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Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion.  It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia.  The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”  The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.  The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.  The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs.  The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies “within the limits of the law.”  The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8.  Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  On June 18, the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the minority Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations widely decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  Salas’ execution and alleged show trial was largely seen by the international community as being part of the region’s broader crackdown on Sufi dervishes.  International media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities detained more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran where they were protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  One of the Sufi dervishes arrested in February, Mohammed Raji, died in police custody.  The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing.  The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the government banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  Mohabat News, a Christian news website, reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian.  Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.  According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week.  According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity.  Yarsanis stated they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities.  The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities, and confiscated or restricted their religious materials.  There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down.  On November 23, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  On October 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz city council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs.  Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country.  The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities.  Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds.  In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a speech and USA Today op-ed piece.  In his opinion piece, he said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces.  The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.”  At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran.  In the statement, the governments said, “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all.”  During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end of religious persecution in the country, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned the “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi dervish community.”  The United States supported the rights of members of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur.  The U.S. government also supported resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC.  The following sanction accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 83 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population; 90-95 percent are Shia and 5-10 percent Sunni (mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest, respectively).  Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable.  There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

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

According to HRW data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians, although some estimates suggest there may be many more Christians than actually reported.  While the government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians, Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates that there could be between 300,000 and one million Christians.  The majority of Christians are ethnic Armenians concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan.  Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000.  There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers.  Christian groups outside the country estimate the size of the Protestant community to be less than 10,000, although many Protestants and other converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) estimates there are up to two million.  Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

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

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while a British media report estimated their number at 18,000-20,000.

The population, according to one international NGO, includes 5,000-10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (enmity against God), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the prophets” or “insulting the sanctities”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

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

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

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

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

The supreme leader oversees extrajudicial Special Clerical Courts, not provided for by the constitution.  The courts, headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities.  The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources.

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

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

The Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the religious curriculum of public schools.  All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course in order to advance to the next educational level through university.  Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.

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

The law bars Baha’is from founding their own educational institutions.  A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education or expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known.  Government regulation states Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is.  To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than Baha’i (e.g., Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian).  To pass the entrance examination, university applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and supreme leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the supreme leader, the country’s head of state.  To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or “Majles”) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation.  The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, president, and parliament and supervises elections for those bodies.

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

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

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

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

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

The law authorizes collection of “blood money” or diyeh as restitution to families for the death of Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities.  Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive diyeh.  This law also reduces the diyeh for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man.

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

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

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage to serve as a marriage certificate, which allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.  Baha’i activists report this often leaves women without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

According to Amnesty International (AI) and other international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of moharebeh and anti-Islamic propaganda.  According to AI and CHRI, authorities executed Zaniar Moradi and Loghman Moradi, two Kurdish minority prisoners, at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8 after they were convicted on charges of moharebeh and murder, despite concerns of AI, CHRI, and other human rights NGOs regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  Prior to the executions, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions released a joint statement writing, “We urge the Government of Iran to immediately halt their executions and to annul the death sentences against them.  We are alarmed by information received that Zanyar and Loghman Moradi suffered human rights violations before and during their trial, including torture and other ill-treatment and denial of access to a lawyer.”

Media outlets reported that on September 3, authorities hanged three Baluchi prisoners whom the Zahedan Revolutionary Court had sentenced to death in November 2017 on charges of moharebeh for allegedly participating in a firefight with police forces that led to the death of a police officer.  According to HRANA, “the three wrote an open letter detailing mistreatment and torture at the hands of their interrogators.”

International media and human rights organizations reported that the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, on June 18 for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations, including AI, CHRI, and HRANA, decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  According to AI, “Mohammad Salas’ trial was grossly unfair.  He said he was forced under torture to make a ‘confession’ against himself.  This ‘confession,’ taken from his hospital bed, was…used as the only piece of evidence to convict him.  He was not allowed access to his chosen lawyer.”

Human rights organizations widely reported the detention of Zeinab Taheri, a human rights lawyer, who was defending Salas.  Authorities arrested Taheri one day after Salas was executed.  On June 19, the Prosecutor’s Office for Culture and Media summoned Taheri and detained her on charges of “disturbing the public opinion,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “publishing lies.”  Tehran prosecutor Jafari Dolatabadi subsequently said during a press conference that Taheri had “incited the public opinion and mobilized the counterrevolution against the judiciary,” and that “the hostile media used her remarks to published reports against the judiciary.”

Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention, as well as discrimination, including suppression of religious rights, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects.  The March report by UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran Asma Jahangir highlighted the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni Kurdish prisoners.  The report stated authorities often detained Sunni Kurds “on charges related to various activities such as environmental activism, eating in public during the month of Ramadan, working as border couriers engaged in smuggling illicit goods, or for celebrating the results of the referendum held in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan,” among other political or security-related charges.

Human rights NGOs, including HRANA, reported throughout the year on the extremely poor conditions inside Ardabil Prison, including reports of Shia guards routinely torturing Sunni prisoners.  In March CHRI reported that Mohammad Saber Malek-Raeisi, a Baluchi Sunni Muslim, who had been imprisoned since 2009, was suffering from serious injuries as a result of repeated beatings by guards during the four years he has been held in Ardabil Prison.  According to CHRI, prison authorities severely beat and tortured Malek-Raeisi in December 2017 after he went on a hunger strike to protest conditions.  Since then, his mother reported him ill and unable to see in one of his eyes.

