Read A Section: Crimea
In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia claimed that Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. The UN General Assembly’s Resolution 68/262 of March 27, 2014, entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” and Resolution 75/192 of December 28, 2020, entitled “Situation of Human Rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol (Ukraine),” declared continued international recognition of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The U.S. government recognizes Crimea is part of Ukraine; it does not and will not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea. Russian occupation authorities continue to impose the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, one of the country’s oldest human rights groups, following Russia’s occupation of Crimea, many religious communities were essentially driven out of the peninsula through registration requirements under newly imposed Russian laws. Only the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was exempt from these registration requirements. The Russian government reported there were 907 religious communities registered in Crimea, including in Sevastopol, compared with 891in 2019, representing a drop of more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports said Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, including Muslim Crimean Tatars, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) members and clergy. At year’s end, two Jehovah’s Witnesses were serving prison sentences for their faith. According to the NGO Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine. Russian occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention, especially if authorities suspected the individuals of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir. In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, Russia continued to prosecute individuals for some types of worship, including imams leading prayers in their own mosques, as “illegal missionary activity.” Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and that they continued to be required to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all. The OCU reported continued seizures of its churches. According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to pressure the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”
According to the Krym Realii news website, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. In April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremyzivka Village.
The U.S. government condemned the continued intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and called international attention to religious abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials as well as messaging on social media. In a February press statement, the Secretary stated, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Russian occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The Crimean Peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the city of Sevastopol. According to State Statistics Service of Ukraine 2014 estimates (the most recent), the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000. There are no recent independent surveys with data on the religious affiliation of the population, but media outlets estimate the number of Crimean Tatars, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, is 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.
According to information provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), the UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination. Smaller Christian denominations include the OCU, the RCC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans. Adherents of the UOC-MP, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.
There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the 2014 Russian occupation; no updates have been available since the occupation began. The 2001 census, the most recent, records 671 Karaites.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the ARC within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, Russian occupation authorities continue their implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory. The Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered a terrorist organization under the law of the Russian Federation, but not under Ukrainian law. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation.
According to occupation authorities, fines for individuals conducting illegal missionary activity range from 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670); the fine for legal entities is 100,000 to one million rubles ($1,300 to $13,400).
In December, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution urging Russia to end its “temporary occupation” of Crimea. In his February speech at the UN General Assembly plenary meeting, then-Foreign Affairs Minister of Ukraine Vadym Prystaiko told the UN delegates of the continued large-scale abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms by Russian occupiers, spotlighting discrimination against Ukrainians of various ethnic and religious minority groups, including Crimean Tatars, Muslims, and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
According to the Ukrainian human rights organization Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG), which has offices in Kyiv, 109 individuals were unlawfully incarcerated or imprisoned due to politically or religiously motivated persecution in Crimea during the year, compared with 89 in 2019.
Human rights groups said occupation authorities continued to impede the rights of Crimean Tatars following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.” Detentions and forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. According to Crimea SOS, as of October, 69 Crimean residents remained in prison in connection with their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Occupation authorities placed three additional Crimean residents under supervision and two more under house arrest. Russian authorities often accused Muslims of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In June, OHCHR reported Russian occupation authorities had detained 63 citizens of Ukraine for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir activities, 20 of whom had been convicted, including seven individuals who were sentenced in 2019 to prison terms ranging from seven to 19 years.
On September 21, Russian occupation authorities released Tatar blogger Nariman Memedeminov after he had served nearly one year of his sentence. Occupation authorities had detained Memedeminov on terrorist charges in 2018, citing his involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia’s North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-on-Don had sentenced him to two and a half years in prison in October 2019. Human rights activists linked the original verdict to his reporting on the human rights situation in Crimea.
In September, Russia’s Southern Area Military Court sentenced seven Crimean Muslim Tatar prisoners arrested in 2017 and 2018 to a maximum-security penal colony. Marlen Asanov received 19 years, Memet Belialov 18 years, Timur Ibragimov 17 years, Seyran Saliyev 16 years, Server Mustafayev 14 years, and Server Zakiryayev and Edem Smailov both 13 years. The judge found Ernes Ametov not guilty and released him. All were initially arrested for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai.
According to the CHRG, in December, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended into January 2021 the detention of Imam Bilyal Adilov, Erfan Osmanov, Seyran Murtaza, Server Gaziyev, Mejit Abdurakhmanov, Tofik Abdulgaziyev, Rustem Seitkhalilov, Akim Bekirov, Farkhat Bazarov, Seitveli Seitabdiyev, Shaban Umerov, Riza Izetov, Jemil Gafarov, Alim Karimov, Yashar Muyedinov, Izet Abdulayev, Asan Yanikov, Enver Ametov, Raim Aivazov, and Ruslan Suleimanov. Their cases were under judges’ consideration at year’s end. The group was arrested in March 2019 when armed representatives of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), Russian National Guard, and police searched 30 Crimean Tatar homes in Simferopol, Volodymyrivka, Strohanivka, Kamyanka, Bile, Akropolis, and Alkavan, detaining 23 individuals for their alleged links to Hizb ut-Tahrir. During the searches, law enforcement representatives reportedly planted and “found” Hizb ut-Tahrir materials. The detainees’ lawyers were not allowed to be present during the searches.
On December 8, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for Krymska Solidarnist (Crimean Solidarity) activist Remzi Bekirov. On December 10, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” extended the detention period to January 14, 2021 for his fellow activists Osman Arifmemetov and Vladlen Abdulkadyrov. The Kyivsky District Court in Simferopol had ordered the arrest of all three men in 2019 on charges related to “terrorism” for their suspected involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir following searches of their homes. Law enforcement officers reportedly beat Abdulkadyrov while he was in detention.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian occupation authorities continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses in Crimea under a 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. According to the OHCHR, all 22 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses registered in Crimea had lost their right to operate since the Russian Supreme Court’s 2017 ban on the religious group. As a result, Jehovah’s Witnesses who practice their faith risked retaliation by law enforcement. According to Forum 18, in 2019, a Russian court charged Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Filatov and Artyom Gerasimov with organizing an “extremist” organization following a raid by Russia’s FSB on eight homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Alupka and Yalta. The Russian FSB had arrested Filatov, a former head of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community in Dzhankoy, in 2018. On March 5, the Yalta City Court initially fined Gerasimov 400,00 rubles ($5400); the Dzhankoy District Court sentenced Filatov to six years imprisonment on extremism-related charges. On May 26, Filatov lost his appeal. On June 4, the “Supreme Court of the Republic of Crimea” revoked Gerasimov’s fine and sentenced him to six years in prison, matching Filatov’s sentence. Forum 18 stated authorities transferred Filatov and Gerasimov to a prison in Russia during the summer and, as of September 30, had not allowed them to receive letters.
Forum 18 reported authorities transferred Muslim prisoner of conscience Renat Suleimanov to Russia in January and did not allow him to receive letters written in his native Tatar language.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on May 26, armed FSB, Russian National Guard, and masked riot police raided four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kerch, arresting Artem Shabliy. Reportedly, Shabliy was accused of having “drawn others into the activities of an extremist organization” by discussing the Bible with them.
According to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, on October 1, armed searches on nine Jehovah’s Witness homes in Sevastopol led to the arrests of four men: Yevhen Zhukov, Volodymyr Maladyka, Volodymyr Sakada, and Ihor Schmidt. All four remained imprisoned at year’s end. According to Forum 18, in November, Svetlana Sakada, the wife of one of the four detained, said her husband was not guilty of extremism-related charges. Forum 18 reported the four faced up to 10 years in prison if convicted on “extremism”-related charges, and that another Jehovah’s Witness, Viktor Stashevsky, was on trial on the same charges.
OHCHR reports consistently found that a pattern of criminalization of affiliation with or sympathy toward Muslim groups banned in the Russian Federation that continued to disproportionately affect Crimean Tatars. According to the report, these cases raised concerns about the right to a fair trial, as the detainees’ hearings often banned cameras, media, and family members from the courtroom. OHCHR reported that Russian courts in Crimea cited the “need to ensure the safety of the participants in the proceedings,” but that the defendants’ lawyers and family members said Russian occupation authorities excluded the public from court hearings to limit public awareness of trials, restrict public scrutiny, and exert additional pressure on the defendants.
On April 1, “prosecutors” reportedly charged Imam Yusuf Ashirov with conducting “illegal missionary activity” for leading Friday prayers at the Yukhary-Jami Mosque in Alushta. Ashirov denied the charges, explaining to the “deputy prosecutor” that he preached only to other mosque members and that he had “no desire to break the law.” Ashirov stated he suspected the charges against him stemmed from authorities’ attempts to transfer the mosque to the “state.” Similarly, in March, a court in Simferopol reportedly fined Imam Rasim Dervishev for “illegal missionary activity” for leading services. Devishev’s lawyer stated, “It is absurd to require anyone to ask permission to conduct religious rituals,” and he argued that Dervishev had not spoken to anyone outside the mosque about his religious belief. Dervishev paid a fine of between 5,000 and 30,000 rubles ($67 and $400). Reportedly, in April, Imam Dilyaver Khalilov faced similar charges for leading services at a mosque in Zavetnoye. Occupation authorities withdrew charges against Khalilov after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In August, authorities seized Khalilov’s mosque, stating it was not registered as a mosque but rather as a sports complex. The Muslim community had repaired the dilapidated building and registered it as a mosque with the Ukrainian authorities in 2000.
According to the CHRG, in September, occupation authorities charged members of four churches (Catholic, Baptist, and two evangelical) with “illegal missionary activity.”
Forum 18 reported that occupation authorities brought 20 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community on websites or meeting places, compared with 11 such cases the previous year. Sixteen of the cases involved fines of 30,000 rubles ($400, one month’s average local wage), while three defendants received a warning. The remaining case was under review at year’s end. On November 20, a member of one of the fined religious communities told Forum 18, “The prosecutor told us we would get a warning, but when the case came to court, it was a different prosecutor, who demanded that we be fined. We didn’t expect this turn of events.”
According to Krymska Solidarnist and Forum 18, local authorities continued a ban on the Tablighi Jamaat Muslim missionary movement in Crimea under a 2009 ruling by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. The movement is legal in Ukraine. A Russian labor camp relocated Tablighi Jamaat Muslim Renat Suleimanov from the camp’s punishment cell to its “strict section.” The camp administration stated he was being punished for a conflict with another prisoner, but Suleimanov’s lawyer stated the accusation was fabricated as an excuse to punish his client. In January 2019, a Simferopol court had jailed Suleimanov for four years on “extremism”-related charges for meeting openly in mosques with three friends to discuss their faith.
The Ministry of Justice of Russia said 907 religious organizations were registered in Crimea, including 108 in Sevastopol, as of year’s end, compared with 891 and 105, respectively, in 2019. The number of religious organizations had dropped by more than 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Registered religious organizations included the two largest – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.
Human rights groups reported Russian occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.
The RCC reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. Polish and Ukrainian RCC priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and required to leave Crimea for 90 days before returning.
UGCC leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities and continued to have to operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC.
According to the OCU, Russian occupation authorities continued to place pressure on the OCU Crimean diocese in an effort to force it to leave Crimea. Only six of the 15 churches, identifying as OCU but required to reregister after the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) joined the unified OCU, were functioning in 2019-2020, compared with five in 2018 and eight in 2017. At year’s end, three of those were “on the verge of closure.” According to RFE/RL, Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group stated the OCU was one of the few remaining symbols in Crimea of “Ukrainian identity,” making it a target for the local Russia-installed leaders. Describing Russia’s treatment of believers in Crimea, OCU Metropolitan Epiphaniy told RFE/RL, “This is reminiscent of the Stalin era of the U.S.S.R., when churches were destroyed.”
In March, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers placed the Saints Volodymyr and Olha Cathedral, the only OCU church building in Simferopol and the location of the OCU diocesan administration, under state ownership in an attempt to draw international organizations’ support to help defend it from the occupiers. On July 23, Russian occupation authorities ordered Archbishop Klyment, elevated to Metropolitan on August 9, to demolish the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in Yevpatoriya or face criminal prosecution. Klyment’s appeal of the order continued through year’s end.
According to Freedom House, the Russian FSB encouraged residents to inform on individuals who expressed opposition to the purported annexation, including support for Crimean Tatars, condemnation of the designation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Hizb ut-Tahrir as extremist groups, or the oppression of the OCU.
Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear of certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of having links to Islamist groups that were designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to Krym Realii, on the eve of the 76th anniversary of the Soviet authorities’ forced deportation of the Crimean Tatar people from Crimea, unidentified vandals destroyed several tombstones in an Islamic cemetery in Vladyslavivka Village, Nyzhnyohirsk Region. Local police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, attributing it to a family dispute. According to the Advet.org news website, in April, on the eve of Ramadan, unidentified vandals threw rotten eggs at a mosque in Cheremysivka Village.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russia-led forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Muslims and Christians, through public statements by the Secretary of State and other senior officials, as well as messaging on social media. In a statement on February 26, the Secretary said, “Russian occupation authorities continue their assault on human rights and fundamental freedoms. Occupation authorities severely limit religious freedom, target religious believers with bogus terrorism charges, and seized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Simferopol. The United States calls on Russia to free all Ukrainians it has wrongfully imprisoned in retaliation for their peaceful dissent and to end Russian abuses of fundamental freedoms in Crimea.” U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of Crimean citizens. The Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs participated in an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe side event on Crimea, stating, “Russian occupation authorities continue to harass, arrest, and prosecute activists, journalists, and members of civil society, simply for their expressing their opposition to the occupation or for being a member of an ethnic or religious minority group on the peninsula. They sustained a brutal campaign of repression against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Crimea, raiding mosques, homes, and workplaces without justification or process and leaving these communities in a state of constant fear.”
Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Orthodox, and Protestant leaders from Crimea. The leaders discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by Russian occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. In August, embassy officials met with Metropolitan Klyment and discussed pressures on his church in Crimea. Embassy officials told religious leaders the United States would continue to support religious freedom in Crimea and would press Russian occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.
Read a Section
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. In September, the Supreme Court affirmed the ban on the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country. Authorities continued to investigate NRM members for engaging in banned activities as part of the successor group Towards Freedom, including public demonstrations. According to representatives of their respective groups, immigration authorities denied most asylum applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan. More than 50 cases of Jehovah’s Witness asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end. In July, a court upheld an ethnic agitation fine for a Finns Party Member of Parliament (MP), while parliament declined to remove the immunity from prosecution of another Finns Party MP who was being investigated for ethnic agitation concerning comments he made during a parliamentary session that equated Muslim asylum seekers with invasive species. In August, police completed their investigation into anti-Semitic comments made by an MP from the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In August, the Ministry of Interior created a working group dedicated to improving security at religious sites, including synagogues and mosques. In January, a municipal councilor in Polvijarvi from the SDP resigned after posting comments to Facebook questioning whether the Holocaust occurred. In February, the Oulu District Court fined an Oulu city councilor for two counts of ethnic agitation for posting videos online depicting Muslims and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings.
Police reported 133 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2019, the most recent statistics available, compared with 155 such incidents in 2018, but did not specify how many were motivated solely by religion. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 37 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019, compared with 35 in 2018. The NRM continued to post anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic statements online and acted to circumvent the ban of the organization by continuing activities as part of Towards Freedom. There were several demonstrations by neo-Nazi or nativist groups. Towards Freedom burned an Israeli flag during a rally in Tampere on January 27, which coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Also in late January, vandals targeted the Israeli embassy and Jewish property, including the Helsinki and Turku synagogues. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center. Muslim groups reported a shortage of funds needed to establish houses of worship to match their growing population.
U.S. embassy staff engaged with government ministries to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, the government’s response to anti-Semitic incidents, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ahmadis seeking asylum. Embassy staff met with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss their shared concerns about the impact of government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and addressed religiously motivated crimes and continuing problems involved in establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minority groups, and interfaith networks.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Finnish government statistics from December 2019, which count only registered members of registered congregations, 68.7 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent (approximately 17,000 individuals) have official membership in Islamic congregations, and 28.5 percent do not identify as belonging to any religious group. The census combines other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and members of the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.4 percent of the population.
Multiple sources indicate the Muslim population has grown rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants. Muslim religious leaders estimate the number of Muslims rose to 100,000 in 2018 (most recent data available), of which approximately 80 percent is Sunni and 20 percent Shia. In 2017, the Pew Research Center estimated 2.7 percent of the population, or approximately 150,000 persons, were Muslim. According to a survey by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Muslim population numbered approximately 65,000 in 2016. According to the Islamic Society of Finland, discrepancies among these sources and between them and official government statistics may occur because only a minority of Muslims register with registered Islamic societies. Apart from Tatars, who emigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as during the Soviet Union period, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia, North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
In a report released in October, the Institute of Jewish Policy Research estimated the Jewish population at 1,300.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.” It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community. It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion. The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes “blaspheming against God,” publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment of up to six months. Authorities have occasionally applied the law, most recently in 2019. The constitution cites the ELC, the only religious group it mentions, stating that “provisions on the organization and administration [of the ELC] are laid down in the Church Act.”
The law prohibits religious discrimination and establishes the position of a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law, investigating individual cases of discrimination, and having the power to issue fines in noncriminal cases. The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling, promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities. The ombudsman may also refer cases to the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal (NDET), which also enforces fines issued by the ombudsman and assists plaintiffs seeking compensation in court. Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the NDET, which may issue binding decisions that may be appealed to the courts or through the district court system. Litigants may appeal the decisions of the NDET and the district courts to the higher Administrative Court. Neither the ombudsman nor the NDET has the authority to investigate individual cases of religious discrimination involving employment. Such cases fall under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Authority.
Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government. To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community. To register as a religious community, a group must have at least 20 members, the public practice of religion as its purpose, and a set of rules to guide its activities. A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims. A religious group may also acquire legal status by registering as an association with a nonprofit purpose that is not contrary to law or proper behavior. Registered religious groups and nonprofit associations are generally exempt from taxes. According to the MEC, as of 2019 there were approximately 142 registered religious communities, most of which had multiple congregations. Persons may belong to more than one religious community.
All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Finnish Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments. Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, currently set at between 1 to 2 percent of a member’s income. Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership. Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person. Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.
Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church are eligible to apply for state funds in lieu of the church tax. In addition to receiving the church tax, the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church may also apply for state funds. The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements, including ELC and Orthodox congregations, may apply to receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.
The law requires the ELC to maintain public cemeteries using its general allocation from state funds and church taxes and to account for monies used for this purpose. Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries. All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy. The law authorizes the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Digital and Population Data Services Agency. State registrars do this for other persons.
Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12. The religious affiliation of children between the ages of 12 and 17 may only be changed by a joint decision of the child and his or her parents or guardian, and the family must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate the religious affiliation.
All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion. All students must take courses either in religious studies or ethics, with the choice left up to the student. Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community. Municipalities may arrange for students from different schools to take a combined course to meet this requirement. Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics. Students aged 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or the ethics courses. If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates. The national and municipal governments fund private, including religiously based, schools. Despite the name, private schools are in fact completely financially dependent on government funding, in order to ensure equitable education nationwide. With the exception of international and foreign-language schools, by law private schools may not charge tuition. They do not practice selective admission based on students’ religion.
Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and on general instruction in ethics. Teachers of religion must have state-mandated training for religious instruction. The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community. The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.
By law, conscientious objectors, including those who object on religious grounds, may choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service. Conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service. Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.
The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be stunned and killed simultaneously if done pursuant to religious practice. On December 17, the European Union Court of Justice ruled EU member states may impose a requirement that animals be stunned prior to slaughter and that such a requirement does not infringe on the rights of religious groups.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On September 22, the Supreme Court upheld a ban on the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM). The organization was originally banned in 2017 by the Pirkenmaa District Court, but the Supreme Court, while keeping the ban in place, granted the organization the right to appeal the decision in 2019. According to the September ruling, NRM’s activities violated or sought to violate fundamental and human rights protected by the constitution and international human rights treaties. In addition, the Supreme Court found that some of the group’s activities violated the criminal code. Police continued to implement the 2017 ban of the NRM, but the organization continued to demonstrate in public and maintain a website, despite the Supreme Court’s order that it refrain from all activities. The National Bureau of Investigation concluded an investigation in April that found that nine members of the NRM continued to operate the group under the name Towards Freedom. On its website, Towards Freedom publicized events it held in multiple cities. At these events, individuals gave out flyers and stickers advertising the organization, and recruited new members.
As of December, parliament had not voted on an amendment to the Church Act, which governs the practices of the ELC. Parliament took up the bill in 2018 after the General Synod of the ELC approved it but did not enact the bill that year. The amended Church Act has the stated intent of clarifying and facilitating administration, enhancing church autonomy, and facilitating internal decision-making in the ELC. The amended act would clarify the ELC’s decision-making procedures. The Constitutional Law Committee argued that these details should not be addressed in the Church Act but rather in the Church Order, which is enacted by the ELC alone without parliament’s approval.
According to a representative of the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions (CORE Forum), an interfaith group, the Ministry of Interior created a working group in August dedicated to improving security at religious sites. According to the ministry’s website, the goal of the working group was to gather information on security threats directed at religious communities, especially Jewish synagogues and Muslim prayer rooms or mosques, and to propose suggestions for how safety could be enhanced through training and other measures.
According to the Secretary General of the Finnish Association of Museums, Kimmo Leva, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans to prepare a formal study of the state of research on the provenance of Holocaust-era art in museum collections, as recommended by the MEC in June, 2019. According to the MEC, the study was intended to address the lack of such research in order to better meet the requirements for the implementation of the Terezin Declaration on restitution of assets seized during the Holocaust. Leva said a national project to research all insufficient provenance information would be too large scale to conduct under restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He suggested the Finnish Association of Museums might crowdsource the research, following the example of the Finnish National Gallery, which, prior to the pandemic, had published a list online of all its art lacking sufficient provenance from the period 1933-1945. Leva said the MEC supported the strategy.
According to Yle News, in July, the Ministry of the Interior postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic an investigation into whether religious symbols, including headscarves, could be worn as part of police uniforms. The ministry was considering how the regulation on police uniforms could be amended. Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo said she would consider the results of the investigation when completed, then decide whether to launch a legislative reform proposal. The nondiscrimination ombudsman said current police uniform regulations ran counter to religious freedom and equality. According to the Yle News article, police were reluctant to alter the uniform. Ohisalo said the Ministry of Interior considered permitting religious symbols on police uniforms to be a means of integrating immigrants into society and giving them an equal chance to become police officers.
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public healthcare funding for such procedures. In its guidelines, which were recommendations rather than requirements per prior Supreme Court rulings, the ministry stated only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent. Members of the Muslim and Jewish communities continued to express disagreement with the guidelines. The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice did not renew her 2018 request to the MSAH asking it to establish legally binding regulations on nonmedical circumcision.
Members of the opposition National Coalition Party (NCP) serving on parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee called on the government to enact laws regarding nonmedical male circumcision. Parliamentarian Pihla Keto-Huovinen said that the nonmedical circumcision of boys could be problematic in terms of other existing domestic laws and international agreements, including the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that the fundamental rights of a child must not be violated by invoking the freedom of religion and conscience of another person. The call to revisit the legal status of nonmedical male circumcision was prompted by a separate citizen’s initiative in 2019 calling for legislation banning female genital mutilation, though the citizen’s initiative did not include the nonmedical circumcision of boys.
According to representatives from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the number of Russian-origin members of Jehovah’s Witnesses applying for asylum based on stated religious persecution declined significantly compared to previous years. The Finnish Immigration Service (FIS) rejected most of the claims by members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and confirmed that asylum adjudicators did not consider membership in the Church alone to be sufficient basis for an asylum claim. More than 50 cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end. Authorities stated the government planned to deport applicants whose appeals were denied, and some Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses whose asylum claims were rejected returned to Russia voluntarily.
According to representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland, the FIS continued to deny most asylum applications for Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan. The representatives said the FIS only considered “prominent persons” in the Ahmadi community to be in danger, while other Ahmadis should be able to move to safer areas of Pakistan instead of seeking asylum. The representatives said that when deportation orders were appealed, authorities requested proof that the individuals in question were in danger instead of considering the systematic persecution Ahmadis faced in Pakistan. The representatives said the group had requested to meet with the Ministry of Interior to discuss the challenges the community faced, but the ministry declined.
According to a senior military officer, the military continued to maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding hate speech and hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents. Unit commanders initiated investigations of reported incidents. If a commander judged the infraction to be minor, he or she administered a formal reprimand or other punishment. For more serious offenses, the commander reported the investigation up the chain of command, and military authorities might refer the case to civilian courts. The officer also said the military accommodated, per regulation, religious dietary needs and fasting requirements, and granted religious leave and prayer time to all personnel. The officer said that these procedures were maintained during the COVID-19 pandemic and that recruits still had access to military chaplains while pandemic protocols were in place.
According to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, in July, the Rovaniemi Court of Appeal upheld Finns Party MP Sebastian Tynkkynen’s fine for ethnic agitation in connection with his 2016 Facebook post on Islam and terrorism. In the post, Tynkkynen had said immigrants moved to the same areas where people were being radicalized. He blamed terrorist attacks in Europe on multiculturalism. He wrote, “The fewer Islamic envoys in Finland, the better. The fewer Muslims we have, the safer.” Tynkkynen denied having committed a crime and said his trial was politically motivated. The prosecutor in the case stated that Tynkkynen must have known his Facebook post was racist in nature and constituted defamatory hate speech directed at Muslims. In 2017, Tynkkynen was additionally convicted of ethnic agitation and the separate crime of breaching the sanctity of religion for other Facebook comments he posted in 2016. A third case for ethnic agitation was also pending at year’s end that involved anti-Muslim Facebook posts Tynkkynen wrote in 2017. Oulu police referred that case to the district prosecutor for consideration of charges.
According to the Helsinki Times, in July, 121 members of parliament voted in favor of and 54 members voted against lifting immunity from prosecution for Finns Party MP Juha Maenpaa. This was short of the five-sixths majority (167 votes) required to revoke immunity and thereby made it impossible for the prosecutor general to bring charges against Maenpaa for ethnic agitation or disturbance of religious peace. During a June 2019 session of parliament, Maenpaa had equated asylum seekers from Muslim majority countries with alien or invasive species. Prosecutor Raija Toiviainen said she was disappointed with the result. “It gives the impression that a minority voted to express its acceptance of racist hate speech.” Centre Party MP Mikko Karna, who voted against lifting Maenpaa’s immunity, wrote on Twitter, “Maenpaa used reprehensible and repulsive language in the Chamber, but in democracy, MPs cannot be brought to justice for speeches in the Chamber. The reprimands of the Speakers’ Council must suffice.”
According to Yle News, in February, the Oulu District Court fined Oulu city councilor Junes Lokka for two counts of ethnic agitation. The court found that Lokka had posted online videos in 2016 depicting Muslims and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings. According to the prosecutor, the speaker in one of the videos called immigrants and Muslims “worthless” and “sick” and stated that they should not even exist. One video showed a demonstration in Helsinki featuring anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim speech. The court ruled the videos violated laws on human dignity and religious freedom.
According to Yle News, in August, Helsinki police completed their investigation of SDP MP Hussein al-Taee for alleged anti-Semitic Facebook posts from 2011-2012, before he was elected to parliament, and referred the case to the prosecutor. The investigation began in August 2019, when existence of the posts was reported in media and police determined the prosecutor’s ability to act had not expired because the posts were still in circulation. At a press conference in September, 2019, al-Taee apologized to Jewish and Sunni Muslim communities for the posts and did not contest the police findings that his posts promoted ethnic agitation. Al-Taee had also in 2014, and possibly as late as 2016, made anti-Semitic comments online, including comparing Israel to ISIS. During that time, he was a private citizen. By the end of 2020, neither the Social Democratic Party nor parliament had taken any disciplinary action against al-Taee in light of the police findings.
According to the newspaper Iltalehti, in January, Pauliina Kuhlmann (SDP), a municipal councilor of Polvijarvi in North Karelia, questioned in a Facebook post whether the Holocaust had occurred. Kuhlmann posted that the estimate of six million deaths was “about 25 times the upper limit” of actual deaths, and referred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp website as “false propaganda” and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as a “propaganda museum.” Other members of the municipal council denounced Kuhlmann’s post and in January she was expelled from the council. Kuhlmann resigned from the SDP in January and formally tendered her resignation from the council on January 31, which was accepted at the council’s next meeting on June 15. As of year’s end, there was no pending police investigation.
On February 20, the Helsinki Times reported Helsinki police questioned Christian Democrat MP Paivi Rasenen, a former Minister of Interior, for possible incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality in connection with a booklet she published in 2004. According to the Helsinki Times article, the booklet, titled “Male and Female He Created Them – Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity,” argued that LGBTI relationships were incompatible with the Christian faith. Incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality was outlawed in 1995. In June, 2019, Rasenen responded to news that the ELC was partnering with the Helsinki Pride Festival by posting a Bible passage coupled with the caption, “How can the church’s doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?” At year’s end, the prosecutor was considering whether to bring charges in both cases.
The government allocated 115.6 million euros ($141.84 million) to the ELC, compared with 114 million euros ($139.88 million) in 2019, and 2.58 million euros ($3.17 million) to the Finnish Orthodox Church, compared with 2.54 million euros ($3.12 million) in 2019. The MEC allotted a total of 824,000 euros ($1.01 million) to all other registered religious organizations, an increase of 300,000 euros ($368,000) over 2019. The entire increase went to the Helsinki Jewish Congregation to continue its investments in security at facilities and events following anti-Semitic incidents. This was the second consecutive year the government provided this level of funding to this congregation for improving security; similar funding levels were included in the government’s fiscal plan for the next three years. According to the parliament’s Finance Committee, “The threats have not diminished, but increased anti-Semitism in many countries is also affecting the Finnish Jewish community.” In June, the government allocated an additional 4.5 million euros ($5.52 million) to the ELC and the Finnish Orthodox Church to support their work in helping local communities during the pandemic.
The MEC awarded a total of 110,000 euros ($135,000) to promote interfaith dialogue, an increase of 30,000 euros ($36,800) over 2019. Three organizations split the funding: the CORE Forum, composed of representatives from the largest religious denominations; Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization; and Ad Astra, an organization promoting dialogue, interfaith projects, and inclusivity for children in schools, preschools, and daycare facilities.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Despite the ban against it, the self-described neo-Nazi NRM continued to operate a website, made statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims, and participated in demonstrations, according to press reports. According to authorities, members of the NRM began operating as part of the Towards Freedom group, considered to be the NRM’s successor by the National Bureau of Investigation.
Media reported Towards Freedom burned an Israeli flag during a rally in Tampere on January 27, meant to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and said on its website that it carried out the burning. Officers of the Central Finland Police Department were present at the rally and spoke to those burning the flag, but they made no arrests. A spokesperson for the department said only the burning of the national flag (and not another nation’s flag) is a criminal offense. Police subsequently announced they were investigating the flag burning as a case of illegal ethnic agitation. Media reported that on the same day, the front door, steps, and walls of Turku Synagogue were defaced with red paint. Police were investigating the incident as a property damage case but had made no arrests as of year’s end. President Sauli Niinisto and other government officials denounced both incidents in official statements.
According to the newspaper Ilta Sanomat, on January 31, vandals defaced the building housing the Embassy of Israel with NRM stickers. The same night, unknown individuals placed similar stickers on Helsinki Synagogue. Israeli Ambassador Dov Segev-Steinberg told media that similar incidents had occurred numerous times in the last two years and that stickers were just one example of the vandalism and intimidation the embassy and Jews living in the country faced. Following the two incidents of vandalism, representatives of the Jewish community reported feeling threatened and specifically targeted due to their beliefs.
According to Yle News, in April, unknown individuals vandalized a Jewish cemetery in Hamina by knocking over a tombstone and painting a white swastika on another. The more than 200-year-old cemetery was no longer in use. The mayor of Hamina, Hannu Muhonen, denounced the vandalism, and the Helsinki Jewish Congregation filed a criminal report concerning the incident. The police confirmed the matter was under investigation but said no perpetrators had been identified. Yaron Nadbornik, head of the Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland, stated vandalism of Jewish cemeteries was uncommon, but said neo-Nazi leaflets had been distributed to mailboxes of nearby Hamina residents at the time of the incident. A pastor of the Hamina Orthodox Parish also reported seeing a leaflet advertising the neo-Nazi group Towards Freedom.
According to media reports, on August 16, the anti-immigrant National Alliance again organized a memorial march in Turku to commemorate the victims of a 2017 stabbing by a Moroccan asylum speaker. Approximately 300 persons joined the demonstration, holding banners that read, “White lives matter.” On the same day, the group Turku Without Nazis held a counterdemonstration. The website Freigner.fi showed a picture of one counter protester holding a sign reading, “No Nazis on our streets.”
NGOs working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center. A representative of the center said converts to Christianity in migrant reception facilities often experienced harassment, including social exclusion, threats, and blackmail.
A representative of the Core Forum said that in June or July, a mosque in Jarvenpaa was defaced with stickers promoting the NRM.
A representative of the Core Forum said that Muslim groups, including the Islamic Congregation of Finland, continued to seek adequate houses of worship that could accommodate their growing population, but that they were hindered by insufficient funds from purchasing property, given that most Muslims did not belong to congregations registered with the government and did not choose to register. Except for a handful of purpose-built mosques, most mosques were located in converted commercial spaces. A representative of the Core Forum said on September 15 that this problem was driven by many Muslim congregations being too small to be able to raise the resources necessary to fund property purchases or construction.
Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland said other Muslim congregations continued to block the group’s formal membership in interfaith organizations. A representative of the Core Forum said this was possibly because many Muslim groups did not consider Ahmadis to be “true Muslims.” Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland said the group planned to create a mosque and cultural center in the future and that although the mosque would be built solely with funds from the Ahmadi community, it would be open to all religious and nonreligious individuals.
The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 37 complaints of religious discrimination in 2019 – 4 percent of total discrimination complaints – compared with 35 complaints in 2018. In one example the report cited, a swimming hall prevented women and girls dressed in burkinis from swimming. The ombudsman recommended that swimming halls allow the wearing of burkinis.
Research by theologian Esko Kahkonen published in January by the Diakonia University of Applied Sciences indicated most religiously motivated hate crimes targeting Muslims were committed by Muslims from groups he said were more extreme. Individuals he termed “liberal Muslims,” or Muslims from minority schools of Islam, were the most common victims, as well as individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity. According to Kahkonen’s research, which covered the period 2015-2016, only 8 percent of cases during that time were incidents in which non-Muslims targeted Muslims. Jenita Rauta, a researcher from the National Police Academy, said that the 2015-2016 data included many instances of hate crimes between Sunni and Shia Muslims and that an increase in the number of asylum seekers who were placed in reception centers without extensive background checks – intended to identify individuals with a history violent or illegal behavior – drove the phenomenon. Rauta said that more recent National Police Academy data from 2017-2018 showed a larger proportion of hate crimes targeting individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity.
The website Magneettimedia continued to post anti-Semitic content. In September, it published an article stating, “Harmful immigration to Europe is not the fault of the Islamic religion or Muslims, but is the fault of international Zionists and their global henchmen,” and, “Israel and the related Khazar-mafia have taken as their objective causing confrontation between the Christian world and the Islamic world.” Major companies and consumer brands continued to boycott the department store chain owned by the former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, due to his anti-Semitic views.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of religious groups participated in virtual events hosted by other religious groups. Finn Church Aid (FCA), associated with the ELC, again hosted an interfaith iftar, bringing together virtually representatives from the major religious groups, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and municipal governments.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year, embassy staff engaged with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Foreign Affairs to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in asylum adjudications. The embassy engaged with the police following several anti-Semitic incidents in January and encouraged the government to identify and prosecute those responsible. The Ambassador met with the Israeli Ambassador on several occasions to discuss these incidents and raised the concerns of the Israeli embassy with government officials and in media. The Ambassador also hosted a virtual board meeting of the Core Forum on November 17 to discuss the government’s response to COVID-19 and the ongoing parliamentary debate on nonmedical male circumcision.
Embassy staff engaged with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, lay activists from these communities, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy staff and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities discussed these communities’ shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, religiously motivated crimes, and problems establishing a sufficient number of mosques for the Muslim population. Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with representatives from different Muslim congregations and met regularly with NGOs such as the Core Forum and FCA. Embassy staff continued to engage with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning the high rate of application denials for Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia seeking asylum on grounds of religious persecution. Embassy staff met with representatives of the Ahmadi Muslim community, who expressed concerns over the high rate of denials of asylum applications for Ahmadis from Pakistan. Embassy staff also engaged with the Uyghur Muslim community.
