of opposition areas…. Additionally, many believe the damage took place along sectarian lines, with a majority of destroyed areas being Sunni.”

The government’s counterinsurgency campaign continued to be aimed at those within the country who criticized or opposed the government, the majority of whom are Sunni and whom the government described as violent extremists. There were continued reports that in its efforts to retake opposition-held areas, the government targeted civilian centers in towns and neighborhoods, which, due to prevailing demographics, were inhabited by a majority Sunni population. From December 2019 to early March 2020, the government, with the support of its Russian allies, launched a large-scale military attack in Idlib Governate that killed hundreds of civilians as well as several dozen Turkish military personnel deployed in Idlib. The United Nations estimated that nearly one million persons were forced to leave their homes and that entire areas were left depopulated. The assault, which involved the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists, a status meant to exempt them from military targeting. Turkey reinforced its military position in Idlib to halt the offensive, and on March 5, Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire that included joint patrols and that largely held for the remainder of the year.

The attacks in Idlib resulted in the destruction of several mosques. For example, on March 2, government forces shelled the Othman Bin Affan Mosque in Balyoun village, in the Jabal al-Zaweya area of Idlib Governorate, partially destroying the building, according to the SNHR.

The SNHR reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 individuals who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing.

Media and NGOs continued to report that government forces continued to detain, torture, and kill citizens in connection with their political dissent and expression of opinions despite the right to freedom of opinion and expression being protected by the constitution and international law. The SNHR estimated the government and progovernment militias arbitrarily detained approximately 900 citizens during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers. The Syria Justice and Accountability Center reported government forces operated with impunity, while systematic, officially sanctioned torture continued. According to the SNHR, since 2011, more than 14,300 persons have died from torture in government custody. During the year, government forces were reportedly responsible for 157 deaths by torture. As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, most were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition or likely to support the opposition.

According to a March Freedom House Report, individuals living in government-held territory increasingly exposed corruption among local officials and among the government’s business allies and security services. The Freedom House report stated that the government harassed and detained those who did so, and that the government and loyalist militias punished Sunni Arab civilians more harshly than Alawites.

A July 24 Middle East Institute report stated that during the parliamentary elections in summer 2020, the Baath Party announced the list of candidates for different governorates and removed the name of at least one Christian candidate, justifying the change by stating that a Christian representative was not needed because there were no Christians left in Idlib.

The government continued to use Law No. 10 of 2018 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to claim their property and return to their homes. According NGO reports, since the law’s enactment, the government has replaced residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies, including by allowing only religious institutions submissive to government control to operate in those areas. These reports stated that the government’s policies disproportionately impacted Sunni populations. One U.S.-based NGO described the law as part of the government’s attempt to legalize demographic change and stated, “It is unlikely that displaced citizens will ever see their property again.” In response to a conference focused on refugees hosted by the government in November, the SHNR released a statement that said that Law No. 10 and other legislation “constitute a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs, amounting to enforced evictions and to an effort to manipulate demographics and social structures” of the country.

According to human rights groups and religious communities, the government continued to monitor and control sermons and to close mosques between prayers. It also continued to monitor and limit the activities of all religious groups, including scrutinizing their fundraising and discouraging proselytizing.

Despite the relatively small indigenous Shia community in the country, Shia religious slogans and banners remained prominent in Damascus, according to observers and media reports. In addition, Hizballah and other pro-Iran signs and banners remained prevalent in some government-held areas.

According to experts, religion remained a factor in determining career advancement in the government. The Alawite minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services, although the senior officer corps of the military continued to accept into its ranks individuals from other religious minorities. The government continued to exempt Christian and Muslim religious leaders from military service based on conscientious objection, although it continued to require Muslim religious leaders to pay a levy for exemption.

In a March study, Muhsin al-Mustafa, a researcher for the Carnegie Middle East Center, stated that “every single one of the top 40 posts in the Syrian armed forces was held by a member of President Assad’s Alawite sect.” He added, “The entire Syrian military is not built on one particular sect. But in recent years the institution has been characterized by an unprecedented degree of sectarianism.” The SNHR in a June report stated, “The vast majority of the leaders of the security services and the army (which are the two most prominent institutions ruling in Syria) are from the Alawite sect, a form of blatant discrimination on the basis of sectarianism….” Yazid Sayigh, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote in March, “The regime has increased dependence on Alawi recruits and on militarizing the Alawi community….” However, Abdulrahman al-Masri, writing for the Atlantic Council in September, stated that the support of the Alawite community for the government came at great cost – it suffered disproportionate battlefield losses and continued to be hurt by deteriorating living conditions – while it endured increased isolation from the rest of society.

On June 15, the New York Times reported that some in the military said the collapse of the Syrian currency had made their salaries virtually worthless, with army generals earning the equivalent of less than $50 per month and soldiers earning less than a third of that. It noted, “Anger about sinking livelihoods has flared even among members of…[the] Alawite minority, whose young men fought in large numbers…only to find that they will share in the country’s poverty instead of reaping the benefits of victory.”

There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population. The Atlantic Council, in an August 12 report, stated, “The Syrian regime deals with all groups and sects in the same way.… In reality, the regime is neither a protector of minority rights nor an advocate of women’s rights – let alone a promoter of peace and reconciliation. It operates merely to preserve itself, it undermines chances of Syrians uniting across religious and ethnic lines, and [it] gouges the government’s chances of effectiveness by manipulating positions, all while retaining the true decision-making power for itself.”

According to a June Carnegie Middle East Center report, the civil war “has altered the Sunni Muslim religious landscape of the capital, Damascus.” The report stated that Damascus was previously home to disparate and often times competing Sunni religious institutions. Many of these institutions and individual Sunni leaders have been forced into exile for being “insufficiently subservient” to the Assad regime and many have now united into a single opposition organization, the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC).

In a joint paper released in March, Manufacturing Division: the Assad Regime and Minorities in South-West Syria, the Middle East Institute and Etana Syria stated that tens of thousands of minority citizens in the country’s southwest have fled to Damascus or left the country. Compared with 2011, when the civil war began, there were 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia in the area. The report stated the government promoted itself as the champion of minorities and as a firewall against Islamic radicalism, intentionally stoking sectarian fears while simultaneously recruiting members of the Alawite and Shia communities to join the ranks of militias allied with the government. According to the report, “The weaponization of specific sects has eroded historically strong ties between Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Alawite communities in the southwest.” The paper also concluded that the government cultivated relationships with influential members of the Christian clergy, Druze leadership, and Circassian elite, granting these local powerbrokers disproportionate authority and influence in their communities, resulting in the breakdown of traditional social hierarchies and the appointment of progovernment minority figures to positions of power.

According to a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, anti-Semitism was endemic and had taken root at every level of society. The paper stated that religious leaders “quote – out of historical and religious context – Quranic scriptures to drive this ideology of hate, while many Syrian intellectuals and the artists adopt the hateful rhetoric of this dictatorship without question.” Anti-Semitic literature remained available for purchase at low prices throughout the country. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.

In May, the SANA Cinema and Television Industry Committee called on broadcasters to denounce the screening of a documentary series produced by the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center that called for normalization with Israel. The committee statement said, “Producers in Syria denounce the normalization with the Zionist entity through broadcasting such a series with a low message to deal with the enemy and distort facts.” A May 18 article in the official newspaper of the Syrian government, the daily Al-Thawra, stated that the COVID-19 virus had been developed by the United States and was deployed according to a plan by “the Zionist Freemasons, the Rothschilds, and the Rockefellers,” who control the United States “empire” and seek to prevent its collapse and to renew their “global control.”

Discussing Arab states’ normalization of relations with Israel, Mohammed Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed, the Minister of Religious Endowments, said in an October 27 television interview, “Every single surah in the Quran that mentions Israelites talks about their disgrace [and] their violation of treaties[.]”

The Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s joint Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative reported in May that the condition of 62 percent of Jewish-built heritage sites in the country was poor, very bad, or beyond repair.

The national school curriculum did not include materials on religious tolerance or the Holocaust.

The government continued to allow foreign Christian NGOs to operate under the auspices of one of the historically established churches without officially registering. It continued to require foreign Islamic NGOs to register and receive approval from the Awqaf to operate. Security forces continued to question these Islamic organizations on their sources of income and to monitor their expenditures. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor continued to prohibit religious leaders from serving as directors on the boards of Islamic charities.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

There continued to be reports that the Iranian government directly supported the Assad government primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that it recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters to the conflict. The Turkish press agency Anadolu stated that poverty and ideological motivations seemed to be the main reasons for foreign Shia to volunteer, and that while Iran promised jobs and an income, it also abused faith as a tool of sectarian-ideological exploitation. According to the report, in its recruitment efforts, Iran emphasized religious shrines and graves targeted and desecrated during the civil war and aroused hatred against Sunni groups fighting on the side of the opposition in Syria. The report also stated that Iranian recruiters promised that anyone who died in the war would be regarded as a martyr and be buried in Iran’s holy city of Qom. On March 1, Radio Farda reported that Iran buried 21 Afghan and Pakistani militia members in Qom. The Atlantic Council estimated in November that the Afghan brigade had an estimated 3,000 to 14,000 fighters spread between three battalions in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama Governates and that the Pakistani brigade had an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 fighters deployed in Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and Hama Governate.

A November report by the Atlantic Council stated that Iran encouraged the Shia minority in Syria to form special militias inside Syria, adding that “some of the Shia militias in Syria were and continue to be recruited on a sectarian basis under the pretext of defending places considered holy by the Shia community. For example, campaigns are being conducted in the areas housing holy Shia shrines in Damascus in the Sayeda Zeinab district.” The report also stated, “Iran recruited from the Shia minority… mainly from northern Aleppo, northern Homs, and parts of Raqqa.” The report stated that Iranian-recruited Syrian militia had between 5,000 and 8,000 members.

According to the news website IranWire, pro-Iranian militias reinforced government forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in the southwest of the country in June. Since 2011, the government permitted Iran to open primary and secondary schools on the coast, including in Latakia, where there previously was no Shia community. In March, a new center in Deir ez-Zor affiliated with the Alawalaya Scouts was inaugurated, supported by the Iranian Cultural Center. According to a notice in front of the center, the latter sponsors “cultural activities, sports, the arts, volunteer opportunities, developmental work, and educational and Holy Quran activities.”

According to community representatives, human rights organizations such as Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation gathering groups, TSOs in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other residents, including detentions and abductions of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained individuals across the border into Turkey, cutting off water to local populations, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines. TSOs also reportedly abused members of other religious minorities.

In areas under Turkish control, TSO groups operating under the Syrian National Army (SNA) restricted religious freedom of Yezidis through attacks against and the intimidation of civilians. The COI in March reported that Yezidi civilians in Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad were attacked and stated, “Videos published on the Internet, purportedly by SNA fighters, used language comparing their enemies to ‘infidels,’ ‘atheists,’ and ‘pigs’ when referring to civilians, detainees, and property, which further amplified fears and created an environment conducive to abuse.”

In December, the Voice of America reported that Yezidi community members in the northwest of the country said they were in a state of fear after Turkey-backed rebels in control of the area launched a weeklong blockade and arrest campaign against the Yezidi community in Afrin. The campaign started after an explosion near the two predominantly Yezidi villages of Basoufan and Ba’ay in southern Afrin targeted a TSO leader.

Religious and ethnic minorities, especially displaced Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, in areas under Turkish control, such as in the city of Afrin, reported persecution and marginalization. In August, regional news media reported that TSOs kidnapped 14 Syrian Kurds living in Afrin who had converted to Christianity. According to press reporting, TSOs attacked the predominantly Christian city of al-Suqyiabiyeh on November 6. In August, the press reported that a TSO in Afrin detained Radwan Mohammed, a Christian school headmaster, after he refused to convert his school into an Islamic educational center. The TSO alleged that Mohammed had committed apostasy.

The COI report in March stated, “Civilians in and around Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad reported numerous cases of looting and property appropriation by members of the SNA primarily affecting Kurdish residents and, on occasion, Yazidi owners who had fled in October.”

A March news report from Kurdistan 24, an Erbil-based Kurdish broadcast news station, reported anti-Yezidi abuses during the 2019 Operation Peace Spring offensive by Turkey had compounded those experienced during the Turkish incursion into Afrin in 2018. The report stated that experts on the Yezidis warned that the small community in Syria could “go extinct as the result of years of victimization by the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, and ongoing Turkish threats.” The COI reported in March, “Anticipating attacks on their community, Yezidi women, men and children, who populated some 13 villages across Ra’s al-Ayn District, also left.” Reports stated that only 15,000 of 50,000 Yezidis in northeast Syria remained and that it was feared more would flee. Yezidi Council spokesman Adnan Hassan told the Arab Weekly in an October report that since Turkish cross-border operations had begun in Afrin, 28 Yezidi villages had been evacuated, including one village that was transformed into a Turkish military base. Hassan also stated that Islamist factions in the region tried to force Yezidis to change their religion.

According to the COI, Yezidi women were detained by TSO groups and on at least one occasion were urged to convert to Islam during interrogation. In Afrin, Yezidi women who were reported to have been kidnapped by TSOs remained missing. The COI reported in September that it was “currently investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yezidi women were detained in both Ras al-Ayn and Afrin by [SNA] members between November 2019 and July 2020.”

The September COI report referenced a case in which the TSO’s Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council and a Turkish NGO, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, converted two TSO-seized, private, Kurdish-owned properties in Ras al-Ayn into religious centers. The owner of the properties said he objected to the properties’ conversion and was not compensated, but the conversions proceeded. The Ras al-Ayn Local Council deputy chair stated this sequence of events was correct.

A September COI report identified cases from April in which “several Yezidi shrines and graveyards were deliberately looted and partially destroyed across locations throughout the Afrin region, such as Qastel Jindo, Qibar, Jindayris, and Sharran, further challenging the precarious existence of the Yezidi community as a religious minority in SNA-controlled regions.” Human rights groups and Syrian media reported that militants of the TSO group Sultan Suleiman Shah looted the archaeological hill of Arnada, in the area of al-Sheikh Hadid west of Afrin, with heavy equipment. The looting heavily damaged the hill. In April, the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July, the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar Cemetery. These organizations also reported cases in which TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.

In the northeast of the country, civilians, many of them members of religious minorities, including Christians and Yezidis, faced threats from TSO groups to cut off water, via the deliberate shutdown of or interference with the Alouk Water Station, which since October 2019 was controlled by TSO groups. One press report stated that human rights groups reported TSOs had specifically threatened minority Christian and Yezidi communities recovering from ISIS abuses. In August, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch appealed to the UN Secretary General regarding what he termed was the use of water from the Alouk station as a “weapon,” stating that the cutting off of water amounted to “a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights.”

The COI and numerous independent sources reported that, during the course of the conflict, nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations, the United States, and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and members of other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, including Kurds, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and detentions. These resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. In areas where government control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration.

The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, including persons suspected of collaborating with government security forces, and members of groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the region, according to a January report by the NGO Open Doors. The report said that many Christians, fearing the possibility of an ISIS resurgence, did not feel safe. Thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members were being held in detention in the northeast of the country by the SDF or living in the closed al-Hol camp.

Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals detained by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, whom ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children have since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.