HRANA also reported increased pressure on Sunni inmates at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj and Dizal Abad Prison in Kermanshah.  According to HRANA, on August 7, approximately 30 MOIS agents and 50 Special Forces raided a ward at Rajai Shahr housing minority Sunni inmates, beating the prisoners and taking their belongings.  The security forces reportedly insulted the Sunni prisoners’ religious beliefs during the raid.  Authorities reportedly denied medical treatment to those injured from the beatings.  The Rajai Shahr incident was reportedly retribution for the inmates’ religious and political activities.

In February HRANA reported seven Sunni prisoners in Rajai Shahr Prison detained since 2009 continued to await a new trial after the Supreme Court rejected the death sentences handed down to them in 2015.  The prisoners denied engaging in violence and said the authorities arrested them because of their religious beliefs and activities, including attending religious meetings and disseminating religious material.

According to Baluchi rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination as both Sunni religious practitioners and an ethnic minority group.  Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists.  Baluchi rights activists reported that authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.  HRANA reported that on June 17, authorities arrested Sunni Baluchi civil rights activist Abdollah Bozorgzadeh for joining a gathering in support of the 41 “Iranshahr Girls,” whom a group of well-connected men reportedly raped in the southeastern city of Iranshahr, located in the predominately-Sunni province of Sistan and Baluchistan.  Upon his arrest, authorities transferred Bozorgzadeh to an IRGC-run Zahedan detention center, where Bozorgzadah said he was tortured.  In July CHRI reported that authorities arrested at least 10 Baluchi activists for protesting the alleged rapes.  At his sermon on June 15, Iranshahr’s Sunni Friday Prayer Leader Mohammad Tayyeb Mollazehi reportedly stated that a suspect in custody had confessed he and several other men had raped 41 women.  However, according to CHRI, officials denied either that the rapes happened or claimed elements of the case had been falsified.  According to Iran Wire, the country’s prosecutor general threatened legal action against the Sunni prayer leader because the alleged perpetrators belonged to some of the city’s most influential families, including connections to or membership in the IRGC, Basij, military, and police.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion.  According to the Iran Prison Atlas, a database of political prisoners compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  Of the total number of prisoners in the database, at least 165 were imprisoned on charges of moharebeh, 34 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 21 for “insulting Islam,” and 20 for “corruption on earth,” a term according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam meaning in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions, caused by unbelievers or unjust people, that threaten social and political wellbeing.”  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest.

Various media outlets and human rights organizations reported incidents of severe physical mistreatment of the Gonabadi Sufi minority.  According to CHRI, guards at the Great Tehran Penitentiary attacked and beat Gonabadi detainees on August 29.  Several of the inmates reportedly were badly injured, suffered broken bones, and were moved to solitary confinement.  HRANA specified that the guards attacked at least 18 dervishes with batons and electroshock weapons in response to the prisoners’ protests of the beating of female Sufis in Gharchak Prison.

International media and NGOs widely reported more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes were detained after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran to protest the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  Authorities held Tabandeh, aged 91, under house arrest in Tehran since at least February and denied him access to urgently needed medical care.  According to HRW, Mohammed Raji, one of those arrested in February, died in police custody.  Authorities told Raji’s family on March 4 that he died from repeated blows to the head.  The family said that Raji was injured, but alive at the time of his arrest.  HRW stated that authorities refused to clarify the sequence and timing of events that led to Raji’s death.

According to CHRI and other human rights organizations, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  Mostafa Abdi received the most severe sentence with 26 years in prison, 148 lashes, two years of internal exile in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, a two-year ban on social activities, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad.  In August HRW reported that authorities had sentenced at least 208 dervishes since May “to prison terms and other punishments that violate their basic rights.”  The courts delivered sentences that included prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups.  CHRI reported that on February 19 Iranian security forces arrested Reza Entessari and Kasra Nouri, reporters with the Sufi news website Majzooban-e-Noor, while they were covering the violent dispersal of protests of treatment of the Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran.

On March 3, according to CHRI, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Mohammad Ali Taheri, founder of the spiritual doctrine Interuniversalism and the Erfan-e Halgheh group, to five years in prison for a second time, on charges of “spreading corruption on earth.”  This sentence followed the Supreme Court’s rejection of Taheri’s prior death sentence in December 2017.  According to press, the Supreme Court ordered Taheri retried, citing a faulty investigation.  The case of Taheri, imprisoned since 2011, drew widespread international condemnation, including from human rights organizations, NGOs, and the UN special rapporteur.

On August 19, according to CHRI, a court sentenced journalist and satirist Amir Mohammad Hossein Miresmaili to 10 years in prison for “insulting sacred tenets and the imams,” “insulting government and judicial officials,” “spreading falsehoods to disturb public opinion,” and “publishing immoral and indecent matters.”  Authorities had arrested him in April after he posted a tweet criticizing the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad and referencing a Shia imam.

On October 25, according to CHRI, the government arrested journalist Pouyan Khoshhal and charged him with “insulting the divinity of Imam Hossein and other members of the prophet’s blessed household” after he used the word “demise” instead of “martyrdom” in referring to Imam Hossein in an article.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants.  In February CHRI reported government officials banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi , the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  According to a July Radio Farda report, Member of Parliament (MP) Mahmoud Sadeghi, along with 20 other legislators, called upon the intelligence minister to lift the travel ban imposed on “Iran’s most prominent Sunni clergyman.”  The MPs questioned the government’s reason for the travel restrictions and reiterated the right to freedom of movement.