A senior embassy official hosted the administrative head of the Jewish Community of Helsinki at an event intended to introduce the head to senior representatives from other foreign missions in the country to amplify the challenges of anti-Semitism in Finland.
The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. On October 2, President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a broad set of policies to combat “Islamist separatism,” which he described as a “methodical organization” to create a “countersociety” in which Islamists impose their own rules and laws on isolated communities, and defend state secularism against radical Islam. Among the measures in a draft law to be taken up by parliament, which Macron said were directed against radical Islamists that undermined French values rather than at Muslims broadly, were ending foreign financing of imams and abolishing unaccredited schools. On November 2, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced the government had closed 43 mosques for extremism since May 2017. Catholic Church officials criticized government COVID-19 restrictions that, they said, inordinately affected religious groups. In May, the country’s highest administrative court ordered an end to the ban on religious gatherings, calling freedom of worship a fundamental right. In November, the same court denied an appeal by Catholic bishops to overturn a new government prohibition on masses after a new wave of COVID infections. In June, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of a law against online hate speech that parliament had enacted in May as part of the government’s plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. In June, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the government had violated the free speech rights of Palestinian activists advocating for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. In January, demonstrators in Paris protested a 2019 court ruling that the killer of a Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, in 2017 was not criminally responsible. Jewish groups protested the Paris prosecutor’s decision not to charge a man with anti-Semitism after he painted swastikas on a landmark Paris street. President Macron and other government officials condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy security forces to protect religious and other sensitive sites.
There were instances of religiously motivated crimes and other abuses, including killings, attempted killings, assaults, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. On October 29, a Tunisian man killed three Christian worshippers in a church in Nice. In October, a teenage Chechen Muslim refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty after he showed his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a discussion on freedom of expression. In September, a Pakistani man stabbed two persons outside the former offices of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, shortly after the magazine had republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Although 2020 statistics on anti-Christian incidents were not yet available, most incidents involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) reported 235 incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 154 in 2019. The Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) reported 339 anti-Semitic incidents – a decrease of 50 percent compared with the 687 in 2019 – including a violent assault on a Jewish man and desecration of Jewish cemeteries. In October, authorities charged two women with assault and racist slurs for stabbing two women wearing Islamic headscarves. A January survey for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found 70 percent of Jewish respondents said they had been the targets of at least one anti-Semitic incident in their lifetimes. In the same survey, 47 percent of Jewish and non-Jewish respondents (and two-thirds of Jews) said the level of anti-Semitism in the country was high.
The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American presence posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Interministerial Delegation to Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH). The Ambassador designated combating anti-Semitism as one of four key “pillars” of enhanced embassy outreach. The Ambassador and embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and religiously motivated hate crimes, such as projects bringing together youth of different faiths and roundtable events with religious leaders, and regularly used social media to convey messages highlighting issues pertaining to religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate).
Because the government does not collect religious or ethnic data on the population, there is no official count of the numbers of persons belonging to different religious groups. A report released in January by the Observatory for Secularism, a government-appointed commission, based on a poll conducted in cooperation with polling company Viavoice, presented estimated figures of persons who identify as part of a religion or feel tied to a religion. According to the report, whose figures are consistent with other estimates, 47 percent of respondents identify as Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 2 percent Buddhist, 1 percent Jewish, 1 percent Christian Orthodox, and 1 percent other religious groups; 34 percent said they have no religious affiliation and 8 percent preferred not to respond. The observatory’s 2019 report estimated there are 140-150 thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses and 150-300 thousand Hindus. In a separate question about religious belief, 35 percent said they are believers, 29 percent nonbelievers or atheist, 17 percent agnostic, and 12 percent indifferent. Most observers, including the observatory in its 2019 report, estimate the number of Muslims in the country at three to five million.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and shall respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,800) and imprisonment for one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($55,200-$92,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($55,200). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. In order to qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order. Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. To apply for tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association. In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the Ministry of Interior, 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status. The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently. Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website. Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition. Under the law, the Church of Scientology has the status of a secular and not a religious association. Parliamentary reports (most recently in 1996) have labelled Scientology as a “cult,” and multiple Scientology officials have been convicted of crimes in the country.
The law states, “Detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They may practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find that comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. A place of worship that has been closed may remain closed beyond the six-month maximum if it does not replace its chief cleric and/or management. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($9,200). On December 17, parliament voted for the extension of the legislation until the end of July 2021.
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($180) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($36,800) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.
The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross. The prohibition applies during working hours and at the place of employment.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the Interior Ministry, and the country’s President, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The Prime Minister appoints the Chief Rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories (the administrative governance bodies of these groups) in Alsace-Moselle, and the Interior Minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches (Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine) in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The Overseas Department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths (Catholicism, Lutheranism, Protestant Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine, and Judaism) is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state. Elsewhere in the country, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools. According to the education code, religious instruction is allowed but optional in government-subsidized private schools. Students are not required to attend religion classes, and other activities are available for students who opt out.
Missionaries from countries not exempt from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from nonexempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law criminalizes the BDS movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During his October 29 emergency visit to Nice, shortly after a Tunisian national entered the Basilica of Notre Dame and stabbed three Catholic worshippers to death, President Macron offered his condolences to the country’s Catholics and urged people of all religions to unite and not “give in to the spirit of division.” In a November 7 national memorial, Prime Minister Jean Castex paid tribute to the three victims. Castex said, “We know the enemy. Not only is he identified, but he has a name: It is radical Islamism, a political ideology that disfigures the Muslim religion by distorting its texts, its dogma, and its commands.” He concluded, “We will not allow the France that we love to be disfigured.”
On October 19, Interior Minister Darmanin ordered a six-month closure of the mosque in Pantin, a suburb of Paris, following the October 16 beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on freedom of expression. The mosque’s imam had posted on social media calls to retaliate against Paty for showing the cartoons. The mosque appealed the Minister’s decision before the Montreuil administrative court, which on October 27, validated the government’s decision to close the mosque. The court ruled authorities had committed no “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms” in temporarily closing the mosque “for the sole purpose of preventing acts of terrorism.”
On August 30, Junior Minister for Citizenship Marlene Schiappa reported that since February 2018, when it launched a nationwide program to counter “Islamism and communitarianism,” the Ministry of Interior had closed 210 restaurants and cafes (mostly kebab restaurants), 15 places of worship, 12 cultural establishments, and four schools. According to Schiappa, those establishments, which the government did not specifically identify, “were gathering places to organize Islamist separatism.” Independent online investigative website Mediapart requested the list of closed sites through the Administrative Documents Access Commission (Commission d’acces aux documents administratifs, CADA), an independent government agency providing administrative documents and public records. In December, CADA upheld the Ministry of Interior’s decision not to make public specific names of institutions.
On November 2, Interior Minister Darmanin announced at the National Assembly that the government had closed 43 mosques since May 2017. The Ministry of the Interior reported that, as of December 29, it was in the process of investigating for closure 76 mosques, including 16 in the Paris region, because of suspected separatism. The al-Kawthar Mosque in Grenoble reopened in August 2019 after the legal maximum closure period of six months.
On February 18, President Macron, together with his Ministers of Interior, Housing, Youth, and Sports, visited the eastern city of Mulhouse to introduce a plan, which would require parliamentary approval, to fight “Islamist separatism.” Macron said “political Islam” had no place in the country and stressed national unity. He proposed specific measures, including an end to the practice of foreign-financed imams, referring to the 300 imams whom foreign governments had sent to the country, adding they would be replaced by French-trained imams. According to Macron, the strategy aimed to reduce Islamist influence in sensitive neighborhoods and to abolish structures, such as unaccredited schools that paralleled or replaced government structures and undermined state secularism. In public schools, Macron proposed abolishing foreign language and culture programs taught by individuals appointed and/or funded by foreign governments. Macron also announced the reinforcement of oversight of foreign-funded religious sites.
Further to his February announcement, on October 2, President Macron introduced the outlines of a draft law that he said aimed to counter “Islamist separatism.” The government introduced the full draft law in December, and parliament was scheduled to consider it in 2021. Macron reaffirmed state secularism, calling it “the cement of a united France,” and said, “What we must attack is Islamist separatism.” Macron stated that all religious practice must comport with the law. He said, “Islam is a religion … that is being infected by radical impulses,” adding, “External influences … have pushed these most radical forms,” citing their effect on Wahabism, Salfafism, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Macron described Islamic separatism as a project “…serving as a pretext for teaching principles which are not in accordance with the Republic’s laws,” in which Islamists impose their own rules and laws on isolated communities and negate national “principles, gender equality, and human dignity.” Macron stated his campaign targeted radical Islamists and not Islam or Muslims and that he offered an “inclusive message” to millions of Muslims who were integrated “full citizens.” He added, “Our challenge today is to fight against this abuse that some perpetrate in the name of religion, by ensuring that those who want to believe in Islam are not targeted.”
Prior to this speech, President Macron, Prime Minister Castex, and Interior Minister Darmanin held consultations with the CFCM on September 16, 25, and 26 to present the government’s plan. The CFCM stated it was in agreement with the President’s measures.
Jehovah’s Witness officials reported one case in which authorities interfered with proselytizing during the year. On February 8, municipal police in Erstein, Bas-Rhin Department, citing a municipal decree, prohibited Jehovah’s Witnesses from engaging in door-to-door activity. Jehovah’s Witnesses sent a letter to the mayor, referencing the laws recognizing their right to proselytize, but did not indicate they received a response.
Between March 16 and May 11, the government implemented a nationwide lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic that included a ban on religious gatherings and worship and door-to-door proselytizing. While the government lifted restrictions on freedom of movement on May 11, it extended the ban on gatherings in places of worship – except for funerals which it limited to 20 persons – and gatherings with more than 10 persons until June 2. The Catholic Church was the most vocal in expressing opposition to these measures.
On April 28, after then-Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told the National Assembly religious services would not resume before June 2 (although churches remained open for individual prayer), the Bishop’s Council of the Catholic Church responded that the continuing measures did not incorporate its proposal to resume religious services with social distancing measures in place. On April 30, then-Interior Minister Christophe Castaner met with Archbishop Eric de Moulins Beaufort, president of the Conference of Bishops of France, to discuss Catholic concern. Bishop of Nanterre Matthieu Rouge publicly criticized the government’s restrictions, which he said fell disproportionately on religious groups, stating that many shops and some museums were allowed to reopen on May 11. He called the delay for churches a sign of “anti-clericalism” or “anti-Catholic orientation” in the presidency. While expressing disappointment with the restrictions, Archbishop de Moulins Beaufort said Catholic officials would “adapt.”
In a May 18 ruling, the Council of State – the country’s highest administrative court – ordered the government to lift within eight days the ban on religious meetings, calling it a “disproportionate measure.” The council, responding to a lawsuit brought by NGOs and individuals, said such a ban on freedom of worship caused “serious and manifestly illegal damage.” The council highlighted that the government had previously authorized public gatherings of up to 10 persons in other settings and that a complete and total ban on worship was “disproportionate to the objective of preserving public health.” The ruling stipulated freedom of worship was a fundamental right that “includes among its essential components the right to participate collectively in ceremonies, in particular in places of worship,” and that the government’s decree “constitutes a serious and manifestly unlawful interference with it.” On May 23, the government issued a decree allowing services to resume.
On April 21, President Macron held a virtual meeting with religious leaders to thank them for implementing COVID-19 safety measures and celebrating religious holidays, including Easter, Passover, and Ramadan, “without gatherings” and to express the need to continue the collaboration.
On April 19, armed police interrupted a Mass at Saint-Andre de l’Europe, a Catholic church in Paris, to enforce social distancing. The police did not fine the priest or others involved with having the Mass go forward. The Mass had been scheduled to be broadcast later that weekend. Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said police entered the church armed, an act he described as generally not permissible unless there was a threat to public order. He compared the COVID-19 climate to the World War II occupation of France.
Police fined the priest of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet, a church under the authority of the Society of St. Pius X, 135 euros ($170) for conducting an Easter Vigil Mass with approximately 40 attendees.
On October 30, authorities reintroduced measures restricting freedom of movement, religion, and worship to combat a second wave of COVID-19 infections. Places of worship remained open for individual prayer during the second nationwide lockdown, but authorities did not permit worship services, only authorizing funeral services attended by a maximum of 30 persons and weddings attended by a maximum of six persons. Five bishops announced on November 2 they had lodged appeals with the Council of State to demand the ban on masses be lifted, stating that the most recent COVID-19 restrictions violated freedom of worship and were disproportionate in relation to other COVID-19 lockdown measures. On November 7, the Council of State rejected the bishops’ appeal. The ruling judge stated churches remained open, despite not being able to hold services, and that Catholics could go to a church near their homes, provided they carried the necessary paperwork. Priests were also allowed to visit persons in their homes, and chaplains to visit hospitals. The judge also stated current rules would be the subject of review by the government by November 16 to evaluate their pertinence and proportionality. On November 26, Prime Minister Castex announced only 30 persons at a time would be allowed at prayer services inside places of worship and with stringent sanitary measures.
In October, members of the Church of Scientology reported that the Court of Montreuil overturned the 2019 municipal decree by the mayor’s office in Saint-Denis, just outside Paris, refusing a permit allowing the Church to renovate a building it had purchased in the municipality for the purpose of converting it into its headquarters and a training center. According to the Scientologists, the court found that “the mayor had exercised his powers for a purpose other than the preservation of the safety and accessibility of the premises.” The court ordered the government to pay the Church of Scientology damages (amount as-yet unspecified). The municipality of Saint-Denis announced its intention to appeal the decision, and the case was pending at year’s end.
A May 10 article in The Washington Post reported that “many Muslims, religious freedom advocates, and scholars see a great deal of irony” that the French ban on face coverings such as burqas remained in effect despite the country’s adoption of mask requirements due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the year, there were no reports of police enforcing the face covering ban or of protests or public comment concerning the ban by Muslim groups. French media rejected the premise of the article. Newspaper Le Figaro, for example, called it “a misunderstanding and a mistake,” adding that the “antiburqa” ban did include exceptions for health, professional, or legislative requirements and that COVID-19 mask requirements were compatible with the law.
In a December 3 interview, Interior Minister Darmanin said the country had deported 66 radicalized foreign Islamists since the end of September. The 66 were part of a list of 231 foreigners on the FSPRT (fichier des signalements pour la prevention de la radicalisation a caractere terroriste) – a list of individuals suspected of radicalization – under orders of deportation. Darmanin also traveled in early November to Morocco, Italy, Tunisia, Malta, and Algeria to meet counterparts and discuss means to reinforce cooperation to fight terrorism and the return of their suspected radicalized nationals. According to the Ministry of Interior, approximately 300 imams, or 70 percent of all imams in the country, were trained in foreign countries such as Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria.
The government maintained the deployment of security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic sites and other places of worship. Following the October 29 terrorist attack at the Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, President Macron announced an increase, from 3,000 to 7,000 troops across the country, in domestic counterterrorism patrols under the Ministry of Defense’s Operation Sentinel. On October 30, Defense Minister Florence Parly told the Defense Council the deployment would focus on protecting schools and places of worship.
On September 25, following a terrorist attack in which two persons were wounded in a stabbing near the former headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, Interior Minister Darmanin announced the kosher supermarket that was targeted by a coordinated attack after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January 2015 “will now be permanently guarded.” Darmanin also announced he had ordered extra protection of Jewish sites for Yom Kippur. On September 27, Darmanin visited a synagogue in Boulogne-Billancourt, a western suburb of Paris. During the visit, he said, “Jews remain the target of Islamist attacks,” adding that the government had mobilized more than 7,000 police and soldiers to protect Jewish places of worship on Yom Kippur.
On December 16, the Special Criminal Court delivered its verdict on the terrorism trial related to the January 2015 terrorist attacks, finding all 14 defendants guilty of providing support to the three deceased terrorists who carried out the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, police in Montrouge, and a kosher supermarket. They received sentences ranging from four years to life in prison. The court dropped terror qualifications for six of the defendants, convicting them instead of providing material support without knowledge of the terrorist intent. Three of the defendants, including Hayat Boumeddiene (the wife of one of the shooters, Amedy Coulibaly) were tried in absentia. At least one defendant expressed his intent to appeal the court’s decision.
On October 29, following investigative work by the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs and the Louvre and d’Orsay Museums, the government restituted to the heirs of Marguerite Stern seven paintings stolen by the Nazis in Paris during World War II.
At year’s end, the Paris Appeals Court had not issued a ruling in the case of Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four persons and injuring 40. In 2018, investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Diab and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed the case’s dismissal, and the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. Upon his release, Diab returned to Canada, where he remained at year’s end.
On October 13, during a meeting with administrators of the guidelines in the country’s schools and colleges, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer promised to support teachers, pupils, and parents who exposed breaches of the country’s law on secularism in schools, including wearing religious symbols. His comments came after the Ministry of Education reported 935 infringements of the secularism law between September 2019 and March 2020. Middle schools for 11- to 15-year-olds accounted for 45 percent of incidents, while primary schools accounted for 37 percent. More than 40 percent of violations were in the form of religiously motivated insults or other verbal aggression, while 15 percent involved the wearing of religious symbols, such as a crucifix, veil, or turban.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the penitentiary system employed Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, and Buddhist chaplains. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
The government continued to implement its 2018-20 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism, which had a strong focus on countering online hate content. The government said it would assess the results of the plan in 2021. On June 18, the Constitutional Council invalidated core provisions of a new law against online hate speech, adopted by parliament on May 13, that was part of the 2018-20 plan. The “Avia Law,” introduced at the direction of then-Prime Minister Philippe, required online platforms to remove, within 24 hours, material they determined to be hateful content based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and religion; language trivializing genocide or crimes against humanity; and content deemed sexual harassment. Social media companies faced fines up to 1.25 million euros ($1.53 million) if they failed to remove the content within the required timeframes. The Constitutional Council ruled these provisions of the law infringed on freedom of speech and were “not appropriate, necessary, and proportionate.” Parliamentary committees were drafting replacement legislation at year’s end.
On June 10, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the country had violated Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights when it convicted a group of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for incitement to economic discrimination. The group had distributed leaflets calling for a boycott of Israeli products as part of the BDS movement in 2009 and 2010. While France’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, had upheld the conviction, the European court ruled the activists’ actions were forms of political expression, protected by the human rights convention. In a final judgment on September 11, the court ordered the government to pay a total of 101,000 euros ($124,000) in damages to the group. The government had three months to appeal the court’s decision or make the payment but did not do either. At year’s end, the fine remained unpaid.
On January 4, several thousand demonstrators gathered in Paris and a number of other cities to protest the December 2019 court ruling that deemed Kobili Traore “criminally not responsible” for Sarah Halimi’s killing in 2017 because he was under the influence of cannabis at the time of the attack. On January 23, during his visit to Israel, President Macron criticized the Paris Appeals Court ruling. In a January 27 statement, Chantal Arens, the senior judge of the Court of Cassation, and Prosecutor General Francois Molins responded to Macron, stating, “The independence of the justice system, of which the president of the Republic is the guarantor, is an essential factor in the functioning of a democracy.” At year’s end, Traore was held in a psychiatric hospital. The case was pending at the Court of Cassation.
On September 17, prosecutors opened an investigation into the song lyrics of Freeze Corleone, a rapper who was accused by several officials and organizations of promoting anti-Semitism. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said Corleone was being investigated for “inciting racial hatred” based on the content of his songs and videos posted online. Frederic Potier, the interministerial delegate (head) of DILCRAH, had earlier reported the rapper to the public prosecutor’s office after identifying what he characterized as nine illegal passages in his music. In his lyrics, Corleone declared that he “arrives determined like Adolf in the 1930s,” that he does not “give a damn about the Shoah,” and that “like Swiss bankers, it will be all for the family so my children can live like Jewish rentiers.”
On July 28, police arrested Alain Bonnet, also known as Alain Soral, on charges of incitement of hatred against Jews and actions that “endanger the fundamental interests of the Republic” after comments he made on his website, Equality and Reconciliation. At the end of September, the Paris Appeals Court sentenced Soral to pay 134,400 euros ($165,000) to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA) as punishment for releasing Salvation Through The Jews, a work by Leon Bloy (died 1917) that the court found to be anti-Semitic. On October 6, the court sentenced Soral to a 5,400 euro ($6,600) fine for blaming Jews for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. Soral was convicted four times in 2019, following previous violations for Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic insults, and publishing an anti-Semitic video.
The Paris prosecutor’s October 14 decision to prosecute a man for vandalism rather than anti-Semitism for spray-painting dozens of large red swastikas along Paris’s landmark Rue de Rivoli the weekend of October 10-11 sparked protests among members of the Jewish community. The prosecutor’s office stated there was no legal basis for charging the man with a crime aggravated by religious or racial hatred and that “the damage was committed without specifically targeting buildings identified as being linked to the Jewish community.” In a tweet, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) expressed “total incomprehension,” asking, “How can you spray 20 swastikas without being prosecuted for anti-Semitism?” Dorothee Bissacia-Bernstein, the lawyer representing LICRA in the case, tweeted after the decision, “Major moment of indignation and anger yes. Stupefaction.” Leader of the far-left France Unbowed Party Jean-Luc Melenchon criticized the “lamentable” decision. The suspect, a man from the country of Georgia, remained in pretrial detention. His trial was rescheduled and remained pending at year’s end.
On January 27, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of National Education and Youth, and Armin Laschet, German Plenipotentiary for Cultural Affairs under the Franco-German Cooperation Treaty, visited the Shoah Memorial in Paris. In public remarks, they stated the fight against racism and anti-Semitism was and would remain a priority of educational cooperation between the two countries.
On January 9, then-Interior Minister Castaner, then-Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, and then-Junior Minister for the Interior Laurent Nunez attended a CRIF-organized memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where five years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other persons hostage.
On July 10, Interior Minister Darmanin attended the Shabbat service at the Great Synagogue of Paris. “The Jews of France had to suffer many unspeakable acts. Attacking the Jews of France, is attacking the Republic,” he said at the end of the visit.
On July 19, Secretary of State for the Armed Forces Genevieve Darrieussecq held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in which 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “There is no space for ambiguity, the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup is an issue belonging to France,” Darrieussecq said in her statements, adding, “Two dangers lie in wait for us and must constantly be fought: oblivion and hatred. It is because the Nation knows where it comes from, looks at its past without ambiguity, that it will be intractable in the face of racism, anti-Semitism, and discrimination.”
President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions, including a February 19 visit to the Shoah Memorial; the March 19 commemoration of the eighth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 Judaism Day observance. On April 26, as the country held private or virtual ceremonies (because of COVID-19 restrictions) for the thousands of persons deported to Nazi death camps during World War II, President Macron tweeted, “Seventy-five years on, we have not forgotten.” On the same day, Secretary of State for the Armed Forces Darrieussecq laid a wreath at the Shoah Memorial and the Memorial of the Martyrs of The Deportation in central Paris.
On July 26, Interior Minister Darmanin participated in a tribute for Father Jacques Hamel, the Catholic priest killed in an attack for which ISIS claimed responsibility at his church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in 2016. In his remarks, Darmanin said Father Hamel was “killed by the Islamist barbarism,” and “killing a priest is like trying to assassinate a part of the nation’s soul.”
On July 29, Interior Minister Darmanin visited Douaumont Cemetery at the Verdun battlefield to pay tribute to Muslim soldiers who died for the country during World War I. Speaking in front of the graves, he warned against “any deviation of the spirit … that evokes the purported incompatibility between the fact of [religious] belief and being a republican.” He added, “The [French] Republic does not prefer any religion, does not combat any religion.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government postponed the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams whom it has regularly hosted to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The CFCM reported 235 registered incidents targeting Muslims, compared with 154 in 2019. The Jewish Community Protection Service (SPCJ) reported a total of 339 anti-Semitic incidents, of which 295 were threats and 44 violent acts, compared with 687 total incidents in the previous year. Statistics on anti-Christian incidents were not yet available; most of these incidents involved vandalism of churches and cemeteries.
On October 29, a man entered the Basilica of Notre Dame in the southern city of Nice and killed three Catholic worshippers with a knife. Local press reported one of the two women killed was “practically decapitated.” Municipal police intervened, shooting and seriously injuring the attacker. The attacker, according to local press reports, said, “Allahu Akbar (God is great),” repeatedly as he was being arrested and taken to the hospital. The man was identified as Brahim Aouissaoui, an asylum seeker from Tunisia who entered France in early October. The national counterterrorism prosecutor’s office was treating the attack as a terrorist incident. The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.
On October 16, an 18-year-old Muslim Russian refugee of Chechen ethnicity, Abdoullakh Anzorov, beheaded a French middle-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Paty had shown his students Charlie Hebdo’s 2012 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as part of a lesson on freedom of expression; Paty advised students they could turn away if they did not want to see the images. Police shot and killed Anzorov soon after Paty’s killing and charged 10 other persons, including an imam, with assisting him. President Macron visited the school where Paty had worked, calling the incident “a typical Islamist terrorist attack” and stating that “our compatriot was killed for teaching children freedom of speech.”
On October 18, media reported two women stabbed two other women wearing Islamic headscarves and tried to rip off their veils near the Eiffel Tower in 2019. The women were charged with assault and racist slurs. The main suspect was placed in pretrial detention while the second was released on bail, legal sources reported.
On August 6, two men shouted anti-Semitic insults and assaulted a Jewish man, stole his watch, and beat him unconscious in the hallway of his parents’ apartment building in Paris. Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti tweeted, “I know the immense emotion that besets the entire Jewish community. It is the emotion of the whole nation and of course mine.” Authorities charged the two men with violent theft motivated by religious reasons and placed them in pretrial detention on August 28. At year’s end, a trial had not been scheduled, and the two men remained in detention.
In January, a 16-year-old student in the Lyon region received death threats and withdrew from school due to security concerns after she posted a vulgar anti-Islam video that led to national controversy. The student appeared on television and defended her right to blaspheme, saying her comments came in response to a vulgar online attack on her sexual orientation by a Muslim. The government provided her police protection, and President Macron defended her, telling newspaper Le Dauphine Libere that children needed to be “better protected” against “new forms of hatred and harassment online,” adding, “The law is clear: we have the right to blaspheme, to criticize, to caricature religions.” In the ensuing public debate, however, public personalities and officials made a range of statements criticizing the girl for hate speech or defending her right to free speech and French secularism. Abdallah Zekri, general delegate of the CFCM, told Sud Radio that he was against the death threats, but that “who sows the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.” CFCM president Mohammed Moussaoui, in the CFCM’s official response, said, “Nothing can justify” death threats.” Then-Justice Minister Belloubet, in comments she later acknowledged as “maladroit,” called the death threats unacceptable but characterized the video as “an attack on freedom of conscience.”
On May 14, the Paris prosecutor indicted the two suspects in the 2018 killing of Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll on charges including intentional homicide and targeting the victim based on religion. On July 10, investigative judges affirmed the prosecution of the suspects on charges of murder “of a vulnerable person, committed because of the victim’s religion.” The two individuals remained in pretrial detention and a trial date had not been set at year’s end.
Authorities charged a man with “extortion on account of religion” with aggravated circumstances following an August 26 incident in Strasbourg in which an individual assaulted a young artist hired by the city to decorate a public building for wearing a t-shirt with “Israel” printed on it. After ordering the artist to leave the site, the assailant stole a spray-paint can and wrote on the pavement, “Interdit aux juifs et aux salopes” (“Jews and sluts forbidden”). Both the victim and a local Jewish association filed a complaint. On November 30, the Strasbourg Criminal Court sentenced the assailant to six-months’ imprisonment and ordered him to pay 500 euros ($610) in compensation to the victim and 1,000 euros ($1,200) to antiracist groups that had also filed a lawsuit.
On May 26, Agence France Presse and other media reported security forces arrested a man, identified only as Aurelien C., in the central city of Limoges. The security forces said they suspected the man, a former member of both the military and the Yellow Vest protest movement, was planning an attack against the Jewish community. On social media, Aurelien C. had posted white supremacist conspiracy theories and both anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic comments, while glorifying terrorists such as the 2019 Christchurch and 2011 Oslo attackers. On May 12, the Antiterrorism National Prosecutor’s Office reportedly began investigating him for “association of criminal terrorist wrongdoers.” In his home, investigators reportedly found incendiary tools that could be used as mortars. He had researched when Jewish religious sites would reopen in his town. Aurelien C. had previously been arrested in December 2018 and convicted of illegal arms possession.
In September, two men carried out an armed robbery against a man wearing a Star of David in a suburb of Paris and called him a “dirty Jew.” The victim was reportedly an Arab convert to Judaism. One of the robbers, identified only as Mohammed, received a one-year jail sentence.
Also in September, a court in Brest sentenced a man to two months in prison for calling a woman at an office where the man collected his welfare check a “dirty Jewess” and performing a Nazi salute in December 2019.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported six incidents during the year. In one case, they reported a man punched a Jehovah’s Witness in the face while he was evangelizing in Le Petit Quevilly, a suburb of Rouen, on March 1. Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with police. At year’s end, authorities had not filed charges.
The Jewish Agency for Israel reported in June approximately 2,000 persons began the process of emigrating to Israel in the previous month, compared with 200 in May 2019.
On January 20, the AJC released a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in partnership with the Fondapol think tank. The survey, which polled 505 French Jews between October 14 and November 19, 2019, found that 70 percent said they had been the target of at least one anti-Semitic incident in their lifetime, 64 percent had experienced anti-Semitic verbal abuse at least once, and 23 percent had suffered physical abuse on at least one occasion; 10 percent said they had been attacked several times. The poll found 37 percent refrained from using visible Jewish symbols, 25 percent avoided revealing their Jewish identity in the workplace, and 52 percent had considered leaving the country permanently. Overall, 44 percent said the situation for French Jews was worse than a year earlier, 11 percent said it was better, and 42 percent said it was unchanged. Among respondents aged 18-24, 84 percent had been the target of at least one anti-Semitic act, 79 percent had experienced verbal abuse, and 39 percent had suffered physical aggression. Jews self-identifying as “religious” felt the most vulnerable; 74 percent said they had been a target of at least one act of verbal abuse. Anti-Semitic incidents occurred most frequently on the street and in schools. Fifty-five percent said they had been insulted or threatened, and 59 percent said they had been physically abused on the street. In schools, 26 percent said they had suffered physical abuse and 54 percent had experienced verbal abuse. In the workplace, 46 percent said they had experienced anti-Semitic verbal abuse.
The poll also questioned 522 non-Jewish citizens. Of this total sample of 1,027 Jewish and non-Jewish persons, 73 percent (and 72 percent of Jewish respondents) considered anti-Semitism a problem that affected all of society; 47 percent (and 67 percent of Jews) reported the level of anti-Semitism in the country was high, while 27 percent (and 22 percent of Jews) said it was low. Fifty-three percent of non-Jews, but 77 percent of Jewish respondents, said they had the feeling that anti-Semitism in the country was increasing.
A poll of youths conducted by IFOP, carried out on September 4-9 and released on September 13, showed 87 percent of respondents had heard about the Holocaust and 95 percent had heard about the gas chambers; 80 percent reported learning these facts at school. One in 10 students said it was impossible to teach about the Holocaust in their class (among the reasons cited was a refusal by some students to listen to the lesson), and 21 percent cited criticisms from other students during lessons about the subject. The survey also revealed the influence of Holocaust denial on online video platforms and social media networks; nearly one in three (29 percent) respondents said they had already read or viewed content questioning the existence of the Holocaust. Of these, 57 percent had encountered denial theories on YouTube and 40 percent on Facebook.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 52 percent of French respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important” but ranked it the lowest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the Prime Minister, released on June 18, included the results of an Ipsos poll conducted in November 2019 and involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,323 residents over the age of 18. The results were almost identical to a poll Ipsos conducted a year earlier. According to the more recent poll, 34.2 percent (1.8 percent fewer than in 2018) of respondents believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 18.6 percent (1.4 percent fewer than the previous year) thought Jews had too much power in the country. The poll found 35.5 percent (29 percent in 2018) of respondents had a negative image of Islam, and 44.7 percent (44 percent in the previous year) considered it a threat to national identity. The commission’s report again cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as women wearing a veil (45.5 percent).
In June, during an antiracism protest in Paris attended by 15-20,000 persons, a video of at least one man repeatedly shouting “Dirty Jews” at a counterprotesting white identity group went viral. Israeli newspaper Haaretz cited CRIF as stating that anti-Semites had infiltrated the protest, “using a noble cause, the fight against racism, to spread hatred against Jews and Israel.” According to the report, CRIF President Francis Kalifat asked, “How can this type of incitement be shouted again and again without people reacting and demanding that those people leave?”
According to press reports, April Benayoum, runner-up in the 2021 Miss France competition, became the subject of “a torrent” of anti-Semitic comments on social media after revealing that her father was Israeli during the televised competition on December 19. One message read, “Hitler forgot about this one.” On December 20, Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted that he was “deeply shocked” and promised law enforcement would investigate the incidents. Others, including the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, the Israeli embassy in Paris, and the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, also denounced the comments. The Paris Prosecutor’ Office opened an investigation on December 21.
Facebook confirmed on August 3 it had banned French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala from its platforms for repeatedly violating its policies by posting anti-Semitic comments and for his “organized hatred.” In June, YouTube also banned Dieudonne, who had more than one million followers on Facebook and 36,000 on Instagram. Elisabeth Moreno, the Minister in Charge of Gender Equality, Diversity, and Equality of Opportunities welcomed the bans, tweeting, “All forms of speech inciting hatred and racism must be banned on social media.” Dieudonne was convicted multiple times for hate speech, including anti-Semitism. In October, in contravention of COVID-19 confinement orders, Dieudonne held an unauthorized gathering near Strasbourg attended by approximately 300 supporters, where he repeated the same anti-Semitic comments and spread disinformation relating to Jews about the pandemic.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency cited other instances of disinformation blaming Jews for COVID-19. For example, in March, a caricature of a Jewish former Health Minister, Agnes Buzyn, showing her poisoning a well, was shared tens of thousands of times on social media. Alain Soral posted on YouTube that the virus was being used by “the luminary community, which we are forbidden to name … to weaken French people by the sheer weight of the death toll.” According to the agency, Soral’s post was viewed 406,000 times. The same report cited Marc Knobel, a historian with CRIF, as stating, “…the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that Jews will be blamed whenever there’s an epidemic, be it today or 1347.”
On January 5, vandals damaged several headstones, burial vaults, and a memorial to a young child deported to Auschwitz at the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country, located in Bayonne. The cemetery contained Jewish burial sites dating to the late 17th century. The president of the Bayonne/Biarritz Jewish community condemned the desecrations, stating, “When it comes to attacking the dead, I don’t think there is anything more cowardly.”
On August 7, unknown persons set fire to the Omar Mosque in Bron, a suburb of Lyon. President of the regional CFCM Kamel Kabtane denounced the act. He had said previously the country trivialized anti-Muslim speech and acts. Regional and religious leaders, such as Interior Minister Darmanin and Mohammed Moussaoui, President of the Union of Mosques of France, expressed solidarity against the suspected arson and stated the country was experiencing a “rise of hatred.” They called for the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate and address these issues.
A fire broke out at the Essalam Mosque in the city of Lyon on August 12, only days after the suspected arson at the Omar Mosque in Bron. The mayor of Lyon’s 2nd Arrondissement, Pierre Oliver, condemned the burning of the mosque, which a preliminary investigation suggested was also the result of arson. Hackers also changed the website link to the Essalam Mosque on the Google Maps site to a pest control site.
On April 15, the president of the Turkish Cultural Association (ACTS) of Saint-Etienne discovered a death threat written on the association door that he called “clearly Islamophobic.” Saint-Etienne Mayor Gael Perdriau expressed support for all ACTS members. The mayor highlighted the group’s societal contributions, including a recent donation of masks to nursing staff at the local teaching hospital.
On January 19, unknown individuals in Bordeaux and Talence defaced eight churches and two Catholic schools with graffiti. Several of the “tags” referred to pedophilia. Archbishop of Bordeaux Jean Paul James expressed his “profound sadness in the face of such acts,” condemned “this form of violence against Christians,” and offered to support “those who felt injured by these … obscene insults.” A police investigation was ongoing.
On April 22, members of the far-right group Generation Identitaire projected pictures denouncing calls to prayer onto the facade of the Grand Mosque of Lyon. The text read, “Lyon, Strasbourg, Marseille, Germany, Spain. Stop! The song of the muezzin will not resonate in Europe. Generation Identitaire.” The group claimed responsibility on Twitter. Marine Le Pen, president of the National Rally Party, had also publicly complained to the Interior Ministry about the Grand Mosque of Lyon’s daily broadcasts of the calls to prayer.