According to media reports, different Islamic factions subjected Christians in Idlib Governate to the application of sharia as well as the introduction of jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims) to pressure them to leave their homes. Media reporting indicated that HTS increased such restrictions on Christians in Idlib city. According to these reports, the HTS office of “Christians’ properties” notified Christian tenants and landlords to check with the HTS administrative offices before renewing leases or setting new terms, including raising the rents of houses and shops, since HTS considered Christians’ properties to be spoils of war. According to the COI, the HTS committed a wide range of abuses based on sectarian identity in areas it controlled.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Throughout the year there were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, cultural rivalries, and provocative rhetoric.

Advocacy groups reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly.

The state news agency SANA reported that Adnan al-Afiyuni, the Sunni mufti for Damascus Province, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the town of Qudssaya. The perpetrators of the attack remain unidentified. International observers considered al-Afiyuni to be close to President Assad.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition, the opposition’s primary political umbrella organization, and the Syrian Negotiations Committee, an opposition umbrella organization responsible for negotiating with the government on behalf of the opposition, continued to condemn attacks and discrimination against religious groups, both by the government and by extremist and terrorist groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President and Secretary of State continued to condemn the government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The President stressed the need for a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states that such a solution should establish credible, inclusive, and nonsectarian governance.

In June, wide-ranging U.S. sanctions against Syria went into effect. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, passed into law as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, requires the administration to impose sanctions on any foreign person who knowingly provides significant support to the Syrian government, entities owned or controlled by the government, or government-affiliated military contractors, mercenaries, and paramilitary forces, including forces operating in a military capacity inside Syria on behalf of Russia and Iran.

The Department of State continued to support the work of the UN International Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) as an important evidentiary-gathering mechanism to promote accountability for the atrocities committed by the government and others. Since its creation, the United States has provided $3.5 million to the IIIM, as well as awarded $3.4 million to the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) to support its efforts to gather evidence of ISIS crimes, including atrocities against members of Muslim, Yezidi, and Christian communities.

The U.S. government consistently urged Turkey and the Syrian opposition at the highest levels to comply with their obligations under international law in areas which they or groups they supported controlled or in which they operated.

The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the moderate opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard religious freedom for all citizens. These efforts included support for the Constitutional Committee, designed to pave the way for political reforms and new elections, which met several times throughout the year. The Secretary of State took part in a virtual Syria Small Group meeting with counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in October. At the meeting, the Secretary and the other Small Group ministers expressed their support for the United Nations’ role in negotiating a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. In addition, the Secretary affirmed the U.S. commitment to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and nonsectarian character; to ensuring state institutions remained intact; and to protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The U.S. embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012. U.S. government representatives continued to meet with religious groups and leaders in the United States and elsewhere in the Middle East region. A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and other Department of State officials participated in virtual dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on increasing religious tolerance and countering extremist violence. The U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement hosted a virtual panel discussion in October on accountability for human rights abuses, including those committed against religious minorities. Groups representing religious minority communities in Syria participated in the event.

The United States continued to support the documentation, analysis, and preservation of evidence of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict, including those committed against religious minorities, through the COI and IIIM, as well as through direct support for Syrian-led documentation efforts.

Tunisia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam. The constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Media reported in June that Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and president of Shams, a group that advocates for sexual minorities, fled to France after the government accused him in late 2019 of “incitement to hatred and to animosity between races, doctrines, and religions.” Police arrested four foreign nationals in Sousse on February 18 for distributing flyers encouraging conversion to Christianity. On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui, who since fled the country, to six months in prison and a 2,000-dinar ($750) fine for a May 2 social media post, “Sura Corona,” that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse as a comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology. In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status. On February 21, an administrative court ruled in favor of allowing the Baha’i Faith to establish an association. The General Prosecutor appealed the ruling and the case remained ongoing at year’s end. While face coverings used to guard against COVID-19 were permitted and mandated by the government, wearing the niqab remained prohibited. Christian citizens stated the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly as they pertain to the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. On May 19, the Minister of Cultural Affairs announced the ministry would include the synagogue of Tataouine in its national heritage registry and would place it under protection to prevent further degradation of the building. The multicultural Attalaki Association for Freedom and Equality reported continued positive exchanges with members of parliament from the Nahda political party, Tahya Tounes political party, and the Reform bloc in parliament, and the Union for Religious Affairs regarding efforts to combat hate speech based on religion and license a Christian cemetery and church.

Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. On May 3, a neighbor called a woman an infidel and physically assaulted her for wearing a Christian cross. An article published by an international NGO stated that several historical factors “have contributed to a persistent societal perception of religious minorities in Tunisia as foreigners (Christians more than Jews due to the longer presence of the latter), or at least as not fully Tunisian.” Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials continued to maintain regular contact with government officials, including in the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), Office of the Presidency, and Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society and Human Rights, to discuss issues concerning religious freedom and encourage tolerance of religious minorities. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, difficulties facing Baha’i Faith and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths. Throughout the year, embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. Embassy officers continued to engage, virtually, on a regular basis with a range of religious leaders.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate), of which approximately 99 percent is Sunni Muslim. Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, and nonbelievers constitute less than 1 percent of the population. There are approximately 7,000 Christians who are citizens, according to the Christian community, most of whom are Anglicans or Protestants. The MRA estimates there are approximately 30,000 Christian residents, most of whom are foreigners, and of whom 80 percent are Roman Catholic. Catholic officials estimate their church membership at fewer than 5,000, widely dispersed throughout the country. The remaining Christian population is composed of Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Jewish community numbers approximately 1,400, according to the MRA. One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital, and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and in the neighboring town of Zarzis. There is a small Baha’i community, but reliable information on its numbers is not available.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam is the country’s religion, but the constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and requires the president to be Muslim. It guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices. The constitution also states that mosques and houses of worship should be free from partisanship. It obligates the state to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance, protect holy sites, and prevent takfir (Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims). The law requires that all religious services be celebrated within houses of worship or other nonpublic settings. These restrictions extend to public advertisement of religious services. The constitution lists reasons for potential restrictions on the rights and freedoms it guarantees, including protecting the rights of others, requirements of national defense, and public order, morality, or health. The constitution guarantees the right to public education and says the state will “work to consolidate the Arab-Muslim identity in the young generations.”

The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.”

There is no legal prohibition of proselytism, but the law criminalizes forced conversions.

Religious groups may form and register associations under the law to establish a bank account, conduct financial activities such as charity work, and receive favorable tax treatment, including tax-free donations from government-approved associations, provided the association does not purport to represent all believers of a religious group or use the name of a religious group. To establish an association, a religious group must submit a registered letter to the Prime Minister’s Office stating the purposes of the association; copies of the national identity cards of its founders, who must be citizens; and two copies of the articles of association signed by the association’s founders or their representatives. The articles of association must contain the official name of the association in Arabic and any foreign language, if appropriate; its address; a statement of its objectives; membership criteria; membership fees; and a statement of organizational structure, including identification of the decision-making body for the association. The law requires that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles. The law prohibits associations from engaging in for-profit activities, providing material support to individual political candidates, or adopting bylaws or taking actions to incite violence or promote hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Once established, an association may receive tax-exempt income from organizations, including foreign organizations that have a prior agreement with the government.

Once an association receives the return receipt from the Prime Minister’s Office, it has seven days to submit an announcement of the name, purpose, and objectives of the association to the government press. The government press has 15 days to publish the announcement in the government gazette, which marks the association’s official registration. In the event the government does not return a registered receipt within 30 days, an association may proceed to submit its documents for publication and obtain registration. A foreign association may establish a branch in the country, but the government may also reject its registration request if the government finds the principles or objectives of the foreign association contravene the law.

Violations of the provisions of the law related to associations are punishable, first by a warning of up to 30 days from the secretary general of the government, then by a court order suspending the association’s activities for up to 30 days if the violations persist. If the association is still in violation of the law, the secretary general may then appeal to the court for dissolution of the association. Under the law, associations have the right to appeal court decisions.