On September 22, HRANA reported the Special Clerical Court of Hamedan arraigned Sunni preacher and activist Hashem Hossein Panahi, “presumably for participating in the funeral of executed political prisoner Ramin Hussein Panahi.”  After he delivered a sermon at the funeral, MOIS filed charges against Hashem Hossein Panahi with the Special Clerical Court, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader.  The charges included “propaganda against the regime” and “disturbing public opinion.”

In response to the September 22 terrorist attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Khuzestan, a region with a sizeable Sunni Arab population and where international media report longstanding economic and social grievances have led to sporadic protests, international press and human rights organizations reported domestic backlash against Arab Sunnis.  AI and the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization reported the authorities arrested hundreds of Ahvazi political and minority activists in the aftermath of the September 22 attack.

CHRI reported that authorities detained Sunni rap artist Shah Baloch, whose real name is Emad Bijarzehi, on June 20 in the southeastern port city of Chabahar for singing about state oppression against ethnic and religious minorities in Sistan and Baluchistan Province.  According to CHRI, authorities did not permit Baloch access to legal counsel.

Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians for their religious affiliation or activities, including members of unrecognized churches for operating illegally in private homes or on charges of supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries.  Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscations of religious property.  News reports stated that authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement.

CHRI reported that on January 6 the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Shamiram Isavi, the wife of Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, to five years in prison.  The judge convicted her on charges of “acting against national security by organizing home churches, attending Christian seminars abroad, and training Christian leaders in Iran for the purpose of espionage.”  Authorities arrested Isavi and her husband in their home in Tehran on December 26, 2014, along with their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, and 12 Christian converts.  In June 2016, the revolutionary court judge sentenced Victor Bet Tamraz and Christian converts Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi to 10 years in prison each, while convert Amin Afshar Naderi received a 15-year prison sentence.  In February 2018, the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, on the situation of human rights in Iran, on minority issues, and on the right to health issued a joint public statement expressing concern at the lengthy sentences for Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Naderi, as well as reports of their mistreatment in prison, and, broadly, the targeting of religious minorities, particularly Christian converts.  Authorities released Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Mohammadi, and Naderi on bail while they appealed their sentences.

According to international media and various NGOs, including the Christian World Watch Monitor (CWWM) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), on May 2, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie, and Mohammad Reza Omidi received notification that the appeals court upheld their 10-year prison sentences for “acting against national security” by “promoting Zionist Christianity” and running house churches.  Instead of utilizing the customary summons procedure, CWWM and CSW reported that authorities took Nadarkhani and the three other sentenced Christians to Evin Prison following a series of violent raids on their homes in late July, which included beatings and electroshock weapons.  According to NGOs, the authorities also sentenced Nadarkhani and Omidi to two years internal exile in the southern region of the country, far from their homes in the country’s north near the Caspian Sea.  As of May Omidi, Mossayebzadeh, and Fadaie still awaited the outcome of the appeal of their September 2016 sentence of 80 lashes for consumption of communion wine.  According to CSW, the government sentenced Fadaie to an additional 18 months and another Christian, Fatemaeh Bakhteri, to 12 months in prison for “spreading propaganda against the regime.”  Fadaie also received two years in internal exile in a remote area near the Afghanistan border after his prison sentence.

On November 16, according to NGOs and media reports, security forces arrested Christian converts Behnam Ersali and Davood Rasooli in separate raids and took them to unknown locations.  Six security agents arrested Ersali at his friend’s home in Masshad and two security agents arrested Rasooli at his home in Karaj.

Mohabat News reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian whom authorities initially arrested in December 2017 after participating in student protests at Arak University.  Vartanian faced a number of political charges, including “promoting Christianity and anti-Islamic activities.”  According to Mohabat News and local media, Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse, lost at least 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.

According to a December 5 article in World Watch Monitor, citing information from the NGO rights group Article 18, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month.  The authorities asked them to write down the details of their Christian activities and told them not to have any more contact with Christians or Christian groups.  The authorities released most of them after a few hours or days, but kept the suspected leaders in detention.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness raising regarding government practices or discrimination.  In March the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported authorities arrested Yarsani activist Seyyed Peyman Pedrood.  According to KHRN, Pedrood disappeared in late December 2017 after leaving home, and his family later received unofficial information that security forces had arrested and transferred him to an unknown location.

According to the BIC, approximately 90 Baha’is were in prison as of November.  The BIC stated that all arrests and detentions were directly linked to the individual’s professed faith and religious identity.  Charges brought against Baha’is included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” espionage and collaboration with foreign entities, and actions against national security.  Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution the government considered illegal.  According to the BIC, in many cases, the authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRW reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  According to Iran Press Watch (IPC), MOIS officials on September 15 and 16 detained six Baha’i environmental activists, Sudabeh Haghighat, Noora Pourmoradian, Elaheh Samizadeh, Ehsan Mahboub Rahvafa, Navid Bazmandegan and his wife Bahareh Ghaderi, on unknown charges in Shiraz.  Human rights organizations and media reported agents searched the home of Basmandegan and Ghaderi and took the couple to an unknown location away from their five-year-old daughter Darya, who suffered from cancer and required care post-treatment.