The hashtag #sijetaitunjuif (If I were a Jew) trended on Twitter France on May 18 before the company took it down, following condemnation by officials and Jewish and antihate organizations. The hashtag originated with six coordinated individual users and was amplified by other users and groups who deployed it with anti-Semitic smears and references to the Holocaust. The author of one of the original tweets, a 16-year-old boy, told media outlet BFM he had posted the material “to see if people would defend Jews.” Twitter France told BFM it took the hashtag off its list of trending topics for violating the company’s hate speech rules.
On June 23, anti-Semitic graffiti and drawings were found on campaign posters for Lyon Metropolis President David Kimelfeld. Also on June 23, anti-Muslim stickers were found on campaign posters of Nordine Gasmi, the Vaudais Independent Party mayoral candidate, in nearby Vaulx-en-Velin. Kimelfeld denounced the graffiti, and local Member of Parliament Thomas Rudigoz called the anti-Semitic tags “despicable,” saying they recalled dark times in the country’s history.
In the early hours of July 26, a mosque in the southwestern French city of Agen was vandalized with graffiti that included a swastika and obscene messages. Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted supported for Agen’s Muslim community and condemned “hateful actions that are contrary to the values of the Republic.” Agen Mayor Jean Dionis du Sejour denounced the vandalism as “absolutely unacceptable … insulting [and] senseless.”
Anti-Islam graffiti was discovered on September 2 on the walls of a mosque in the southwestern city of Tarbes, according to media reports. The incident occurred on the opening day of the trial for the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Interior Minister Darmanin tweeted, “These acts have no place in our Republic.” Regional officials, including the president of the Occitanie Region and the prefect of the Hautes-Pyrenees Department, also publicly condemned the act. Mayor of Tarbes Gerard Tremege visited the site and said he was “outraged by these heinous acts of desecration.” The CFCM also expressed “firm condemnation” and “full solidarity and total support to the faithful and officials of the mosque.”
On October 2, the Association of Jewish Students tweeted a video of a kosher restaurant in the 19th Arrondissement of Paris that had been vandalized with many swastikas and the words “Hitler was right” spray-painted on furniture and walls.
The Nour El Mohamadi Mosque in central Bordeaux was vandalized on October 14 and October 20. Unknown individuals broke exterior windows and defaced it with graffiti that included Celtic crosses and the phrase “Mahomet = Lache” (Mohammed = Coward). Interior Minister Darmanin asked local authorities to put the mosque under police protection, stating on Twitter, “Such actions are unacceptable on the soil of the Republic.” A police investigation was ongoing at year’s end. Mosque Vice President Abdelaziz Manaa noted a recent increase in anti-Muslim hostility: “There are people who insult us from the street … but now, we feel that it is getting worse. We’ve never had insults against the Prophet.”
On January 10, Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint with police after they found a graffito, “God kills,” on the door of a Kingdom Hall in Paris on January 10. At year’s end, law enforcement had not identified any suspects.
On April 17, the Angouleme criminal court found an 18-year-old man guilty of, but not responsible for, desecrating numerous graves in a Christian cemetery in Cognac in 2019. A psychiatric evaluation of the man before his trial concluded his judgment was impaired at the time of the incident. The court ordered his emergency hospitalization in a specialized center following the verdict.
Authorities closed the case against Claude Sinke, who died on February 26, before the case could go to trial. Sinke was arrested and charged with attempted murder after he allegedly shot and injured two Muslim men and set fire to the door of a mosque in Bayonne in 2019.
At year’s end, there was no information available on the status of a case involving four men arrested in 2019, who were part of a larger group of approximately 10 men alleged to have beaten and robbed a Jewish driver for a ride-sharing company. At the time, authorities said they considered the anti-Semitic nature of the attack to be an aggravating circumstance.
Authorities were still investigating a case from 2019 in which they charged a man with attempted murder and degrading a place of worship after he crashed his car into a mosque in Colmar. According to some press reports, the man was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which might lead to dismissal of the case.
On September 9, the G9, a Lyon-based interfaith group, founded following terrorist attacks in 2015 with the aim of promoting understanding among religious groups and fighting against violent extremism, wrote an open letter with calling for fraternity after multiple acts of vandalism at places of worship. In the letter, entitled “More than ever determined to work for the Common Good,” the G9 challenged citizens and authorities to be vigilant and create strong connections wherever possible.
The Council of Christian Churches in France, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to meet four times a year, twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador designated combating anti-Semitism as one of four key “pillars” of enhanced embassy outreach. Coupled with the embassy’s broad campaign supporting religious freedom, the Ambassador and other staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs actively pursued opportunities to engage on fighting anti-Semitism and bolstering religious freedom and tolerance with relevant government officials, including at the religious affairs offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs and DILCRAH. Topics discussed included religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, the BDS movement, Holocaust-related compensation, and bilateral cooperation on these issues.
Staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs met regularly in person and virtually with religious community leaders, activists, and private citizens throughout the country to discuss issues of discrimination and to advocate tolerance for diversity. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and interfaith dialogue and tolerance with senior Christian, Muslim, and Jewish representatives and NGOs such as Coexister and AJC Europe. They also hosted meetings with representatives from CRIF, the Israelite Central Consistory of France (the main Jewish administrative governance body), the CFCM, and the Paris Great Mosque, Catholic priests, and Protestant representatives working on interfaith dialogue.
The Ambassador and embassy personnel engaged regularly with senior Israeli embassy representatives on efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in the country. Embassy officials closely monitored the official government position on the BDS movement and anti-Semitic incidents. In February, senior embassy officials visited the Quatzenheim Jewish cemetery in Alsace, where vandals had desecrated 90 Jewish graves with anti-Semitic images and slogans in 2019. The local newspaper covered the visit to the cemetery with local leaders, and the embassy amplified the event on its social media platforms to bring visibility to the issue and to publicly express U.S. support for the fight against anti-Semitism.
While much of the embassy’s planned outreach was curtailed or significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, the embassy, APPs, and consulates general continued to reach out to religious communities, especially through virtual programs.
The embassy continued to support Coexister, a local association promoting interfaith dialogue and social cohesion, with funding assistance for the association’s Interfaith World Tour. Four young interfaith representatives concluded an eight-month world tour in 2019-20 to meet with interfaith leaders in 18 countries, including the United States. The team was producing a documentary film about the tour to be used for presentations at French public schools and conferences with the aim of deepening awareness of, and interest in, international initiatives on interfaith dialogue.
A new embassy-supported program against extremism and anti-Semitism with local NGO Insitut Hozes (founded by a past participant in an embassy-sponsored exchange program in the United States) began on December 28 to support interfaith “boot camps” to create shared experiences for Jewish and Muslim teenagers in the Paris suburbs, groups that rarely have opportunities to interact. The aim is for the groups to then work together to organize community service activities and act as a force of positive change in their communities.
In May, an embassy-sponsored webinar engaged civil society leaders, including those representing religious minorities, on combating religiously and ethnically motivated terrorism, as well as discrimination and violence targeting religious and ethnic minorities.
In July, the embassy organized a virtual encounter between representatives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Holocaust memorials and museums around France to share best practices in engaging young people on the lessons of the Holocaust.
The consulate general in Strasbourg hosted a meeting in February with senior embassy officers for local government, law enforcement, religious, and civil society leaders to discuss collaboration opportunities to fight growing anti-Semitism across the region. Breakfast was followed by a visit of one of the embassy officers with local community leaders to the Quatzenheim Jewish cemetery, where vandals had desecrated and painted swastikas on gravestones in 2019.
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic (March-April), the consulate general in Strasbourg consulted with the Jewish Consistory to assess growing disinformation among extremist groups that the Jewish population had caused the pandemic. In September, the consulate general hosted an interfaith lunch with key local government, civil society, and religious authorities to discuss the continued rise in anti-Semitic acts in the eastern part of the country, as well as issues of radicalization and violent extremism among the Muslim community.
In September, the APP in Lyon invited five religious leaders of the G9 group to discuss their collective editorial in national newspaper Le Parisien after two mosques and one Christian library in the region were vandalized that same month. During the meeting, the APP representative discussed the concerns of local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders over President Macron’s proposed antiseparatism measures, particularly related to the issue of foreign trained imams.
The made-for-television film “RAMDAM,” supported by APP Bordeaux and written with an imam and a past embassy-sponsored visitor to the United States, aired on French television in May. The fictional film, showcasing the daily stories, struggles, and triumphs of a local imam, blended humor, compassion, and current topics aimed at presenting a more nuanced view of Muslim communities.
In April, the Consul General in Marseille attended an online commemoration ceremony in memory of the persons deported from the Camp des Milles internment camp during WWII. In August, the new Consul General visited the Camp des Milles, where she laid a wreath and spent the day touring the site with its director, meeting with survivors and local residents.
In September, the APP in Rennes hosted a meeting with regional representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities, as well other civil society representatives. The Principal Officer facilitated an exchange of ideas and perspectives on the impact of current issues, including the COVID-19 epidemic, on different communities. Jewish and Muslim representatives reiterated their commitments to maintaining their positive existing relationships and ongoing dialogue on areas of shared interest.
The embassy regularly amplified messages from the Secretary of State and Department of State on religious freedom via embassy social media platforms in French and in English. The embassy also complemented information supplied by the Department of State with original content in French, for example by marking the International Day of Religious Freedom and condemning antireligious, mostly anti-Semitic acts, such as the killing of Samuel Paty. Embassy social media outreach highlighted the importance of religious freedom as a core American value and demonstrated how France and the United States worked together on the issue.
The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tolerance and Diversity Institute (Tolerance Institute) stated that prosecutors continued to fail to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes. NGOs criticized the government during the COVID-19 state of emergency between March 22 and May 22 for allowing the GOC exceptions from restrictions on in-person religious services while not responding to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on applying restrictions. The government did not approve the registration application of any new religious group. It rejected the application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. Parliament again failed to pass legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law under which the GOC received exclusive tax and property privileges. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Religious leaders criticized parliament for passing amendments in May that grant only the GOC ownership rights to state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Following the December 2019 election of Mufti Adam Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, AMAG education department head Rezo Mikeladze, AMAG press center head Otar Nadiradze, and two other leaders within the organization resigned, and Mikeladze made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the State Security Service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Mikeladze and Nadiradze subsequently rejoined AMAG. The Armenian Apostolic, Evangelical Lutheran, and Roman Catholic Churches and some Muslim groups reported continued difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions on mosques and their construction. NGOs continued to state there was bias in public schools favoring Georgian Orthodox religious teachings, although the government took some steps to involve human rights groups in the textbook selection process. NGOs and some religious groups continued to criticize legislation that excluded some religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from receiving compensation for damages suffered during the Soviet era.
According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russia-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto authorities in both areas continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses could continue to rent space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia. Both the GOC and the Russian Orthodox Church formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited Georgian Orthodox clergy from entering the occupied territory. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the Russian Orthodox Church.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, religiously motivated crimes declined compared to 2019 due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity. During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared with 44 cases in 2019. The Public Defender’s Office received seven complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination during the year, compared with 19 complaints in 2019. Two of these complaints involved violence. The Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) obtained convictions for two individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance, and a case against a third was pending at year’s end. Jehovah’s Witnesses said attacks against members declined because the group, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach or door-to-door evangelism. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight incidents against the group, its members, or Kingdom Halls, including one involving violence, compared with 20 in 2019. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared to prior years in classifying crimes targeting Jehovah’s Witnesses as motivated by religious intolerance. The Public Defender’s Office and religious minorities continued to state there was widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. The NGO Media Development Foundation documented 20 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media by media figures, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 in 2019. In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili said the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church “have no merit.” In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told a news outlet that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the main source of COVID-19 in the city of Zugdidi. In December, the Tolerance Institute condemned as anti-Semitic a sermon by Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Ioane Gamrekeli in which he referred to nonbelievers as “a lineage of infidels.” The Georgian ambassador to Israel said Gamrekeli’s words had been misinterpreted, and the GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior Church leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. In November, the Secretary of State met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi to discuss the promotion and protection of religious freedom. The embassy continued to support long-term programming to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and promote greater integration.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church at 2.9 percent. The remaining 3 percent includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups, such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Russian Orthodox Church, Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azeris are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast; both groups are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in the south-central region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the Armenian Apostolic Church and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
Reliable information from the Russia-occupied regions in Georgia continued to be difficult to obtain. According to a census conducted in 2016 by the de facto Abkhaz authorities, there were 243,000 residents of Russia-occupied Abkhazia. A survey conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent as Muslim, 8 percent as atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent as followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.
According to a 2015 census conducted by de facto South Ossetian authorities, there were 53,000 residents of Russia-occupied South Ossetia. The majority of the population practices Orthodox Christianity; other minority groups include Muslims and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religion, subject to considerations of public safety and the health and rights of others, and equality for all regardless of religion. It prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also prohibits political parties that incite religious strife. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The constitution recognizes the GOC’s special role in the country’s history but stipulates the Church shall be independent from the state and that relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the Georgian Orthodox patriarch, exemption of Church clergy from military service (although by law, clergy from all religious groups are exempted), and a consultative role in government, especially in state education policies. The concordat states that some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s right to a consultative role in state education policies. There is currently no implementing legislation for the concordat.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a legal entity of public law (legal entity) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition, tax exemptions for donations and other “religious activities” (a term not clearly defined by law), and the right to own property and open bank accounts. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered for legal entity status. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.
To register as a legal entity, the law specifies a religious group must have a historic link with the country or be recognized as a religion “by the legislation of the member states of the Council of Europe.” A religious group must also submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and members of its governing body. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.
The law grants the GOC exceptions from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. It exempts the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, but not other religious groups, from taxes on “profit from the sale of crosses, candles, icons, books, and calendars used…for religious purposes.” In addition, the law states only the GOC may acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale by the government. Should other religious groups wish to acquire this type of property, they must participate in public tenders. Only the GOC has the right to acquire agricultural state property free of charge; all others must pay a fee. On May 22, parliament passed amendments to the forest code granting the Church ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization; the code does not define “establishment.” Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by a fine, correctional work (community service) for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by larger fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim, although the law does not define “insult” and does not specify an amount or time limit for punishment under those circumstances. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years, depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and the damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, the offender may face up to five years in prison.
According to a 2010 Ministry of Justice decree, accused and convicted individuals may meet only with spiritual representatives of the GOC and registered religious organizations. Prison regulations state prisoners have the right to possess and use religious literature and objects of worship.
Although the law states that public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions, pending additional legislation, and authorizes the state to pay for Georgian Orthodox religious schools. The law states that students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals on school grounds “of their own accord,” but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. The law includes no specific regulations for private religious schools. Private schools must follow the national curriculum, although they are free to add subjects, including religious studies, if they wish.
The MOIA’s Department of Human Rights is responsible for assessing whether crimes are motivated by religious hatred and for monitoring the quality of investigations into hate crimes.
By law, the PGO, which is separate from the MOIA, prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the Public Defender’s Office serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center carries out educational activities and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination. It also coordinates the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions and Council of Ethnic Minorities. The Council of Religions has a mandate to protect religious freedom; facilitate a constructive multilateral dialogue among various religious groups; promote a tolerant, fair, and peaceful environment for religious groups; and engage religious minorities in the process of civic integration. It produces an annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country that includes policy recommendations.
The State Inspector Service, a separate investigative body from the PGO, investigates crimes such as torture, degrading treatment, and abuse of power and abuse of office perpetrated by representatives of law enforcement and public officials if they are committed by use of force or violate the personal dignity of a person and involve discriminatory elements or features, including religious motives. Following the investigation, the service refers these cases to the PGO for prosecution. Since its creation in May 2019, the service has not received any information on a religiously motivated crime.
SARI’s mandate is to promote and ensure peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. Its stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for government consideration, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI may issue nonbinding recommendations to relevant state institutions regarding approval of applications for the construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations. SARI distributes government compensation to the GOC and to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as legal entities for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Tolerance Institute again stated that the MOIA generally correctly applied the appropriate articles of the criminal code in most cases and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred continued to improve. The institute stated, however, that the PGO continued to fail to determine whether an individual was a “victim” of a crime under law (i.e., a person who has incurred moral, physical, or material damage as a result of a crime) and to indict individuals for religiously motivated crimes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government declared a state of emergency from March 21 through May 22. According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to the public’s and religious groups’ adherence to government-imposed restrictions, public religious activity declined. NGOs said SARI was unresponsive to minority religious groups’ requests for clarification on restrictions relating to in-person religious services, while it granted the GOC exceptions to or not did not enforce restrictions, thereby enabling the Church to continue hosting in-person religious services, including Orthodox Easter services on April 19.
The NAPR did not register any new religious organization as a legal entity during the year. It rejected the registration application of the Christian Church for All Nations for the second year in a row. The NAPR found the group’s legal documentation was insufficient and requested additional documentation. As of year’s end, the group’s registration process remained suspended pending presentation of additional materials.
Most prisons continued to have Georgian Orthodox chapels and areas for prayer. Muslims were allowed to pray in their cells or prayer areas and to possess Qurans and prayer rugs. According to SARI and Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, prisoners had access to counseling and services for their religion upon request. The government provided accommodation for the dietary restrictions of Muslim and Jewish prisoners. During religious holidays, prisoners were exempt from fulfilling their regular duties.
According to NGOs and minority religious groups, many religious issues, such as tax exemptions and restitution issues, continued to lack a clear legislative framework. SARI and some religious groups’ representatives, including members of the Jewish community and the Armenian Apostolic Church, said they remained in favor of drafting a new, broader “law on religion” to define which groups would be eligible for these and other benefits and to address issues pertaining to the registration and legal status of religious groups and the teaching of religion in public schools. Many civil society representatives and members of other religious groups, including some individuals from the Muslim community, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Baptist Church, however, remained opposed, arguing such legislation would allow the government to discriminate against smaller religious communities and increase its leverage over them. They advocated instead making benefits available to all religious groups or to none.
Parliament failed to take action during the year to amend the law granting the GOC tax and property privileges not available to other religious groups, despite a 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that the law was unconstitutional and mandating parliament make legislative changes to either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31, 2018.
On May 13, the Constitutional Court announced its decision that the case brought by nine religious organizations claiming the GOC’s exclusive property tax exemption on land used for noneconomic purpose violated the constitutional provision guaranteeing equality before the law had merit and would be admitted for substantive consideration. The court had not started this review at year’s end.
On February 20, the Constitutional Court heard arguments on whether to accept for substantive consideration a case brought by nine religious organizations challenging restrictions on the rights of religious organizations other than the GOC to purchase or exchange state-owned property. As of year’s end, the court had not reached a decision.
The Tolerance Institute and other NGOs criticized as unconstitutional and discriminatory amendments passed in May to the Forest Code that granted only the GOC ownership over state forests located near or adjacent to churches and monasteries.
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to favor and influence the state-funded AMAG, including by influencing the selection of AMAG’s religious leader and selectively transferring land to AMAG. The groups said AMAG was a “Soviet-style” organization that served as a tool of the state to monitor and control religious groups. A number of Muslim groups remained critical of AMAG for insisting it represented all Muslim communities in the country within one organization. Following the December 25, 2019, election of Mufti Shantadze as the new AMAG leader, head of the AMAG education department Mikeladze resigned and made a televised statement saying Shantadze was the candidate of the state security service and his appointment would not benefit the interests of Muslims. Three other leaders – press center head Nadiradze, advisor to the mufti Temur Gorgadze, and publishing house head Gela Gogitidza – also resigned. During the year, Mikeladze and Nadiradze returned to AMAG, and Mikeladze continued to hold senior offices in the education department. Mikeladze and Nadiradze made no statements addressing their departure or return.
At year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on the Armenia Apostolic Church’s January 2018 appeal of the NAPR’s decision to register as the GOC’s property a church that the Armenian Apolstolic Church claimed to own since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Armenian Apostolic Church continued to petition SARI for restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. As of year’s end, SARI had not officially responded to any of the Armenian Church’s 57 petitions, 20 of which it filed in 2015 and 37 in 2018, for ownership or right-of-usage status. The Armenian Apostolic Church said the only communication from SARI during the year was SARI chairman Zaza Vashakmadze telling the group the issue was “under consideration.” The Church reported it operated all 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The Church also stated it had not petitioned NAPR during the year to register them as Church-owned property. SARI said the Armenian Apostolic Church had not provided sufficient evidence of ownership but that it was in communication with the Church and expressed willingness to cooperate in the future.
Muslim community members continued to state there was a lack of transparency in government decisions regarding construction of mosques. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. The government owned the land as a legacy from the Soviet period and, in some cases, said the existing mosques were former Georgian Orthodox houses of worship that had been converted during the Ottoman and Persian empires or were constructed during those periods on land where Georgian Orthodox houses of worship had once stood. AMAG reported that when the government transferred state-owned mosques, it only did so for AMAG to use for a 49-year or unlimited period; the government did not transfer full ownership of the property or land.
The Kutaisi Court of Appeal held hearings in February and July on the Batumi city government’s appeal connected to its 2017 decision to deny the local Muslim community a permit to build a mosque but did not reach a decision by year’s end. In 2019, the Batumi City Court ruled that the Batumi city government had discriminated against the New Mosque Construction Fund (an entity representing members of the Batumi Muslim community seeking to establish a new mosque) by denying the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. The lower court ordered the mayor’s office to reconsider its decision. The Batumi city government rescinded the 3,000 lari ($920) fine it had imposed in 2017 for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land, pending the outcome of the appeal. The NGO Human Rights Education Monitoring Center (EMC) described the status of the case as “frozen.”
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 1.91 million lari ($584,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, compared with 2.3 million lari ($703,000) in 2019.
As of year’s end, the Supreme Court failed to act on a 2018 EMC appeal of a lower court ruling that the MOIA had not discriminated against Muslims when it failed to prevent vandalism against an Islamic boarding school that was under construction in Kobuleti, near Batumi, in 2014. The vandalism followed anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim protests concerning the school. As a result of the protests, the local municipality refused to connect sewage and water systems. In 2018, a lower court ruled the municipality had to connect the school to utility services, but the municipality took no action, and the boarding school remained incomplete as of year’s end, without water and sewage services.
Tolerance Institute representatives continued to state that religious education in public schools persisted, although the law provided for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination. The GOC did not offer any formal religious studies classes in public institutions. Although the GOC had the right to have direct involvement in public institutions, such as schools, under the concordat, the government did not define clear legal structures for it to do so. Prior to schools being closed in February due to COVID-19 restrictions, NGOs and non-Georgian Orthodox organizations, such as the EMC, reported Georgian Orthodox clergy often visited classes during the regular school day, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators, despite the law restricting such visits to after hours.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government shifted the majority of schools to online instruction, and there were no reports of religious discrimination in schools during the year. The Tolerance Institute stated that students were also hesitant to report cases of religious discrimination in schools for fear of reprisal from fellow students, teachers, or school officials. The institute also reported the process for selecting textbooks became more inclusive, with the Ministry of Education inviting human rights experts to review the content for discriminatory or biased language that favored the GOC.
During the year, the Tolerance Institute represented two Seventh-day Adventist university applicants who, due to their religious beliefs, could not take entrance examinations on Saturday and were denied a date change by the government. The institute filed suit with the Tbilisi City Court, and the court ruled that the government was obligated to reschedule the examination to accommodate the applicants’ religious beliefs. The court stressed the importance of freedom of religion and respecting the needs of religious minorities in the context of the right to equality. The Equality Department of the Public Defender’s Office issued a general proposal to the Ministry of Education, based on information provided by the Tolerance Institute, recommending the ministry take into account the needs of religious minorities. Although the applicants successfully passed the examinations and enrolled in university, the case remained pending at year’s end, as the Tolerance Institute asked the court to find that the ministry had discriminated against the applicants because of their religion and to award “symbolic compensation” of one lari (22 cents) for “moral damage.”
During the year, the government through SARI allocated 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC and 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) to approved non-Georgian Orthodox religious communities to provide partial compensation for damage caused during the totalitarian Soviet regime. The 3.5 million lari ($1.07 million) was distributed as follows: 2.20 million lari ($673,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 600,000 lari ($183,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 300,000 lari ($91,700) to the Jewish community. SARI said the remaining one million lari ($306,000) would be distributed among the religious communities “later.” This was a decrease from the 2019 amounts: 25 million lari ($7.65 million) to the GOC; 2.75 million lari ($841,000) to the Muslim community, represented by AMAG; 550,000 lari ($168,000) to the Roman Catholic Church; 800,000 lari ($245,000) to the Armenian Apostolic Church; and 400,000 lari ($122,000) to the Jewish community. SARI’s position was that the payments were of “partial and of symbolic character,” and that the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of religious groups in determining compensation. NGOs and religious groups continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, from the legislation designating the five groups eligible to receive compensation, and they questioned the criteria the government used to select which groups received compensation.
The MOIA Department of Human Rights conducted eight training sessions during the year – five total in Tbilisi and Batumi and three online. At these events, it trained 139 MOIA employees on aspects of religious discrimination and hate crimes. Fifteen employees completed the ministry’s remote learning course on hate crimes investigation.
In October, the Public Defender’s Office-affiliated Council of Religions produced its annual report on the status of religious freedom in the country. The report identified areas needing improvement and made specific recommendations in the following categories: legislative regulation of freedom of religion; crimes motivated by intolerance; state policy on freedom of religion; property issues; border crossing by religious groups; the import of religious literature; police conduct in areas with ethnic and religious minorities; education; reflecting diversity; confronting hate speech and anti-Western propaganda; and the role of the media. During the October conference to discuss the report’s recommendations, many NGO and religious leaders said they were disappointed that the council’s recommendations were similar or identical to those it had made in past years, with no improvement or progress on the issues identified.
The Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russia and outside the administrative control of the central government. Reliable information from those regions continued to be difficult to obtain. According to the “constitution” adopted in Abkhazia, all persons in the region are equal before the law regardless of religious beliefs and everyone has the right to freedom of religion, conscience, and belief. It forbids the formation of associations or parties or activities that incite religious discord. The “constitution” of South Ossetia guarantees freedom of conscience and faith but states, “Orthodox Christianity and traditional South Ossetian beliefs represent one of the foundations of the national self-awareness of the Ossetian people.”
The Russian Orthodox Church and the GOC both formally recognized the Orthodox churches in Abkhazia as well as in South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church. Sources stated that the Russian Orthodox Church tacitly and unofficially supported breakaway churches that did not have official autocephaly from the GOC. De facto authorities continued to restrict Georgian Orthodox clergy’s accessing these areas. According to media reports from online news outlets, such as Netgazeti and Resonance Daily, as well as experts on the region, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, while others wished to subordinate them to the Russian Orthodox Church, and still others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
De facto authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, however, Jehovah’s Witnesses continued be able to rent space for kingdom halls in Abkhazia.
Representatives of the GOC remained unable to travel to or conduct services in Russia-occupied Abkhazia, including in the majority-ethnic Georgian Gali District. According to GOC representatives, the district’s ethnic Georgian population continued to have to travel to Tbilisi-administered territory to celebrate religious holidays.
The government and GOC continued to say the de facto authorities damaged historical Orthodox religious buildings in an attempt to erase Georgian cultural heritage, but they did not cite specific examples.
According to GOC representatives, de facto authorities allowed the GOC to conduct services in South Ossetia, although the de facto authorities said such services were illegal. There were Georgian Orthodox churches in the ethnic-Georgian-majority district of Akhalgori. SARI again reported it was not allowed to enter the occupied territory. It said it was unable to monitor houses of worship in South Ossetia and that the status of most properties in the territory was unknown. According to a report from Amnesty International released in 2019, residents in and outside of South Ossetia were impeded from visiting a number of churches and cemeteries within South Ossetia located near the administrative boundary line with the rest of Georgia because of the threat of detention by Russian guards. The report said residents were unable to visit the village cemetery in Kveshi and were impeded from visiting eight other cemeteries in South Ossetia near the administrative boundary line.
GOC representatives said de facto authorities in South Ossetia continued to pressure the Orthodox churches in the territory to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to religious organizations and NGOs, due to government-imposed COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public activity, crimes committed against religious groups declined compared with 2019. The MOIA investigated 22 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, compared to 44 cases in 2019. These included three cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites (compared with 10 in 2019), four cases of persecution (compared with 10 in 2019), and five cases of damage or destruction of property (compared with eight in 2019).
The Public Defender’s Office reported it received seven complaints of discrimination or hate crimes based on religion during the year, compared with 19 in 2019. Two of the complaints involved violence; the office did not give further details on these cases. The office stated that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved, partly because of a lack of urgency and resources from the government.
The PGO reported it prosecuted three individuals for crimes against Jehovah’s Witnesses motivated by religious intolerance. Two of these individuals were convicted of domestic violence committed due to religious intolerance, and the third case remained pending at year’s end. The PGO reported that in one case, a man slapped his wife during an argument on March 8 because she refused to visit her son’s gravesite due to her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. On April 23, the Samtredia District Court found the man guilty of domestic violence committed in the presence of a minor and due to religious intolerance, and sentenced him to an 18-month conditional prison sentence. On June 19, on appeal, the Kutaisi Appellate Court increased the man’s conditional prison sentence to two years. On March 1, a man threatened to shoot two Jehovah’s Witnesses who were proselytizing in his apartment building if they did not stop their religious activity and leave the building. The PGO charged the man with persecuting an individual for engaging in religious activity with the aggravated circumstance of threat of violence, and the case was pending trial at the Tbilisi City Court at year’s end.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were fewer attacks against members compared to prior years because the group, in response to COVID-19 restrictions, shifted to online activities and ceased conducting public outreach, including door-to-door evangelism. At year’s end, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported eight religiously motivated incidents to the government, compared with 20 in 2019. Of the reported incidents, one involved physical violence, four involved vandalism or other damage against Kingdom Halls, and three involved interference with religious services or damage of other property or literature. Jehovah’s Witnesses said police sent one of the cases to the PGO for prosecution. Police were still investigating the seven others at year’s end. According to the Public Defender’s Office, the PGO made improvements compared with prior years in classifying crimes as being motivated by religious intolerance, especially in cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As of year’s end, the Tbilisi City Court had not ruled on a 2019 case in which an individual verbally insulted, then physically attacked, a Jehovah’s Witness who had just left a religious service at a Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi. The victim required medical treatment for injuries to his eye and lip, and officials charged the attacker with “purposeful, less grave damage to health.”
Authorities reported no arrests or other progress in open investigations of incidents from past years against Jehovah’s Witnesses or their property.
Representatives of the Public Defender’s Office’s Tolerance Center and minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values.
Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance from local communities to their establishment of places of worship and religious schools.
The Media Development Foundation documented 30 instances during the year of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared with 55 such incidents in 2019.
In May, Georgian Orthodox clergyman Basil Mkalavishvili told the news website Georgia and the World, “As soon as this terrible epidemic [of COVID-19] has spread to all continents, all countries should have started intensified praying, but unfortunately, the reverse has happened. The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church closed their churches, prohibited praying; although their prayers have no merit anyway, as in the 11th century they swerved from Orthodoxy and embarked on the road of sacrilege.”
There were instances, particularly in Western Georgia, of anti-Islamic rhetoric that took the form of anti-Turkish rhetoric and opposition to perceived “foreign influence.” On February 16, Alliance of Patriots party member Giorgi Kasradze criticized the perceived foreign influence of Turkish Muslims on the country, saying on TV Obiektivi, “They [Turkish Muslims] have tried many times to stage various provocations in this region, including building an Azizie Mosque in the center of Batumi, but 15,000 [Georgian] Muslims, altogether 70,000 people, of whom 15,000 were Muslims, resisted construction of a mosque by Turkish money.”
In April, Sandro Bregadze, leader of the nativist movement Georgian March, told the news outlet Sakinpormi, “In Zugdidi [City] the main source of coronavirus is the sect of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you noticed how they are concealing this information? Can you imagine the fuss if this disease were spread from the Church congregation? That is the problem – 90 percent of Georgian television networks are belligerent enemies of the Georgian nation, Orthodoxy, and the Georgian state! A national boycott to this offspring of Satan.”
On December 20, Georgian Orthodox Metropolitan Gamrekeli delivered a sermon that included a story about the fourth-century saint Ambrose of Milan. In the story, Saint Ambrose argued against punishing those responsible for a pogrom against the Jewish community on the grounds that Jews had not been held fully responsible for killing Christ, desecrating the Holy Land, or blasphemy. In the sermon, Gamrekeli referred to modern-day Jews as individuals who, under the guise of free speech, defamed the Church, and said, “This is not defined by ethnicity – this is a battle of the lineage of infidels against the Church.” On December 28, the Tolerance Institute issued a statement saying, “Despite the fact that the Bishop refers to the story of Ambrose of Mediolanum, in this context he repeats the narratives of the ‘generation/lineage of infidels’ and ‘fighters against the Church’ in reference to the Jewish people. We consider that citing this particular example and calling Jewish people these derogatory terms (even though attributing them to the life of the saint) reinforces anti-Semitic sentiments and stereotypes today.” In response to the Tolerance Institute’s statement, the Georgian ambassador to Israel defended the Metropolitan’s statement, saying his words had been misinterpreted, as the story was simply the retelling of a historical parable, and the Metropolitan said in the sermon the lessons from the parable should not apply to one ethnicity. The GOC subsequently issued a statement condemning anti-Semitism.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with officials from the government, including SARI, the Prime Minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the President’s adviser on national minorities, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups. They also continued to meet with the Public Defender’s Office and officials in its Tolerance Center to discuss discrimination against religious groups and stress the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs involved with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center, the Tolerance Institute, and the 21st Century Union, to discuss interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the promotion of religious freedom for all.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials visited the Samtskhe-Javakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders, including from the Sunni and Shia Muslim and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox communities. In these meetings, embassy officials advocated interfaith understanding, dialogue, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions. The Ambassador met with Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC members on multiple occasions. In her meetings, she stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.
In November, the Secretary of State met with Patriarch Ilia II in Tbilisi and discussed promoting and protecting religious freedom.
The embassy conducted a virtual program for a multiethnic group of young professionals under an exchange program focusing on inclusion, diversity, and equality. The program highlighted, among other things, the importance of freedom of religion. The embassy supported a number of religious freedom projects, including a discussion on human dignity and the GOC that brought together clergy and staff of the Georgian Orthodox patriarchate and public figures, nongovernmental human rights organizations, and scholars studying theology and religion with the goal of increasing awareness of human rights within the Church community. Another project aimed to encourage religious leaders of all faiths to promote democracy and foster civic engagement in their communities. The embassy’s English language programs in Marneuli, Akhalkalaki, and Ninotsminda targeted 25 socially disadvantaged students from religious minority groups.
The embassy continued to support the Tolerance Center and the Council of Religions programs that brought together leaders from different faith communities to monitor and advocate for religious freedom and raise public awareness about discrimination faced by religious and ethnic minorities. The embassy supported the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center’s “Improving Human Rights Conditions for Marginalized Groups through Strategic Litigation” project to protect the rights of minority religious groups through strategic litigation, field work, advocacy, and awareness-raising with regard to problems such as discrimination on religious and ethnic grounds in relations with state and private persons, unequal treatment in the recognition of property and construction rights, and hate crimes.
In September, the embassy announced a cultural preservation award to restore the Jvari Monastery, a Georgian Orthodox monastery near Mtskheta (the former capital of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Iberia) and one of the country’s most iconic cultural sites.
The embassy regularly used social media to highlight meetings with government officials, religious groups, and civil society and events promoting religious tolerance.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion. The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters. Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits. Federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups and mosques. Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members. Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees. Senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and acts. In September, Chancellor Angela Merkel described anti-Semitism as an attack on the dignity of individuals that “must be fought decisively” – ideally with education, but with the full strength of the criminal law system when necessary. Government officials responded to revelations of right-wing, anti-Semitic chat groups within police and the military by demanding investigations and dismissing those involved. Two additional state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, bringing the total number of states with such commissioners to 15 (out of 16), in addition to the federal Jewish life and anti-Semitism commissioner. In October, the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 30.5 million euros ($37.4 million) in 2021 and provide an additional 564 million euros ($692 million) over the next two years to help Holocaust survivors cope with the burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During a Sukkot celebration for students at the Hohe Weide Synagogue in Hamburg on October 4, a man wearing a military-style uniform struck a Jewish student in the head with a shovel, leaving the victim with a serious head injury. Police arrested the attacker, and a criminal trial was pending. Authorities including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht, and Hamburg Mayor Peter Tschentscher condemned the attack. There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents. These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Federal crime statistics for 2019 cited 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, an increase of 13 percent from 2018. Seventy-two of those crimes involved violence. Federal crime statistics attributed 93.4 percent of anti-Semitic crimes in 2019 to the far right. In November, Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein stated anti-Semitism was emerging as a common theme among groups of widely differing political backgrounds that were gathering to protest pandemic lockdown measures. From mid-March to mid-June, the Research Center for Information on Anti-Semitism (RIAS), which is partially government-funded, registered anti-Semitic incidents at 123 separate demonstrations against restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The head of the Central Council of Jews said to the media in May that right-wing protesters were using anxieties stirred up by the pandemic to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on the internet. Demonstrations also occurred expressing anti-Muslim sentiment.