Registered associations have the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, to publish reports and leaflets, to own real estate, and to engage in “all types of civil activities.”

A 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See grants official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. The modus vivendi allows the Church to function in the country and provides state recognition of the Catholic Church, although it restricts religious activities and services to the physical confines of authorized churches and prohibits construction of new churches and the ringing of church bells. A limited number of Catholic schools and charities may operate under the modus vivendi, but their financial activities are conducted through registration as an association and their affiliation with the Church is not publicized.

The law states that the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The Grand Mufti, appointed by the President, is charged with declaring religious holidays, issuing certificates of conversion to Islam, attending to citizens’ inquiries, representing the country at international religious conferences, providing opinions on school curricula, and studying and writing about Islam. The MRA suggests themes for Friday sermons but does not regulate their content. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.

By law, new mosques may be constructed, provided they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations. The MRA pays for construction of mosques, although private and foreign donors also are able to contribute to construction costs. Mosques become government property upon completion, after which the government must maintain them.

It is mandatory for students in public schools to attend courses on the principles of Islam for approximately one hour per week. Non-Muslim students generally attend these courses but may seek an exemption. The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity. Religious groups may operate private schools.

Provisions of law addressing marriage, divorce, and other personal status issues are largely based on principles of civil law, combined with elements of sharia. Laws of inheritance are principally based on requirements in sharia, but there are some provisions that allow for exceptions as outlined in the Code of Personal Status.

Newly married couples must state explicitly in the marriage contract whether they elect to combine their possessions or to keep them separate. Sharia inheritance law in some instances provides men with a larger share of an inheritance. Non-Muslim women and their Muslim husbands may not inherit from each other, unless they seek a legal judgment based on the rights enshrined in the constitution. The government considers all children of those marriages to be Muslim and forbids those children from inheriting from their mothers. Spouses may, however, freely give up to one-third of their estate to whomever they designate in their will.

The law does not list religion as a prohibited basis for political parties but prohibits political parties from using religion to call for violence or discrimination.

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

Government Practices

According to a June 9 Reuters report, Mounir Baatour, a lawyer and president of Shams, a group that advocates for sexual minorities, fled to France after the government accused him in late 2019 of “incitement to hatred and to animosity between races, doctrines, and religions,” under the country’s counterterrorism law. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the basis for the accusation was that he re-shared a post on his Facebook page that critics considered disparaging of the Prophet Mohammed.

Media reported that police arrested two Indians, an Australian, and a Filipino in Sousse on February 18 for distributing flyers encouraging conversion to Christianity. According to media reports, the individuals were released after interrogation and subsequently deported.

On July 14, the First Instance Court of Tunis sentenced blogger Emna Chargui to six months in prison and a 2,000 dinar ($750) fine for a May 2 social media post, “Sura Corona,” that mimicked the format of a Quranic verse as a comment on the COVID-19 pandemic. The prosecutor charged Chargui under the press code for “inciting hatred between religions through hostile means or violence” and “offending authorized religions.” Civil society organizations criticized the court’s decision and called on authorities to overturn Chargui’s conviction. Chargui, who told the New York Times she identified as an atheist, announced through a Facebook post on August 8 that she had departed the country to seek asylum elsewhere. Her appeal remained under court review at year’s end.

On November 3, following an October attack in Nice, France, in which three persons were stabbed to death at a church, reportedly by a Tunisian, the government’s regional director of local affairs in Bizerte announced the suspension of a local imam who had posted a video on his Facebook page that incited others to kill anyone who offends the Prophet Muhammad. Police arrested and interrogated the imam. He remained in detention pending trial at year’s end. According to HRW, on November 12, a Tunis court sentenced blogger Wajdi Mahouechi to two years in prison for posting a video to Facebook on November 1 criticizing the public prosecutor’s handling of the imam’s case. The police arrested Mahouechi on November 2.

The Attalaki Association reported on incidents of hate speech, including by Rached Khiari, a member of parliament and former al-Karama Coalition member, who wrote on his Facebook page following the October 16 beheading of a teacher in France, “Whoever attacks the prophet must bear the consequences.” The Ministry of Interior initiated an investigation into the statement. A Counterterrorism Department spokesperson told media that Khiari’s action could be classified as a terrorism crime under the antiterrorism law.

On February 20, a member of the political bureau of the People’s Movement political party, Moncef Bouazizi, said during a media interview that the People’s Movement had been responsible for the removal of then Minister of Tourism Rene Trabelsi from the government. According to Bouazizi, the People’s Movement expressed its disapproval of Trabelsi, a Jew, to then Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh and accused Trabelsi of “normalizing with the Zionist entity” when he stated that Israelis of Tunisian origin should be allowed to return to the country for the Djerba pilgrimage.

Throughout the year, the High Independent Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) closed several media outlets for not complying with HAICA licensing requirements. On December 7, demonstrators in Tunis protested the government’s closing of the privately owned Radio Quran al-Karim. The HAICA said it ordered the closure because the station lacked an operating license. According to press reports, protestors said the action was rooted in Islamophobia and called for the station to return to the air. On December 31, the HAICA imposed a 100,000 dinar ($37,300) fine because of the defamatory and insulting content of its programs, saying that the station’s programs contained “erroneous” information and broadcast live religious discussions inciting hatred and violence, threatening people’s safety, public security, and social peace.

Local Jewish sources reported that the Jewish community respected the government’s COVID-19 general lockdown measures from March to May and that in turn, the government provided the Jewish community with flexibility as needed. For example, after the community expressed concern that the prison authority’s COVID-19 measures prevented family members from delivering kosher meals to a Jewish pretrial detainee, the courts released the detainee on bail, enabling him to join his family for Passover.

As part of the Ministry of Justice’s rehabilitation program for countering violent extremism, the Committee General for Prisons and Rehabilitation maintained an agreement with the MRA to permit vetted and trained imams to lead religious sessions with prisoners identified as extremists. As part of the ministry’s measures to counter violent extremism, prisons prohibited organized communal prayers but permitted individual detainees to have religious materials and to pray in their cells.

In contrast with the previous year, Baha’i leaders reported harassment by security force personnel during the year, including while preparing administrative documents at police stations.

On February 21, an administrative court ruled in favor of allowing the Baha’i Faith to establish an association. Baha’i Faith members reported that the General Prosecutor then presented an appeal to the court referencing a nonpublic fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti in 2016, which stated that Baha’i Faith members were apostates and infidels and therefore should not be permitted to practice their faith. The case remained ongoing at year’s end.

According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), because the Baha’i community remained unregistered, it could not have a bank account, organize money collection, or establish religious schools. The community petitioned the Minister of Local Affairs to establish a Baha’i cemetery but did not receive a reply by year’s end.

The government continued to publicly urge imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. Since 2015, the MRA has conducted regular training sessions for imams on how to disseminate these messages. According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations that are chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the local mosque committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques.

The government mandated the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, although the niqab remained officially prohibited. In 2019, in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks in downtown Tunis, the government prohibited the wearing of face coverings in administrative and public institutions, in order to “maintain public security and guarantee optimal implementation of safety requirements.” The media subsequently reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab. Government officials denied that the restriction limited religious freedom and stressed that its goal was to promote improved security. Sources reported that the circular remained valid during the year.

On March 5, President Kais Saied visited the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, accompanied by the then Ministers of Defense, Transport and Logistics, a former Minister of Tourism, and regional officials. In a speech, Saied said, “Tunisian Jews are equal with the rest of Tunisians in the eyes of the law, especially in terms of rights and duties.”

Christian citizens continued to state there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to discuss a church’s activities or theology publicly. Christian sources stated that security forces banned a religious conference scheduled for February in a hotel in the city of Hammamat for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 concerns.

Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate within set guidelines and provided security for their services. The government generally restricted public religious services or processions outside churches. On August 15, however, the Santa Costa Church held a celebration in the streets of the city of La Goulette in honor of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption. A number of Muslim citizens, including the Mayor of La Goulette, Amal El Imam, and regional Ministry of Interior representative Fathi Hakami, attended the celebration.

Christian citizens reported the government continued to deny them the right to establish a legal entity or association that would give them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. However, the Christian community again did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year. Christian cemeteries existed for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, continued to need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Citizens reported they generally did not request such permission due to what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse. In August, the Attalaki Association reported that local officials refused to bury the body of a child of a Christian father in an Islamic cemetery because the cemetery was designated for use by Muslims only. After the family contacted the mayor of Tunis, the cemetery administration authorized the child’s burial. The Attalaki Association reported continued positive exchanges with members of parliament representing the Nahda political party, Tahya Tounes political party, the Reform bloc in Parliament, and the Union for Religious Affairs to discuss efforts to combat hate speech based on religion and to license a Christian cemetery and church.

On May 19, the mayor of al-Kram established the country’s first government-sponsored zakat fund (an Islamic religious duty to donate a portion of one’s income to the poor) since independence in 1956. Defenders of the country’s officially secular nature strongly criticized the creation of the fund, stating that religious initiatives should not replace the government’s civic duty and that it was contrary to the constitution. Civil society groups voiced concerns that the fund could benefit Islamist political groups at the expense of the state.

Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis but not those located in other cities, including Sousse and El-Kef.

In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either type of school full-time. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.

Representatives from the Jewish community reported that in early November, as a follow-up to applications first filed in 2019, they submitted legal documents related to establishing a Jewish community association to the MRA and to the Minister, who had vowed to support the request. The Jewish community initiated the applications to establish associations to better advocate with the government on behalf of Jewish community interests and serve as an organizing body for the Jewish communities in Gabes, Medenine, and Tunis.

On May 19, the Minister of Cultural Affairs announced the ministry would include the synagogue of Tataouine in its national heritage registry and would place it under protection to prevent further degradation of the building.

On November 15, during a visit to Doha, President Saied and the Qatari Emir proposed the holding of a “Western-Islamic conference…aimed at achieving greater understanding.” The President said that the conference would have the aim of avoiding confusion that Westerners might experience in distinguishing between “Muslims …[and] those extremists who claim to be Muslims,” and that there was a “need to differentiate between Islam and its true purposes and terrorism, which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam.”

In December, the government reported that 160 persons converted to Islam during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some atheists reported receiving family and societal pressure to return to Islam or conceal their atheism, including, for instance, by fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from criticizing Islam. Some converts to Christianity reported strong family and societal rejection, and some of them were reportedly beaten and forced to leave their homes on account of their beliefs.

On May 3, a neighbor called a woman an infidel and physically assaulted her for wearing a Christian cross. The victim pressed charges against the attacker; the court case remained ongoing at year’s end.

According to the MRGI, some civil society organizations reported that there were a growing number of Muslim converts to Christianity, but that social taboos remained so strong and widespread that these individuals generally preferred to keep their conversions secret. Many faced ostracism and even violence from their own families due to the stigma surrounding conversion from Islam. Some members of the Christian community said that citizens who attended church services faced pressure from family members and others in their neighborhood not to attend. Christians reported that family members frequently accused converts of bringing “shame” to the family by their conversion. The Attalaki Association reported that security forces or family members harassed Christians.

Christian sources reported that local churches coordinated with government officials to help the churches’ sub-Saharan congregants pay for rent, food, and basic necessities after many had lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a July article on religion, identity, and ethnicity in the country, published in a journal of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Sylvia Quattrini, the MRGI’s Middle East and North Africa Coordinator, wrote that several historical factors “have contributed to a persistent societal perception of religious minorities as foreigners (Christians more than Jews due to the longer presence of the latter), or at least as not fully Tunisian.”

Baha’i leaders reported that the Baha’i Faith community held virtual religious gatherings, respecting COVID-19 lockdown and curfew orders. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Baha’i community postponed an event initially scheduled for October 19 to discuss different religions’ views on equal inheritance between men and women.

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C., and released in November, 57 percent of respondents in the country either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” which compared with 65 percent region-wide.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 59 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion was “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

In a global poll by the Pew Research Center published in July, 91 percent of respondents in the country agreed that “religion is very important in their lives,” compared to 24 percent of those polled in all 34 countries included in the survey. On other questions, 99 percent said that “God plays an important role in their life” and 97 percent said that “prayer plays an important role in their life.” This compared to results from across 34 countries in the survey where 61 percent say that God plays an important role in their lives and 53 percent say that prayer is important in their daily life. Eighty-four percent of respondents in country agreed that belief in God is necessary to have good values, compared with 45 percent for all 34 countries included in the poll.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and embassy officials continued to maintain regular contact with government officials, including in the MRA, the Office of the Presidency, and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights to discuss issues concerning religious freedom and encourage tolerance of religious minorities. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, difficulties facing Baha’i and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths.

Embassy officials maintained frequent contact with leaders of religious groups throughout the country to discuss the impact of the security situation on religious groups and the freedom of religious minorities to worship without restrictions by the government or threats from the community. The embassy supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance and counter violent extremism related to religion, including informal youth-led conversation groups to discuss issues of religious tolerance and alternatives to violence; a program working with scout troops to learn how to recognize and combat signs of religious radicalization; and several research programs aimed at identifying and countering religious radicalization and violent extremism, especially in youth.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution states that Islam is the country’s official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The law prohibits blasphemy and proselytizing by non-Muslims. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered them deported for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, the Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported after the courts determined that he insulted Islam in WhatsApp messages. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of limited the spread of what the authorities characterize as extremist ideology. Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families. The Abu Dhabi Emirate implemented a three-tier authorization system for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship by issuing licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. A new Abu Dhabi guideline requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for the numerous religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree, and led to the denial of permits to leaders of some groups. Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths otherwise reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities. In April, Dubai’s government granted The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022. COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures. A phased reopening of all houses of worship began with mosques.

The press reported that a man identified as a citizen of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. A court sentenced him to three years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how the “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press that he would investigate the incident. An employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. The press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police. According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with the houses of worship officially recognized by the Abu Dhabi government in 2019, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations. On September 17, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, and the country’s first Jewish wedding was held in Dubai on December 1.

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, visiting U.S. government officials, and embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, the DCD, and the Department of Culture and Tourism during the year. In meetings with government authorities, U.S. officials discussed issues related to the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In addition to discussing the implementation of licensing procedures, regulatory practices, and interfaith education and training, officers discussed international, bilateral, and governmental efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance as well as host government initiatives to promote what it believed were moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. Remarks by both U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Approximately 11 percent are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports. The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia. Although no official statistics are available on the percentage of the noncitizen population who are Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists, and also including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews. Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The constitution states that the country is an independent, sovereign, and federal state comprised of seven emirates.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years and deportation for noncitizens.

The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; but the penal code’s blasphemy provisions punish behavior viewed as contemptuous of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad or offensive to Islamic teachings.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims. The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, insulting any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred. Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment that generally ranges from five to 10 years or more.

The law prohibits blasphemy, defined as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship. Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) to two million dirhams ($545,000); noncitizens may be deported. The law prohibits any form of expression, including through broadcasting, printed media, or the internet, that the government determines is contradictory to Islam as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.

Federal law does not require religious organizations to register or obtain a license to practice, although the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions, such as opening a bank account or renting space. Each emirate oversees registration and licensing of non-Muslim religious organizations and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance; these procedures are not published by the emirate governments. The federal government has also granted some religious organizations land in free-trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license that allows them some operational functions. In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the Community Development Authority (CDA). The governments of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also require religious communities to obtain permits for certain activities, including holding public events and worshipping in temporarily rented spaces, such as hotels.