On November 23, BIC reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  The government also sentenced up to a dozen Baha’is, including nine Baha’is in Isfahan, who received a combined sentence of more than 40 years in prison on charges of “membership in the unlawful administration of the perverse Baha’i sect for the purpose of action against internal security” and “engaging in propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic.”

CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days in September for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council

According to CHRI, on April 23 authorities returned to Rajai Shahr Prison Afif Naeimi, one of the seven leaders of the Yaran, a former group that tended to the social and spiritual needs of the Baha’i community and that was formed with the knowledge and approval of the government.  He had been on medical furlough due to life-threatening ailments.  CHRI reported, however, that upon return to prison, his condition was still poor and the judiciary’s own medical experts had ruled him too ill to be incarcerated.  In 2008, authorities arrested the seven individuals and sentenced them to 20 years in prison for “disturbing national security,” “spreading propaganda against the regime,” and “engaging in espionage” before the sentences were reduced to 10 years each on appeal.  Since September 2017, authorities released the other six leaders – Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – upon completion of their sentences.  According to BIC, authorities targeted these individuals because of their religious affiliation.

In May BIC reported a series of arrests of Baha’is.  On May 1, authorities detained Baha’i Kaviz Nouzdahi at his home in Mashhad and took him to the city’s Vakilabad Prison.  BIC also reported that the next day MOIS agents arrested a man identified only as “Motahhari” at his home in Isfahan.  According to Iran Wire, on May 6, Ministry of Information agents conducted an orchestrated raid of the residences of four Baha’is, during which they arrested three Baha’is, Nooshin Afshar, Neda Sabeti, and Forough Farzaneh, and took them to an unknown location.  Authorities reportedly searched their homes and confiscated their mobile phones, computers, and religious books.  BIC reported that the May arrestees faced charges because of their religious beliefs.  In a May 25 statement, BIC said the “systematic nature” of the arrests in a number of provinces suggested “a coordinated strategy on the part of government authorities.”

According to CHRI, on July 22 an appeals court in Kurdistan upheld a one-year sentence for Zabihollah Raoufi, whom authorities accused of proselytizing his Baha’i Faith.  The court upheld Raoufi’s conviction on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security by promoting Baha’ism.”  According to Iran Wire, on October 31 the 70-year-old Raoufi reported to prison to start serving his sentence.

According to Iran Wire, on January 28 a court sentenced Fataneh Nabilzadeh, a Baha’i resident of Mashhad, to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda against the regime.”  MOIS officials had arrested Nabilzadeh in 2013 for administering tests to her son and another Baha’i student on behalf of the BIHE.

According to January reports by CWWM and CSW, authorities sentenced two Christians, Eskander Rezaie and Soroush Saraei, in Shiraz to eight years in prison for “action against national security,” proselytizing, and holding house church meetings.  Authorities also charged Saraei, the pastor of the Church of Shiraz, with “forgery” for providing letters for students who did not want to attend Islamic studies classes.  The advocacy group Middle East Concern reported both men appealed their sentences.  During the same court hearing, a Christian woman, Zahrar Nourouzi Kashkouli, received a one year prison sentence, for “being a member of a group working against the system.”

According to the World Watch Monitor website, Article 18 reported Christian convert Ali Amini remained in Tabriz Prison following his arrest by authorities in December 2017 and had his laptop and cell phone confiscated.  He remained in a Tabriz Prison as of February.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and the arrests of teachers associated with the program.  Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation.  BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh remained in prison serving a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution.  Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a five-year sentence.  According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while visiting his wife at Evin Prison.  Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced them on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”  CHRI reported that on January 3 Evin Prison authorities told Rafizadeh she would only be considered for furlough if she apologized for teaching online classes to members of her faith.  Authorities reportedly said she must sign a statement to repenting for her work and promising she would not work there again.

Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detention, and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGO reports.  Numerous Christians remained imprisoned at year’s end on charges related to their religious beliefs.  Prison authorities reportedly continued to withhold medical care from prisoners, including some Christians, according to human rights groups.  According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.

According to Mohabat News, the Revolutionary Court of Bushehr on June 20 sentenced Christian convert Payam Kharaman and 11 other Christians to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda” activities against the government and promotion of “Zionist Christianity” through house meetings, evangelism, and proselytizing.  Authorities initially arrested the 12 Christians in Bushehr in April 2016.  CWWM reported that on March 2 authorities arrested 20 Christians in a workshop near the city of Karaj when security forces raided the premises.  Among those detained, authorities reportedly permitted Christian convert Aziz Majidzadeh to contact his family in April; he informed them that he and the others were being held at Evin Prison awaiting formal charges.  He reportedly said his interrogators focused on activities related to his Christian faith.  Article 18 reported on May 20 that authorities had released Majidzadeh pending a full investigation and trial.

Various media outlets and NGOs reported that on June 25, authorities released Mohammadali Yassaghi, a Christian also known as Estifan, from prison following a hearing at the Revolutionary Court in Babolsar, in which the presiding judge dismissed the charges against him.  The authorities arrested Yassaghi on April 10 on accusations of “spreading propaganda against the establishment” and later transported him to Babol Prison in Mazandaran Province.  According to CSW, Yassaghi was a member of the Church of Iran and converted to Christianity more than 20 years ago.