The U.S. embassy and five consulates general assessed the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance; expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts; and advocated for more law enforcement and other resources to prevent violent attacks on religious communities. A senior embassy official met with the federal commissioner for global freedom of religion at the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in September. Consuls General met with state-level government representatives and anti-Semitism commissioners. The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 80.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Unofficial estimates based on the census and figures provided by religious groups indicate approximately 27 percent of the population is Catholic and 25 percent belongs to the EKD – a confederation of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and United (Prussian Union) Protestant regional churches. Other Protestant denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, Baptist communities, and nondenominational Christians, account for approximately 2 percent of the population. Orthodox Christians represent 1.9 percent of the population.
According to the most recent government estimates, approximately 5.7 percent of the population is Muslim, of which 75 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alevi, and 7 percent Shia; the remainder includes Alawites (70,000), Ahmadis (35,000), and Sufis (10,000). Intelligence officials estimate there are approximately 12,150 Salafi Muslims in the country. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely; the Central Council of Jews estimates it at 94,771, while other estimates place the number at approximately 190,000 when including Jews who do not belong to a specific Jewish community. According to the secular NGO Religious Studies Media and Information Service (REMID), Buddhists (270,000); Jehovah’s Witnesses (167,000); Hindus (100,000); Yezidis (100,000); members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) (40,000); Sikhs (10,000-15,000); and members of the COS (3,400) together constitute less than 1 percent of the population. All of REMID’s estimates are based on members who have registered with a religious group. According to the nonprofit Research Group Worldviews Germany, approximately 39 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or belongs to religious groups not counted in government statistics.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience, freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed, and freedom to practice one’s religion. It also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions nor be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools, and parents have the right to decide whether their children receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and permits groups to organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and to provide religious services in the military, hospitals, and prisons.
The General Act on Equal Treatment has been in force since August 2006. The purpose of the act is to prevent or stop discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin, gender, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation.
The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence, inciting hatred, or taking arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare. The prohibition and penalties apply equally to online speech. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
By law, social media companies with more than two million registered users in the country must implement procedures to review complaints and remove or block access to illegal speech within seven days of receiving a complaint and within 24 hours for cases considered “manifestly unlawful.” Noncompliance may result in fines of up to 50 million euros ($61.3 million). Unlawful content includes actions illegal under existing criminal code, such as defamation of religions and denial of historic atrocities.
The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups – such as the COS – as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled that the government must remain neutral toward a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.
Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Those applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence they are a religious group through their statutes, history, and activities.
A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes (8 percent of income tax in Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg, 9 percent in the other states) on members, who must register their religious affiliation with federal tax authorities. Each state collects the tithes on behalf of the religious community through the state’s tax collection process, separately from and in addition to income taxes. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service. PLC status also allows for benefits, including tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status that provide public services, such as religious schools and hospitals. In addition, due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to pre-1919 Germany, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.
According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.
Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices. Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, however, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.
According to a 2015 ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply. The states of Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, Bremen, and Lower Saxony do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality. Berlin’s Neutrality Law bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, and law enforcement staff but, as of 2020, not for primary and secondary school teachers. In Lower Saxony, judges and prosecutors may not wear religious symbols or clothing in the courtroom. Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.
Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving, including by a niqab. Infractions are punishable by a 60-euro ($74) fine.
According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.
All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or those without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state granting them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to ensure the curriculum is in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary by state) express an interest. Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein also offer some religious instruction in Islam. In most federal states, Muslim communities or associations provide this instruction, while in Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state does. In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction is offered for all students by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.
Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states, those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all states.
The government provides annual payments to Holocaust victims and their descendants, and regularly expands the scope of these programs to broaden the eligibility requirements.
In January and again in July, the Baden-Wuerttemberg Free Democratic Party (FDP) requested an examination of whether Jehovah’s Witnesses fulfilled the conditions for PLC status in that state. In both instances, the state education ministry affirmed there was no reason to revoke the status. In August, the FDP’s speaker for religious affairs once again urged the ministry to review the group’s eligibility for PLC status due to its prohibition of blood transfusions for children. Jehovah’s Witnesses have held PLC status in all states since 2017.
In March, the federal government established a cabinet committee to combat right-wing extremism and racism. The committee drew up a catalog of 89 concrete measures, many of which aim at combating anti-Semitism. The federal government stated it would provide more than one billion euros ($1.23 billion) for the projects between 2021 and 2024.
In June, Federal Family Minister Franziska Giffey launched a network to provide government resources and foster connections between educational institutions and research centers working to combat anti-Semitism. The federal government stated it would support a new anti-Semitism competence center with two million euros ($2.5 million) over the next four years.
In July, more than 60 scientists, academics, writers, and artists wrote to Chancellor Angela Merkel warning of an “inflationary, factually unjustified, and legally unfounded use of the term anti-Semitism.” They expressed concern about the suppression of “legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy” and castigated Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein for distracting attention from “real anti-Semitic sentiments.”
In September, speaking at the 70th anniversary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Chancellor Merkel spoke of her “grave concern” over the increasingly open expression of anti-Semitism in the country. She described anti-Semitism as an attack on the dignity of individuals that “must be fought decisively” – ideally with education, but with the full strength of the criminal law system when necessary.
In September, the NRW interior ministry suspended 29 police officers for participating in a right-wing extremist chat group, and some faced criminal investigation. The group shared extremist propaganda, including photographs of Adolf Hitler. The interior ministry also ordered an inspection of the affected police station, and it created a new position to specifically monitor right-wing extremism across the NRW police force.
In April, the NRW commissioner for anti-Semitism published the first NRW anti-Semitism report, which indicated 310 anti-Semitic crimes were registered in NRW in 2019, of which 291 were motivated by right-wing ideologies. The crimes ranged from verbal abuse to physical injury; all cases resulted in criminal investigations. In June, the NRW commissioner announced she was establishing an office to monitor and independently investigate anti-Semitic crimes that would allow victims to report anonymously in part in an effort to increase the reporting of cases.
During the year, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg established state-level anti-Semitism commissioner positions, leaving Bremen as the only state without one. The responsibilities and functions of the position vary by state but generally include developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs. In 2018, Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner Klein urged all states to establish anti-Semitism commissioners because the distribution of powers in the country’s federal system provided the states with greater authority to combat anti-Semitism.
In February, the Frankfurt general prosecutor’s office established a commissioner for combating anti-Semitism. In addition to evaluating anti-Jewish aspects of crimes, the person will serve as point of contact for domestic and foreign authorities.
In January, Hesse inaugurated a new office for reporting anti-Semitic incidents as part of a 2019 state initiative to establish a more comprehensive approach to countering online hate speech and harassment.
In February, the Bremen Senate extended its cooperation with the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial to police officers trained at the College of Public Administration. Among other activities, Yad Vashem teaches a course to police trainees on the history of the Jewish community in Bremen. The course brings trainees to main historical Jewish community sites as well as to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Yad Vashem also led trips to the Warsaw ghetto and to Israel; 18 trainees joined the trip to Israel.
More than 1,000 artists signed an open letter against the 2019 Bundestag decision to designate the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic, calling it a restriction of the right to boycott, a violation of democratic principles, and encouragement of a “climate of censorship.” They joined concerns by the heads of some German cultural institutions who argued the resolution might hinder their work. Numerous Bundestag members rejected the accusations, stating the resolution by no means banned dialogue or criticism. They also said that no tax funds should be used for BDS initiatives. State Minister for Culture Monika Gruetters said, “It is part of the Federal Republic of Germany’s raison d’etre to protect Israel’s right to exist. It follows that the federal government does not actively support organizations or projects that question Israel’s right to exist, even within the framework of cultural funding.”
In July, rap musician Farid Bang collaborated with Duesseldorf Mayor Thomas Geisel on a video promoting COVID-19 distancing measures. The state commissioner for anti-Semitism in NRW criticized the choice due to what he described as Bang’s frequently misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and violent lyrics, saying “This would be a wrong sign for Jewish life in this country.” The story received national publicity, and the video was taken down after one week.
In July, the Federal Constitutional Court confirmed a six-month prison sentence for Sascha Krolzig, federal chairman of the far-right party Die Rechte (The Right). Krolzig published an article calling a prominent member of the Jewish community an “insolent Jewish functionary” and praising the “exemplary and reliable men of the Waffen-SS.” Krolzig was convicted for sedition in February, based on inciting hatred against Jews and the use of National Socialist vocabulary.
In July, the Moenchengladbach public prosecutor’s office brought sedition charges against a man suspected of distributing the anti-Semitic manifesto of the 2019 Halle synagogue attacker online. The case was pending as of December.
In August, Lower Saxony’s Jewish community expressed concern after police officer Michael F. from Hanover, who was responsible for designing the security plans for Lower Saxony’s Jewish synagogues and community centers, drew parallels between restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 and National Socialism during his speech at a demonstration against the restrictions. The officer was suspended from duty in August. “Anyone responsible for the safety evaluations of Jewish facilities in the police force must be above reproach, not indulging in some abstruse, conspiracy-theoretical nonsense,” said Franz Rainer Enste, the state’s anti-Semitism commissioner.
In February, NRW Minister-President Armin Laschet visited Israel and expressed assurances that Germany would take decisive action against anti-Semitism, racism, and extreme right-wing violence. He said, “I am ashamed that 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we are experiencing this again in Germany.” Upon his return, Laschet received the Israel Jacobson Prize from the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany in recognition of his contribution to liberal Judaism and the strengthening of Jewish life in NRW.
In May, Bavarian Justice Minister Georg Eisenreich and Anti-Semitism Commissioner Ludwig Spaenle presented anti-Semitism guidelines for legal workers to help better identify anti-Semitic incidents.
According to reports from the federal Office for Protection of the Constitution (OPC – domestic intelligence agency) and Scientology members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Saxony-Anhalt continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. At least four major political parties – the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Christian Social Union (CSU), Social Democratic Party (SPD), and FDP – continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership. “Sect filters,” signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors. The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members.
At the September session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the President of the European Office of the Church of Scientology for Public Affairs and Human Rights requested Germany stop using “sect filters” and called on the president of the Human Rights Council to launch an investigation into the religious freedom violations that, he said, the country’s executive powers continue to perpetrate against Scientologists.
Following the country’s April 30 ban on all Hizballah activities, police raided mosques in Berlin, Bremen, and NRW. Police had previously placed the mosques under surveillance due to what they stated were their pro-Hizballah sympathies and links with extremist groups. In May, police searched the official rooms of the al-Mustafa community in Woltmershausen in Lower Saxony as well as the private residences of community leaders, alleging a close association of al-Mustafa with Hizballah.
Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor numerous Muslim groups, including the terrorist groups ISIS, Hizballah, and Hamas as well as groups such as Turkish Hizballah, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg, the Muslim Brotherhood, Milli Gorus, and various Salafist movements. Hamburg opposition parties and civil society actors continued to advocate an end to Hamburg’s formal relationship with the “Islamic Center,” which they described as an important Iranian regime asset.
In May, the OPC in Saxony reported it was monitoring two mosques that it said were dominated by Salafists.
Groups under OPC observation continued to say that OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and that this constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.
Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July, and consistent with its commitment to prioritize the fight against anti-Semitism, it organized an online conference November 18 on combating anti-Semitism and hate speech, and two weeks later, the council unanimously approved a declaration mainstreaming the fight against anti-Semitism across all policy areas. The council also published the largest survey ever conducted among European Jews on their perceptions and experiences of anti-Semitism.
In August, the federal labor court awarded a Muslim computer scientist approximately 5,200 euros ($6,400) in compensation for religious discrimination. In 2017, the plaintiff had insisted on wearing her headscarf in class as part of an interview for a position in the public school service and was subsequently denied a job. The rejected applicant said this was religious discrimination and sued for compensation under the General Equality Act. The Berlin Labor Court dismissed the claim, but the Berlin-Brandenburg Regional Labor Court upheld it, referring to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court in 2015 that stated that rejection of female applicants wearing headscarves must be justified by a concrete threat to the peace of the school. Berlin appealed but lost at the Federal Labor Court, which saw the Berlin position as “a disproportionate interference with freedom of religion.” The court called upon Berlin to amend its neutrality law that forbids civil servants from wearing religious clothing and symbols.
In February, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled that a Muslim law clerk could be prohibited from wearing a headscarf during court proceedings. In its ruling, the court said the judiciary’s obligation to observe complete neutrality outweighed the clerk’s freedom of religion rights. The clerk sued Hesse state in 2017 for not permitting her to follow court proceedings from the bench, lead courtroom sessions, or take evidence from witnesses while she was wearing a headscarf.
In May, the Lower Saxony state parliament amended the law to prohibit judges and prosecutors from wearing religious symbols or clothing in the courtroom. State Justice Minister Barbara Havliza said that it was necessary in view of the increasing diversity in society and important for the perceived neutrality of the judiciary.
In April, the Rhineland-Palatinate state government forbade students in primary and secondary schools from full-face veiling at school (i.e., wearing a niqab or burqa). In July, Baden-Wuerttemberg did the same. For both states, the ban on full covering did not apply in higher education. Teachers in both states had already been forbidden from full-face veiling at school.
In February, an administrative court in Hamburg overturned a school’s ban on niqabs, ruling that state law does not allow educational authorities to impose such a ban. The court said the 16-year-old who challenged the ban had the right to “unconditional protection” of her freedom of belief. The Hamburg state minister of education said he would seek to change the law, because “only if students and teachers have a free and open face can school and lessons function.”
In September, the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster overturned a 2018 decision by an administrative court which banned a local mosque’s outdoor amplification of the call to prayer in the town Oer-Erkenschwick. Local residents said this was a noise disturbance. In its ruling, the Muenster court compared the call to prayer with the sound of church bells. During the COVID-19 lockdown, some mosques in NRW received temporary permission to conduct calls to prayer via loudspeaker.
In June, the Lower Saxony Higher Administrative Court ruled a Muslim teacher denied employment for wearing a headscarf could assert a claim for compensation through the General Equal Treatment Act.
In February, a district court ordered a fitness studio in Oststeinbek to compensate a Muslim client 1,000 euros ($1,200). The studio had prohibited the woman from exercising with a headscarf, citing insurance reasons. The woman brought legal action based on the General Equal Treatment Act.
In September, the Karlsruhe Labor Court ruled the Protestant Regional Church in Baden discriminated against an atheist applicant who had unsuccessfully applied for a secretarial position in 2019. The court ordered the Church to pay compensation of 5,000 euros ($6,100) for illegally asking the applicant about her religious beliefs.
According to a May survey of state-level education ministries, more than 900 schools in the country offered Islamic religious instruction. Almost 60,000 students took part in Islamic religious instruction in the school year 2019-20, an increase of 4,000 from the previous year. Since 2017-18, approximately 35 schools have added Islamic religious instruction.
In October, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 30.5 million euros ($37.4 million) in government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 524 million euros ($642.9 million) in 2020 to 554.5 million euros ($680.4 million) in 2021. The government also agreed to provide an additional 564 million euros ($692 million) over the next two years to help financially struggling Holocaust survivors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government contributed 13 million euros ($15.9 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international group researching the history and culture of German Jewry.
State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state government contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD totaled approximately 570 million euros ($699.4 million). The union said it calculated its estimate based on budgets of the 16 states. The Humanistic Union advocates the abolition of state church privileges such as faith-based religious education as a regular school subject, collection of church taxes, and other financial aid.
In July, the Federal Supreme Court rejected the appeals of seven men who had been fined by a lower court in 2019 for wearing yellow vests marked “Sharia Police” and patrolling the streets of Wuppertal in 2014 looking for “non-Muslim” behavior. They had been charged with wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion. A regional court acquitted them in 2016, but the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the acquittal in 2018.
The government continued the German Islam Conference dialogue with Muslims in the country. The dialogue’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and – in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country – further develop partnerships between the government and Muslim organizations. The conference held a video discussion on imam training with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer on November 10. Participants discussed initiatives to promote imam training, including imam employment in congregations, religious instruction in public schools, and pastoral care in public institutions, especially prison and military chaplaincies. The Interior Minister discussed the Independent Expert Group on Anti-Muslim Hostility, established in September, which focuses on distinguishing between criticism of religion and hostility toward Muslims.
In May, the Bundestag unanimously approved a bill authorizing rabbis to serve as military chaplains, performing pastoral services for the approximately 300 Jewish soldiers in the Bundeswehr (federal army). The Bundesrat, the chamber representing the federal states, also approved the bill in July. The selection of up to 10 rabbis was scheduled to begin in autumn. The country’s Conference of Orthodox Rabbis welcomed the action as “an important signal, especially in times…when there is again fertile ground for anti-Semitism, hate from the far right, and conspiracy theorists.” The federal government also said it was developing plans to authorize Muslim chaplains for the approximately 3,000 Muslims serving in the Bundeswehr, but the Central Council of Muslims Chair Aiman Mazyek said in a July interview that the government had not yet taken any concrete steps. In December, the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg appointed police rabbis for the first time in its history, one for the Jewish Religious Community of Wuerttemberg, and one for the Baden region. Their tasks included raising awareness of Jewish issues among police officers.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance and held the organization’s chairmanship during 2020.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During a Sukkot celebration for students at the Hohe Weide Synagogue in Hamburg on October 4, an individual wearing a military-style uniform struck a Jewish student in the head with a shovel, leaving the victim with a serious head injury. Police arrested the attacker, a 29-year-old male with Kazakh roots residing in Berlin. Authorities, including Foreign Minister Maas, Minister of Justice Lambrecht, and Hamburg Mayor Tschentscher, condemned the attack. The case was awaiting court prosecution at year’s end.
On December 21, the gunman who attacked the Halle synagogue and killed two individuals on Yom Kippur 2019 was sentenced to life imprisonment with subsequent preventative detention. The court found the attacker “severely guilty” of two counts of murder; 51 counts of attempted murder for his attack on the synagogue; several counts of attempted murder for his attack on a kebab shop, bystanders, and police officers; incitement; Holocaust denial; grievous bodily harm; and negligent physical injury. The verdict cited the attacker’s lack of remorse and expressed desire to reoffend as support for issuing the maximum sentence.
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 2,032 anti-Semitic crimes committed during 2019 (the most recent statistics available), including 72 incidents involving violence. This represented a 13 percent increase from the 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes reported in 2018, of which 69 were violent.
The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents increased from 48 in 2018 to 56 in 2019. In May, Interior Minister Seehofer stated, “Right-wing extremism, racism, and anti-Semitism…continue to represent the greatest threat to security in Germany. We have every reason to proceed with the greatest vigilance here.” According to the report, membership in right-wing extremist parties such as the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party increased from approximately 5,500 persons in 2018 to 13,330 in 2019. The report noted, however, this rise was entirely due to the reclassification of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany Party’s youth organization as well as its far-right faction formerly known as “The Wing” as extremist.
In May, the Ministry of Interior presented its annual report on politically motivated crime, which stated there were 41,177 such crimes in 2019, a 14.2 percent increase from 2018. Police registered 8,585 crimes motivated by racism or xenophobia, which encompasses religion, a 5.8 percent increase.
RIAS, to which victims may report anti-Semitic incidents independent of filing charges with police, reported 1,253 incidents in the states of Berlin, Brandenburg, Bavaria, and Schleswig-Holstein in 2019. RIAS reported 410 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of 2020, comparable to the 404 incidents over the same period in 2019, despite the stringent COVID-related restrictions on public life. This included 26 incidents involving violence or threatened violence (down from 33), 58 examples of anti-Semitic propaganda, and 301 examples of malicious behavior, such as giving the Nazi salute. RIAS used categories different from official police statistics and included anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. According to RIAS, the largest motivating factor for anti-Semitic attacks was right-wing political ideology.
From mid-March to mid-June, RIAS registered anti-Semitic incidents at 123 separate demonstrations against restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Incidents included positive references to Nazis, including comments by protest organizer Attila Hildmann that Adolf Hitler was “a blessing” in comparison to Angela Merkel and the use of anti-Semitic conspiracy myths, including the assertion that Jews were responsible for unleashing the virus.
Lower Saxony’s government recorded 172 anti-Semitic crimes in 2019, up from 127 in 2018. The Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania government counted 34 such crimes for the first half of 2020, up from 18 during the same time period in 2019. Alexander Rasumny of RIAS attributed the increase to two factors: first, he said, every attack potentially triggers another attack, and second, the culture of political and social debate had become more “brutalized” in Germany than in other countries.
In 2019 (most recent data available), the Ministry of Interior registered 950 incidents targeting Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers. This was an increase from the 910 incidents in 2018. The ministry classified 90.1 percent of these incidents as right-wing extremism. Other recorded incidents included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street.
A Hildesheim resident was arrested on June 5, suspected of planning attacks against Muslims and mosques, according to prosecutors. Police found weapons at his apartment and “data files with radical right-wing contents.” The suspect had said in an online chat that he wanted to carry out an attack similar to the 2019 mosque attacks in New Zealand and “kill Muslims.” The Celle prosecutor general’s office brought charges against the 21-year-old defendant on suspicion of incitement and of preparing a serious act of violence endangering the state. His trial began in December and was continuing at year’s end.
The Ministry of Interior counted 128 anti-Christian incidents in 2019, including 16 cases involving violence. The ministry classified 30 percent of these incidents as motivated by right-wing ideology and 21 percent as motivated by left-wing ideology.
In March, the NRW Department of the Interior released information showing the number of politically motivated attacks on Jews, Muslims, and Christians rose significantly in 2019. Offenses against Jews quintupled since 2018, from seven to 35, attacks against Muslims almost tripled from 15 to 42, and offenses against Christians more than doubled from four to nine. A total of 42 suspects were identified, the vast majority of whom were German citizens and had right-wing backgrounds.
In January, a boy found a homemade explosive device near the access area of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp memorial site in Thuringia. Due to the proximity to the memorial, the State Security Service was also involved in the investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end.
On July 9 in downtown Munich, four individuals followed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Aharon Brodman and shouted insults at him. Brodman called police, who were unable to locate the perpetrators. The offenders reportedly insulted the rabbi in English and spoke among themselves in Arabic. Bavaria’s Anti-Semitism Commissioner Spaenle expressed concern that several eyewitnesses had not intervened on the rabbi’s behalf.
In July, as yet unidentified suspects left severed pig heads in front of the Islamic Cultural Center in Greifswald on two separate occasions. As of December, police were investigating.
According to media reports, women who wore the hijab continued to face employment discrimination.
In October, a Brandenburg road construction company rejected an applicant because he was a practicing Muslim. The managing director sent the applicant a rejection notice in which he wrote, “Islam is not compatible with the constitution.” He confirmed this with the local public media, adding “I cannot employ practicing Muslims because there would be unrest.” Brandenburg police told the applicant that he could report an offense like this, because denying employment on the basis of an applicant’s religion contravenes the General Equal Treatment Act.
On January 4, the Leipziger Volkszeitung reported that local construction companies had declined orders for the construction of a mosque in Erfurt because they feared their involvement would precipitate attacks on their vehicles by opponents of the mosque. One businessman said he had lost orders in the past after his involvement in the construction of a mosque was made public.
There were several reported incidents of arson in churches. In three separate incidents in February, March, and May, unknown individuals set fire to church bulletins, a Bible, and an altar at a church in Krefeld. Unknown individuals damaged a window in a church in Neuenkirchen while attempting to start a fire in August. In September, unknown persons broke a window and unsuccessfully attempted to set a church on fire in Wolgast. Police began investigations of all the cases, which were pending as of December.
In July, unknown perpetrators desecrated a memorial site for the survivors of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. No suspects could be identified, and investigations by local authorities were ongoing as of December.
In February, unknown persons vandalized a mosque in Emmendingen, Baden-Wuerttemberg with swastikas and rightwing slogans. Local police said they believed the incident was related to a series of similar acts of vandalism in February.
In April, a restroom in a Jewish-owned restaurant in Frankfurt was vandalized with anti-Semitic and Nazi images. As of December, state police were investigating.
In August, an Israeli-owned bar in Berlin was attacked by arsonists, according to police. A RIAS representative said the bar had been a target of anti-Semitic attacks in the past. In the incident, graffiti including a Star of David and numbers linked to the slogan of the Hitler Youth organization were found in the bar. As of December, police were investigating the incident.
In January, police arrested two individuals in the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery in the town of Geilenkirchen. The police stated the pair knocked over more than 40 gravestones in the cemetery and defaced some of the graves with blue paint.
In June, unknown individuals vandalized Alevi Muslim graves in Ludwigsburg, Baden-Wuerttemberg. As of December, local police were investigating.
In October, a piece of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah was removed from its case at the Tiferet Israel synagogue’s doorpost in Berlin, defaced with swastikas, and replaced. Foreign Minister Maas tweeted, “It simply hurt to see something so disgusting” and called for the crime to be solved quickly and those responsible punished. As of December, state police were investigating.
In April, unknown individuals damaged the door and windows of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) mosque in Cologne. The same night, vandals smashed the windows of a DITIB administrative building in Cologne. Local politicians condemned the act. Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker said she rejected all kinds of violence against religious facilities. As of December, police were investigating.
In August, an accomplice in a 2019 incident in which a bloody pig’s head, plastic bags filled with blood, right-wing extremist slogans, and swastikas were found in front of the Arrahman Mosque in Moenchengladbach, was sentenced to eight months’ probation. As of December, the main suspect’s trial was still pending.
The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly. “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church continued to investigate “sects and cults” and publicize what they considered to be the dangers of these groups. On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views continued to warn the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing the groups.
In May, the University of Duisburg-Essen, Bielefeld University, and the Mercator Foundation published a joint study on the attitudes of young people in NRW towards Islam. The study concluded that, although the majority of young people supported diversity, rejected discrimination, and had knowledge about Islam, stereotypes and prejudice remained widespread.
The far-right group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident (PEGIDA) continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden, although media reports indicated significantly fewer demonstrators than in previous years. Approximately 300 to 400 supporters continued to join PEGIDA rallies, even after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The demonstrations were approved by authorities contingent upon participants adhering to mask and social distancing requirements. Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings.
On December 14, the Dresden District Court fined PEGIDA’s founder and organizer, Lutz Bachmann, 4,200 euros ($5,200) for incitement and slander. Bachmann had denounced Muslims as “murderer Muslims” and “rapist Muslims.”
After the Dresden City Council’s October, 2019 declaration of a Nazi emergency, mainstream parties as well as grassroots organizations worked together to counteract right-wing extremism. The Dresden chapters of the CDU, the SPD, and the Greens formally formed a cross-party alliance against the extreme right in February.
In April and May, some protesters at demonstrations against COVID-19 restrictions in Stuttgart and Berlin wore yellow Stars of David to indicate their opposition to mandatory vaccines, equating the anti-COVID lockdown to Nazi-era persecution of Jews. Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews, said to the media on May 11 that right-wing protesters were using anxieties stirred up by the pandemic to spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and other far-right preaching on the internet. Federal Anti-Semitism Commissioner Klein said anti-Semitic sentiments were regularly part of protests against the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. In June and July, respectively, Munich and Wiesbaden banned the Star of David symbol at COVID-19 protests. Ahead of a November protest in Frankfurt, the city banned the display of the Star of David alongside slogans such as “unvaccinated,” “vaccination sets you free,” “Dr. Mengele,” or “Zion.”
On August 1, a rally supported by neo-Nazi groups drew more than 20,000 protesters in Berlin to demand an end to coronavirus restrictions. The rally was called a “Day of Freedom” by its organizers, the Stuttgart-based Querdenken 711 (“Thinking Outside the Box”) group. According to RIAS observers, some participants displayed anti-Semitic slogans, while others compared the government’s anti-COVID restrictions to Nazi regulations. Police charged the rally organizer for failure to comply with social distancing rules.
An estimated 23 churches continued to use bells bearing Nazi symbols and inscriptions. In January, a Protestant church in Thuringia replaced a bell with Nazi symbols after the Association of Protestant Churches in Central Germany (EKM) agreed to replace all such bells. The EKM also offered financial support to local churches to cover the cost of new bells.
In February, seven students at a police academy in Baden-Wuerttemberg were expelled for exchanging chat-group messages that included anti-Semitic and Nazi content.
From late 2018 through 2020, more than 85 threatening letters with right-wing extremist content, sometimes including anti-Semitic content, were sent to politicians, journalists, and other prominent figures. Many of the most visible targets were Muslim women. Among the recipients were the heads of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and the Central Council of Muslims in Germany. Personal, nonpublic data gained from police computers appeared in some letters. In September, a Frankfurt police officer was arrested in connection with the case. Investigations continued as of year’s end.
In February, one week after a man killed nine persons with migrant backgrounds at two shisha bars (hookah lounges) in Hanau, a mosque in Hanau received an anonymous threatening letter that made direct reference to the attack. As of December, police were investigating.
In February, mosques in Essen, Unna, Bielefeld, and Hagen received bomb threats by email and were evacuated. No bombs were detected. A DITIB representative said the anonymous bomb threats were signed by the right-wing Kampfgruppe 18 group and were politically motivated.
In February, the Pew Research Center published its findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 72 percent of German respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it in the middle of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy and the five consulates general continued to engage closely with authorities at all levels of government regarding responses to incidents of religious intolerance, although due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online and remote engagements often substituted for face-to-face meetings and special events related to religious freedom issues. Embassy and consulate officials met regularly with a wide variety of federal and state parliamentarians to discuss religious freedom issues.
Embassy and consulate representatives met with members and leaders of numerous local and national religious and civil society groups about their concerns related to tolerance and freedom of religion. Topics of discussion with Jewish groups included concerns about what they characterized as the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism throughout the country and concern that right-wing groups have exacerbated anti-Semitism. Embassy and consulate representatives also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with the Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant churches; the Central Council of Muslims; the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers; the Central Council of Jews in Germany; the Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany; the World Uyghur Congress; Alevi Muslims; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and human rights NGOs.
On January 27, the Leipzig Consul General participated in a Holocaust commemoration event hosted by the local Jewish community and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Erfurt, Thuringia. He discussed the consulate’s efforts to educate local youth on the Holocaust, for example by planning to bring a Simon Wiesenthal Center exhibition on Jewish history to Leipzig.
The embassy and consulates worked closely with Jewish communities, especially in eastern Germany, to provide small grants in support of programs promoting religious tolerance to leading NGOs countering violent extremism related to religion and anti-Semitism.
In August, the consulate in Leipzig supported the 20th Yiddish Summer Weimar in Thuringia, one of the world’s leading summer programs for the study and presentation of traditional and contemporary Yiddish culture. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the concerts and workshops took place outdoors in public spaces in Weimar, Erfurt, and Eisenach, attracting a broader audience than usual.
In February, consulate officers in Duesseldorf met with the chief administrator of the Jewish Community in Cologne. The discussion focused on the experience of the Jewish community across the country and public outreach planning for the 2021 festival “1700 Years of Jewish Life in Germany.”
On December 4 and 5, the embassy organized a virtual teacher academy on “Jewish-American Life and Culture” that engaged German and American experts with 70 teachers from across the country. The program offered tools and content for the classroom to elevate coursework that combats anti-Semitism beyond a simple recounting of history. The conference reached an indirect audience of hundreds of teachers and approximately 10,000 to 14,000 of their students nationwide.
The embassy and consulates actively promoted religious freedom and tolerance through their social media channels, utilizing Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to highlight the engagement of senior embassy officials on the issue. For example, on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Halle synagogue, the embassy published a statement on its social media accounts that said “we remember the victims of this senseless tragedy, and stand firm in our resolve to confront, condemn, and stop anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism.” The postings reached large audiences.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, stipulates that individuals are free to profess and practice their religion, and does not designate a state religion. Registration is required for religious groups to have legal status. On March 15, the government restricted public gatherings, including for in-person worship, as a measure to combat COVID-19. While most Christian and Muslim leaders advised their communities to follow the directive, a minority, primarily composed of small, independent churches, complained that the ban on large gatherings infringed upon religious liberties, and some defied the decrees by gathering for worship. President Nana Akufo-Addo lifted the ban on July 31. The President moved forward with plans for an interdenominational national Christian cathedral, but opposition to the proposal for the new cathedral continued.
Muslim and Christian leaders continued to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and reported communication and coordination among themselves on a wide array of matters. Religious institutions played a key role in providing vulnerable citizens a social safety net, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Religious leaders generally praised the government for consulting with religious institutions on those measures.
U.S. embassy representatives discussed with government officials the importance of mutual understanding, religious tolerance, and respect for all religious groups. Embassy officers discussed religious freedom and tolerance with religious leaders, including engagement with the National Peace Council and Regional Peace Councils, whose governing councils include prominent religious leaders. In April, the Ambassador published a Ramadan message recognizing interfaith engagement, cooperation, and partnership.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 29.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2010 government census (the most recent available), approximately 71 percent of the population is Christian, 18 percent is Muslim, 5 percent adheres to indigenous or animistic religious beliefs, and 6 percent belongs to other religious groups or has no religious beliefs. Smaller religious groups include the Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, Eckankar, and Rastafarianism.
Christian denominations include Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Mennonite, Presbyterian, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Eden Revival Church International, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventist, Pentecostal, Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, African independent churches, the Society of Friends, and numerous nondenominational Christian groups, including charismatic churches.
Muslim communities include Sunnis, Ahmadiyya, Shia, and Sufis (Tijaniyyah and Qadiriyya orders).
Many individuals who identify as Christian or Muslim also practice some aspects of indigenous beliefs. There are syncretic groups that combine elements of Christianity or Islam with traditional beliefs. Zetahil, a belief system unique to the country, combines elements of Christianity and Islam.
There is no significant link between ethnicity and religion, but geography is often associated with religious identity. Christians reside throughout the country; the majority of Muslims reside in the northern regions and in the urban centers of Accra, Kumasi, and Sekondi-Takoradi. Most followers of traditional religious beliefs reside in rural areas.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for individuals’ freedom to profess and practice any religion. These rights may be limited for stipulated reasons including defense, public safety, public health, or the management of essential services.
Religious groups must register with the Office of the Registrar General in the Ministry of Justice to receive formal government recognition and status as a legal entity, but there is no penalty for not registering. The registration requirement for religious groups is the same as for nongovernmental organizations. To register, groups must fill out a form and pay a fee. Most indigenous religious groups do not register.
According to law, registered religious groups are exempt from paying taxes on nonprofit religious, charitable, and educational activities. Religious groups are required to pay taxes, on a pay-as-earned basis, on for-profit business activities, such as church-run private schools and universities.
The Ministry of Education includes compulsory religious and moral education in the national public education curriculum. There is no provision to opt out of these courses, which incorporate perspectives from Christianity and Islam. There is also an Islamic education unit within the Ministry of Education responsible for coordinating all public education activities for Muslim communities. The ministry permits private religious schools; however, they must follow the prescribed curriculum set by the ministry. International schools, such as those that do not follow the government curriculum, are exempt from these requirements. Faith-based schools that accept funds from the government are obliged to comply with the directive that states students’ religious practices must be respected.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
While most Christian and Muslim leaders advised their communities to follow a March 15 government directive restricting public gatherings to combat COVID-19, a minority, primarily composed of small independent churches, complained that the ban on large gatherings infringed upon religious liberties, and some contravened the decrees by gathering for worship. President Akufo-Addo lifted the ban on July 31, although restrictions on capacity and length of worship remained in place. President Akufo-Addo declared March 25 a National Day of Prayer and Fasting for protection for the country and the world from COVID-19.
Despite vigorous debate among religious groups and lawmakers about the utility of legislation to manage the activities of “self-styled” pastors, no consensus had developed and no legislation was drafted. In 2019, the Christian Council of Ghana, an umbrella group of mainly Protestant denominations, disagreed with calls by some legislators for a law to control the activities of “self-styled” pastors, saying the situation was “complex” and calling instead for self-regulation, such as established ecumenical bodies’ sharing best practices with churches.