The federal law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan. Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 2,000 dirhams ($540). The law prohibits Muslims from drinking alcohol or knowingly eating pork throughout the year. The government announced a series of legal reforms in November decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol but had not published the text of the reforms by year’s end. Despite legal prohibitions on eating during daylight hours during Ramadan, most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants.

The federal law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools. In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes. All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include teaching on Islam. The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student; for example, Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defaming any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure. All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government. Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry. Administrative oversight of the schools is a responsibility of each emirate’s government.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas. Outside of special economic zones and designated freehold areas, the law restricts majority company ownership to citizens except in certain exempted sectors. This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, that wish to purchase property to build houses of worship.

The law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression. It also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred. Violations of the law carry penalties of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million dirhams ($272,000).

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case. Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage and divorce, and inheritance for both Muslims and non-Muslims; however, in the case of noncitizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply, rather than sharia. Sharia also applies in some criminal matters. Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system. When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties. In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties. Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.

In November, the country’s President announced decrees amending the federal laws on personal status, civil transactions, the penal code, and criminal procedures. Amendments to the penal code and criminal procedure law repealed “the article giving [a] reduced (lenient) sentence in what are called honor crimes.” “Honor” killings will henceforth be treated as normal murder cases. In other amendments, noncitizens may choose not to apply sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance, and other acts “that do not harm others,” leaving to prosecutors and judges to define those specific acts.

The Fatwa Council, headed by the president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf.

Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law; non-Muslim men and Muslim women who marry are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of engaging in extramarital sex, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in prison; any extramarital sex between persons of any religion is subject to the same penalties.

Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “the best interests of the child” standard since 2010. According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age. Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education. The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.

The country’s citizenship law does not include religion as a prerequisite for naturalization. Non-Muslim wives of citizens are eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage, if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children. There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim. Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will. In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother, sharia usually applies.

Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate. The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department. In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live. In November, the government announced changes to the personal status laws allowing the general terms of a will to be dealt with according to the law of the country specified in the will or, in cases where a country is not specified in the will, the law of the deceased person’s country of nationality. This is not applicable to property purchased in the UAE, however, which remains subject to UAE law. The government had not published the text of these reforms by year’s end. Non-Muslims are able to register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system as a way to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights. In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry, which may cover assets held in the UAE as well as abroad. The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir. Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia. There are courts for personal status and for inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam. These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals. Punishment may include imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) to one million dirhams ($272,000). Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million). The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.

Under the law, local authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons. The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid Musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material. The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques. The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities. Violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600). Under the cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of any type of donation without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams ($54,500) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams ($68,100) and 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

In Abu Dhabi, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments is entrusted with overseeing Muslim religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications. Non-Muslim religious affairs fall under the mandate of the DCD, which regulates, licenses, and oversees non-Islamic houses of worship, religious leaders, religious events organized outside houses of worship, and fundraising activities across the emirate.

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups. The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities. The law states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval. Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams ($140) to 100,000 dirhams ($27,200).

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

Government Practices

According to media reports in January, Dubai courts fined three Sri Lankan men 500,000 dirhams ($136,000) each and ordered their deportation for insulting Islam in social media posts. In September, Dubai Public Prosecution filed blasphemy charges against an Arab man after an altercation with police in which he reportedly insulted Islam. In January, local media reported Dubai courts sentenced a Jordanian man in absentia to three months in prison, fined him 500,000 dirhams ($136,000), and ordered him deported for insulting Islam in WhatsApp messages.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery. Customs authorities in Dubai and the northern emirates reported seizing shipments containing materials they said were intended for use in magic and sorcery. According to media reports, in late 2019, Abu Dhabi police arrested a European national for charges of witchcraft and fraud; the subsequent status of his case remained unknown. In February, local press reported Dubai Customs prevented 22 attempts in 2019 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery.

Following a 2018 court ruling upholding his earlier conviction, the government continued to imprison Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017. Although specifics of the charges against Mansoor remained unknown, authorities stated that, among other violations of the law, Mansoor promoted “a sectarian- and hate-filled agenda.”

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. Since 2011, the government also has restricted the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services. In Abu Dhabi, some Christian clergy again raised concerns about lack of worship space for incarcerated Christians. They said that when they were granted prison access, they were permitted to take Bibles to the prisoners.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain websites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including ones with information on Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity. Following the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel, the government unblocked some websites containing information on Judaism.

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their gender, educational background, and knowledge of Islam along with security checks. According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. Leading up to Ramadan, the Awqaf launched training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

In January, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi announced on Instagram that well-known preacher and television personality Waseem Youssef was no longer an imam and preacher at the mosque. Although the reason for Youssef’s removal was not provided, according to the press it was tied to lawsuits that Youssef pursued against 19 individuals for “defamation” on social media, following his comments questioning the validity of one of the canonical sources of the hadith. The lawsuits culminated in the court finding four defendants guilty of defaming Youssef while dismissing the remaining cases.

Following these civil trials, in February, private citizens filed a civil law suit against Youssef in the Abu Dhabi criminal court, charging him under the cybercrime law with promoting ideas and programs that spread hatred and racism and harm national unity and social peace. Youssef maintained his innocence. In March, the court decreed in March that the case was outside its jurisdiction and referred it to federal prosecutors for further review. The government took no action in this regard.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons. Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. Qualification requirements were more stringent for expatriate imams than for local imams and starting salaries much lower.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, managed Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams. The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The government did not appoint imams for Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu. Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.

The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private but not in public. There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration and licensing procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates. The federal government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases. The governments of individual emirates continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers.

The Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) implemented a new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship. Under the system, the DCD issues licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations. Licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. The establishment of this system followed a 2019 DCD decision to grant licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the emirate’s first traditional Hindu temple. These changes did not apply to religious groups in the other emirates.

In August, Dubai’s Jewish community publicly announced that it was negotiating with the Dubai government for an official license.

The new Abu Dhabi guideline instituted in late 2019 and early 2020 requiring religious leaders to work in the ministry full time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa posed a challenge for religious leaders who serve their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who do not have a theology degree. Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders, and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination. Some religious community members expressed concern that the new system discriminated against smaller and less-recognized denominations.

Since the September 2019 licensing of 18 houses of worship by the DCD, community sources reported that unregistered religious organizations faced challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion. COVID-19 related restrictions, however, disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in early March, the government instituted a nationwide mandatory suspension of group prayers at all mosques, churches, and temples, followed by the ordered closure of all houses of worship in the UAE. From July through September, the Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments began the phased reopening of houses of worship, beginning with mosques and then non-Islamic houses of worship. Houses of worship located in labor camps and industrial zones, which included more than half of all churches located in Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain, were the last to receive permission to open.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

In Dubai, there were continued reports of delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds. The CDA oversees civil institutions, nonprofits, and non-Muslim faith communities in the emirate. There were continued reports of restrictions as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA. There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

In May, the CDA ordered St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai to cease online live-streamed masses until it obtained a permit, following the government-ordered closure of religious facilities across the UAE due to the COVID-19 pandemic. St. Mary’s subsequently obtained a permit, and the CDA allowed live-streamed masses to resume. COVID-19 restrictions continue to restrict the activities of some churches in Dubai, including the Catholic and Anglican communities. While these churches were allowed to reopen at the same time as other religious facilities, local regulations prohibited practices such as receiving communion due to concerns these practices would contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Despite the closure of houses of worship as a result of COVID-19, the Abu Dhabi government encouraged non-Islamic houses of worship to live-stream services for major holidays, such as Easter.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications. School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation. Applicants were required to list a religious affiliation, creating potential legal issues for atheists and agnostics. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they generally could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes. While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions. In February, worshippers attended a prayer ceremony marking the start of the construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple.