International media reported that on March 6 government officials detained Shia cleric Hossein Shirazi, the son of Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi.  Both Hossein Shirazi and his father, a senior cleric in the Qom Seminary, were reportedly critical of the government.  Authorities detained Hossein Shirazi in Qom after he attended an Islamic theology class.  During a lecture in February, Hossein Shirazi reportedly likened the country’s principle of Velayat Faghih – or the rule of a single jurist – to the “regimes of pharaohs in Egypt.”  He also reportedly accused the country’s leaders of tyranny.  Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi’s opponents have accused him of promoting “British Shiism” and receiving funds from Britain and Saudi Arabia.

In January HRANA reported that security forces arrested Shia cleric Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam, son of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Nekounam, a senior cleric detained in October 2017.  According to HRANA, authorities also raided Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam’s home and seized all communication devices, including cell phones and laptops, without providing an arrest warrant.  Authorities arrested his father, Ayatollah Nekounam, in 2015 and sentenced him to five years in prison and an undisclosed number of lashes.  The court also stripped Ayatollah Nekounam of his right to clerical office.  The court reportedly said it would not disclose any details about either case to “protect” the status of the clergy.  Sources stated the arrests were related to Nekounam’s indirect criticism of other clerics.  Reportedly he indirectly criticized Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi’s opposition to fast internet services and also criticized an incident in Isfahan in which individuals threw acid on women to punish them for improper hijabs.  In an interview, Nekounam stated, “The one who throws acid [at others] is the most violent person.”  HRANA reported in January of Ayatollah Nekounam’s ailing health following a stroke in the Qom Prison, but said authorities denied him access to his medications.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they had temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though businesses could legally close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year.  In November BIC reported that authorities shut down more than a dozen Baha’i businesses in Khuzestan Province after the owners closed their businesses temporarily in observance of two Baha’i holidays.  According to IPC, on July 28 authorities shut down a Baha’i-owned business in the city of Kashan.  HRANA reported that the “Kashan Office of Properties refused to issue a business permit for optician shop of Javad Zabihian, due to his Baha’i Faith.  The Office of Properties then shut down and sealed Mr. Zabihian’s business.”  According to HRANA, the Superior Administrative Court on August 16 denied a petition to open 24 shuttered Baha’i-owned businesses in Urmia.  From July 9 through mid-August 2017, authorities reportedly sealed the businesses for closing in observance of a Baha’i holy day.  In August HRANA reported three Baha’is, Sahba Haghbeen, Samira Behinayeen, and Payam Goshtasbi, were fired from their jobs in Shiraz in a “continued effort to put economic constraints on Iranian Baha’is.”  HRANA also reported that on May 10, the MOIS office in Maku summoned Shahin Dehghan, a Baha’i citizen, and informed him that he had 10 days to sell his business or it would be confiscated and he would be sent to prison.  According to BIC, the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers.  The government also continued to prevent Baha’is from burying their dead in accordance with their religious tradition.  According to HRANA, security forces in Kerman prevented the burial of a Baha’i from Kerman, Hussein Shodjai, who died on August 26, and forced his family to bury the deceased in the city of Rafsanjan.  The authorities’ demand contravened Baha’i burial laws, under which the distance from the place of death to the burial place should not exceed one hour, according to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the central holy book of the Baha’i Faith.  IPC also reported that on March 16 authorities sealed the Baha’i cemetery of Kerman (known as the Eternal Garden) without specific justification.

In August BIC reported continued instances of the desecration and destruction of Baha’i property and holy sites.  Many government offices, including the City Council, the governor’s office, and the deputy governor’s office refused to take any action.  In November CHRI reported local authorities relocated the buried body of a Baha’i woman without the permission of the family.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices.  Official reports and the media continued to characterize Christian house churches as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.”  Christian community leaders stated that if the authorities learned Armenian or Assyrian churches were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches.  Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed them to enter.

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

The government continued to curb Christian practices at cemeteries, and authorities confiscated properties owned by Christian religious organizations.  CHRI reported that on March 7 a group controlled by the supreme leader issued an eviction order for Sharon Gardens, a Christian retreat center occupying 2.5 acres of land in in the Valadabad District of Karaj, 32 miles west of the capital.  The center was owned by the country’s largest Christian Protestant organization, the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council, also known as the Iran Assemblies of God, since the early 1970s; the eviction reflected a 2015 revolutionary court order for its confiscation.

The government continued to monitor the statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders.  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views reportedly continued to face intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment on charges related to religious offenses.

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

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – a manteau (overcoat) and a hijab (headscarf) or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes).  Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment.  The government continued to crack down on other public displays it deemed counter to its interpretation of Shia Islam laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.  In June security agents arrested a female teenager, Maedeh Hojabri, for posting videos of herself dancing without a hijab on Instagram.  Authorities then aired on state television a video of Hojabri, who acknowledged breaking moral norms while insisting that she was not encouraging others to follow her example, according to a report by Radio Farda.  International media widely reported her arrest, as well as an outpouring of social media support for Hojabri from fellow citizens.  According to a February report by HRW, authorities arrested at least three women protesting the country’s dress code/hijab laws in January and February.  Officials arrested Nargess Hosseini on January 29 when she took off her headscarf in a public protest against the hijab laws.  They arrested Azam Jangravi on February 14 and Shaparak Shajarizadeh on February 21 in similar circumstances.  On June 13, authorities arrested Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights attorney who had represented the women, telling her husband that authorities were taking her to prison for a sentence she had received in absentia.  Authorities sentenced Hosseini in March to 24 months in prison, suspending 21 months of her sentence.  On social media, Shajarizadeh stated on July 9 that a court had sentenced her to 20 years in prison, suspending 18 years of the sentence.