There were reports of uneven enforcement and implementation in schools across the country of the government directive requiring schools to respect students’ religious practices. Muslim leaders continued to report that some publicly funded Christian mission schools required female Muslim students to remove their hijabs and Muslim students to participate in Christian worship services, despite a Ministry of Education policy prohibiting these practices. The Islamic Education Unit of the Ghana Education Service received a complaint that a private school in Accra asked a student to remove her hijab. Similarly, there were continued reports that some publicly funded Islamic mission schools required female Christian students to wear the hijab.
Both support for and opposition to the President’s proposal to build an interdenominational national Christian cathedral continued. Although President Akufo-Addo stated that public funds would not be used for the project, critics questioned whether the $100 million cathedral should be a priority for a country with urgent development needs and argued that the project inappropriately linked the state with a particular faith. In March, President Akufo-Addo attended a ceremony marking the beginning of construction of the national cathedral; construction was delayed until October due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Government officials leading meetings, receptions, and state funerals generally offered Christian and Islamic prayers and, occasionally, traditional invocations. President Akufo-Addo, a Christian, and Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia, a Muslim, continued to emphasize the importance of peaceful religious coexistence in public remarks. While receiving an international religious leader in February, Akufo-Addo commented, “We are a country where even though the overwhelming majority are Christian, we have a significant Muslim population, and there are still a few who are committed to the old gods. They make up the population and we live here in harmony and in tolerance of each other. It is one of the distinctive features of this country and it is one we want to preserve.” On New Year’s Eve, Bawumia celebrated with a Christian congregation, stating, “We have a country in which the Chief Imam, belonging to the Islamic Faith, celebrates his birthday in a church. And today, like in many instances, we have the Vice President who is a Muslim worshipping with Christians to mark the end of the year… These are a few of the many instances of such religious tolerance and coexistence we enjoy in Ghana.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Muslim and Christian leaders continued informal dialogue between their respective governing bodies and the National Peace Council. Faith leaders said they regularly communicated among themselves on religious matters and ways to address issues of concern or sensitivity. Religious institutions played a key role in providing vulnerable citizens a social safety net during the COVID-19 pandemic, and religious leaders generally praised the government for consulting with religious institutions on the measures. For example, the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference in March appealed to Catholic organizations, businesses, and worshipers to donate supplies to medical professionals and to provide food and shelter to those affected by to those affected by COVID-19-related restrictions.
There were numerous reports of religious figures making controversial prophecies. Some religious leaders predicted the outcome of the country’s national elections, which took place in December, straining political tensions ahead of polling.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy representatives discussed with government officials the importance of mutual understanding, religious tolerance, and respect for all religious groups. Embassy officials also discussed these subjects with a broad range of religious groups and civil society organizations, including Christian groups such as the Christian Council and the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference, as well as Muslim civil society organizations such as the Office of the National Chief Imam. They also engaged with the National Peace Council and Regional Peace Councils, whose governing councils include prominent religious leaders. In addition, the Ambassador underscored in meetings with key religious leaders that the United States supported an individual’s right to his or her faith as well as the right of individuals not to practice any religion. In April, the Ambassador published a Ramadan message recognizing interfaith engagement, cooperation, and partnership.
The embassy continued its support for the efforts of the West Africa Center for Counter Extremism, a local organization that brought together traditional leaders, interfaith religious leaders, political party leaders, and local government authorities to emphasize messages of peace, tolerance, and nonviolence to vulnerable youth.
The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship, with some restrictions. It recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” On October 7, an appeals court in Athens ruled the Golden Dawn political party, commonly characterized as neo-Nazi, was a criminal organization, finding seven of its 18 party leaders guilty of directing a criminal organization. The court found Golden Dawn members responsible for a series of physical attacks and verbal harassment since 2012 against perceived outsiders, including Muslim asylum seekers and Jews. On February 29, the government issued new curricula to conform to a 2019 Council of State ruling that the school curricula failed to “develop a religious conscience in students” as required by the constitution. Changes and adaptations included the removal of topics not relevant to the Greek Orthodox faith and the introduction of new material. Legislation approved on January 20 removed the requirement that middle and high schools list each student’s religion and nationality, following 2019 rulings by the Data Protection Authority and the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court. On June 25, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found the government had violated the European Union Convention on Human Rights because a registry office noted on the birth certificate that the child’s name came from a civil act, not a christening, which violated the right not to disclose religious beliefs. On June 18, the ECtHR determined the government owed a Muslim widow 51,000 euros ($62,600) for applying “sharia against her late husband’s wish.” During the year, the government authorized the construction of several places of worship, including a mosque, a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall, and an Egyptian Coptic Church temple. It also issued 14 new house of prayer or worship permits for several Christian denominations and five permits for Islamic houses of prayer. On November 2, the first government-funded mosque opened in Athens. On June 25, authorities closed an unlicensed mosque operating in Piraeus. A civil court also approved the registration of a Protestant group as a religious legal entity. In April, media reported that the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church wrote to the Prime Minister, stating his opposition to the government’s announced plans to allow all houses of worship to open their doors for individual prayers in small numbers but not allow services due to COVID-19. The Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups, followed all government restrictions throughout the year. On January 27, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attended memorial events marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and became the first Greek premier to visit the former concentration camp. According to Jewish leaders, the government continued to help the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in its efforts to recover its original archives, found by Soviet troops in a castle in Lower Silesia, Germany, following Germany’s defeat and subsequently transferred to Moscow.
On social and other media, individuals continued to directly and indirectly link Jews to conspiracy theories about Jewish global power. In January, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) issued a statement protesting a sketch showing the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in a political cartoon arguing against lifting protection of primary residencies from foreclosures after April 30. KIS called the cartoon unacceptable because it trivialized a symbol of horror. The newspaper called the Jewish community’s reaction “justifiable,” stating it had not intended to trivialize or deny the Holocaust. Incidents of vandalism of religious properties continued during the year, with anti-Semitic graffiti spray-painted on the historic synagogues in Trikala and in Larisa, in the central part of the country, at the Jewish cemeteries in metropolitan Athens, Rhodes, and Thessaloniki, as well as at the Holocaust monuments in Thessaloniki, Larisa, and in Drama. Police arrested a suspect for the acts of vandalism of Jewish sites in Larisa and another one for the vandalism that took place in Drama. Vandals damaged an old mosque in Trikala and, on dozens of occasions, Greek Orthodox churches in Thessaloniki, Lesvos, Crete, Samos, Xanthi, and Rodopi.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting government officials, and other embassy and consulate general representatives met with officials of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, including the Minister and the Secretary General for Religious Affairs, and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and governors. They continued to discuss the ability of minority religious communities to establish houses of worship and government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and Muslim immigrants. In meetings with government officials and religious leaders, including the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, U.S. government officials expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and attacks on Orthodox churches. On September 29, the U.S. Secretary of State, Ambassador, Consul General in Thessaloniki, and other embassy officials visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki. On July 9, the Ambassador discussed with leaders the implementation of the new Holocaust Memorial Museum in Thessaloniki. On October 7, the Ambassador met with KIS president David Saltiel to discuss legislation required to build the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the stalled return of the archives from Russia of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to research polls, 81 to 90 percent of the population identifies as Greek Orthodox, 4 to 15 percent atheist, and 2 percent Muslim.
Approximately 140,000 Muslims live in Thrace, according to government sources using 2011 data; they are largely descendants of the officially recognized Muslim minority according to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. According to a Pew Research Center study released in November 2017, an additional 520,000 Muslims – mostly asylum seekers, refugees, and other migrants from Southeastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa – reside throughout the country, clustered in communities by their countries of origin or in reception facilities. Government sources estimate half reside in Athens.
Members of other religious communities that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Old Calendarist Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, members of polytheistic Hellenic religions, Scientologists, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sikhs, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON). Independent and media sources estimate Ethiopian Orthodox number 2,500, and Assyrians less than 1,000. According to the Armenian Orthodox Archbishop, interviewed in 2018, approximately 100,000 Armenian Orthodox live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” It states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law, with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits “proselytizing,” defined by law as “any direct or indirect attempt to intrude on the religious beliefs of a person of a different religious persuasion with the aim of undermining those beliefs through inducement, fraudulent means, or taking advantage of the other person’s inexperience, trust, need, low intellect, or naivete.” The constitution prohibits worship that “disturbs public order or offends moral principles.” It allows prosecutors to seize publications that “offend Christianity” or other “known religions.” The law provides penalties of up to two years in prison for individuals who maliciously attempt to prevent or who intentionally disrupt a religious gathering for worship or a religious service, and for individuals engaging in “insulting action” inside a church or place of worship. A 2019 amendment to the penal code abolishes articles criminalizing malicious blasphemy and religious insults. The constitution enumerates the goals of public education, including “the development of religious conscience among citizens.” Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the government.
The constitution states ministers of all known religions are subject to the same state supervision and obligations to the state as clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. It states individuals are not exempt from their obligations to the state or from compliance with the law because of their religious convictions.
The Greek Orthodox Church, Jewish community, and Muslim minority of Thrace have long-held status as official religious public law legal entities. The Catholic Church, Anglican Church, two evangelical Christian groups, and the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches acquired the status of religious legal entities under a 2014 law. The same law also allows groups seeking recognition to become “religious legal entities” under civil law.
The recognition process requires filing a request with the civil courts, providing documents proving the group has “open rituals and no secret doctrines,” supplying a list of 300 signatory members who do not adhere to other religious groups, demonstrating there is a leader who is legally in the country and is otherwise qualified, and showing their practices do not pose a threat to public order. Once a civil court recognizes a group, it sends a notification to the Secretariat General for Religions. Under the law, all religious officials of known religions and official religious legal entities, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the muftiates of Thrace, and the Jewish communities, must register in the electronic database maintained by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.
The law also provides a second method for groups to obtain government recognition: any religious group that has obtained at least one valid permit to operate a place of prayer or worship is considered a “known religion” and thereby acquires legal protection, including a tax exemption for property used for religious purposes. The terms houses or places of prayer or worship are used interchangeably; it is at the discretion of a religious group to determine its term of preference. Membership requirements for house of prayer permits differ from the requirements for religious legal entities. Local urban planning departments in charge of monitoring and enforcing public health and safety regulations certify that facilities designated to operate as places of worship fulfill the necessary standards. Once a house of worship receives planning approvals, a religious group must submit a description of its basic principles and rituals and a biography of the religious minister or leader to the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs for final approval. The application for a house of prayer or worship permit requires at least five signatory members of the group. The leaders of a religious group applying for a house of prayer permit must be Greek citizens, EU nationals, or legal residents of the country, and must possess other professional qualifications, including relevant education and experience. A separate permit is required for each physical location.
A religious group possessing status as a religious legal entity may transfer property and administer houses of prayer or worship, private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities. Some religious groups have opted to retain their status as civil society nonprofit associations acquired through court recognition prior to the 2014 law. Under this status, religious groups may operate houses of prayer and benefit from real estate property tax exemptions, but they may face administrative and fiscal difficulties in transferring property and in operating private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities.
All recognized religious groups are subject to taxation on property used for nonreligious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes is exempt from taxation, as well as from municipal fees, for groups classified as religious legal entities or “known religions.”
The law allows religious communities without status as legal entities to appear before administrative and civil courts as plaintiffs or defendants.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne accords the recognized Muslim minority of Thrace the right to maintain mosques and social and charitable organizations (awqaaf). A 1991 law authorizes the government, in consultation with a committee of Muslim leaders, to appoint three muftis in Thrace to 10-year terms of office, which may be extended. The law also allows a regional official to appoint temporary acting muftis until this committee convenes. The law mandates official muftis in Thrace must request notarized consent from all parties wishing to adjudicate a family matter based on sharia. Absent notarized consent from all parties, family matters fall under the jurisdiction of civil courts. The law also provides for the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs to assume all operating expenses for the muftiates in Thrace, under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance Directorate General for Fiscal Monitoring.
The law establishes an individual’s right to choose his or her burial or cremation location and mandates that death certificates detail this information. In the presence of a notary, individuals may designate the location and method of funeral service under conditions that adhere to public order, hygiene, or moral ethics, as well as designate a person responsible for carrying out funeral preferences.
The law allows halal and kosher slaughtering of animals in slaughterhouses but not in private residences or public areas.
Home schooling of children is not permitted. The law requires all children to attend 11 years of compulsory education in state or private schools, including two years of preschool education, in accordance with the official school curriculum. Religious instruction, mainly Greek Orthodox teachings, is included in the curricula for primary and secondary schools. Primary schools cover grades one to six, while secondary school includes three years of middle school and three years of high school. Students may be exempted from religious instruction with a parent’s or guardian’s submission of a document citing religious consciousness grounds, according to new regulations issued by decree during the year. Exempted students may attend classes with different subject matters during that time. Under legislation passed during the year, secondary schools no longer list their students’ religion and nationality on transcripts.
The law provides for optional Islamic religious instruction in public schools in Thrace for the recognized Muslim minority and optional Catholic religious instruction in public schools on the islands of Tinos and Syros. The law also includes provisions to make it easier for schools to hire and retain religious instructors for those optional courses.
By law, any educational facility with fewer than nine students must temporarily suspend operations, with students referred to neighboring schools.
The law allows Muslim students in primary and secondary schools throughout the country to be absent for two days each for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
According to the law, parents may send their children to private religious schools. Private Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish schools operate in the country. As per the Lausanne Treaty, the government operates bilingual secular schools in Thrace. Bilingual schools operate in Greek and Turkish, and their number may vary according to the number of registered students, with a minimum of nine per school. There are two Islamic religious schools in Thrace for grades 7-12. In addition, Muslim students in Thrace wishing to study the Quran may attend after-hours religious classes in mosques.
The law establishes an annual 0.5 percent quota for admission of students from the recognized Muslim minority in Thrace to universities, technical institutes, and civil service positions. Similarly, 2 percent of students entering the national fire brigade school and academy are required to be from the Muslim minority in Thrace.
The law provides for alternative forms of mandatory service for religious conscientious objectors in lieu of the nine-month mandatory minimum military service for men. Conscientious objectors must serve 15 months of alternative service in state hospitals or municipal and public services. Amendments in 2019 to a law on conscientious objection provide for greater civilian leadership in assessing conscientious objection petitions; abolishes the Defense Minister’s ability to suspend the provisions for conscientious objectors during wartime; requires the state to cover expenses for transportation of conscientious objectors; provides an additional five-day parental leave per child for conscientious objectors who are fathers; protects the return of conscientious objectors to their previous employment after civilian service; reduces by two years (from 35 to 33 years) the age after which a conscientious objector may buy off the greatest part of civilian service; and reduces from 40 to 20 days the required time before conscientious objectors are eligible to buy off the remaining time of the service.
According to what is commonly referred to as the “anti-racist” law, individuals or legal entities convicted of incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred based on religion, among other factors, may be sentenced to prison terms of between three months and three years and fined 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($6,100-$24,500). Violators convicted of other crimes motivated by religion may be sentenced to an additional six months to three years, with fines doubled. The law criminalizes approval, trivialization, or malicious denial of the Holocaust and “crimes of Nazism” if that behavior leads to incitement of violence or hatred or has a threatening or abusive nature toward groups of individuals.
The law requires all civil servants, including cabinet and parliament members, to take an oath before entering office; individuals are free to take a religious or secular oath in accordance with their beliefs.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The criminal trial of 69 Golden Dawn members and supporters, including 18 former members of parliament, ended on September 4. On October 7, an appeals court in Athens ruled that Golden Dawn, commonly characterized as neo-Nazi, is a criminal organization and found seven of its 18 party leaders guilty of directing and participating in a criminal organization. On October 14, the court sentenced the seven to 13.5 years each in prison. An additional six defendants, whom the court found guilty of membership in a criminal organization, received prison sentences from five to seven years; the tribunal in total handed down more than 500 years of incarceration to 57 defendants convicted of murder, assault, weapons possession, and either running or participating in a criminal organization. The court found that Golden Dawn members committed a series of physical attacks on and verbal harassment of individuals they perceived to be outsiders, including Muslims and Jews, continuing when the party entered parliament in 2012. According to media, prominent Golden Dawn member Christos Pappas refused to surrender to authorities and remained at large at year’s end. Another party leader, Yannis Lagos, remained out of prison at year’s end because as a member of the European Parliament he was immune from prosecution. At year’s end, Greece’s parliament continued to examine this immunity rule.
On November 2, the first government-funded mosque opened in Athens. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout the spring and autumn lockdowns, government regulations allowed up to nine persons to take part in the early morning prayer. An official opening of the mosque with government participation was postponed, pending the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.
On February 29, the government’s Institute for Educational Policy issued new curricula for religious education in primary and secondary schools to comply with a 2019 ruling by the Council of State, which ruled the curricula did not “develop a religious conscience in students” in accordance with constitutional requirements. According to the ruling, the class offered to Greek Orthodox students was more of a sociology of religion class, not fulfilling the constitutional requirement for developing a religious conscience in students. Non-Orthodox students could request and be granted a waiver from taking the class.
On August 8, the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs issued new regulations clarifying that students could be exempted from religious instruction by citing “religious consciousness” grounds instead of being forced to state “they were not Christian Orthodox believers.” On January 20, the parliament passed legislation stating that secondary-level students’ transcripts should not list their religion or nationality to comply with a 2019 ruling by the Data Protection Authority.
In accordance with the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, the government continued to operate bilingual secular schools in Thrace, a total of 115 primary schools in 2019-20, compared with 128 in 2018-19, as well as two secondary schools, although government operation of bilingual secondary schools – grades 7 to 12 – is not required under the treaty. Turkish-speaking representatives of the Muslim minority said the number of bilingual middle schools – grades 7 to 9 – was insufficient to meet their needs, while stating the government ignored their request to privately establish an additional minority secondary school. The same representatives noted a decreasing trend in the number of primary minority schools – grades 1 to 6 – which the government attributed to the decreasing number of students, particularly in rural areas
The Christian Charismatic Church applied to a civil court for recognition as a religious legal entity; the Church’s application was approved and it was subsequently registered. Applications from an Old Calendarist group and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo in Athens, submitted in 2019, remained pending at year’s end.
Groups lacking religious-entity status and without a house of prayer permit, including Scientologists and ISKCON, which had not applied for a house of worship permit, continued to function as registered, nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by members of these groups, who had the option of civil wedding.
During the year, the government approved 14 permits for houses of prayer, including for two Protestant churches (Baptist and Apostolic Christian), six private mosques in Athens, and six Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls – two of them in Karditsa, one in Larisa, one in Imathia, one in Naousa, and one in Lamia. On July 20, the government authorized the construction of a mosque, with a capacity of 214 individuals, in Thrace, in the district of Zoumbouli in Xanthi. During the year, the government approved the construction of a new Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Mesolongi, in the central part of the country; a building for the Baptist Church of Athens; and a building for the Egyptian Coptic Church. On February 6, the government reissued a permit for a Kingdom Hall in Thessaloniki, which authorities revoked in 2019 on the grounds the facility did not meet fire protection requirements.
On June 25, law enforcement authorities closed an unlicensed private mosque operating in Piraeus. Officials said the association managing the facility never requested a license, unlike approximately 10 other private, licensed Muslim houses of prayer in wider Athens and in the region of Viotia.
On April 3, authorities revoked a house of prayer permit granted to a Protestant group at the latter’s request. The group cited the lower number of followers as the reason for its decision.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report some doctors in public hospitals did not understand or respect their refusal to receive blood transfusions. They said in one case, medical doctors defied the objection of a pregnant woman and gave her a blood transfusion against her will. In another case, a local public hospital refused to accept a patient for a surgical operation when he stated he could not receive a blood transfusion. He was transferred to a central hospital in Thessaloniki where he successfully underwent the surgery without a transfusion.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing instead for direct election of muftis by the Muslim minority. The government continued to state that government appointment was appropriate because the constitution does not permit the election of judges, and the muftis retained judicial powers on family and inheritance matters as long as all parties sign a notarized consent stating they wish to follow sharia instead of the civil courts. During the year, all three muftiates in Thrace continued to be led by government-appointed acting muftis.
On February 26, an appeals court upheld a 2017 ruling sentencing Mufti Ahmet Mete, an unofficial mufti not recognized by the government, to four months in prison for usurping government authority by attending a religious ceremony and ordering the official mufti to leave so he could lead it. The court reduced the sentence, already suspended, from seven months to four months, ruling Mete would only serve the sentence if he committed a crime during the period of suspension. The same court acquitted a follower of the unofficial mufti, an imam convicted and sentenced to seven months in prison in the same case of the unofficial mufti.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government appointment of members entrusted to oversee endowments, real estate, and charitable funds of the Islamic Community Trust or awqaaf, stating the Muslim minority in Thrace should elect these members.
As a result of government-ordered closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the absence of an official mosque in Athens for the most part of the year, central and local government authorities did not provide space for Muslims during Ramadan. COVID-19 restrictions applied to public gatherings, including religious ones, during the spring and winter lockdowns, which were in effect through the end of the year.
In April, media reported that the Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church wrote to the Prime Minister, stating his opposition to the government’s announced plans to allow all houses of worship to open their doors for individual prayers in small numbers but not allow services due to COVID-19. The Orthodox Church, as well as other religious groups, followed all government restrictions throughout the year.
Muslim leaders continued to criticize the lack of Islamic cemeteries outside Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. They also continued to state that municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years due to a shortage of space contravened Islamic law. At least three sites – on Lesvos Island, in Schisto, and near the land border with Turkey in Evros – served unofficially as burial grounds for Muslim migrants and asylum seekers.
The government continued to fund Holocaust education training for teachers but temporarily suspended government-funded educational trips, including to the Auschwitz concentration camp, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On October 26-27 and November 2-3, a group of 35 schoolteachers from Greece and North Macedonia digitally participated in the fourth of a series of seminars on “the Holocaust as a starting point: comparing and sharing.” The seminar involved lectures on the Holocaust in Europe, the deportation of Jews in the Bulgarian-occupied territories, the Nazi vision of the world, and the aftermath of the Holocaust, as well as workshops on education and methodology. Coorganizers of the seminar included the Memorial de la Shoah, the General Secretariat for Religious Affairs of the Greek Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs, and the Holocaust Memorial Center for the Jews of North Macedonia.
On January 27, Prime Minister Mitsotakis attended memorial events marking the 75th anniversary since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. He became the first Greek premier to visit the site, stating he did so to honor the memory of all Greek Jews who perished there.
On January 9, during a visit by the Prime Minister to Washington, the Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) signed an agreement allowing researchers to examine records of Nazi atrocities in Greece between 1940 and 1945. The Ministry of Culture also cooperated with the USHMM on a joint effort to retrieve personal items belonging to Jewish refugees from the 1946 Athina shipwreck off Astypalea Island for inclusion in the USHMM’s permanent exhibition.
On June 22, the main opposition party SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) produced a television advertisement entitled “How much does Moses cost?” The advertisement criticized government funding to mass media outlets during the pandemic, calling it “manna from heaven,” inspired by the biblical story of Moses. KIS issued a statement asking, “How was it possible for a party determined to fight against anti-Semitism to reproduce anti-Semitic stereotypes, linking Moses with money falling down from the sky?” KIS also expressed disappointment that, despite many other protests, including by the Journalists’ Union of Athens Daily Newspapers, SYRIZA did not withdraw its televised message. KIS said SYRIZA’s “only reaction was to characterize the spot as ‘satiric.’”
According to Jewish leaders, the government continued to help the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in its efforts to recover its original archives, found by Soviet troops in a castle in Lower Silesia, Germany, following Germany’s defeat, and subsequently transferred to Moscow.
The government continued to provide direct support to the Greek Orthodox Church, including funding the salaries of clergy, estimated at 200 million euros ($245.4 million) annually, the religious and vocational training of clergy, and religious instruction in schools. The government provided the support in accordance with a series of legal agreements with past governments and as compensation for religious property expropriated by the state, according to Greek Orthodox and government officials. The government also provided direct support to the three muftiates in Thrace, including salaries for the three official muftis and for teachers contracted to teach the optional class on Islam in local public schools. The government paid the salaries of the imam of the new Athens public mosque and the salaries of Catholic teachers at the state schools of Tinos and Syros islands.
On June 25, the ECtHR found that the government violated the EU Convention on Human Rights because a registry office noted on a birth certificate that the child’s name came from a civil act, not a christening, which violated the right not to disclose religious beliefs.
On June 18, the ECtHR determined the amount of compensation the government owed to a Muslim widow to whom the courts had applied sharia against her late husband’s wish. The court ordered 51,000 euros ($62,600) in damages for the applicant. The ruling stemmed from a case filed in 2017 regarding a widow’s right to inherit her husband’s estate. According to media, prior to his death in 2008, her husband drew up a will with a notary, in accordance with civil law, leaving his estate to his wife. The husband left his sisters out of the will, which they contested, stating that because their late brother was Muslim, his inheritance should be adjudicated in an Islamic court and that under Islamic law, they would have received three-fourths of the estate. A lower court agreed with the widow, but on appeal, the Supreme Court ruled the will was invalid based on 100-year-old treaties between Greece and Turkey. Her lawyer said the woman’s husband had decided how he wanted his inheritance to be passed on, and his client was discriminated against on religious grounds. Although the ECtHR ruled in favor of the widow in 2018, it left the decision on compensation until later.
On January 20, Prime Minister Mitsotakis met with the Metropolitan of Orthodox Armenians of Greece, Kegham Khatcherian. According to Orthodox Armenian community representatives in Greece, Mitsotakis was the first Prime Minister to officially receive a prelate of the Armenian community in 125 years.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to call the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternative service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and the length of mandatory minimum military service (nine months) a discriminatory policy.
Government officials publicly denounced the vandalism of Jewish sites, including of the Holocaust memorials in Thessaloniki, Larisa, and Drama, the synagogues in Trikala and Larisa, and the Jewish cemetery in the greater Athens area. On December 4, the Foreign Ministry denounced the desecration of the Holocaust Memorial in Larisa, calling it an “abhorrent act” that is “counter to Greek culture and the values of the Greek society.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Statistics by the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) for 2019, the most recent year available, showed 51 cases in which immigrants or refugees were targeted for their religion, among other grounds, compared with 74 cases in 2018. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as solely or primarily based on religious identity. During the year, RVRN, a network of nongovernmental organizations, recorded two incidents in which the targets were sacred or symbolic for the Jewish community, compared with nine in 2019. Both involved the desecration of Holocaust memorials, one in the city of Thessaloniki and the other in the city of Trikala. A third incident involved the desecration of an Islamic cemetery in Alexandroupoli, in the northeastern part of the country. Police arrested two suspects separately for the vandalism in Larissa and in Drama.
In its 2019 report, RVRN included information communicated to the network by police regarding incidents reported to law enforcement authorities that potentially involved religious motives. Based on this information, police received 36 reports of violence based on religion, compared with 28 in 2018, but did not provide details on specific cases.
According to a European Union Agency for Human Rights report released in September, there were 10 reported cases of anti-Semitism in 2019, the same number as in 2018. According to agency, cases included anti-Semitic hate speech, vandalism of Jewish sites, and trivialization of the Holocaust, with the government starting prosecution of nine of the 10 cases.
On social and other media, individuals continued to directly and indirectly link Jews to conspiracy theories about Jewish global power. On April 11, during an interview with a Russian journalist, Gavriel, a nonrecognized monk residing on Mount Athos, said Jews and Masons would try to control the world’s population through a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus and a microchip implanted into humans. On May 11, the Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint with the police’s antiracism department regarding these statements, citing anti-Semitism and spreading of “fake news.” No arrests were made by year’s end.
On November 10, the daily newspaper Makeleio, whose publisher, Stefanos Chios, was convicted in October of anti-Semitic defamation, warned its readers that Pfizer’s Greek Jewish CEO, Albert Bourla, would “stick the needle” into them and stated the pharmaceutical company’s prospective COVID-19 vaccine was “poison.” The front-page article included a photograph of Bourla, a veterinarian, next to Nazi war criminal and physician Josef Mengele. KIS leadership condemned the newspaper, expressing “outrage and repulsion” over the article for perpetuating “hatred and bigotry against the Jews,” and called on authorities to intervene. The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs condemned the newspaper, characterizing the article as the “most vile anti-Semitism reminiscent of the Middle Ages.” In November, Racist Crimes Watch filed a complaint with police against the newspaper.
On January 29, KIS reiterated concern about political cartoons and images using Jewish sacred symbols and Holocaust comparisons. KIS issued a statement protesting a January 27 sketch in the Newspaper of the Editors showing the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in a political cartoon that argued against lifting protection of primary residencies from foreclosures after April 30. KIS called the cartoon unacceptable because it trivialized a symbol of horror. The newspaper called the Jewish Community’s reaction “justifiable,” stating it had not intended to trivialize or deny the Holocaust.
The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs reported a reduction in the number of violent incidents against religious sites in 2019, the most recent year for which data was available, compared with those of the previous year. In 2019 there were 524 incidents, compared with 590 in 2018. The majority of incidents targeted Christian sites (514); five were against Jewish and five against Islamic sites.
On October 16, unidentified individuals spray-painted the Holocaust monument in Thessaloniki with the phrase “with Jews you lose,” an act which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quickly denounced. The Hellenic Solution Party also issued a condemnatory statement. According to an October 19 statement by KIS, the vandalism was preceded days earlier by the destruction of four tombs in the Jewish cemetery of Rhodes and a spray-painted slogan on the wall of the Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki, reading “Death to Israel.”
Media reported that on October 5, unidentified persons spray-painted anti-Semitic slogans, including “Juden Raus” (“Jews out”), on the exterior walls of the Athens Jewish cemetery in Nikaia. KIS denounced the incident and said the municipality of Athens acted promptly to erase the slogans and clean the walls. Government spokesperson Stelios Petsas issued a statement denouncing the act, noting law enforcement authorities would do everything possible to identify and arrest those accountable. Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Minister of Education and Religious Affairs Niki Kerameus made similar remarks. By year’s end, the government had not arrested any suspects.
On August 13, a memorial to fallen Greek Air Force personnel in Athens was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti reading “Satanic Jews Out!” interspersed with Christian symbols. Yaakov Hagoel, vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization, said, “Unfortunately, the bigotry and incitement against the Jewish people has also reached the memorial sites of the Greek Air Force, falsely pointing the finger and blaming the Jews.”
On December 3, unidentified individuals defaced the synagogue and the Holocaust memorial in Larisa with the sign of cross spray-painted in graffiti with the words “Jesus Christ Wins.” The act was denounced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Secretary General for Religious Affairs, and the local Metropolitan. On December 5, police identified and arrested a suspect on charges of property damage and breaking the anti-racist law.
On December 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the desecration of a Holocaust memorial and a memorial plaque at a tobacco warehouse in the northern city of Drama, stating they were “heinous acts that are an affront to the memory of the victims of Nazi brutality and to Greek culture.” The Jewish Community of Thessaloniki also condemned the incident, stating it “brutally insulted the memory of the 1,200 [Greek] Jews who were exterminated in the Treblinka camp, as well as the very few survivors who returned to their homeland after the end of World War II.” The city of Drama promptly repaired the damage.
On July 13, media reported that unknown perpetrators threw stones at the entrance of a 16th-century mosque no longer used for worship, in Trikala, shattering the windows of the entrance door.
On dozens of occasions, unidentified vandals defaced Christian Orthodox churches and chapels around the country, including in Thessaloniki, Lesvos, Crete, Samos, Xanthi, and Rodopi. In all cases, the perpetrators avoided arrest. On February 3, in Crete, unknown individuals damaged the icons of a small chapel, spreading and rubbing human waste and writing slogans on the walls such as “Eat [expletive], Zeus’s treat.”
Social media users criticized the government for not banning the Islamic call to prayer while other COVID-19 restrictions were in place. Government officials and media reports attributed this reaction to the ignorance of social media users about Islam and their misinterpretation of the call to prayer with the actual prayer, leading them to state that the government allowed mosques to operate at the expense of other houses of prayer.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes toward democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 83 percent of Greek respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among the highest of their priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, visiting officials, and embassy and consulate general representatives discussed religious freedom issues with officials and representatives of the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Deputy Minister Konstantinos Vlassis and Civil Governor for Mount Athos Athanasios Martinos. They discussed the ability of minority religious communities to exercise their rights to religious freedom, government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and Muslim immigrants, progress regarding the opening of the first public mosque in Athens, the enforcement of counter-proselytism legislation by law enforcement, and government initiatives promoting interreligious dialogue.
In meetings with government officials and religious leaders, including the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, U.S. officials expressed concerns regarding anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric and attacks on Orthodox churches. U.S officials also denounced vandalism of religious sites, including the desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the greater Athens area.
The Ambassador worked with the Prime Minister’s Office and, respectively, with the Ministers of Defense and Culture for two projects with the USHMM; the first involved an agreement allowing USHMM-affiliated researchers to examine records of Nazi atrocities in Greece between 1940 and 1945, and the second involved the retrieval of personal items belonging to Jewish refugees from the 1946 Athina shipwreck off Astypalea Island for inclusion in the museum’s permanent exhibition.
On September 29, the Secretary of State visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki, accompanied by the Ambassador and Consul General. During his visit, the Secretary tweeted, “In recognition of Yom Kippur, I am honored to pay my respects at the Thessaloniki Jewish Museum, which commemorates the city’s once-vibrant Jewish community. The U.S. remains committed to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting religious tolerance and freedom.” On July 9, the Ambassador discussed developments needed to start construction of the Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki with David Saltiel, KIS president, and Yiannis Boutaris, president of the board of directors of the planned Holocaust Memorial Museum & Educational Center of Greece on Human Rights. On October 7, the Ambassador and the president of KIS met to discuss progress regarding required legislation for the construction of the Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki, delayed due to technical reasons, and the stalled return from Russia of the archives of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki.
Embassy officials, including the Ambassador and the Consul General in Thessaloniki, also visited the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens and met with religious leaders, including the Archbishop and other representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as members of the Catholic, Muslim, Baha’i, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities to promote interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and diversity. Through these meetings, the embassy monitored the ability of minority religious groups to freely practice their religion and the extent of societal discrimination against both indigenous religious minorities and newly arrived minority religious group migrants.
On July 27-28, the Consul General in Thessaloniki visited four monasteries on the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos and expressed U.S. government support for religious freedom. The Consul General met with the Metropolitans of Larisa and Tyrnavos, Xanthi, and Alexandroupoli, with the Mufti of Xanthi, as well as with academics and theologians, to discuss the status of religious freedom in the northern part of the country and concerns of religious communities. On October 19-21, a senior embassy official and the Consul General in Thessaloniki met with various metropolitans in a trip through Thrace, as well as with official muftis and representatives from the local Muslim minority, reinforcing U.S. government support for religious freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship and the free expression of all beliefs. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Roman Catholic Church. Non-Catholic religious groups must register with the Ministry of Government to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status. Following the killing of indigenous spiritual leader Domingo Choc, President Alejandro Giammattei condemned the killing and met with members of Choc’s spiritual council to hear their grievances. The Committee on the Designation of Sacred Sites (COLUSAG), which registers sites as sacred places for Mayan spirituality, said its mission was hindered during the year after President Giammattei announced the closure in April of the Secretariat of Peace (SEPAZ), which had provided COLUSAG with a meeting place and an organizational structure in the government. After the announcement of SEPAZ’s closure, COLUSAG moved temporarily to the Presidential Secretariat for Planning and Public Policy Coordination. In August, civil society groups and political parties challenged the constitutionality of closing SEPAZ. On December 29, Mayan leaders from COLUSAG protested SEPAZ’s closure and called upon the legislature to legally protect sacred indigenous sites. At year’s end, the Constitutional Court did not issue a decision on SEPAZ’s future and the government did not clarify COLUSAG’s status. In November, lawmakers proposed a budget that would cut funding for the national human rights office and other social programs. The proposal triggered widespread demonstrations, including protesters setting fire to Congress. The country’s Catholic bishops were among several civil society groups that urged President Giammattei to veto the budget bill and called for calm. Lawmakers withdrew the proposed budget after the protests. Non-Catholic groups stated some municipal authorities continued to discriminate against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection.
On June 6, villagers in San Luis, Peten Department, beat and burned to death Mayan spiritual leader and herbalist Domingo Choc after accusing him of using witchcraft to kill a man a few days earlier. Videos of Choc’s killing circulated on social media, and public outrage grew quickly. On June 9, National Civil Police (PNC) arrested several villagers for the killing; they awaited trial at year’s end. Mayan spiritual leaders reported an increase in violent acts and societal prejudice against their community following the killing. Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection and human rights work. According to reports from the Archbishop’s Office of Human Rights, at least five priests received serious threats during the year.