News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from the Catholic, Anglican, and Hindu communities, expressing appreciation for government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which their communities could worship. Following a meeting in Abu Dhabi between UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan and members of the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushotta Swaminarayan Sanstha (BAPS) Hindu community, the BAPS said the meeting “spoke volumes” about the UAE leadership’s “vision and commitment for a more inclusive, more peaceful, and harmonious future.”

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries. Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community. Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the crematoriums.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi and Dubai displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them, such as books. In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, knives, and containers of blood.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting a religion other than Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

Except in the judiciary and military, religious minorities (including Shia Muslims) did not serve in senior federal positions.

In October, the Federal Supreme Court upheld a sentence of 100 lashes in an adultery case involving an unmarried Muslim man and woman who confessed to having illicit sex in one of the northern emirates. The court stated, “Article 1 of the Penal Code under the provisions of Islamic Sharia law stipulates giving 100 lashes and expatriation or distancing for a period of one year to an unmarried person.” Although the pair challenged the ruling, both the court of appeal and the Federal Supreme Court based in Abu Dhabi upheld the flogging sentence.

In October, the press reported that the government was considering a proposal to provide additional housing grants and loans to men who take second and third wives.

In November, the Simon Wiesenthal Center sent a letter to the Emir of Sharjah reporting that the Sharjah International Book Fair, held November 4-14, included displays of anti-Semitic books, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and other titles. The Wiesenthal Center sent similar letters to the country’s UNESCO representative and to the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested a list of the anti-Semitic titles and vowed to work with the book fair authorities and other relevant ministries to address and prevent the presence of such books in the future.

Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious issues.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space, sometimes in private homes. In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic. Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally made up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. The country’s Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations gathered in other spaces, such as hotels. In April, Dubai’s government granted the Church of Jesus Christ a land concession at the Expo 2020 site, which Dubai will hand over after the event’s conclusion in 2022 for construction of the Church’s first temple in the Middle East region.

There are two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple in Dubai. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a privately funded Hindu temple, scheduled to be completed by 2022. There are no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

There are no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in private Dubai villas and hotels. Construction in Abu Dhabi of the first official synagogue in the country is scheduled to begin in 2021 as part of the larger government-funded Abrahamic Family House – a project slated to bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths. In October, international press reported members of Dubai’s Jewish community built a sukkah (a small shelter used during celebration of Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival) outside a hotel at Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa skyscraper. In December, Dubai’s Jewish community held several public Hanukkah celebrations, which included one congregation lighting a large Menorah in front of the Burj Khalifa.

Construction of a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi remained stalled at 50 percent completion due financial issues; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

In January and February, the government hosted members of the Higher Committee of Human Fraternity, a nine-member multifaith committee that included representatives from the UAE, Egypt, Italy, the United States, Bulgaria, and Spain and was tasked with implementing the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together a declaration of reconciliation, cooperation, tolerance, and fraternity among believers and nonbelievers that was announced during the Pope’s 2019 visit to Abu Dhabi. During the meetings, the participants discussed their commitment to the goal of fostering coexistence, peace, and social fraternity.

In February, the government hosted the Voices of Human Fraternity Forum, which brought together 150 students, youth leaders, advocates, and educational representatives from around the world to promote the values reflected in the Document on Human Fraternity.

Following the announcement of normalization of relations with Israel, the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism sent a letter to all hotels advising them to add kosher menus to their food services. The letter said that kitchens must be prepared for the requirements of Jewish dietary laws and that there would be ongoing kashrut supervision, similar to that of hotels in Israel. According to the letter, “All hotel establishments are advised to include kosher food options on room service menus and at all food and beverage outlets in their establishments.”

During a joint World Muslim Communities Council and Supreme Council of Imams and Islamic Affairs virtual seminar in August, entitled “The Role of Imams in Reinforcing Community Peace,” the chairman of the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments, Dr. Mohammed al Kaabi, said, “The right path to confronting extremism is to develop moderate religious awareness and support influential religious leaders.”

In September, the Minister of Culture and Youth said the government wanted to send “a message of hope to the community in Mosul, which has always been an incubator for religious and intellectual discourse.”

In November, the Education Affairs Office of the Crown Prince in Abu Dhabi announced that at least 1,500 teachers would receive moral education training to instill tolerance, community spirit, and compassion in students.

Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities. Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms. In September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan extended New Year’s greetings to the country’s Jewish community on social media on Rosh Hashanah. In October, he visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, where he stated that the visit to the memorial “underscored the importance of human values such as coexistence, tolerance and accepting the other…as well as respect for all creeds and faiths.”

In November, Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi opened a multifaith prayer room for use by hospital visitors.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January, local press reported that a man identified as a GCC national tried to burn his grandmother alive because he believed she was using black magic to turn him into a woman. The grandmother suffered second and third-degree burns over 25 percent of her body. The Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance sentenced the man to five years in prison and ordered him to pay 50,000 dirhams ($13,600) to the victim. The man challenged the ruling in the appellate court, which reduced the prison sentence to three years but maintained the compensation amount. The defendant then appealed to Abu Dhabi’s Court of Cassation, the emirate’s highest court, where the prosecution argued that the appeal be rejected and that the court order the defendant to pay the court costs. At year’s end, the status of the appeal remained unknown.

In April, the press reported an Indian manager at an Abu Dhabi firm posted graphic anti-Islamic images on Facebook showing how “jihadi” coronavirus could cause exponentially more deaths than explosives. His employer told the press it would investigate the incident. Later that month, an employer fired an Indian worker in Dubai and referred the case to police after the individual ridiculed Muslim worshippers in a Facebook posting about COVID-19. In May, the press reported that three other Indians, in separate incidents, had been disciplined by their employers in Dubai and Sharjah for social media posts deemed offensive to Islam. In one case, the employer referred the matter to police.

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members. In October, Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 2,570 Dubai residents converted to Islam in the first three quarters of 2020.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers. The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas festivities and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores, although bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.

According to press reports, Dubai’s first kosher restaurant, Kaf, opened in the Burj Khalifa, a local landmark and the world’s tallest building, on September 17. On September 18, the Dubai newspaper Khaleej Times published a Rosh Hashanah supplement. On December 1, Dubai hosted the country’s first Jewish wedding.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, visiting U.S. government officials, and embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Abu Dhabi’s DCD and the Department of Culture and Tourism during the year. U.S. representatives discussed efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance; licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious groups; and government initiatives to promote moderate interpretations of Islam. Embassy representatives also engaged with government entities on the importance of prohibiting anti-Semitic materials from government-sponsored book fairs.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom spoke with the chairman of the UAE Fatwa Council and president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, on the subject of furthering religious freedom, protecting religious minorities, and the role of scholars in promoting peace. He also spoke with the head of the Fatwa Council about organizing joint events under the New Alliance of Virtue, an initiative launched by the government in 2019 aimed at fostering religious freedom, cooperation, and tolerance.

The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Dr. Ali al-Nuaimi of the government-affiliated Hedayah, a center focusing on countering violent extremism, to discuss combatting anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of minority religious groups to learn more about issues affecting their communities as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. As part of its Ramadan outreach activities, in May the embassy hosted a virtual iftar for the healthcare workers of Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. Remarks by U.S. and local officials throughout the year praised mutual efforts to understand different religions and cultures.

Yemen

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims. The conflict that began in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end. The secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) remained in control of Aden, the temporary capital, until December 30, when the cabinet of a unity government, formed under the 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, returned to the city. The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory and had limited ability to address abuses of religious liberty. The government publicly condemned religious persecution by the Houthi movement. Sources pointed to the support of Shia-majority Iran for the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and the support of Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia for the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year.