HRW also reported that on July 27, state TV’s “20:30” program featured an interview with the sister of anti-hijab activist Masih Alinejad, denouncing Alinejad’s advocacy against compulsory hijab laws.  In a post on social media and in a New York Times op-ed piece, Alinejad stated that, despite her sister’s statements that she had appeared on the program of her own free will, authorities pressured her family to denounce her on state television.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities access to higher education and government employment unless they declared themselves as Christian or Muslim, respectively, on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known.  In September BIC and IPC reported that at least 60 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs and despite passing the entrance exam “under the false pretenses that they had ‘incomplete files’ or that their names were not in the registration list.”  The report also stated that officials told many Baha’i students who passed the grueling National University Entrance Exam, known as “Konkur,” that they might be able to study, but that they would need to write a letter and disavow their faith in order to do so.

CHRI reported that from March to September authorities expelled at least 50 Baha’i students from universities because of their religious beliefs.  In July CHRI reported a Baha’i woman, Sarir Movaghan, was expelled from the Islamic Azad University in Isfahan.  Movaghan declared she was Baha’i on the university enrollment form and was accepted, but four years later and just before her final exams, she was expelled.  According to CHRI, the university contacted Movaghan in May and told her that, as a Baha’i, she should have known that she could not be at the university.  Many Baha’is reportedly did not try to enroll in state-run universities because of the Baha’i Faith’s tenet not to deny one’s faith.

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

According to Mazjooban Noor, the official website of the Gonabadi dervishes, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and bar them from university studies for affiliation with the Sufi order.  CHRI reported that authorities expelled Sepideh Moradi Sarvestani, a member of the Gonabadi dervishes, from Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University on February 3 “for refusing to formally pledge not to engage in activities deemed unacceptable by officials.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority stating there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country.  Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces.  International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented any new Sunni mosques from being built in Tehran.  Sunnis reported the number of mosques in the country did not meet the demands of the population.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, to practice their faith.  Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.  In August international media reported police dispersed Sunni worshipers who had gathered outside a prayer hall in Tehran’s eastern Resalat neighborhood.  Authorities barred the worshipers from entering the venue to hold communal prayers on Eid al-Adha.  The Sunni congregation had reportedly obtained an official permit from the Ministry of Interior and the Tehran governorate’s political deputy.

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

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

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems.  They also continued to report that the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names.  A March report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests and torture of community leaders.  The report provided “accounts of individuals being fired after it is discovered that they are Yarsan, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, for example when undertaking military service.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two kindergartens continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim.  The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.  The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

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

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

In July Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian, was restored to his position on the Yazd City Council following a ruling that constitutionally recognized religious minorities could run in local elections.  According to CHRI, on July 21, by a two-thirds majority, the Expediency Council, the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between state branches, voted to amend the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils, thereby affirming the right of constitutionally recognized religious minorities to run in local elections.  In September 2017, local and international media reported that the Yazd Court of Administrative Justice called for the suspension of Niknam.  After being re-elected to the council in May 2017, the court forced him to step down after issuing a ruling that as a member of a religious minority, Niknam could not be elected to a council in a Muslim-majority constituency.  The ruling was in response to a complaint lodged by his unsuccessful Muslim opponent.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in the provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions.  In January CHRI observed that while there were 21 Sunni representatives in the 290-member parliament, no Sunni had served in a ministerial position since the founding of the Islamic Republic despite comprising a significant percent of the population.

Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representatives such as Siamak Morsadegh, the sole Jewish member of parliament, as stating that there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but that there was little interference with Jewish religious practices.  According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country.  Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books.  During remarks on June 15, Supreme Leader Khamenei said, “the Zionist regime, which has a legitimacy problem, will not last… and through Muslim nations’ vigilance, be certainly destroyed.”  Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “death to Israel” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel.  Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic in nature, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region, including the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  The May 15 edition of the newspaper Tasnim carried a cartoon that portrayed Israel as a snake intent on devouring Jerusalem.  On February 13, the website Javan published an article, entitled “The Use of Corrupt Jewish Women by Secret Spy Services to Trap Important World Figures,” that claimed that Jewish religious law allowed Jewish women to use their gender and femininity to gather intelligence for Mossad.

According to human rights activists, the government maintained a legal interpretation of Islam that required citizens of all faiths to follow strict rules based on the government’s interpretation of Shia jurisprudence, creating differentiation under the law between the rights granted to men and women.  The government continued to enforce gender segregation and discrimination throughout the country without regard to religious affiliation.

The government continued to maintain separate election processes for the five seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and that perpetrators continued to act with impunity or, even when arrested, faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

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

In October IPC reported “tens of thousands more [Baha’is] experience educational, economic and cultural persecution on a daily basis for merely practicing their faith.”  According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.  In August a BIC report noted the continued harassment, vilification, and psychological pressure children and adolescents known to be Baha’is experience in primary, middle, and high schools throughout the country.