The U.S. embassy regularly engaged with government officials, civil society organizations, and religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom, including threats against Catholic clergy and the reported lack of access to Mayan spiritual sites. Embassy officials emphasized the value of tolerance and respect for religious diversity, including for religious minorities, in meetings with various civil society and religious groups. Embassy officials also emphasized the need to denounce and prevent violence against Mayan spiritual practitioners.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 17.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by ProDatos, approximately 45 percent of the population is Catholic and 42 percent Protestant. Approximately 11 percent of the population professes no religious affiliation. Groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and adherents of the Mayan, Xinca, and Afro-Indigenous Garifuna religions.
Non-Catholic Christian groups include Full Gospel Church, Assemblies of God, Central American Church, Prince of Peace Church, independent evangelical Protestant groups, Baptists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Russian Orthodox and Seventh-day Adventists.
Catholics and Protestants are present throughout the country, with adherents among all major ethnic groups. According to leaders of Mayan spiritual organizations, as well as Catholic and Protestant clergy, many indigenous Catholics and some indigenous Protestants practice some form of syncretism with indigenous spiritual rituals, mainly in the eastern city of Livingston and in the southern region of the country.
According to Buddhist community representatives, there are between 8,000 and 11,000 Buddhists, composed principally of individuals from the Chinese immigrant community. Muslim leaders stated there are approximately 2,000 Muslims of mostly Palestinian origin, who reside primarily in Guatemala City, where there are three mosques. According to local Ahmadi Muslims, there is a small Ahmadi community of approximately 70 members. According to Jewish community leadership, approximately 1,000 Jews live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the free expression of all beliefs and the right to practice a religion or belief, in public and private. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church through a concordat with the Holy See.
The constitution does not require religious groups to register for the purpose of worship, but non-Catholic religious groups must register for legal status to conduct activities such as renting or purchasing property and entering into contracts, and to receive tax-exempt status and tax exemptions for properties used for worship, religious education, and social assistance. To register, a group must file with the Ministry of Government (similar to a Ministry of Interior) a copy of its bylaws, which must reflect an intention to pursue religious objectives, and a list of its initial membership with at least 25 members. The ministry may reject a registration application if the ministry believes the group does not appear to be devoted to a religious objective, appears intent on undertaking illegal activities, or engages in activities that could threaten public order. All religious groups must obtain the permission of the respective municipal authorities for construction and repair of properties and for holding public events, consistent with requirements for nonreligious endeavors.
The constitution protects the rights of indigenous groups to practice their traditions and forms of cultural expression, including religious rites. The law permits Mayan spiritual groups to conduct religious ceremonies at Mayan historical sites on government-owned property free of charge, with written permission from the Ministry of Culture.
The criminal code penalizes with one-month to one-year sentences the interruption of religious celebrations, “offending” a religion, which the law leaves vague, and the desecration of burial sites or human remains; however, charges are seldom filed under these laws. The constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of religion, emphasizing, “Every person has right to practice their religion or belief in public within the limits of public order and the respect due to the beliefs of other creeds.”
According to the constitution, no member of the clergy of any religion may serve as President, Vice President, government minister, or judge.
The law guarantees at least one “religious space, according to [the prison’s] capacity” in each prison. Chaplain services are limited to Catholic chaplains and nondenominational (usually evangelical) Christian chaplains. Prisoners of minority religious groups do not have guaranteed access to spiritual counselors from their faith.
The constitution permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. There is no national framework for determining the nature or content of religious instruction. In general, public schools have no religious component in the curriculum. Private religious schools are permitted and are found in all areas of the country. Religious instruction is allowed, but attendance is optional, in private religious schools.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain tourist visas, which authorities issue for renewable periods of three months. After renewing their tourist visas once, foreign missionaries may apply for temporary residence for up to two years; the residential permit is renewable.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Following the June killing of indigenous spiritual leader Domingo Choc, President Giammattei met with members of Choc’s spiritual council to hear their grievances. On June 19, Giammattei convened representatives of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant churches so that they could collectively speak out against discrimination of indigenous religious practices. Giammattei released a video with local leaders in Peten, asking for greater interfaith understanding and an end to violence based on religion. The government’s human rights ombudsman (PDH) issued a series of condemnations of the crime. President Giammattei stated on Twitter his solidarity and condolences to the family of Choc and his determination to bring those responsible to justice.
COLUSAG, which registers sites as sacred places for Mayan spirituality, said its mission was hindered during the year after President Giammattei announced the closure of SEPAZ in April, which had provided COLUSAG a meeting place and an organizational structure in the government. The President said SEPAZ, created shortly after the end of the civil conflict in 1996, had been maintained illegally by previous administrations. After the announcement of SEPAZ’s closure, COLUSAG moved temporarily to the Presidential Secretariat for Planning and Public Policy Coordination. On August 7, civil society groups and the political parties WINAQ (meaning human in Mayan culture) and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity challenged the constitutionality of SEPAZ’s closure. On December 29, a small group of Mayan leaders from COLUSAG protested outside the National Palace in Guatemala City during the official commemoration of the 24th anniversary of the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords, which ended a 36-year civil conflict in 1996. Demonstrators protested the President’s closure of SEPAZ and other government institutions and called upon the legislature to legally protect sacred indigenous sites. At year’s end, the Constitutional Court had not issued a decision on the future of SEPAZ and the government had not clarified COLUSAG’s status.
In November, lawmakers proposed a budget that would cut funding for the national human rights office and other social programs. The proposal triggered widespread demonstrations, including one in which protesters set fire to Congress. The country’s Catholic bishops were among several civil society groups that urged President Giammattei to veto the budget bill and called for calm. Lawmakers withdrew the proposed budget after protests erupted throughout the country, and the proposed reductions were not enacted.
Mayan spiritual leaders affiliated with COLUSAG worked on a voluntary basis and were not paid by the government. They said the Ministry of Culture had a unit for sacred spaces tasked with mapping sites and producing informative material regarding Mayan spirituality; however, the Ministry of Culture had staffed the unit with only one individual. The Mayan spiritual representatives said their work of preserving sacred sites was more relevant than ever and needed more robust government support, including funding. COLUSAG leaders said they did not accept claims by some businesses and government bodies that Mayan spiritual leaders were seeking to retake ownership of ancestral spiritual properties. COLUSAG said its objectives were to negotiate a time for practitioners of Mayan spirituality to practice their religion on ancestral spiritual sites.
Some Mayan leaders said the government continued to limit their access to a number of religious sites on government-owned property and to require them to pay to access the sites. The government continued to state there were no limitations on access; however, anyone seeking access to the sites located in national parks or other protected areas had to pay processing or entrance fees. In Tikal, a complex of Mayan pyramids dating from 200 A.D., and one of the most sacred sites for Mayan spirituality, the access fee was approximately 20 to 30 quetzals ($3 to $4), which, according to members of COLUSAG, was prohibitive for many indigenous populations. The Mayan community of Chicoyoguito continued to petition for access to its sacred sites and the return of land, including its sacred ceremonial center and a spiritual site on a former military base.
Through its La Ruta: Meeting Between Peoples program, the government had increased engagement with 25 indigenous communities in the Western Highlands with high levels of outward migration. In September, President Giammattei relaunched the program, which sought to address development challenges in indigenous communities by increasing government services, dialogue, and understanding among indigenous leaders, the government, and the private sector. The La Ruta platform allowed indigenous leaders to raise concerns regarding future private sector investment on sacred sites in the Western Highlands with central government decision makers. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, some in-person La Ruta activities were delayed during the year, but there were several local meetings in indigenous communities, as well as high-level engagement in the capital.
Non-Catholic groups said some municipal authorities continued to discriminate against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection. In November, representatives of a major non-Catholic church said authorities of some municipalities levied taxes on church properties, despite being legally exempt from taxation under the constitution and in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling. According to church representatives, in some cases, municipal authorities refused to issue building permits for construction or remodeling unless the taxes were first paid. Church representatives said they believed this inconsistent application of tax law likely stemmed from financial interests rather than discrimination based on religion.
Missionaries continued to report complicated government procedures required to apply for temporary residence. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many foreign missionaries voluntarily exited the country. Although missionaries were legally allowed to stay in the country while their residency applications were being processed, some with pending applications faced fines for overstaying their tourist visas when they departed.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On June 6, villagers in San Luis, Peten Department, beat and burned to death Mayan spiritual leader and herbalist Domingo Choc after accusing him of using witchcraft to kill a man a few days before. Videos of the killing circulated on social media and public outrage grew quickly, with government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) condemning the act. Commentators said a video of the incident appeared to show many villagers participating in Choc’s killing. On June 9, the PNC arrested several villagers, who awaited trial in Guatemala City at year’s end. According to media, following the killing, Choc’s family was forced to relocate to the nearby town of Poptun because of threats from local villagers.
According to Monica Berger, an anthropologist at Universidad del Valle, Choc was an Ajilonel, an indigenous spiritual guide and expert on medicinal plants. He was also a member of the Association of the Council of Spiritual Guides Releb’aal Saq’e’ and collaborated extensively with University College London, Zurich University, and Universidad del Valle to document traditional Mayan medicinal practices. Despite Choc’s international and national academic partnerships, local media and NGOs reported some San Luis residents routinely harassed him for his Mayan spiritual practices.
A coalition of four indigenous groups condemned the attack and demanded swift government action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Student groups and international organizations also condemned the killing on social media. Business organizations such as Ag Export issued statements expressing outrage. In its statement, Ag Export said Choc’s death left a great void in the country’s cultural wisdom, understanding of spirituality, and ancestral science. In a social media post referring to the killing, Berger wrote, “We demand justice and clarity about his murder. Even more importantly, we need to shine a light on this type of persecution against practitioners of Traditional Medicine and Mayan Spirituality in Guatemala. We need to raise awareness and educate ourselves as a society, so that we better understand other Guatemalans and stop fearing and persecuting each other. We must understand, recognize, and respect our own diversity.”
According to media, Peten Department’s mostly indigenous and overwhelmingly Christian population, reportedly split evenly between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, was not tolerant of Mayan spiritual traditions. Berger told media that the persecution of Mayan spiritual leaders was a troubling and underreported phenomenon, and she said most of the country’s inhabitants did not have a basic understanding of indigenous Mayan beliefs and ancestral traditions.
Some commentators said that while the Catholic Church played an active and important role in citizens’ lives and that half of San Luis was Catholic, Catholic Church leadership in the country was silent or cast doubt on the circumstances surrounding Choc’s killing. Some sources said San Luis Parish priest Aubert Gamende told Choc’s family to ask for forgiveness for bringing negative attention on the parish. The Catholic Bishop of Peten, Mario Fiandri, publicly denied that the killing reflected religious discrimination, and instead called it a feud between two families.
Mayan spiritual leaders reported an increase in violent acts and societal prejudice against their community following the killing. Joaquin Caal Che, a Mayan traditional healer also from San Luis, told media in June that local residents had threatened him and he feared for his life. Caal Che also relocated to Poptun with his family to escape further threats. Other instances of community violence against Mayan spiritual practitioners occurred during the year. On January 23, two individuals, one of whom was later identified and captured by police, shot Mayan traditional healer Jose Andres Lopez in the town of San Juan Atitan, Huehuetenango Department. According to the PNC, the two assailants may have shot Lopez because of curses the healer had placed on villagers. On June 12, PDH reported that villagers in Gancho Caoba, Alta Verapaz Department, accused traditional healer Jesus Caal of witchcraft and found him guilty in a community assembly, during which villagers threatened to burn Caal’s entire family. Villagers detained Caal and his family in their house overnight while the community assembly deliberated on his punishment for alleged witchcraft. PDH intervened, prompting PNC teams to deploy to the Caal residence to guarantee the family’s safety. On June 27, PDH reported four Mayan priests were attacked by residents of Aldea las Pozas, Peten Department, during a Mayan spiritual ceremony. The PNC intervened to negotiate their release from local residents and transported them to safety.
Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection and human rights work. According to reports from the Archbishop’s Office of Human Rights, at least five priests received serious threats during the year.
According to Mayan spiritual groups, some private landowners continued to deny Mayans access to locations on their property considered sacred, including caves, lagoons, mountains, and forests.
Religions for Peace (RFP), whose members comprise representatives from the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant churches, Muslim and Jewish faiths, and Mayan spirituality groups, continued to actively seek to resolve misunderstandings among religious groups and to promote a culture of respect. In June, RFP issued statements condemning the violence against Domingo Choc and other Mayan spiritual leaders. Some political organizations, including the Municipal Indigenous Council in Solola, rotated leadership between Catholic and Protestant representatives. Sentinels for the Dignification of the State, an interfaith group with members from the Tibetan Buddhist, Protestant, and secular communities, continued to promote progressive social activism and change, including working with Mayan spiritual leaders.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials regularly met with the human rights ombudsman, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidential Commission Against Discrimination and Racism, and members of Congress to discuss religious freedom issues, including threats against Catholic clergy and access for Mayans to their spiritual sites. The embassy continued to promote increased engagement between the government and indigenous communities, especially through its support for increased dialogue and government investment in indigenous communities through the La Ruta program.
The Ambassador released a statement condemning the June 6 killing of Domingo Choc, noting it was a tragic reminder of the pervasive violence that continued to impact indigenous peoples across the country. The Ambassador reiterated President Giammattei’s call to bring those responsible to justice. Embassy officials continued to engage government officials as well as Catholic Church officials and other religious leaders on the need to denounce violence against Mayan spiritual practitioners and members of all faiths.
Embassy officials met with leaders of major religious groups and representatives of faith-based NGOs to discuss the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. They continued outreach to religious leaders and entities, including the offices of Catholic Archbishop Gonzalo de Valle in Guatemala City and of Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini’s in Huehuetenango, as well as other Catholic organizations. Embassy officials also worked with the Evangelical Alliance, the largest organization of Protestant churches, representing more than 30,000 individual churches; the Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities; and representatives from the Commission for the Designation of Sacred Places for the Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna communities, to strengthen understanding of religious freedom issues and to promote religious tolerance.
The constitution states the state is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for the right of individuals to choose and profess their religion. The Secretariat General of Religious Affairs (SRA) continued to issue weekly themes for inclusion in Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches. Although the SRA did not control sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and were responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives. On July 11, SRA authorities in Kankan, Upper Guinea summoned Imam Nanfo Ismael Diaby for continuing to lead prayers in a local language. Diaby and 10 of his followers were handed over to the police by SRA authorities. After the governor of Kankan intervened, Diaby was released on July 13 with no formal charges filed. The same day unidentified youths reportedly vandalized his mosque and home. The government closed all places of worship on March 26 in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, and during the month of Ramadan, media reported instances of mosques in Kamsar and Dubreka refusing to obey the government order by remaining open for prayers. The government announced on September 3 the full reopening of places of worship after religious leaders publicly called for a lifting of restrictions.
In mid-March, at least 30 individuals died and nearly 70 were injured in Nzerekore in the southeast of the country during several days of violence following a constitutional referendum. According to media and nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, largely Muslim government supporters and mostly Christian and Animist opposition groups clashed, with more than 80 buildings, including churches and mosques, damaged or destroyed. Archbishop of Conakry Vincent Coulibaly on September 20 issued a statement denouncing the attempted seizure by local villagers of land belonging to Catholic institutions near Coyah. The case remained pending at year’s end.
On multiple occasions, the U.S. Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials met with the Secretary General of Religious Affairs and other religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance, reconciliation, and social cohesion among religious groups. The Charge met with the Grand Imam to discuss the importance of interfaith dialogue, particularly in the aftermath of the October 18 presidential election. The embassy used social media to share messages and stories of religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the SRA, approximately 85 percent of the population is Muslim, 8 percent Christian, and 7 percent adheres to indigenous religious beliefs. Much of the Muslim and Christian population incorporates indigenous rituals into their religious practices. Muslims are generally Maliki Sunni; Sufism is also present. Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and several evangelical groups. There is also a small Baha’i community, in addition to small numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of traditional Chinese religious beliefs among foreign residents.
Muslims constitute a majority in all four regions of the country. Christians are concentrated in large cities, including Conakry, the south, and the eastern Forest Region. Adherents of indigenous religious beliefs are most prevalent in the Forest Region.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the state is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for the right of individuals to choose and profess their religious faith. It recognizes the right of religious institutions and groups to establish and manage themselves freely. It bars political parties that identify with a particular religious group. These rights are subject only to “those limits that are indispensable to maintain the public order and democracy.”
By law, the SRA must approve all religious groups. Groups must provide a written constitution and application to the SRA along with their address and a fee of 250,000 Guinean francs ($25). The SRA then sends the documents to the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization for final approval and signature. Once approved, the group becomes officially recognized. Every six months, each registered religious group must present a report of its activities to the government. Registering with the government entitles religious groups to an exemption from the value-added tax (VAT) on incoming shipments and makes them eligible for select energy subsidies.
Unregistered religious groups are not entitled to VAT exemptions and other benefits. By law, the government may shut down unregistered groups and expel their leaders. There is limited opportunity for legal appeal of these penalties.
Religious groups may not own radio or television stations.
The compulsory primary school curriculum does not include religious studies. Many parents send their children to Quranic schools (madrassahs), either in addition to primary school or as their primary form of education.
The imams and administrative staff of the principal mosque in Conakry and the principal mosques in the main cities of the four regions are government employees. These mosques are directly under the administration of the government. Other mosques and some Christian groups receive government subsidies for pilgrimages.
The Secretary General of Religious Affairs (SRA) appoints national directors to lead the Offices of Christian Affairs, Islamic Affairs, Pilgrimages, Places of Worship, Economic Affairs and the Endowment, and Inspector General. The SRA is charged with promoting good relations among religious groups and coordinates with other members of the informal Interreligious Council, which is composed of Muslims and members from Catholic, Anglican, and other Protestant churches, as well as the SRA.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The SRA continued to issue guidance outlining themes for discussion during Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches. The stated purpose of the weekly guidance was to harmonize religious views in order to prevent radical or political messages in sermons. Although the SRA did not monitor sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and were responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives. Clerics whom the SRA judged to be noncompliant were subject to disciplinary action. Deviations from approved guidance were often reported in various sermons at mosques and other Islamic events, but the SRA said it had difficulty imposing disciplinary sanctions.
As part of its measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, the government closed all places of worship on March 26. During the month of Ramadan, according to local media reports, there were instances of mosques in Kamsar and Dubreka refusing to obey the government order and remaining open for prayers. In June, the government authorized reopening places of worship in regions with low COVID-19 case counts. The government announced on September 3 the full reopening of places of worship after religious leaders publicly called for a lifting of restrictions. Since the SRA holds a cabinet level position, sources stated that religious associations were able to effectively lobby the SRA, and in turn the government, that places of worship should reopen on the grounds that the government had previously approved numerous political rallies without proper health measures while keeping places of worship closed.
Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baha’i community have not requested official recognition. Some groups stated they preferred not to have a formal relationship with the SRA since a lack of recognition granted them more freedom, as they preferred not to be subject to state regulations in the same way as an officially recognized community.
Islamic schools were prevalent throughout the country and remained the traditional forum for religious education. Some Islamic schools were wholly private, while others received local government support. Islamic schools, particularly common in the Fouta Djallon region, taught the compulsory government curriculum along with additional Quranic studies. Private Christian schools in Conakry and other large cities accepted students of all religious groups. They taught the compulsory curriculum but did not receive government support, and they held voluntary Christian prayers before school.
The government allocated free broadcast time on state-owned national television for Islamic and Christian programming, including Islamic religious instruction, Friday prayers from the central mosque, and church services. The government permitted religious broadcasting on privately owned commercial radio, and encouraged equal time for Christian and Muslim groups.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In mid-March, at least 30 individuals died and nearly 70 were injured in Nzerekore in the southeast of the country during several days of violence following a constitutional referendum. According to media and NGO reports, largely Muslim government supporters and mostly Christian and Animist opposition groups clashed, with more than 80 buildings, including churches and mosques, damaged or destroyed. NGOs reported government security forces did not intervene to stop the violence and that some security forces committed abuses.
On September 20, Archbishop of Conakry Coulibaly issued a statement denouncing an attempt to forcibly “seize” property owned by Catholic institutions by residents of the village of Kendoumayah, located in Coyah Prefecture, while the case was pending in court. On September 20, Muslim Susu villagers, who said they were part of the Lower Guinea “Labesangni” nativist movement, barricaded the entry and exit of Kendoumayah, ostensibly to divide up the disputed land among themselves. Saint-Jean community members said that they were also threatened with physical assault. According to the archbishop, the dispute dated to 2014, when a local woman approached the community stating that she owned the land the community occupied. At year’s end, the dispute was before the Conakry Court of Appeals after the lower court in Coyah ruled in favor of the villagers. The archdiocese argued the lower court’s ruling was invalid because it was the state that had granted the land to the Church and no state representative was present during the ruling.
In parts of the country, including the middle and upper regions, particularly strong familial, communal, cultural, social, or economic pressure discouraged conversion from Islam, according to observers.
Many Muslim students not enrolled in private Islamic schools received religious education at madrassahs, some of which were associated with mosques and others supported by local communities. Unlike Islamic schools, the madrassahs did not teach the compulsory primary school curriculum. The government did not recognize the madrassahs nor require them to register; it allowed them to operate freely. They focused on Quranic studies, and instruction was in Arabic rather than French. Funds from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states supported some madrassahs. Most students in madrassahs also attended public or private schools that taught the compulsory curriculum.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials regularly met with the SRA and with representatives of the country’s religious groups, including the Grand Imams of Conakry, Kankan, Siguiri, and Labe; Catholic and Anglican bishops; and other Muslim and Christian clergy.
The Charge d’Affaires met with the country’s Grand Imam, Elhadj Mamadou Saliou Camara, at the Faycal Mosque, where he reiterated U.S. support for religious freedom, peaceful assembly, and interfaith dialogue. The Charge also thanked the Grand Imam for his work on encouraging peace across faith groups during turbulent elections in March and October.
The embassy posted messages through its social media platforms during the month of Ramadan encouraging religious tolerance.
In June, the embassy, through its various social media platforms, publicized how various faith communities and religious leaders in the United States worked together through shared common values of charity and community service to help neighbors in need during the COVID-19 global health crisis.
The embassy also promoted tolerance indirectly through its democracy and governance activities. Activities included engagement with influential local figures, including religious leaders, in order to amplify peace-building messages in communities afflicted by interethnic and religious tensions.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. The government recognized the first church for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community – The Open and Affirming Church. Representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to state a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. In December, the cabinet approved a decision to amend the law to remove custodial sentencing for small amounts of marijuana. According to interfaith leaders, the government continued to promote religious tolerance and diversity, including through public messaging on religious holidays. The government did not hold interfaith activities because of COVID-19 precautions and restrictions and what local and international press described as a volatile five-month period from the March 2 national election until a winner was declared on August 2.
On March 1, the interfaith Universal Peace Federation – Guyana hosted a ceremony to encourage all persons to promote peace and refrain from violence during the national election. The Inter-Religious Organization of Guyana (IRO), whose members include representatives of the Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Rastafarian, and Baha’i faiths, continued to conduct interfaith efforts, and its constituent religious groups made oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect religious diversity.
In October and December, the Ambassador spoke with the Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports regarding the importance of keeping the country’ s multireligious and multiethnic society strong despite tensions occurring during the five-month electoral impasse. The two also spoke about engaging all religious groups in public observances of national religious holidays to further strengthen the country’s existing commitments to religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance. U.S. embassy officials promoted social cohesion and religious tolerance, meeting with representatives of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups and discussing issues related to religious tolerance. Embassy officials amplified these messages through discussions about religious tolerance on social media.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 750,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2012 census, 64 percent of the population is Christian, 25 percent Hindu, and 7 percent Muslim (mainly Sunni). Less than 1 percent belongs to other religious groups, which include Rastafarians, Baha’is, Afro-descendent Faithists, and Areruya, an indigenous faith system. An estimated 3 percent of the population does not profess a religious affiliation. Among Christians, Pentecostals comprise 23 percent of the population; Roman Catholics, 7 percent; Anglicans, 5 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 5 percent; Methodists, 1 percent; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, less than 1 percent, and other Christians, 21 percent, which includes those belonging to the Assembly of God Church, Church of Christ, and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, among others.
The membership of most religious groups includes a cross section of ethnic groups, although nearly all Hindus are of South Asian descent, and most Rastafarians are of African descent.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. An unenforced law prescribes a prison term of one year for a blasphemous libel conviction; however, the law exempts religious expression made in “good faith and decent language.”
There is no official system for formal registration of a religious group, but to receive government recognition, all places of worship must register through the Deeds Registry. The Deeds Registry requires an organization to submit a proposed name and address for the place of worship, as well as the names of executive group members or congregation leaders. Once formally recognized, a place of worship falls under legislation governing nonprofit organizations, allowing the organization to conduct financial operations, buy property, and receive tax benefits in its name.
Foreign religious workers require a visa from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Religious groups seeking to enter an indigenous village for the purpose of proselytizing must apply for and obtain permission from the village council. Application to a village council must include the name of the group, the names of its members who will be going to the village, their purpose, and estimated date of arrival.
There is no religious education in public schools, regardless of whether the school is religiously affiliated. Most public schools’ religious affiliations are Anglican or Methodist. There are both public and private religiously affiliated schools. Private schools are operated entirely by private groups and are not funded by the state. All students attending private religious schools must participate in religious education, regardless of a student’s religious beliefs.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to media reports, in January, the government recognized the Open and Affirming Church, associated with the United Anglo-Catholic Church in the United States and established by an LGBT group in October 2019. The Church stated it provided an inclusive environment for LGBT persons, whom it said encountered homophobic attitudes at other places of worship.
Representatives of the Rastafarian community continued to state a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. The Guyana Rastafari Council continued to petition the government to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for religious purposes. In September, at an interfaith roundtable, a representative of the council said the group would be advocating with the newly installed government to decriminalize marijuana possession for religious purposes. The council also asked for international support to lobby the government. In December, the cabinet approved a decision to amend the law to remove custodial sentencing for small amounts of marijuana. It also said it was deliberating on the quantity that would not mandate custodial sentencing.
The government continued to maintain regulations limiting the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the President’s discretion; however, the government and religious groups whose membership included foreign missionaries continued to state the government did not apply the visa limitation rule. Religious groups also said the visa quotas the government allotted to them were sufficient and did not adversely affect their activities.
The government continued to promote interfaith harmony and respect for diversity through its public messaging. It did not hold interfaith activities because of COVID-19 precautions and restrictions, and what local and international press described as a volatile five-month period from the March 2 national election until a winner was declared on August 2. In March, then-President David Granger encouraged “togetherness regardless of religion” on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Holi, known locally as Phagwah.
In December, Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports Charles Ramson said he was focused on ensuring public observances of national holidays were religiously diverse, and having members of different religious groups participate actively in national celebrations. He also said he was committed to holding a dialogue with all religious organizations to better understand their needs and concerns.
Government representatives continued to meet with leaders of various religious groups to promote social cohesion and discuss tolerance of diversity, including Muslim, Hindu, and Christian groups. Government officials also participated regularly in the observance of Christian, Hindu, and Islamic religious holidays throughout the year. The government continued to declare some holy days of the country’s three major religious groups, including Eid al-Adha, Holi, Easter, and Diwali, as national holidays.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The IRO, whose membership includes approximately 40 religious bodies and organizations, continued to lead interfaith efforts, and its constituent religious groups made oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect religious diversity. On March 1, the Universal Peace Federation – Guyana, whose membership includes representatives from Christian, Hindu, and Islamic groups, hosted an interfaith ceremony to encourage all persons to promote peace and refrain from violence during the March 2 national election. Several IRO member groups also participated in the march. Christian, Muslim, and Hindu groups expressed similar sentiments during Holi celebrations in March.
In September, during a roundtable discussion, IRO participants, including representatives of Baha’i, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups, stated their religious groups did not discriminate against members of the LGBT community but did not condone the open practice of their lifestyle. Some members of IRO said they declined to openly partner with the Open and Affirming Church, which is specifically identified with LGBT persons.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In October, the Ambassador spoke with Minister of Culture, Youth, and Sports Ramson regarding social cohesion and the importance of keeping the country’s multireligious and multiethnic society strong, despite tensions occurring during the five-month electoral impasse. In December, the Ambassador met with the Minister to discuss his efforts to ensure public observances of national holidays were religiously diverse and to have members of different religious groups actively participate in national celebrations. The Ambassador also discussed with the Minister the latter’s commitment to having a dialogue with all religious organizations to better understand their needs.
In September, embassy officials organized a roundtable that included representatives of Christian, Hindu, Muslim, and Rastafarian groups, in which they discussed issues related to religious tolerance, fostering cohesion and respect for religious differences, and the challenges for worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. In February and May, embassy officials engaged with religious leaders on the government’s Ethnic Relations Commission to discuss ways to promote harmony prior to the March national election. The embassy amplified these activities through discussions on social media about religious tolerance, conveying messages that emphasized the importance of religious tolerance in the country’s pluralistic society.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Any religious group seeking official recognition must receive government approval by law, a multistep process requiring documentary support. The Bureau of Worship, a unit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), continued to provide some preferential treatment to the Roman Catholic Church, including a monthly stipend to Catholic priests. Vodou and Muslim representatives said their religious groups still struggled to gain support for registration and financial assistance for their educational institutions. Islamic groups said they continued to wait for official government recognition. From March to July, the government suspended all public gatherings of more than five persons, including religious services, to limit the spread of COVID-19. In March, police arrested 32 individuals of various religious affiliations throughout the country for violating the restrictions. In late July, religious leaders said some of the government’s COVID-19 measures were unfair because businesses and government agencies were permitted to reopen, while houses of worship were not. Vodou and Islamic organizations said their exclusion as official COVID-19 relief implementing partners was discriminatory. In July, Christian groups objected to the government’s new penal code, which enters into force within two years, because it included significant protections for LGBTI persons, the decriminalization of abortions, and the lowering of the age of sexual consent from 16 to 15.
In August, Hope Ministry reported what it considered the targeted killing of a Presbyterian pastor by unidentified individuals who shot the pastor and no other persons riding in a vehicle with the pastor. During the year, priests and pastors were among the hundreds of victims of gang-related kidnappings for ransom. In July, a Catholic Church representative said the country’s general insecurity hindered the movement and flow of resources to support social initiatives. According to media, the Evangelical Baptist Union Mission of Haiti (UEBH) had to relocate church activities and ministries from Boulos, near Port au Prince, due to gang activity in the area. Various religious organizations, including the Haitian Pastors Conference, publicly condemned the country’s continuing political and social instability. According to Vodou leaders, there were no killings of Vodou priests during the year, compared with one killing in 2019. As in previous years, Vodou leaders said non-Vodou followers often mischaracterized their religion as sinister. In September, Landy Mathurin, President of the Haitian Muslims National Council, said the population generally respected Muslims, including their right to wear the hijab.
In January, a Department of State official visited the country to discuss the importance of religious freedom and tolerance, particularly addressing registration issues. During the visit, he and U.S. embassy officials met with senior MFA officials and discussed fair and equal treatment for all religious groups. Throughout the year, embassy representatives regularly met with MFA officials and religious representatives, including through virtual meetings, to discuss religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.1 million (July 2020 estimate). According to the government’s 2017 Survey on Mortality, Morbidity, and Use of Services, the most recent study available, Protestants and Seventh-day Adventists represent approximately 50 percent of the population, while Catholics constitute 35 percent; 12.5 percent of the population claimed no religion. There are also small numbers of followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Other faiths, including Judaism, Islam, Rastafarianism, and Church of Scientology have small numbers of adherents. According to the same report, the Vodou faith is followed by approximately 3 percent of the population, although most observers state that is underestimated because many individuals practice Vodou secretly. According to the National Confederation of Haitian Vodou (KNVA) representatives, more than half of the population practices Vodou.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Under the law, the MFA is responsible for registering religious organizations, clergy, and missionaries of all denominations.
Religious institutions must register with the Bureau of Worship to receive government benefits, but there is no penalty for nonregistration. Even though registration would grant them standing in legal disputes and tax-exempt status, many religious groups do not comply. The Ministry of Justice authorizes registered religious leaders to issue official civil documents, such as marriage and baptismal certificates. To obtain government recognition, a religious group must provide information on its leaders’ qualifications, a membership directory, and a list of the group’s social projects. Registered religious groups must submit annual updates to the MFA.
To obtain a government-issued license, the prospective leader of a religious group must submit documents to the MFA, such as a religious studies diploma and a police certificate. Once the MFA confirms the applicant’s eligibility for a license, a Ministry of Justice official authorizes the applicant to perform civil ceremonies, such as marriages and baptisms.
A concordat between the Holy See and the government provides the Vatican authority to approve a specific number of bishops in the country with government consent. Under the accord, through the MFA’s Bureau of Worship, the government provides a monthly stipend to Catholic priests. Catholic and Episcopalian bishops and the Protestant Federation’s head have official license plates and carry diplomatic passports.
A 2003 government directive establishes Vodou as an official religion and accords the right to the Vodou community to issue official documents.
Foreign missionaries operating in the country are subject to the same legal and administrative requirements as their domestic counterparts.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The three Muslim communities in the country – Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadiyya – individually continued to seek official recognition. According to the National Council for Haitian Muslims President, Landy Mathurin, MFA officials did not act on the Sunni and Shia community requests for registration pending since 2018. The MFA Religious Affairs director said only the Ahmadiyya followed official registration procedures, adding their application was still under review. To reach other Muslim groups, the MFA director said he would conduct registration drives outside Port au Prince instead of requiring applicants to come to the bureau’s headquarters to complete the registration. No registration drives, however, occurred during the year.
The government continued to recognize only wedding ceremonies and baptisms conducted by government-certified officials. According to the MFA, there were 9,195 certified Protestant pastors, 704 certified Catholic priests, and two certified Vodou clergy at year’s end. By year’s end, the government still did not certify any Muslim clergy. Some Protestant leaders continued to call for more government regulation of unregistered churches and pastors.
According to media reports, starting in September, the government required all religious organizations to request a formal customs exemption when importing goods. According to local media, the decision was made to prevent widespread misuse of the government’s customs exemption program.
During the 2020-21 school year, the Ministry of Education (MOE) disbursed 100 million gourdes ($1.4 million) to religious schools: 50 million ($698,000) to Catholic schools, 40 million to Protestant schools ($559,000), and 10 million ($140,000) to Anglican schools. On October 14, the MOE signed a three-year agreement with the Catholic Church, providing annual financial assistance for Catholic schools, especially in vulnerable areas identified by the government and civil society leaders.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government suspended all gatherings of more than five persons, including religious services, from March to July. According to news reports, police took 30 individuals into custody on March 22, including four Protestant pastors, for holding religious services in violation of government orders. The same day, police detained two individuals in Gressier, near Port au Prince, at a Vodou ceremony. In both instances, authorities released the individuals and did not formally charge them. In May, Minister for Foreign and Religious Affairs Claude Joseph urged religious leaders in the southern part of the country to convince followers to wear face masks and practice social distancing. After initial compliance, Christian groups, primarily Protestant, objected to the COVID-19 measures, stating that several factories and government agencies were allowed to reopen.
Vodou and Muslim groups said government officials excluded them as implementing partners for COVID-19 relief and other donor-financed projects. KNVA said the government dismissed local Vodou herbal remedies as COVID-19 preventive measures but explored cooperation with Madagascar’s government to use an alleged herbal remedy, which Vodou practitioners said was a slight.
The Office of Citizen Protection (OPC) continued to advocate for students’ religious freedom. As a result, the MOE rescheduled exams on weekdays instead of Saturdays, allowing full participation by Seventh-day Adventist students, according to the Church.
Some Muslim leaders said the government gave preference to Christian groups in its funding of development projects.
On September 22, the government, continuing past practices, installed religious representatives from the Vodou and Protestant communities on the Provisional Electoral Council, the country’s elections administrative body. Unlike in previous years, a Catholic representative did not participate.
Although many religious leaders reported the government promoted tolerance and societal respect for religious freedom, non-Catholic religious leaders called for an end of government preference for the Catholic Church.