At year’s end, the Houthis continued to control approximately one-third of Yemeni territory and nearly 80 percent of the population. In areas they controlled, the Houthis followed a strict religious regimen and continued to discriminate against individuals who did follow those practices, particularly religious minorities. According to the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media, military actions by Houthis continued to damage places of worship and religious institutions, and to inflict casualties at religious gatherings. In January, media reported that Houthi militants launched a missile attack on a mosque at a government military installation in Ma’rib Governorate, killing at least 116 soldiers during prayers. The UN Panel of Experts reported a second Houthi attack in August on a mosque at a government security compound in Ma’rib killed seven. A Houthi-controlled court held hearings early in the year on the appeal of Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i sentenced to death by the Houthi-controlled Specialized Criminal Court in 2018 on charges of apostasy and spying for Israel. In March, Mahdi al-Mashaat, President of the Houthi Supreme Political Council (SPC) in Sana’a, ordered the release of all detained Baha’is and pardoned Haydara. In July, Haydara and five other detained Baha’is – part of a group of 24 Baha’is charged with apostasy and espionage in 2018 – were released and exiled. According to the Sana’a-based human rights organization Mwatana, the Specialized Criminal Court continued proceedings against the six exiled Baha’is, ordering them to return to Sana’a to face trial, and the court continued to hold hearings against the other 19 Baha’is charged in 2018. Mwatana reported more than 70 instances of abuse against the Baha’i community since 2015, such as arbitrary detentions of dozens of Baha’is for practicing cultural activities, and deportation and enforced disappearances of others. A local human rights organization reported that since the signing of the Stockholm Agreement in December 2018, the Houthis damaged or destroyed 49 mosques in Hudaydah alone and transformed more than 100 mosques throughout the country into military barracks and sniper positions. In January, Minister of Endowments Ahmed al-Attiyah stated that the Houthis had targeted 76 mosques in areas under their control. According to the UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen, the Houthis continued to use anti-Semitic rhetoric – including multiple speeches made by Houthi supreme leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi – that incited violence against Jews. The Group of Experts reported Jews faced Houthi-imposed restrictions on their freedom of movement and constant threats to their lives and security. According to the United Nations, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remained active in Hadramawt, Shabwah, Ma’rib, Bayda’, and Abyan Governorates. According to media, gunmen killed Khalid al-Hameidi, a university professor known as a secular thinker and critic of religious extremism, in the city of Dhale on December 5. Local officials said they believed the gunmen were members of AQAP or of an ISIS affiliate.

Jewish community members said their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. No rabbis remained in the country, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with family members. Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the country’s small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

The Department of State suspended operations at the U.S. embassy in Sana’a in 2015, and the embassy has operated since then as the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), based in Saudi Arabia. In March, the U.S. Ambassador expressed his concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Hamed bin Haydara, a Baha’i Faith leader imprisoned since 2013. The Ambassador emphasized that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear. In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), associating their beliefs with either the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or Zaydi Islam, a distinct form of Shia Islam. There are also significant numbers of Sunni followers of the Maliki and Hanbali schools, and significant numbers of Ismaili and Twelver followers of Shia Islam. While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population is Sunni and 35 percent Zaydi. Baha’is, Jews, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population. Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans. According to the UN Group of Experts, many Ethiopian and Eritrean Christian economic migrants transit the country on their way to find work in Saudi Arabia, making the total number of Christians subject to fluctuation.

There is no firm estimate of the number of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism, Sikhism, or the Dawoodi Bohra variant of Ismaili Shia Islam residing in the country. The preconflict Hindu population was 150,000 (2010 estimate), concentrated in Aden, Mukalla, Shihr, Lahaj, Mokha, and Hudayah. According to one source, the current number of Indian nationals is fewer than 3,000. Many members of the Indian-origin community have resided in the country for generations and hold Yemeni nationality.

The Jewish community is an indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group. Reports estimate approximately 20 to 40 Jews remain, concentrated in Sana’a and Raydah, in Amran Governorate north of Sana’a.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion. It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience. The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.

Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system. The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases. Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.

The constitution states the President must be Muslim who “practices his Islamic duties”; however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.” The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.

The criminal code states that “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense. The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are spared the death penalty.

Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate. Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism). By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.

The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims. The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion and prescribes up to five years’ imprisonment if the ridiculed religion is Islam.

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law, the government must authorize construction of any new buildings. The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam, but not in other religions. The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization. The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education. Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum, but the government is unable to enforce it in Houthi-controlled areas, where instructional materials indicate schools are teaching Zaydi principles only.

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

Government Practices

Media reports noted Shia-majority Iran supported the Houthis, who have historical roots as a Zaydi revivalist movement, and Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia supported the government. Some analysts emphasized that Houthi Zaydism was distinct from the Twelver Islam dominant in Iran, although both were generally considered to fall within the broad category of Shia Islam, and they said political and economic issues were more significant overall drivers of the conflict than religion. Many sources, including international media and foundations, continued to describe the conflict as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

In July, the government and STC reached a new agreement to accelerate implementation of the November 2019 Saudi-brokered Riyadh Agreement, which called for a ceasefire, military withdrawal, and power-sharing. In December, the parties reached agreement on the formation of a new unity government, and the cabinet returned to Aden on December 30. The government did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country throughout the year, which limited its ability to address abuses of religious liberty by nonstate actors in areas not under its control.

The September 2019 UN Group of Experts report Situation of human rights in Yemen including violations and abuses since September 2014, covering the 2014-2019 period, reported that military actions by all parties during the conflict had inflicted casualties at religious gatherings and damaged places of worship and religious institutions. According to the NGO Yemen Data Project, the number of airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition forces during the year increased significantly compared with 2019. The NGO reported a continued decrease in airstrikes against nonmilitary targets, however, while airstrikes on military targets increased, as did airstrikes of unknown origin on a variety of targets. There were no reports of Saudi-led coalition air strikes against religious targets during the year, however. According to the UN Protection Cluster’s Civilian Impact Monitoring Project (CIMP), civilian casualties from air strikes fell from 2,588 in 2018 to 796 in 2019, and finally to 216 in 2020. Air strikes accounted for less than 10 percent of the 2,087 civilian casualties CIMP reported during the year (749 persons killed and 1,338 injured).

In August, the government publicly condemned, through the state news agency, Houthi authorities for persecuting religious minorities, in response to the Houthi deportation of six Baha’is to European countries and the United States.

Because of the conflict and the government’s absence from the country until the end of the year, the government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in private schools. Many public and private schools throughout the country remained closed, and those operating were open for only a few hours a day.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Jewish community members continued to report their declining numbers, which made it difficult to sustain their religious practices. The country’s only remaining rabbi – Yahyia Bin Youssef – fled the country in January 2019, leaving no religious authority to slaughter meat in accordance with strict kosher practices. According to media reports, the UAE government facilitated the travel of a Jewish family to the UAE in August to reunite with relatives.

Due to the conflict, there was no way to verify the status of the small, isolated Ismaili Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Department of State suspended embassy operations in Sana’a in 2015 and the embassy has operated since then as the YAU, based in Saudi Arabia. In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. government officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. In March, the YAU released a statement from the Ambassador expressing deep concern over news reports that a Houthi court upheld a verdict to execute Bahai’i leader Hamed bin Haydara and emphasizing that all persons should be free to engage in religious practice without fear.

In November, the Department of State issued a press release calling on the Houthis to release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi, a Jew detained since 2016 for allegedly helping to remove an ancient Torah scroll from the country, saying “We call on the Houthis to respect religious freedom, stop oppressing Yemen’s Jewish population, and immediately release Levi Salem Musa Marhabi.”

The YAU coordinated closely with the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, regional missions, and international organizations in facilitating the resettlement of Baha’is after their release. The YAU continued to closely monitor the conditions of religious minority detainees and to press for their release.