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore, did not have opportunities to raise concerns directly with the government over its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

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

In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a town hall speech on “Supporting Iranian Voices” and an opinion editorial appearing in USA Today.  In his op-ed, the Secretary of State said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces.  The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.”  At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran.  In the statement, the governments said, “Many members of Iranian religious minorities – including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims – face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs….The Iranian regime continues its crackdown on Gonabadi Sufis.…Baha’is also face particularly severe ill-treatment.  As with many other minority communities, Iranian authorities reportedly harass, arrest, and mistreat Baha’is on account of their faith, and in May the Baha’i International Community reported an uptick in arbitrary arrests and raids across the country.…The Government of Iran continues to execute dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges brought because of their peaceful religious beliefs or activities.  Blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and efforts to proselytize Muslims are punishable by death, contrary to Iran’s international human rights obligations….We strongly urge the Government of Iran to cease its violations of religious freedom and ensure that all individuals – regardless of their beliefs – are treated equally and can live out their lives and exercise their faith in peace and security.”

During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end to religious persecution in Iran, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi Dervish community.”

The United States again supported an extension of the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran in a vote at the UN Human Rights Council.  The United States also voted in December in the General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern over Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State announced the redesignation of Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.”  The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites.  Institutional and societal restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against minority groups remained widespread, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on religious freedom.  NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim.  Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces closed some roads between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas subject to territorial disputes between the KRG and the country’s central government for much of the year, impeding the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area.  Most roads were reopened by year’s end.  Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported harassment and abuses by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias, which also includes Sunni and other minority units originally formed to combat ISIS.  Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous PMF-operated checkpoints, restricting their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain.  Christians in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members.  They also said elements of the central government in Baghdad were attempting to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas.  Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but some faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities.  Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.

According to Yazda, an NGO focused on Yezidi issues, more than 3,000 Yezidis still remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014.  In November the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Office documented the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar, and cautioned that there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”

Although according to media and human rights organizations security conditions in many parts of the country improved somewhat from 2017, there were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  On July 23, three gunmen, who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion, before police killed the attackers.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime; others said the killers sought to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.  In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit such abuses.  Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses.  Christian leaders in the Ninewa Plain reported multiple instances of theft and harassment of Christians by the PMF.

The U.S. government continued to raise religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects.  Visits by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, representatives of the office of the Vice President, and other senior U.S. officials to minority areas reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and Shia, Sunni, and minority group representatives, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities.  The Department of State issued a press statement on U.S. support for vulnerable minorities in Iraq on June 11, saying, “This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority.  Those who survived genocide, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, as well as those who perished as a result of these acts, deserve nothing less.”  The United States announced over $178 million in new U.S. foreign assistance to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq on October 16.  On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act.  The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 40.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim.  Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population, while Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population.  Of Sunnis, Sunni Kurds constitute 15 percent, Sunni Arabs 24 percent, and Sunni Turkomans the remaining 1 percent.  Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country.  Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR.  The Christian population has declined over the past 16 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons.  Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East.  The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants.  There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders report most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced.  Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary.  According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad.  Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.  The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia and the rest Sunni; most are located in Ninewa.  Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians.  According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members, traditionally located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.  The Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) reports 70 to 80 Jewish families reside in the IKR, though he noted that some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution.  According to a Baghdad Jewish community leader, there are fewer than six adult members of the local Jewish community.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of December, nearly 1.8 million persons remained displaced within the country.  Population movements are multi-directional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home.  According to the IOM, as of May, approximately 67 percent of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) population were Arab Sunni, 13 percent Kurdish Sunni, 8 percent Yezidi, 6 percent Turkoman Shia, 2 percent Arab Shia, 1 percent either Syriac, Chaldean, or Assyrian Christian, 2 percent Shabak Shia, and less than 1 percent Turkoman Sunni, Shabak Sunni, or Kurdish Shia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly protect followers of other religions, or atheists.  According to the penal code, Jews may not hold jobs in state enterprises or join the military.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

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

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

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government:  Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish.  Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property.  All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.  According to the government, however, there is no personal status court for Yezidis.

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

Outside of the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition.  The law prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith.  For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’i – including Wahhabi Muslim, Zoroastrian, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

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

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, the KRG has registered 11 evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches:  Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.  The KRG allows new Christian churches to register with a minimum of 50 adherents.

In the IKR, Christian groups may register separately with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, an independent group formed by Christian church leaders, which includes six evangelical Protestant churches.  Registration with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders provides Christian churches and leaders with access to the KRG MERA and to the KRG’s Christian endowment.