In July, the government adopted a new penal code that included significant protections for LGBTI persons, the decriminalization of abortion, and the lowering of the age of sexual consent from 16 to 15; the code was scheduled to enter into force after a two-year transition period. Christian group leaders, primarily from Protestant organizations, said the measures countered their beliefs and would require all clergy to perform same-sex marriages. According to the government, the new criminal code did not change the civil code that codified marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In July, the Haitian Protestant Federation and other Christian groups throughout the country launched petitions and peacefully marched, asking the government to repeal penal code articles related to LGBTI protections and the age of sexual consent. According to media, on July 26, approximately 6,000 citizens, predominately Christian, participated in a peaceful march in Port au Prince against the new penal code. According to the Haitian Protestant Federation, the government did not consult religious groups before establishing the new penal code. In July, the Catholic Church released a statement against the measures. Representatives of the LGBTI community said they were concerned Christian groups would convince the government to reverse the new protections.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During the year, priests and pastors were among the hundreds of victims of gang-related violence, including at least one targeted killing and kidnappings for ransom. According to Reformation Hope, in August, a Presbyterian pastor was likely the victim of a targeted killing, the only passenger in the vehicle whom unidentified individuals shot. According to reports, the pastor had received multiple death threats over several years. In July, a Catholic Church representative said the country’s general insecurity hindered the movement and flow of resources to support social initiatives.
From July through December, there were reports of armed gangs occupying Maranatha High School, which is a part of the Mission Evangelical Baptist Union of Haiti’s (UEBH) complex in Boulos, near Port au Prince. In November, Pastor Jacques Louis said the UEBH was forced to relocate church activities and ministries from Boulos due to violent gang activity in the area. A different Protestant leader said gangs continued to occupy Maranatha High School through the end of the year. During the year, various religious organizations, including Religions for Peace (RFP) and the Haitian Pastors Conference, publicly condemned the country’s continuing political and social instability.
According to Vodou leaders, there were no killings of Vodou priests during the year, compared with one killing in 2019. Vodou clergy continued to state some practitioners experienced social stigmatization for their beliefs, saying some Christian pastors continued to consider the religion a sinister force. In June, KNVA representatives labeled the results of a 2017 survey on religious adherence, entitled Mortality, Morbidity, and Use of Services, as unreliable, stating more than 50 percent of the population practiced Vodou rather than the 3 percent estimated in the survey. The KNVA said Vodou followers often hid their adherence to the religion because it was falsely associated with evil. In June, KNVA President Carl Desmornes said misrepresentative Western media and false Christian teachings stigmatized the religion, causing followers to hide their adherence to it.
National Council for Haitian Muslims President Mathurin said Muslims were generally well respected in the country. In September, he said Muslim women were comfortable with wearing the hijab.
In an April 8 press conference, Vodou Priest Augustin St-Clou urged Vodou leaders to suspend traditional festivities coinciding with Easter to avoid the mass spread of COVID-19. In April, however, the celebration of some springtime Vodou traditions continued, including a Vodou rally in St. Louis du Nord showing practitioners packed tightly together that was recorded in a viral social media video.
In September, Pierre Caporal, President of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said many Adventists struggled to secure employment in both the private and public sectors because their religion forbids working on Saturdays. He said that while the OPC supported the Church in successfully challenging the weekend university admission exam schedule, lax enforcement continued.
RFP, whose members include representatives from the Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Churches and the Vodou community, continued to meet, primarily focusing on COVID-19 relief efforts and promoting respect for religious diversity.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
During a January visit, an official from the Department of State met with MFA officials and religious leaders to discuss the state of religious freedom and tolerance in the country, emphasizing the importance of fair and equal treatment for all religious groups. Throughout the year, embassy officials met regularly with the MFA and religious representatives, including through virtual meetings, to discuss religious freedom in the country, including religious tolerance and the impact of COVID-19 on religious communities.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations and thereby acquire tax-exempt status and other government benefits. Seventh-day Adventists continued to state some public educational institutions did not respect their religious observance on Saturdays because Saturdays were part of the official work week. On October 15, the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum (FIH) – an interfaith nongovernmental organization (NGO) – reported government discrimination in residency applications for foreign missionaries. It stated the government did not approve or respond to applications of residency extensions for certain religious groups, while favoring others. According to Muslim leaders, members of their community no longer encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits, an improvement from previous years. The FIH reported the government granted safe-conduct permits for movement during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown from March to October only to religious organizations covered under the Evangelical Fellowship of Honduras (CEH). FIH representatives said many organizations not belonging to the CEH were limited in their social work because the government provided biosecurity equipment to only 10 FIH member organizations.
Muslim leaders reported one incident where individuals who self-identified as evangelical Protestants appeared at an Islamic community outreach event, making offensive remarks regarding their community. Representatives of the Muslim community said they conducted community events to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including discussion of issues such as common misconceptions of the tenets of Islam. The FIH also conducted community events to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The CEH reported its members received threatening messages from unknown individuals that they believed were in response to the CEH’s support of a government proposal to provide financial assistance to elderly evangelical Protestant pastors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Charge d’Affaires underscored with the Minister of Human Rights the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental right. U.S. embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations, and the autonomous National Commission of Human Rights (CONADEH) to discuss issues of religious freedom, including the importance of respect for minority religious groups and for equal treatment under the law for all religious groups. On November 25, the Charge d’Affaires met with Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, who described the Church’s disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Eta and Iota. On October 28, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith roundtable to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. Topics included religious freedom in schools, challenges some faith groups faced in addressing registration issues, societal violence, poverty reduction, and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected religious groups. Embassy officials continued to engage with religious leaders and other members of a wide range of religious communities regarding societal violence and their concerns about the government’s dealings with religious groups in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a CID Gallup poll released in May, 34 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and 48 percent as evangelical Protestant. According to a 2017-18 Digital Christian Observatory survey, 92 percent of the population is affiliated with a religious organization, with 45 percent identifying as Roman Catholic and 40 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant groups.
Other religious groups, each representing less than 5 percent of the population, include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Antiochian Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, the Moravian Church, and several Anabaptist and Mennonite groups. Evangelical Protestant churches include the Church of God, Assemblies of God, Abundant Life Church, Living Love Church, International Christian Center, and various Great Commission churches. Several evangelical Protestant churches have no denominational affiliation. The Moravian Church has a broad presence in the La Mosquitia Region in the eastern part of the country. Some indigenous groups and Afro-Hondurans practice African and Amerindian faiths or incorporate elements of Christianity, African, and Amerindian religions into syncretistic religious practices and beliefs.
According to a representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Association, there are 79,877 members. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community states there are 23,016 members. The Muslim community states it has 2,695 members, mostly Sunni; approximately 90 percent are converts. The Antioquia Orthodox Apostolic Catholic community has approximately 5,000 members. The Baha’i community counts 1,009 members. The Jewish community estimates it has 275 members.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions as long as that exercise does not contravene other laws or public order. The constitution prohibits religious leaders from holding public office or making political statements. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations. Organizations seeking status as a legal entity must apply to the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization and provide information on their internal organization, bylaws, and goals. Approved organizations must submit annual financial and activity reports to the government to remain registered. They may apply to the Ministry of Finance to receive benefits, such as tax exemptions and customs duty waivers. Unregistered religious organizations do not receive tax-exempt status.
The official NGO registry office – the Directorate of Regulation, Registration, and Monitoring of Civil Associations (DRRSAC) – is located within the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization.
The constitution states public education is secular and allows for the establishment of private schools, including schools run by religious organizations. Public schools do not teach religion; however, private schools may include religion as part of the curriculum. Various religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and evangelical Protestant churches, run schools. Parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children receive, including religious education. The government dictates a minimum standardized curriculum for all schools. Some private religiously-affiliated schools require participation in religious events to graduate.
The government is a party to the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights, which recognizes the right to conscientious objection to obligatory military service, including for religious reasons.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain entry and residence permits and mandates that a local institution or individual must sponsor a missionary’s application for residency and submit it to immigration authorities. The government has agreements with the CEH, the Church of Jesus Christ, and Seventh-day Adventists, among others, to facilitate entry and residence permits for their missionaries. Groups with which the government does not have written agreements are required to provide proof of employment and income for their missionaries.
Foreign religious workers may request residency for up to five years. To renew their residence permits, religious workers must submit proof of continued employment with the sponsoring religious group at least 30 days before their residency expires. According to the immigration law, individuals who “fraudulently exercise their religious profession or office or commit fraud against the health or religious beliefs of citizens of the country, or the national patrimony,” may be fined or face other legal consequences.
The criminal code protects clergy authorized to operate in the country from being required by the court or the Attorney General’s Office to testify regarding privileged information obtained in confidence during a religious confession. The law does not require vicars, bishops, and archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church and comparably ranked individuals from other legally recognized religious groups to appear in court if subpoenaed. They are required, however, to make a statement at a location of their choosing.
The official regulations for the penal system state that penitentiaries must guarantee the free exercise of religion without preference for one specific religion, as long as the kind of worship is not against the law or public order. Prisoners have access to religious counseling from leaders of their faith.
While the government authorizes clergy from all religious groups to conduct marriage ceremonies, it legally recognizes only civil marriages conducted with a lawyer authorized to perform marriage ceremonies.
The official work week is Monday to Saturday, with no exceptions for religious groups that celebrate Friday or Saturday as their Sabbath.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued to express concerns that some schools and other private and public institutions did not grant them leave to observe their Saturday Sabbath because Saturdays were part of the official work week. They cited specifically the Francisco Morazan National Pedagogical University and the Catholic University of San Pedro Sula. They noted the Supreme Court had ruled favorably in 2019 on a constitutional challenge that Adventist students filed in 2015 seeking alternatives to taking classes or exams on Saturdays, but these institutions did not uphold that ruling, nor did the government enforce it. Reportedly, students at both universities requested the institutions comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Francisco Morazan University secretariat denied the request; the students appealed, and the appeal remained pending at year’s end. One student at the Catholic University submitted a formal petition to the university to comply with the court, but officials denied the petition. Other students said they decided not to pursue further recourse out of fear of additional discrimination and retaliation from their professors.
Some religious organizations, including the interfaith NGO FIH, said the government continued to give preference to religious groups belonging to the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization CEH. On October 15, the FIH reported government discrimination in residency applications for missionaries, noting the government did not approve or respond to applications of residency extensions for certain religious groups, while favoring applications from the CEH.
At year’s end, the DRRSAC registered 66 religious associations out of a total of 86 applications, compared with 120 registered in 2019. According to the DRRSAC, it did not deny any registration requests by religious associations during the year, but some applications continued to be under review through year’s end.
According to Muslim leaders, members of their community no longer encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits, an improvement from previous years.
In October, the FIH reported the government granted safe-conduct permits for movement during the COVID-19 pandemic only to religious groups covered under the CEH, which represents 388 organizations. FIH representatives said many organizations not belonging to the CEH were limited in their social work because the government provided biosecurity equipment to only 10 FIH member organizations.
A representative of the Catholic Church said Catholic priests were not allowed to enter prisons during the pandemic to give COVID-19-related educational instruction or spiritual counseling. These prohibitions were extended to all religious groups and visitors. Prison authorities said visits, except for emergency situations, were not allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Muslim leaders reported one incident in which individuals who identified as evangelical Protestants appeared at an Islamic community outreach event in February, disrupting the event and making offensive remarks and disparaging comments about Muslims, such as “go back to your country.” Muslim leaders said the evangelical Protestants made threats, forcefully removed hijabs from women, and destroyed religious materials. According to the Muslim leaders, they did not file a complaint.
While Muslim community representatives said they continued to receive a few derogatory messages on social media, including “go back to your country,” the representatives emphasized they received far more positive and supportive comments than negative messages.
The CEH reported its members received threatening messages from unknown individuals seeking to discredit the organization because of its support of a government proposal to provide financial assistance to elderly evangelical Protestant pastors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seventh-day Adventists reported the continued refusal of certain private institutions, including places of employment and schools, to permit them to observe Saturday as their Sabbath.
Representatives of the FIH and the Muslim community each reported conducting community events and outreach to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The FIH, whose members included 94 religious and human rights entities, said it conducted five in-person meetings in January and October, and seven virtual meetings from May through September, as well as 12 additional media appearances. The Muslim community reported it held two in-person outreach events in February and March and two virtual meetings in June and August with other faith groups to deepen interfaith understanding; the events included discussions on common misconceptions about the tenets of Islam.
Cardinal Maradiaga said the Catholic Church provided relief efforts in the aftermath of the two hurricanes, including providing food and other essential items to individuals affected by the hurricanes, regardless of religious affiliation.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires underscored with the Minister of Human Rights the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental right. Embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations, and CONADEH to discuss issues of religious freedom, including the importance of respect for minority religious groups and for equal treatment under the law for all religious groups.
Embassy officials continued discussions with religious leaders and members of religious communities, including Roman Catholics, CEH, FIH, Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and Muslims, regarding societal violence, poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. On November 25, the Charge d’Affaires met with Cardinal Maradiaga to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of the two hurricanes and the impact of the pandemic.
On October 28, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders from the Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim, and Baha’i communities to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. Participants also discussed the Adventists’ difficulties with schools and other private and public institutions that did not grant leave to Adventist students or employees to observe Saturday as their Sabbath and bureaucratic challenges other groups faced, such as cumbersome registration processes. In addition, participants exchanged ideas on societal violence, poverty reduction, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religious groups.
Read A Section: Hong Kong
China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau
The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.
Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.
The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.
There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”
The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. If a state of emergency is proclaimed, the rights may not be limited based solely on religion.
On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.
Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society, a tax-exempt organization, or both, provided they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Dafa Association is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it may establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.
The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.
The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.
Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.
The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.
An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.
Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.
The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.
Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.
Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”
In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, “When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”
Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.
During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.
In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.
Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.
In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.
Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.
In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.
Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.
Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.
In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”
Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.
Read a Section
China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. On December 15, parliament amended the constitution, adding language stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.” The amendment became effective on December 23. There are four tiers of religious groups, all of which may receive state funding and income-tax allocations from members. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court registered seven religious groups and rejected one, while four applications remained pending. The Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the religion law, which some religious and civil society groups considered discriminatory. The Muslim community said authorities continued to refuse to issue permits for cemeteries. Jewish organizations condemned the appointment of a new director of a state-run radio station whom they said had a long record of making anti-Semitic statements; the government’s inclusion of anti-Semitic writers and removal of a Nobel laureate Holocaust survivor from a mandatory school reading list; and the bestowal of a high state award to a historian widely viewed as anti-Semitic. They also continued to criticize the proposed House of Fates Holocaust museum as an attempt to obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. Senior government officials continued to make statements in defense of what they called a “Christian Europe.”
The Action and Protection Foundation, which monitored anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, one of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim leaders said that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, and there were cases of anti-Muslim discrimination. Members of radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups again commemorated the attempted “breakout” by German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army. They laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators, and some wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage from some government-aligned media. A European Union (EU)-funded survey of residents in the country found 41 percent did not sympathize with Muslims and 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews; 49 percent agreed that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, and 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention. Ten and nine percent, respectively, thought Jews and Muslims were frequent targets of hate speech.
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy officials and visiting U.S. Department of State representatives held meetings with officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and other government agencies, as well as with local Jewish groups and the World Jewish Restitution Organization, to discuss restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and the House of Fates Museum concept. In other meetings with the government and with religious leaders, embassy representatives advocated religious freedom and tolerance and discussed provisions of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. In January, the embassy highlighted on its website and on social media the anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the attendance by the Charge d’Affaires at three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the Church of Scientology (COS), Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, Muslims, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness. The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census. The World Jewish Congress estimates the Jewish population to be between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. Local Jewish organizations estimate approximately 100,000 citizens with Jewish heritage live in the country, primarily in Budapest. Other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worship, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination, as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community. On December 15, parliament approved a constitutional amendment, which became effective on December 23, stating that children must be guaranteed an “upbringing based on values stemming from our country’s constitutional identity and Christian culture.”
The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious communities. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
A 2018 parliamentary amendment to the 2011 religion law entered into force in 2019. The purpose of the amendment was to implement judgments of the country’s Constitutional Court and the European Court on Human Rights. The law establishes a four-tier system of, in descending order, “established (or incorporated) churches,” “registered churches” (also called “registered II”), “listed churches” (also called “registered I”), and “religious associations.” The term “church” in the law refers to any religious community, not just Christian ones, and religious groups in any category may use “church” in their official names. All previously incorporated religious groups retained their status in the first tier of the new system as established churches. To become an established church requires approval by parliament; the Budapest-Capital Regional Court has jurisdiction to rule on applications for registration within the other three categories. Religious groups in all four tiers have “legal personality,” which grants them legal rights, such as the right to own property.
Religious entities that do not apply for legal status in one of the four categories are still able to function and conduct worship. The law states constitutional protection of freedom of religion also applies to unregistered groups.
To qualify for established church status, a religious group must first have registered status and then conclude a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the state for the purpose of accomplishing community goals. The government submits the comprehensive agreement to parliament, which must approve it by a two-thirds majority vote. A registered church becomes an established church from the day parliament approves the comprehensive agreement. Established churches are eligible to benefit from significant state subsidies for the performance of public service activities.
To qualify for registered church status, a religious group must have received tax allocations from an average of 4,000 persons per year in the five-year period prior to the application. This status also requires that the group either have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally, or have operated as a listed church for at least 15 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for listed church status, a religious group must receive tax allocations from an average of 1,000 persons per year in the three-year period prior to the application for status and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally.
To qualify for religious association status, a religious group must have at least 10 members.
The law allows the government to negotiate individual cooperation agreements with all four tiers of religious groups for the performance of public service activities and support of faith-based activities. The agreements’ duration depends on the status of the religious community, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to 10 and 15 years for listed and registered churches, respectively, and unlimited duration for established churches. These agreements may be prolonged.
Religious groups that agree not to seek state or EU funding (including personal income tax allocations) for their religious activities may qualify as registered or listed churches without fulfilling the requirement regarding the number of personal income tax allocations. The applicant religious community must perform primarily religious activities and may not be a criminal defendant or have been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or considered a national security threat. The court decides whether to grant status as a registered or listed church based on an examination of the criteria above. In reviewing these applications, the court may consult church law, church history, or ecclesiastical or academic experts, and may also seek the opinion of the national security services.
Religious groups that agree not to seek government or EU funding but accept financial support at a later stage must report it to the court within 15 days of the disbursement of the aid. To avoid losing its status or a reclassification to the lower association tier, the religious group has eight days to declare to the court that it has returned the funds, requested cancellation of its religious registration status, or complied with the individual tax allocation requirement to become a registered or listed organization. The religious group or prosecutor’s office may appeal the court’s decision on the status of the group to the Budapest-Capital Court of Appeal.
The law stipulates the minister responsible for church issues, based on information received from the court, shall manage an electronic database of religious groups with legal status, accessible to the public free of charge. The database is publicly accessible at the government’s central webpage, kormany.hu.
The law allows taxpayers to allocate 1 percent of their income taxes to any religious community in any of the four categories, starting with the 2020 tax year. Religious groups may use these funds as they wish. Only established and registered churches (the two highest tiers) are eligible to receive a state subsidy supplementing the 1 percent tax allocations.
According to the law, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court may dissolve a religious community with legal status – with the exception of established churches – if its activities conflict with the constitution or law or if the court rules its registration should have been denied. Parliament may dissolve an incorporated church if the Constitutional Court finds it is operating in violation of the constitution. If a religious community is dissolved without a legal successor, its assets, after satisfying creditors, become the property of the state and shall be used for public interest activities.
Thirty-two churches have established (previously known as “incorporated”) status. These include the Roman Catholic Church; a range of Protestant denominations; a range of Orthodox Christian groups; other Christian denominations, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Salvation Army; three Jewish groups (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, Hungarian Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community); and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole Hindu group registered as a church. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups.
By law, the state may neither operate nor establish any body for controlling or monitoring religious groups. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Copyright law protects their names, symbols, and rites, while criminal law protects buildings and cemeteries.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsperson). The ombudsperson investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.
According to the law, established, registered, and listed churches may perform pastoral services in prisons and hospitals. Other laws indicate religious associations may also have the right to provide services at these facilities.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, and Jewish congregations (which the government generally calls “historical churches”) may provide chaplain services to the military without seeking permission. Other religious groups must seek permission to offer such services.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. Historical churches may provide pastoral services in prisons without special permission, but other religious groups may do so only within official visiting hours as outlined in individual agreements and with permission from the penitentiary. Similarly, historical churches receive automatic access to patients in hospitals to provide pastoral services, while other groups may do so only under certain conditions, such as providing services only during visiting hours.
One hour per week of education in faith and ethics or general ethics is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Parents and students choose between the faith and ethics class offered by an established church of their choosing or a secular ethics course taught by public school teachers. Other religious groups are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools but may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools at the request of parents or students. Private schools are not required to offer faith and ethics or general ethics classes.
All religious groups registered in one of the four categories have the right to open their own schools. The state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee salaries at all such schools. Only established churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. Other religious groups may apply for a supplementary operational subsidy, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) may sign an individualized contract with them to cover these costs.
The law also affords all religious groups with legal status the right to assume operation of public schools if more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school sign a petition to do so and the MHC approves the change. In these cases, the state may continue to fund the schools. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The state inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to legal standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law prohibits “calling for violence” – or inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion or abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation.
Assault motivated by the victim’s actual or presumed religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is also punishable with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the symbol of the Arrow Cross – a fascist, anti-Semitic party that allied with Nazi Germany – in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by five to 90 days’ detention.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious groups or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Religious groups with pending applications for incorporated (changed to “established”) church status prior to the entry into force of a 2019 amendment to the religion law had the possibility to apply under a simplified registration process until January 6. According to the PMO, there were 16 such groups with pending applications, of which 11 reapplied under the simplified process. Of these 11 groups, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rejected the application of the Church of the Nazarene and registered six groups as listed churches: the Hungarian Baha’i Community, Sim Shalom Progressive Jewish Association, Bet Orim Reform Jewish Community Association, Shalom Church of Biblical Congregations, Church of Evangelical Friendship, and the Hungarian Drukpa Kagyu Buddhist Community. Four other applications remained pending at year’s end. The court also registered the Hungarian Daoist Church as a listed church in a regular procedure based on the number of its members.
Some religious groups stated that while the new registration process constituted progress, it did not restore their full status from before the adoption of the 2011 religion law and the new framework for church recognition by the state. Court decisions regarding the registration process for registered churches, listed churches, and religious associations were available at the central website of the courts, birosag.hu. According to the PMO, no religious groups qualified under registered church status; in order to become a registered church, a group must comply with the requirement of receiving income tax allocations from an average of at least 4,000 persons per year in the previous five years, a period which could only begin in 2019 (the year the current law came into force) or later. The number of established churches remained unchanged.
The tax authority expanded the list of religious groups (including all four tiers) eligible to receive a 1 percent personal income tax allocation from members and stated that those wishing to become eligible in 2021 should request a technical tax identification number by December 31.
The HCLU, an NGO representing some religious groups deregistered in 2011, reported that their clients did not apply for registration because they believed the amended version of the law was still discriminatory. In May, the Constitutional Court rejected HCLU’s petition, filed in 2019, challenging the amended law. The HCLU argued the amended law did not guarantee equal treatment of churches by the state and was therefore unconstitutional. According to the Constitutional Court, state cooperation to achieve community goals and state support for religious activity, although related to the exercise of the freedom of religion, was not a fundamental right under the constitution, and constitutional protection of religious communities was equal, regardless of the legal evaluation of the religious community, the number of its members, or its participation in community activities. The HCLU, which already had a legal case ongoing regarding the previous law at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), argued there that the amended law did not remedy the violations of the prior law. The ECHR case continued at year’s end.
The MHC halved operational state subsidies for the Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood’s (MET) educational institutions. MET’s leader Pastor Gabor Ivanyi said the MHC also informed him it would not extend its educational agreement for the next academic year, which endangered the sustainability of MET’s schools, attended by approximately 2,200 mostly Roma children. MHC attributed the funding cuts to budgetary restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and what it said was the lack of concrete results achieved by these schools. In December 2019, Ivanyi published an open letter in which he rejected Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s statements that his was a Christian government.
The COS reported that appeals procedures against the Data Protection Authority’s (DPA) seizure of its documents in Budapest and Nyiregyhaza remained pending at various stages at different courts. The DPA investigated the COS for alleged criminal abuse of personal data and fined it and its central organization a total of 40 million forints ($135,000) in 2017. The Church also reported state authorities revoked a Russian-Ukrainian missionary couple’s residence permit in 2019 and expelled a Kazakh missionary from the country in January. The COS appealed both decisions, in which the authorities justified the expulsion of missionaries they deemed a “real, direct, and serious threat to national security.”
The COS stated that the certificate of occupancy for its headquarters in Budapest remained pending at the Csongrad County Government Office, while a court order allowed the COS to continue using the building.
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) said the problem of insufficient cemetery space for Muslims remained unresolved. OMH also reported the government had not completed its restoration of the state-owned Yakovali Hasan Mosque in Pecs, ongoing since 2018, which prevented the local Muslim community from using the mosque as a place of worship.
In September, MET said the state-owned utility company attempted to disconnect MET’s institutions from the gas network due to nonpayment, endangering the operation of its nursery, college, homeless shelter, and hospital. Pastor Ivanyi stated MET would be able to pay its outstanding bills if the state would compensate it for damages sustained in 2016-2019 stemming from the group’s loss of church status.
According to the PMO, during the 2019-2020 school year, churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 17.1 percent of elementary and secondary schools (compared with 16.7 percent in 2018-19), and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. Churches or church-run higher educational institutions operated 10 percent of preschools (with students aged three to seven), compared with 9.7 percent run by incorporated churches in the previous year, and religious associations operated 0.2 percent. There were 222,944 students – 49.3 percent of whom were in Catholic schools – studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by churches and religious organizations, compared with 217,204 in the previous year.
At a school opening ceremony on August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen stated that church-run schools were instrumental in preserving a Christian identity through raising “professionals whose skills are in harmony with faith.” Semjen cited Eurostat figures showing that Hungary’s GDP-to-church-support ratio was the highest in the EU, adding that the number of church-run schools in the country had doubled since 2010. The PMO State Secretary in charge of church issues, Miklos Soltesz, stated on September 4 that the government had allocated 106 billion forints ($357.2 million) to three main churches for kindergarten development projects, with the Catholic Church receiving 67 billion forints ($225.8 million), the Reformed Church 30 billion forints ($101.1 million), and the Evangelical Church 9 billion forints ($30.3 million).
A cartoon by Gabor Papai published by the daily independent Nepszava on April 28 showed the chief medical officer who oversaw the government’s COVID-19 pandemic response looking at Jesus on the cross and saying, “his underlying conditions caused” his death. According to media commenters, the cartoon was intended to criticize the government’s response to the pandemic and, in the critics’ view, the chief medical officer’s attempt to minimize the number of deaths in the country attributable to COVID-19. The cartoon sparked outcry from the Christian Democratic People’s Party and State Secretary for the Aid of Persecuted Christians Tristan Azbej, who accused Papai of blasphemy and sued the outlet. Government-aligned media launched what was characterized as a campaign of intimidation against Papai; for example, Szent Korona (Holy Crown) Radio station asked its followers to share his home address, because “there are many who would pay him a visit.”
According to OMH, Muslims serving prison sentences regularly received meals with pork meat or pork fat, despite complaints.
On January 6, state-run Kossuth Radio announced the appointment of Beatrix Siklosi as its new director. Citing what they described as Siklosi’s long record of making and sharing anti-Semitic and racist statements – including posting racist jokes and linking to the anti-Semitic website kuruc.info on social media as well as hosting Holocaust denier David Irving on one of her previous shows – 21 Jewish organizations published a joint open letter on January 27 to the public media organization MTVA’s Chief Executive Officer, Daniel Papp, asking him to terminate Siklosi’s appointment. Papp rejected the accusations of anti-Semitism against Siklosi as unfounded. Chief Rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) Slomo Koves stated that Siklosi’s appointment was “unacceptable,” and Mazsihisz referred to its statement from 2014 condemning Siklosi’s appointment to another position, adding that it maintained its concerns regarding her.
On August 20, the government awarded the Hungarian Order of Merit to historian Erno Raffay, whom media and other historians have criticized for disseminating anti-Semitic views. At a public forum in 2015, Raffay complained about the number of Jews in the country before the Holocaust, stating, they “pushed us out from our positions in science, schools, academy, university, banking, estates, and professions.” European Commission Coordinator on Combatting Anti-Semitism Katharina von Schnurbein criticized Raffay in a tweet on August 25 for openly spreading “anti-Semitic speech and conspiracy myths.”
Jewish groups Mazsihisz and EMIH expressed concern about the government’s decision to include writers widely viewed as anti-Semitic, including member of the Arrow Cross Party Jozsef Nyiro and convicted war criminal Albert Wass, while removing Nobel laureate for literature and Hungarian Holocaust survivor Imre Kertesz as mandatory reading material in the new national curriculum, which became effective on September 1 in elementary and secondary public schools.
Several Jewish leaders criticized Laszlo Biro, a Jobbik Party member and the opposition parties’ unsuccessful joint candidate in the October 11 by-election in Borsod County, for anti-Semitic and racist statements. Biro’s previous social media comments included referring to Budapest as “Judapest” and complaining about the number of foreign Jews staying at hotels in his district. EMIH Chief Rabbi Koves said that it was worrying that “the parties that support him [Biro] indirectly legitimize anti-Semitism.” Earlier in August, referring to Biro’s comments, Mazsihisz president Andras Heisler said his organization condemned “acts of incitement against any ethnic, religious, or sexual minority.”
During a local council meeting on June 25, Imre Lazlo, mayor of a Budapest district and member of the opposition Democratic Coalition Party, said that “The work [Hitler] had accomplished” prior to becoming Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 “practically brought advancement for Germany, in a spectacular way, after the global recession. What happened afterwards does not really fit into this picture.” On June 26, Laszlo issued a statement to apologize for his remarks, highlighting his Jewish roots and that many of his family members were killed in Nazi death camps.
The opening of the House of Fates, a proposed new Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest, remained pending. The museum concept, which leading Jewish groups and Holocaust scholars criticized as an attempt to obscure the role of the World War II-era Hungarian state and its leader, Miklos Horthy, in the Holocaust, continued to generate criticism. Horthy allied the country with Nazi Germany and deported more than 400,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. Chief Rabbi Koves of EMIH, which owned the museum, stated in November that he was working with design firms and historians and predicted the potential opening on or before the 80th anniversary of the 1944 deportation of Hungarian Jews in 2024.
At year’s end, the government had not shared its final research assessment into heirless and unclaimed property, nor had it yet agreed to requests by the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) for further discussions on a roadmap to begin negotiations. In April 2019, the WJRO presented the government with its assessment of the government’s second set of research on heirless property.
When speaking about a proposal from a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen investor on how the EU should finance the COVID-19 recovery fund, Prime Minister Orban said in an interview in April that “they really love interest,” which some observers described as a veiled anti-Semitic message. In April, some government-aligned media said that the same investor was “probably” betting against the nation’s currency and responsible for its weakening in the spring.
In a November opinion piece published by progovernment media outlet Origo.hu, Ministerial Commissioner and director of the Petofi Literary Museum Szilard Demeter called the same American financier the “liberal Fuhrer” and wrote that Europe was his “gas chamber,” with “poisonous gas” flowing from the capsule of a “multicultural open society.” Referring to the debate over the EU’s proposed mechanism that conditioned payments from the EU budget on respect for the rule of law, Demeter described Poles and Hungarians as “the new Jews” targeted by “liber-Aryans” who are told they “have a big nose (sic)…stink…and are full of lice.” Mazsihisz, EMIH, the American Jewish Committee Central Europe office, and the International Auschwitz Committee, among others, condemned Demeter’s comments, and all major opposition parties called for his resignation. On November 29, Demeter stated he would retract his article and delete his Facebook page “independently of what I think.” He added, “Those criticizing me are correct in saying that to call someone a Nazi is to relativize, and that making parallels with Nazis can inadvertently cause harm to the memory of the victims.” As of December, government officials continued to defend Demeter’s continued tenure as a ministerial commissioner, stating that he had retracted the piece and apologized.
Government officials continued to make statements in defense of a “Christian Europe.” In an essay published on the occasion of the start of the fall parliamentary session, Prime Minister Orban wrote in the daily Magyar Nemzet on September 21 that while Central European countries were choosing a migration-free future, the majority population in large Western European cities and 20 percent of the European population would be Muslim by 2050. On August 31, Deputy Prime Minister Semjen stated the government had built or refurbished approximately 3,000 churches in the Carpathian basin since 2010, and he pledged that “none of those churches will be turned into mosques or shopping malls.”
In January, Prime Minister Orban and his wife attended the International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps to mark the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation. Orban posted a photo on Facebook of a guard’s tower with the barbed wire fence in the background and a quote from the Old Testament, “Tell it to your children,” and media published a photo of Orban lighting a candle at the Hungarian memorial to the victims of the Birkenau camp. In a speech at the European Jewish Organization Symposium commemorating the same anniversary, Justice Minister Judit Varga stated that the country had “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism,” adding, “Manifestations of anti-Semitism are met with a determined response by the state leadership,” and that Hungary was “the most secure country for Jews in Europe.”
At year’s end, the government had provided 216.4 billion forints ($729.2 million) to established churches (compared with 64.8 billion forints – $218.4 million – during 2019), of which 96 percent – 209 billion ($704.3 million) – went to the four historical churches. The Roman Catholic Church received 161.7 billion forints ($554.9 million), the Reformed Church 37.7 billion forints ($127 million), the Evangelical Church 6.8 billion forints ($22.9 million), Mazsihisz two billion forints ($6.7 million), EMIH 534 million forints ($1.8 million), and the Jewish Orthodox community 281 million forints ($947,000). The religious groups that received the bulk of the government’s financial support used the funds for such activities as building maintenance; public educational and social services; religious instruction and cultural activities; community programs and investments; employee wages, and faith-based activities for citizens living abroad. The government provided an additional 211.3 million forints ($712,000) to other religious groups.
Jewish groups inaugurated synagogues that had been renovated with state funding. In September, the Lakitelek People’s College, established by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, transferred the ownership of a wellness resort called “Hungarikum Liget,” consisting among other things of a hotel, winery, a riding house, and a footgolf course, to the Szeged-Csanad Catholic archdiocese. The government provided 30 billion forints ($101.1 million) in state support for the project, according to press reports.
In November, the Hungarian Reformed Church elected former Minister of Human Capacities Zoltan Balog as Bishop of the Dunamellek Diocese.
According to statistics the tax authority published on September 9, 114 churches and religious groups received 1 percent personal income tax allocations. In 2019, only the 32 established – or in the previous terminology “incorporated” – churches were eligible for this tax allocation. As in previous years, the churches receiving the most allocations were the Catholic Church, with 708,237 persons contributing 3.9 billion forints ($13.1 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, with 292,768 persons contributing 1.6 billion forints ($5.4 million); and Lutheran Church, with 80,237 persons contributing 478 million forints ($1.6 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 71,470 persons contributing 448 million forints ($1.5 million). Both reform Jewish groups (Sim Shalom and Bet Orim) became eligible to receive 1 percent personal income tax allocations, in addition to the other three established Jewish groups of Mazsihisz, EMIH, and Orthodox. Among the Jewish groups, Mazsihisz received the largest allocation.
In March, the Lutheran Church signed a cooperation agreement with the government to carry out social and educational activities. In July, the Faith Church (a Christian church that belongs to the Pentecostal movement) concluded a comprehensive cooperation agreement with the government. Building on a previous agreement from 2006, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen and church leader Reverend Sandor Nemeth stated at the signing ceremony that the agreement provided legal and financial guarantees for the operation of the church’s institutions.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The NGO Action and Protection Foundation, which monitors anti-Semitism, reported 16 anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of the year, including one case of discrimination, 11 of hate speech, and four of vandalism. Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data; however, OMH reported that while physical assaults were rare, verbal insults were frequent, in particular against persons wearing headscarves or who had darker skin and spoke a foreign language. According to OMH, the majority of the population regarded Muslims with suspicion.
An estimated 500 to 600 members of what were widely described as radical right-wing and neo-Nazi groups from Hungary and other European countries gathered on February 8 for the “Day of Honor” in Budapest that commemorated the attempted “breakout” of German and Hungarian troops in February 1945 during the siege of the city by the Soviet Red Army. Dressed in black and carrying flags of their respective far-right movements, they laid wreaths to honor Nazis and their collaborators. While police initially banned the event, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court subsequently overturned the ban. Separated by a line of police, some 300 to 500 counterdemonstrators chanted and drummed during the event. According to media, “There were no major conflicts – while there were smaller hassles.” The commemoration was followed by a march along the route of the attempted siege-breakers in which some participants wore historical uniforms and insignias. The commemoration received favorable coverage in some government-aligned media. No government officials condemned the event and no charges were brought against the participants.
On March 1, approximately 1,000 people took part in a march in Budapest, organized by the far-right party Mi Hazank and the Betyarsereg and 64 Counties extremist groups, honoring the centennial of World War II-era Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy’s coming to power.
According to OMH, a job interviewer, commenting on a Muslim interviewee whose mother tongue was Hungarian, said he wanted a “Hungarian person,” but instead an “Ali” showed up. The Muslim applicant did not receive a job offer and did not take legal action.
According to an EU-funded survey of Hungarian residents, Combating Anti-Semitism in Central Europe, conducted in December 2019 in local partnership with the Republikon research institute, 10 percent of respondents believed Jews were frequent victims of hate speech, followed by Muslims (9 percent); 41 percent said they did “not sympathize” with Muslims, while 15 percent did not sympathize with Jews. Regarding attitudes and types of hate speech towards Jews, 45 percent of respondents had encountered anti-Semitic stereotypes, 41 percent insults, 35 percent grotesque depictions of Jews, and 27 percent had not encountered any type of hate speech. Forty-nine percent agreed with the statement that Jews had substantial influence on world developments and the economy, while 38 percent agreed that, for Jews in the country, Israel was more important than Hungary; 34 percent believed the Holocaust received too much attention in public debates.
An analysis by online research group SentiOne of Hungarian comments on social media between January 1 and April 15 found the second highest share of negative comments (24 percent) were directed against Jews, and 43 percent of those who commented on Jews blamed them for the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February, the Pew Research Center published a survey on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society, as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 70 percent of Hungarian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among their lowest priorities for democratic principles among the nine tested.
In March, Mazsihisz reported that vandals severely damaged gravestones in the Jewish cemetery of Kiskunfelegyhaza, southeast of Budapest. Repair costs were estimated at between 300,000 and 2.5 million forints ($1,000-$8,400). Mazsihisz filed a criminal complaint with the police.
Mazsihisz reported that on November 1, vandals smashed three headstones and left human feces on another at a Jewish graveyard in Kecel, south of Budapest.
In June, there were two vandalism cases, one of which concerned a swastika drawn on a poster of a Jewish high school in Budapest, and the other a swastika painted on a public wall in Debrecen, in eastern Hungary.
In October, NGOs reported authorities closed the investigation, without filing charges, into an October 2019 attack in Budapest on the Aurora NGO center – run by a Jewish youth organization – by approximately 50 members from Legio Hungaria, a group widely described as neo-Nazi.
On February 2, the general assembly of Mazsihisz adopted a proposal to include Sim Shalom and Bet Orim, the country’s two reform Jewish groups, as associate members.
The Christian-Jewish Council, an informal platform for discussion for Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist Churches and Jewish groups, held events such as joint prayers on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the council organized fewer events than in previous years.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings and discussions with the government, including officials from the PMO in charge of church and Jewish issues, the Ambassador and embassy representatives advocated restitution of heirless Jewish property seized during the Holocaust, historical commemoration of the Holocaust, and religious freedom, and discussed provisions of the religion law.
The Ambassador and embassy officials also discussed heirless property restitution with the WJRO.
Embassy and Department of State officials, including the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, held discussions with representatives of the Jewish community on anti-Semitism; challenges in promoting tolerance and historical truth in education; the community’s relationship with the government; the House of Fates museum concept; restitution issues; activities of the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center; and Holocaust commemoration. The embassy issued a statement in August that said, “Neo-Nazi or other hate groups should not be tolerated in any society,” which also referenced Legio Hungaria’s October 2019 vandalizing of the Aurora NGO center. In November, the embassy issued a statement condemning an opinion piece that equated debate over EU policy to the Holocaust, noting that there should be no tolerance for Holocaust relativization or minimization.
In January, in remembrance of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghetto as well as Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Charge d’Affaires participated in three commemoration events hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Center and Jewish groups. On each occasion, the Charge emphasized the importance of religious freedom with a diverse group of religious leaders, and the embassy amplified that message for a broader audience through its website and social media accounts. Embassy officials also visited the Holocaust Memorial Center to remember those who lost their lives and demonstrate the United States’ commitment to “never again,” and posted about the visit on social media. The embassy maintained regular contact with leaders of various religious communities, including the four historical groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the COS, and religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
On October 13, the Ambassador gave remarks at an event commemorating Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty – who was imprisoned for opposing both fascism and communism in the country and took refuge in the embassy for 15 years – in which he emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom for all.
The Ambassador and embassy officials participated in events organized by various Jewish organizations, such as visits to newly inaugurated synagogues in Budapest, to highlight support for the Jewish community and to promote religious tolerance. At all these events, embassy representatives reiterated U.S. support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice, as long as it is not prejudicial to good morals or public order. The constitution also protects the right to form religious associations. It names the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the state church, to which the government provided financial support and benefits not available to other religious groups. A new agreement between church and state removed ELC clergy and staff from civil service status on January 1, and in June the government passed laws amending the financial structuring and subsidies for the ELC. The government allows other spiritual and humanist groups (“life-stance groups” under the law) to register to receive state subsidies. The government registered two new religious groups during the year.
The National Commissioner of Icelandic Police cited one religiously motivated incident during the year involving property damages, in which a person connected to the Nordic Resistance Movement – a pan-Nordic neo-Nazi group – hung anti-Semitic posters in the downtown Reykjavik area. According to a February Gallup poll, 31 percent of the public expressed trust in the ELC, a result virtually unchanged from 2019 but down from 41 percent in 2009.
U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), Registers Iceland, and the district commissioner office (the local authority responsible for registering religious groups) to discuss the status and rights of religious groups. Embassy officials also maintained contact with representatives of religious groups and life-stance organizations to discuss their perspectives on religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee integration. In November, the embassy launched its Religious Freedom Initiative to work with Icelandic partners to champion and advocate for shared values of religious tolerance and freedom. The Ambassador hosted the Chabad Jewish community for a celebration of the group receiving the country’s first Torah scroll.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 351,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to January figures from Statistics Iceland, members of the ELC make up 63 percent of the population; Roman Catholic Church, 4.0 percent; Free Lutheran Church in Reykjavik, 2.7 percent; Free Lutheran Church in Hafnarfjordur, 2.0 percent; other Christian, non-Christian, and “life-stance” groups, 5.0 percent; Asatruarfelagid, 1.3 percent; other or unspecified groups, 14.2 percent; and persons not belonging to any religious group, 7.1 percent. The Association of Muslims in Iceland estimates there are approximately 3,000 resident Muslims, primarily of immigrant origin. The Jewish community reports there are approximately 300 resident Jews.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes the ELC as the national church and stipulates the government shall support and protect it. The constitution states all individuals have the right to form religious associations and practice religion in accordance with their personal beliefs, as long as nothing is “preached or practiced which is prejudicial to good morals or public order.” It stipulates everyone has the right to remain outside religious associations and no one shall be required to pay personal dues to any religious association of which he or she is not a member. The constitution also specifies individuals may not lose their civil or national rights and may not refuse to perform civic duties on religious grounds. The constitution bans only religious teachings or practices harmful to good morals or public order. The law further specifies the right of individuals to choose or change their religion.
The law grants the ELC official legal status, and the government directly funds it from the state budget. Following the 2019 subsidiary agreement, the ELC Bishop, Vice Bishop, and other ELC ministers and general staff no longer have civil service status and are no longer paid directly by the government. The Church pays salaries, benefits, and operating costs out of its own budget, which still comes from an annual government lump-sum payment. The ELC also receives funding from government-levied church taxes, as do other registered religious and life-stance groups.
In June, the government passed additional amendments as a part of the 2019 subsidiary agreement. The amendments abolished three separate funding streams previously provided to the ELC (parish equalization fund, church affairs fund, and district funds) and replaced them with a lump-sum contribution. They also ended government subsidies for funeral services provided by religious and secular groups. Under the new law, religious groups, including the ELC, are responsible for collecting payment for funeral and burial services from the family of the deceased.
The penal code establishes fines of no specified amount and up to two years’ imprisonment for hate speech, including mocking, defaming, denigrating, or threatening a person or group based on religion by comments, pictures, or symbols or disseminating materials that do so.
Religious groups other than the ELC and life-stance organizations may apply for recognition and registration. Only registered groups are eligible for state funding and entitled to legal recognition of religious ceremonies, such as marriages, that they perform. Groups apply for recognition to a district commissioner’s office (at present, designated as the district commissioner of Northeast Iceland), who forwards the application to a four-member panel that by law the Minister of Justice appoints to review applications. The University of Iceland faculty of law nominates the chairman of the panel, and the university’s Departments of Social and Human Sciences, Theology and Religious Studies, and History and Philosophy, respectively, nominate the other three members. The district commissioner then approves or rejects the application in accordance with the panel’s decision. Applicants may appeal rejections to the MOJ, resubmitting their application to the district commissioner with additional information. The same four-member panel reviews appeals.
To register, a religious group must “practice a creed or religion,” and a life-stance organization must operate in accordance with certain ethical values and “deal with ethics or epistemology in a prescribed manner.” The law does not define “certain ethical values” or the prescribed manner in which groups must deal with ethics or epistemology. Religious groups and life-stance organizations must also “be well established,” “be active and stable,” “not have a purpose that violates the law or is prejudicial to good morals or public order,” and have “a core group of members who participate in its operations, support the values of the organization in compliance with the teachings it was founded on, and pay church taxes in accordance with the law on church taxes.” The law does not define “well established” or “active and stable.”
According to the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland, which covers the administration of religion on a national level, any unregistered religious group or organization may work in the same way as any company or association, provided it has, as the other organizations do, a social security number. Unregistered religious groups may, for example, open bank accounts and own real estate. Members are free to worship and practice their beliefs without restriction as long as their activities do not cause a public disturbance, incite discrimination, or otherwise conflict with the law.
The law specifies the leader of a registered religious group or a life-stance organization must be at least 25 years of age and fulfill the general requirements for holding a public position. These include being physically and mentally healthy and financially independent, not having been sentenced for a criminal offense as a civil servant, and possessing the general and specialized education legally required for the position. Unlike the requirements for most public positions, a religious or life-stance group leader need not be a citizen but must have legal domicile in the country. All registered religious groups and life-stance organizations must submit an annual report to a district commissioner’s office (currently the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland) describing the group’s operations during the previous year. Registered religious groups and life-stance organizations are required to perform state-sanctioned functions, such as marriages and the official naming of children, and preside over other ceremonies, such as funerals.
The law provides state subsidies to registered religious groups and life-stance organizations. For each individual 16 years of age or older who belongs to any of the officially registered and recognized religious groups or life-stance organizations, the government allocates an annual payment out of income taxes, called the “church tax,” to the individual’s respective, registered organization. The per capita payment amount varies every year according to the annual budget bill. The government allocates the payment regardless of whether the individual pays any income tax. The government registrar’s office (“Registers Iceland”), which describes itself on its website as the government office that maintains records of basic information on everyone who is or has been domiciled in the country as well as citizens residing abroad, maintains a tally of the number of members of each registered group, records the religious affiliation or nonaffiliation of each citizen at birth, and adjusts the information if individuals report a change.
Persons who are not members of a registered organization are still required to pay the church tax, but the government retains their contributions as general revenue rather than allocating them to religious or life-stance organizations.
By law, a child’s affiliation or nonaffiliation with a registered religious or life-stance group is determined as follows: (1) if the parents are married or in registered cohabitation and both belong to either the same registered organization or no organization, then the child’s affiliation shall be the same as its parents; (2) if the parents are married or in registered cohabitation, but have different affiliations or if one parent is nonaffiliated, then the parents shall make a joint decision on which organization, if any, the child should be affiliated, and until the parents make this decision, the child shall remain nonaffiliated; (3) if the parents are not married or in registered cohabitation when the child is born, the child shall be affiliated with the same registered organization, if any, as the parent who has custody over the child. Change in affiliation of children younger than 16 requires the consent of both parents if both have custody; if only one parent has custody, the consent of the noncustodial parent is not required. The law requires parents to consult their children regarding any changes in the child’s affiliation between the ages of 12 and 16. After turning 16, children may choose affiliation on their own.
By law, schools must operate in such a manner as to prevent discrimination on the basis of religion. Grades one through 10 (ages six to 15) in public and private schools must provide instruction, by regular teaching staff, in social studies, which includes Christianity, ethics, and theology as well as some content on other world religions. The law specifies the curriculum for these classes must adopt a multicultural approach to religious education, encompassing a variety of beliefs. The law also mandates that “the Christian heritage of Icelandic culture, equality, responsibility, concern, tolerance, and respect for human value” shape general teaching practices.
Parents wishing to exempt pupils from compulsory instruction in Christianity, ethics, and theology must submit a written application to the school principal. The principal may request additional information. The principal then registers the application as a “special case” and writes an official response to the parents, accepting or denying the request. School authorities are not required to offer other religious or secular instruction in place of these classes.
Of the 12 largest municipalities in the country, eight have adopted guidelines or rules governing the interaction between public schools and religious and life-stance groups. The Reykjavik City Council prohibits religious and life-stance groups from conducting any activities, including the distribution of proselytizing material, in municipal preschools and compulsory schools (grades one through 10) during school hours or during afterschool programs. Reykjavik school administrators, however, may invite the representatives of religious and life-stance groups to visit the compulsory classes on Christianity, ethics, and theology, and on life skills. These visits must be under the guidance of a teacher and in accordance with the curriculum. Any student visits to the gathering places of religious and life-stance groups during school hours must be under the guidance of a teacher as part of a class on religion and life-stance views. During such classes or visits, students may only observe rituals, not participate in them. The municipality of Hafnarfjordur has similar rules governing the interaction between schools and religious or life-stance organizations. The municipalities of Kopavogur, Gardabaer, Mosfellsbaer, Arborg, Fjardarbyggd, and Seltjarnarnes have either adopted or adapted guidelines on these interactions that the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture has set. The ministry’s guidelines are broadly similar to those of Reykjavik and Hafnarfjordur.
Private schools must follow the same curriculum as public schools, including the Christianity, ethics, and theology curriculum taught in social studies classes. Private schools are free, however, to offer additional classes not in the public-school curriculum, including classes in specific religious faiths.
The law prohibits all forms of discrimination in all fields of society, including those based on religious beliefs. The Equality Complaints Committee reviews complaints and issues fines in cases of violations unless other applicable statutes specify more severe penalties.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The atheist organization Sidmennt criticized the 2019 subsidiary agreement legislation and the June amendments regarding funding for the ELC for several reasons. The organization stated that the process lacked public consultation and that the law and the agreement were anachronistic, since they ensured continued funding to the ELC despite decreasing membership numbers and increasing public support for separation of church and state. The organization said that the government should cease direct subsidies to all religious groups for funeral services. Sidmennt stated the ELC’s stronger financial standing allowed it hypothetically to waive fees where smaller organizations could not, leading to inequity.
The government church tax payment to registered religious and life-stance groups was 11,700 kronur ($92) for each member, age 16 or older. According to the government budget bill introduced in October, the church tax in 2021 will be 11,760 kronur ($93) per member.
According to the official state budget bill, in 2019, the latest year for which data were available, the government allocated approximately 7.3 billion kronur ($57.43 million) to religious affairs, of which 4.8 billion kronur ($37.76 million) was in direct subsidies to the ELC and an additional 2 billion kronur ($15.73 million) was in church tax. The other 50 recognized religious and life-stance groups received a total of 468 million kronur ($3.68 million) in church tax.
The government approved the registration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Lakuish Yoga during the year, bringing the number of registered groups to 52. The district commissioner of Northeast Iceland said the government was reviewing the application of Chabad Jewish Center of Iceland and expected to approve the application in early 2021. The Chabad Center’s rabbi stated its application process, which started in 2019, was still underway but had experienced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials from the Interfaith Forum for Dialogue and Cooperation had previously noted some issues in the dealings between registered religious organizations and the government registrar’s office. In 2019, the registrar had restricted religious organizations’ access to membership lists, citing the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation as the reason, but later overturned that decision. Officials from the government registrar’s office confirmed that religious groups would have access to the government’s membership tallies upon filing appropriate forms and paying required processing fees. Some religious groups complained about having to pay the fee and that individual member registrations were only electronic. Officials from Registers Iceland confirmed, however, that paper applications are accepted and processed.
The ELC continued to operate all cemeteries, and all religious and life-stance groups had equal access to them. Gufunes Cemetery had a special area designated for burials of Muslims and persons of other faiths.
The ELC and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the public University of Iceland continued to train theology students for positions within the ELC.
State radio continued to broadcast Lutheran worship services every Sunday morning as well as a Lutheran daily morning devotion. According to the station’s chief of programming, other religious groups could also broadcast their religious services, but none had sought to do so.
The government continued to require persons applying for a passport to present proof of religion from a religious organization if they wished to receive a religious exemption allowing them to wear a head covering for their passport photographs.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The National Commissioner of Icelandic Police cited one religiously motivated incident during the year against the Jewish community. In September, press reported that on Yom Kippur, a person linked to the Nordic Resistance Movement, a pan-Nordic neo-Nazi group, hung anti-Semitic posters in downtown Reykjavik. According to the Jewish community’s rabbi, a member of the community filed a police report but had not received any updates regarding the investigation. Social media posts suggested the same neo-Nazi group hung racist posters in Reykjavik in October.
All religious groups reported generally good relations with the government and society at large. Some religious leaders expressed frustration with increased secularism and low levels of religiosity in society.
A Gallup Iceland poll conducted in February and released on February 26 found 31 percent of the public expressed trust in the ELC, compared with 34 percent in 2019, 33 percent in 2018, 41 percent in 2009, and 61 percent in 1999.
The Forum for Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation, whose membership consisted of registered religious and life-stance groups – including the ELC as well as other Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist groups – met three times. The COVID-19 pandemic severely affected the forum, and public health concerns prevented meetings for most of the year. Although the interfaith forum allowed unregistered groups to apply to join it, none had done so.
The Islamic Foundation of Iceland organized community information and integration programs for Muslim migrants with representatives from local government and legal offices on such issues as voting and women’s rights. The foundation also provided translation assistance to asylum seekers.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community planned to hold its annual peace conference on promoting religious freedom and tolerance but postponed the meeting due to COVID-19 considerations.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials met with representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the MOJ, the government’s registrar’s office, and the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland to discuss the roles of religious equality and religious tolerance in the country. Specific topics included the status and rights of religious groups, religious group relations with government and interfaith relations, and the impact of the subsidiary agreement between the ELC and the government.
Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the ELC, the Islamic Foundation of Iceland, the Chabad Jewish Community, the Pagan Society, the Baha’i Center, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and life-stance organizations such as the atheist group Sidmennt to discuss such issues as their relations with the government, religious tolerance, the extent of their involvement in interfaith dialogue, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee resettlement.
In February, the Ambassador hosted members of the Jewish community to celebrate the arrival of the country’s first Torah scroll. Speaking at the event, the Ambassador stressed the unwavering commitment of the United States to promoting religious freedom around the world.
In November, the embassy renewed its efforts to work with local partners to promote and advocate for shared values of religious tolerance and freedom. Through an action plan based on three pillars, the embassy committed to meet regularly with a diverse group of religious leaders, leverage social media to amplify antiextremist and protolerance perspectives, and promote diplomatic advocacy with all levels of the country’s government authorities as well as with civil society to promote religious freedom worldwide.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Ten of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In February, continued protests related to the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excludes Muslims from expedited naturalization provisions granted to migrants of other faiths, became violent in New Delhi after counterprotestors attacked demonstrators. According to reports, religiously motivated attacks resulted in the deaths of 53 persons, most of whom were Muslim, and two security officials. According to international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Human Rights Watch, “Witnesses accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation of the riots by New Delhi police. The investigations were still ongoing at year’s end, with the New Delhi police stating it arrested almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims. The government and media initially attributed some of the spread of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six of the conference’s attendees tested positive for the virus. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s early COVID-19 cases were linked to that event. Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said conference attendees spread COVID-19 “like terrorism,” which politicians and some media outlets described as “Corona Jihad.” Courts across the country dismissed numerous charges filed against Tablighi Jamaat members. Two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating the COVID-19 curfews in Tamil Nadu. NGOs reported that nine police officers involved in the incident were charged with murder and destruction of evidence. In June, more than 200 Muslim residents of a village in Uttar Pradesh said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities. Political party leaders made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts about religious minorities. Attacks on members of religious minority communities, based on allegations of cow slaughter or trade in beef, occurred throughout the year. Such “cow vigilantism” included killings, assaults, and intimidation. Uttar Pradesh police filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August. In October, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim individual arrested under the act. NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized amendments passed in September to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) as constraining civil society by reducing the amount of foreign funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, could use for administrative purposes and adding onerous oversight and certification requirements. The government said the law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country. In February, the government cancelled the FCRA licenses of five Christian-linked NGOs, cutting off their foreign funding. In September, the NGO Amnesty International India ceased operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to a FCRA investigation that the NGO says was motivated by its critical reporting against the government. In September, a special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) court acquitted all 32 persons, including former BJP politicians, charged in the case of the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid Mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The CBI court ruled that the demolition of the mosque was a “spontaneous act” and there was no evidence of conspiracy.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. In January, during anti-CAA protests in New Delhi, an armed crowd stormed a mosque, killed the muezzin, beat the imam, scattered worshippers, and set the building on fire. In September, media reported that a Hindu woman was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam after marrying a Muslim; two Muslims were arrested for the crime. The NGO United Christian Forum’s violence monitor stated that attacks on Christians and their places of worship continued to escalate in both number and severity in 2020. The Christian NGO Persecution Relief documented 293 instances of attacks or harassment of Christians in the country in the first half of the year, despite the widespread pandemic lockdown, including six rapes and eight murders. There were 208 incidents during the same period in 2019. In its annual report, the NGO Alliance for Defense of Freedom (ADF) documented 279 instances of violence against Christians during the year, with Uttar Pradesh State reporting 70 incidents and Chhattisgarh State 66. In June, a 14-year-old boy was abducted and killed in the Malkangiri District of Odisha State. Christian organizations attributed the killing to his family’s conversion to Christianity three years earlier. Police arrested two suspects, and four remained at large at year’s end. Some Hindu leaders accused Christian leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation.
During engagements with the majority and opposition parties, civil society representatives, religious freedom activists, and leaders of various faith communities, U.S. government officials discussed the importance of religious freedom and pluralism, the value of interfaith dialogue, the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, and difficulties faced by faith-based and human rights-focused NGOs following the FCRA amendments and allegations that Muslims spread the COVID virus. Throughout the year, the Ambassador met with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths to discuss their perspectives and concerns. In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable with civil society members in New Delhi to discuss interfaith harmony and promoting tolerance. In January, the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event to discuss the importance of mutual respect and combating religious intolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute fewer than two percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially recognizes more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated 10 million of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members are Christians, according to the 2011 census.
According to government estimates, there are large Muslim populations in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state or territory in which Muslims are a majority. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni, with the remainder mostly Shia. Christian populations are distributed throughout the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three northeastern states have majority Christian populations: Nagaland (90 percent), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of the population of Punjab. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. According to media reports, approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as religiously based restrictions on access to public or private establishments. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits the use of public funds to support any religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Federal law empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunal tensions, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate laws governing foreign contributions.
Ten of the 28 states in the country have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Uttar Pradesh prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government.
Violators, including missionaries, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if converts are minors, women, or members of Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes. Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($680). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment, fines of 25,000 rupees ($340), or both. Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may include prison sentences.
Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near places of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($68).
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and their members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funding, in which case they must register under the FCRA. Federal law requires religious organizations registered under the FCRA to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
Organizations conducting “cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” that receive foreign funding are required to obtain a license under the FCRA. The federal government may also require that licensed organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject a license application or a request to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be acting against “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
Legislation passed in September reduces the amount of funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, may use for administrative purposes from 50 to 20 percent and prohibits NGOs from transferring foreign funds to third parties.
The constitution states that any legal reference to Hindus is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Jains, but it identifies the groups as separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.
Federal law provides official minority-community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status under state law to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region. Members of recognized minority groups are eligible for government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government is responsible for protecting religious minorities and enabling them to preserve their culture and religious interests.
Personal status laws establish civil codes for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national and state legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If law boards or community leaders are not able to resolve disputes, cases are referred to the civil courts.
Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are generally required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment, although this requirement varies across states. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages but does not include divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For example, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.
Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that traditionally consume beef. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. Gujarat state law mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts of manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.
One state, Madhya Pradesh, sets fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($340 to $680) and prison sentences of six months to three years for “cow vigilantism,” i.e., committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These agencies have no enforcement powers but conduct investigations based on written complaints of criminal or civil violations and submit findings to law enforcement agencies. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution establishes the legal basis for preferential public benefit programs for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities and members of the “Other Backward Classes,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. The constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists are eligible to be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste. As a result, Christians and Muslims qualify for benefits if deemed to be members of “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February, continued protests and counterprotests related to the CAA devolved into rioting between members of Hindu and Muslim communities in East Delhi, during which 53 people were killed and nearly 400 injured. Two security officials were also killed. The police arrested 1,829 persons in connection with the riots. In its report covering 2020, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that while a police officer and some Hindus were also killed in the rioting, the majority of victims were Muslim. The HRW report also said, “Witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.” In one example reported by The Guardian, Mufti Mohammad Tahir was forcibly removed by police from a mosque near Mustafabad and handed over to a crowd, which beat him unconscious and set fire to the mosque.
Among those arrested in the protests were activist and former Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid and Jamia Milia Islamia student and activist Safoora Zargar, both Muslims. The Delhi High Court released Zargar on bail in June for health considerations. On October 22, Khalid told a Delhi court that he was being kept in solitary confinement, which had taken a toll on his “mental and physical health.”
Human rights activists and NGOs said that members of the governing BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindu nationalist organization made inflammatory public remarks about anti-CAA protesters but were not charged by police. HRW said that the violence in Delhi broke out soon after a local BJP politician, Kapil Mishra, demanded that the police clear the roads of protesters. In another example, in a widely viewed video posted online on January 3, Somashekhara Reddy, a state-level BJP member of the Karnataka Legislative Assembly, threatened Muslims protesting the CAA. He said, “We are 80 percent and you [the CAA protesters] are just 17 percent. Imagine what will happen to you if we turn against you.”
On April 9, the Delhi Minorities Commission (DMC) demanded the police take action in response to attacks against Muslims in New Delhi during the CAA protests. The DMC requested a report from the commissioner and unspecified “proper action” from the police over “random arrests” of Muslims in connection with the CAA riots in February. The DMC also asked police to file formal charges against perpetrators for an alleged attack on a mosque in Delhi on April 8. A July report by the DMC said the violence in Delhi was “planned and targeted,” and it found that police were filing cases against Muslims for acts of violence but were not acting against Hindu leaders accused of inciting violence, including municipal-level BJP politicians.
Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation into the riots by Delhi police. The Delhi police commissioner stated that the investigation was being carried out without regard to religion and party affiliation and noted that arrests included almost equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus.
Parliament passed the CAA in December 2019 to provide an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered the country on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. As of late 2020, the government had not yet enacted rules to implement the CAA. Domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties criticized the exclusion of Muslims from the legislation, sparking widespread protests. Activists, NGOs, and political parties filed petitions against the CAA on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. None of the more than 100 legal challenges had been heard by the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Commentators, members of some political parties, and activists said the CAA was part of an effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. They also questioned delays in hearing legal challenges to the legislation. The government stated the legislation facilitated naturalization for refugees from religious minorities who had fled neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could also apply for citizenship through other mechanisms.
According to AsiaNews, two Christians died in June after being beaten while in police custody for violating COVID-19 pandemic curfews in Thoothukudi District, Tamil Nadu. The victims were a man and his son, who were detained for keeping their shop open beyond restricted hours on June 19. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said to the media, “Such violence from those who should defend citizens is unacceptable. Justice must run its course and punish the guilty.” The All India Catholic Union also called for intervention by the authorities. The NGO International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that four police officers were suspended after the state government opened an investigation. HRW stated that the CBI, which was asked to investigate the deaths following nationwide outrage, charged nine police officers with murder and destruction of evidence in the case.
In September, the Jharkhand Health Ministry ordered administrative action against two doctors who had allegedly declined to provide adequate medical care to Tabrez Ansari, a Muslim who was assaulted by a mob in Jharkhand in 2019 and subsequently died. In August, Ansari’s wife met with Chief Minister of Jharkhand Hemant Soren and requested an expedited trial and enhanced compensation. Some NGOs and media outlets continued to report that lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence. HRW reported that since May 2015, 50 persons had been killed and more than 250 injured in mob attacks, including instances when Muslims were beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans. HRW reported that in some cases, police failed to investigate these attacks, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses to intimidate them.
Some Hindu community leaders accused Christian community leaders of forcibly converting individuals to Christianity and called for additional anticonversion legislation. According to the ICC, in June, Chief Minister of Haryana State Manohar Lal Khattar announced his intention to add an anticonversion law to the state’s legal code. Such a law had not been passed by year’s end. On August 11, Hindu nationalists attacked four Christian women at a prayer service in Faridabad District of Haryana.
On November 25, Uttar Pradesh State approved a law which would impose penalties of up to 10 years in prison for “unlawful religious conversions” and “interfaith marriages with the sole intention of changing a girl’s religion.” The governor signed the law into effect on November 28, and authorities made their first arrest under the new law on December 2, according to Indian media sources. The suspect, Owais Ahmad, was accused of pressuring a Hindu woman married to another man to leave him, convert to Islam, and marry Ahmad. His case was pending at year’s end. The Uttar Pradesh government had proposed the law after 14 cases were reported in Kanpur of Muslim men concealing their religious identity, allegedly to lure Hindu girls into romantic relationships, marry them, and force them to convert to Islam, a practice commonly referred to as “love jihad” (a derogatory term). In September, Kanpur police established a special team to investigate these cases after 11 instances of forced conversion on the pretext of marriage were reported in one month.
On December 26, Madhya Pradesh State implemented the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion ordinance, replacing the 1968 Freedom of Religion Act. The ordinance requires prior permission from a district official to convert to the spouse’s faith in case of interfaith marriage, with a prison term of up to 10 years for violators. Some NGOs criticized the law for targeting Muslim men wishing to marry or enter into relationships with non-Muslim women. The Chief Minister of Rajasthan State, Ashok Gehlot (Congress Party), said the law was “manufactured by the BJP to divide the nation on communal lines.” BJP politicians, including in states where the law had not been proposed, stated that the legislation was necessary to protect Hindu and Christian women from forced religious conversion.
On March 13, the Delhi High Court rejected a petition by local BJP politician Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay to enact a law in that state to regulate and prevent religious conversions by force or deceit, similar to the anticonversion laws enacted in other states. The court stated that religion is a personal belief and to convert to a different faith was an individual’s choice.
On March 8, according to media reports, police detained a pastor and a group of volunteers from his church for distributing food and medicine to slum residents in Villupuram District, Tamil Nadu. A local Hindu filed a complaint that the church group was proselytizing. The minister and volunteers denied the allegation and said they had been slapped and harassed while in custody at the Marakkanam police station. Police released them with a warning.
According to ADF India, on February 18, a district court in Ratlam acquitted eight Christians who had been accused in 2017 of conspiring to kidnap 60 children and covert them to Christianity in Maharashtra State.
On March 15, a group of Hindus attacked a church service in Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, with hockey sticks and steel rods without intervention from police who were present, according to Pastor Indresh Kumar Gautam. Gautam told media that the Hindus accused the worshippers of increasing Christian conversions in the area. Instead of stopping the attack, police took the pastor, three Christian worshippers, and a non-Christian into custody, Gautam said. The pastor said the non-Christian was released immediately. The other four were held for six hours and released on bail after signing affidavits stating they would not be involved in further Christian conversion activities in the area. Gautam also said that a police officer beat him.
The NGOs ICC and ADF India stated that authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, most frequently Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, including Section 259A of the national penal code. In September, the ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A and were subsequently released on bail.
On June 6, more than 200 Muslim residents of Taprana village in Shamli town, Muzzafarnagar District, Uttar Pradesh, said they were leaving their homes because of intimidation by state police officials. Villagers told media that a police raid on May 26 prompted them to move. They said police ransacked and looted homes during the raid and arrested a Muslim resident who had returned to the village before his six-month ban for cow slaughter had ended. One witness said this was the fourth such raid in two months.
On September 30, a special CBI court acquitted all 32 persons, including former senior BJP politicians L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, charged in the 1992 destruction of the Babri Mosque by Hindu activists in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, which sparked violence that led to an estimated 2,000 deaths, mostly of local Muslim residents. The court ruled that the destruction of the mosque had not been a “preplanned act” and that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to carry it out. Some Muslim organizations pledged to appeal the ruling, and some political analysts noted that the judgment was likely to fuel feelings of discontent and marginalization among the country’s Muslim minority, while others disagreed with the ruling but welcomed a resolution to the divisive case after several decades. NGOs and opposition politicians said the outcome was inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s prior findings and expressed frustration that the court’s judgment meant an absence of accountability for the mosque’s destruction.
In November 2019, the Supreme Court awarded the site where the Babri Mosque had stood to a trust for the purpose of constructing a Hindu temple there and provided five acres of land in the city for the construction of a new mosque. On August 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the inauguration ceremony for construction of the temple. Some opposition politicians and members of civil society expressed opposition to the Prime Minister’s attending a religious ceremony in an official capacity.
On July 9, a temple and two mosques located on the premises of a Telangana State office complex were damaged during the construction of a new office complex, prompting Hindu and Muslim organizations and political parties to call for reconstruction of the structures. State Chief Minister Chandrashekar Rao said the damage was accidental, expressed regret for the incident, and said the state would construct a new temple and mosques as part of the new complex. In response to a demand from the Christian community, the Chief Minister announced on September 5 that a church would also be built in the new complex.
In October, the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple on the former site of the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple, which had been demolished in August 2019 as part of a government drive against illegal properties. Hindu Dalit groups had protested the demolition and demanded the temple’s reconstruction.
The government and media initially attributed early cases of COVID-19 in the country to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six conference attendees – including some who had travelled from abroad – had tested positive for the virus after gathering at a large event in contravention of social distancing provisions. The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s COVID-19 cases were linked to the event. Some studies indicated the event had resulted in an initial spread of COVID-19. A BJP member of the state legislative assembly in Karnataka said the Tablighi Jamaat conference attendees were spreading COVID-19 “like terrorism.” A senior state-level BJP leader in Maharashtra State called the Muslims who attended the conference “human bombs.” Politicians and some media labeled this “Corona Jihad,” which some NGOs said reflected increasing anti-Muslim sentiment.
At a press briefing on April 4, Ministry of Home Affairs Secretary Punya Salila Srivastava said that law enforcement agencies “through a massive effort, had located and placed around 22,000 Tablighi Jamaat workers and their contacts in quarantine.” Most of those quarantined were Muslim. In July, authorities charged conference participants from 34 countries, most of whom were Muslim, for violation of visa conditions and “malicious spreading of COVID-19.” Of 956 Tablighi Jamaat members and foreign nationals detained in Delhi, 249 were granted bail and an additional 132 were released in July. In Uttar Pradesh State, 512 Tablighi Jamaat members were released in June following court orders.
In an online address to the nation on April 26, Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS, called on Indians not to discriminate against anyone in the fight against COVID-19. In a reference to the March Tablighi Jamaat conference, he asked people not to target members of a “particular community” (i.e., Muslims) “just because of the actions of a few.” Prime Minister Modi tweeted on April 19, “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, color, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood.”
On April 3, the Gujarat High Court directed national and Gujarat State officials to submit a list of citizens and foreign nationals who participated in the Tablighi Jamaaat conference and later entered Gujarat. On August 21, the Aurangabad bench of the Mumbai High Court annulled complaints against 29 foreign nationals alleged to have violated their visas by visiting Maharashtra State (where Mumbai is located) after attending the conference. The judges said that authorities had identified and charged the foreigners in order to make them scapegoats. On September 21, during a Gujarat State legislature meeting, Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel and other BJP lawmakers in Gujarat said that Tablighi Jamaat members were responsible for the initial spread of COVID-19 in that state.
On September 24, the Nagpur Bench of the Mumbai High Court dismissed a case against eight Burmese Muslims who were charged with engaging in religious activities that contributed to the spread of COVID-19 in Maharashtra State. The eight had visited a mosque in Nagpur just before pandemic restrictions were imposed in March.