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

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

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia.  The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj.  The council, attached to the Prime Minister’s office, organizes a lottery process to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas.  Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel:  3.5 million dinars ($3,100) for Hajj travel by land, and five million dinars ($4,400) for travel by air.  In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution guarantees minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages.  While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.”  In the IKR, there are 56 Syriac and 21 Turkoman language schools.  The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars.  The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

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

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

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

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

The law in the IKR formally recognizes the Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Sabean-Mandean faiths, and promotes equal political, cultural, societal, and economic representation of all minority groups.  It forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of minority communities:  five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit.  Usually one of the COR rapporteur positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other a Turkoman.  The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities:  five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR.  Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies.  The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The antiterrorism law of November 2005 defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.”  Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Observers reported the current antiterrorism law did not allow for the right to due process and a fair trial.  Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links but provided no corroborating evidence.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia.  Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in late 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced discrimination, displacement, and in some cases, violence from PMF and Iraqi security forces.  Media outlets carried numerous reports of Shia PMF groups invading, looting, and burning the houses of Kurds, Sunni Turkomans, Sunni Arabs, and other ethnic minorities in Kirkuk Governorate.  Kurds faced similar violence in Khanaqin, a majority Kurdish city in Diyala Governorate that also passed from KRG to central government control in 2017.  Analysts stated that discrimination continued to stoke ethno-sectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year.  In August four Kurds, including a Peshmerga, were beheaded in Khanaqin by unknown attackers.  The Kaka’i community in Daquq, Kirkuk Governorate, continued to suffer harassment and intimidation, which Kaka’i civil society groups said accelerated under PMF occupation of the area.

The religious status of children resulting from rape became a more prominent issue because of the number of minority children resulting from gender-based violence perpetrated by ISIS.  Yezidi community leaders reported that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services.  Yezidi sources reported the number of these children range from several dozen to several hundred.  They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers.  According to Christian leaders, in some cases Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith were forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented.  Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depends on family size.  Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Representatives of minority religious communities said that, while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions.  Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF militia 30th Brigade, controlled by Iraqi parliament member Hunain Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District.  The chair of the municipal council of Bartalla made public court documents from several cases involving militiamen charged with theft, harassment, and sexual harassment.  Shabak Sunni leaders in Hamdaniya made similar allegations.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, Shabak parliamentarians, including Qado, with the support of some other Shia elements within the central government in Baghdad, had directed the 30th Brigade to harass Christians to drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population and allow Shabak and other Shia Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers.  Christians in Tal Kayf made similar claims that the nominally Christian but majority Sunni Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively sought to prevent and disrupt the return of the displaced Christian community to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town.

The Ninewa provincial government ordered that all district governments comply with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF martyrs of the war against ISIS as compensation for their loss.  The order included those districts with Sunni and non-Muslim majorities.  In September Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam issued an order suspending such grants in the historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change.  Throughout the year, Behnam successfully resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya.  Iraq’s National Investment Commission, under the presidency of the Council of Ministers, approved the building of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla.  Pointing to a surplus of houses in Christian town centers, Christian community leaders alleged that virtually all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated by politics rather than religious discrimination.  According to various NGOs, central government, and KRG sources, KRG security forces and ISF blocked major roads between the IKR and central government-controlled Iraq, including roads serving minority communities such as the roads between Dohuk and Sinjar, al Qosh and Tal Kayf, and Sheikhan and Mosul.  The closure of these roads forced minorities to take long, circuitous detours, restricted their access to markets for their goods, and left them vulnerable to harassment and extortion at numerous checkpoints.  After lengthy negotiations, the KRG and GOI opened most of these roads during the year, including the al Qosh-Tal Kayf and Shaykhan-Mosul roads in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December.

In June elements of the PMF Imam Ali Brigade refused to allow the Yezidi Sinjar District Council to return to Sinjar City from its temporary location in Mosul, even with an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister.  In October a combination of PMF and popular protest again prevented the Yezidi mayor of Sinjar and the district council from returning to Sinjar.  Christians reported continued harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the Shabak Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf.

According to multiple sources, some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers or family members of suspected members from their homes in several governorates.  For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kataib Hizballah kidnapped and intimidated local Arab Sunni residents in Diyala and Babil Governorates and prevented Arab Sunni IDPs from returning to their places of origin.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province.  According to the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014 3,322 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS had been rescued or released, but 3,015 Yezidis were still missing as of October.  Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times and subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence.  The Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission reported in August that 600 Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS, including more than 120 children, remained missing, none of whom had been reported rescued by the end of the year.  A Turkoman NGO, however, stated in December that more than 1300 Turkomans were still missing and said it had evidence that ISIS had trafficked Turkoman women to Chechnya, Turkey, and Syria.  The KRG MERA also reported that 250 Christians were rescued, leaving an estimated 150 missing.

In October the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi Affairs reported the KRG had paid more than $7 million in ransom and payments to middlemen to secure the release of approximately 2,000 Yezidis from ISIS since 2014.  In July the Ninewa Provincial Council established two offices, one in Mosul and the other in Sinjar, responsible for investigating the fate of Yezidis still missing or held captive by ISIS.  Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs.

According to Yazda, a global Yezidi organization, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.  In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.  The KRG continued to offer support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, including evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties in changing their registration from Muslim to Christian if they were converts, or engaged in in proselytizing.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities.  In July ISF forces and local police forcibly entered Mar Gorgees Syriac Catholic Church in Bartalla, cut the internet network of the church and adjacent cultural center, and destroyed the church’s internet server equipment.  While authorities accused the church of unauthorized distribution of an IKR-based internet service to the Christian community in Ninewa Province, Syriac Catholic Church leaders said the action represented an attack on the church, and they accused the security forces of acting on behalf of a rival, politically connected internet provider.

The KRG MERA reduced the number of mosques delivering weekly Friday sermons from 3,000 to 2,000 by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods.  MERA Spokesman and Director of General Relations Mariwan Naqshbandy said MERA was formulating a policy to produce and distribute pre-approved content for Friday sermons in MERA-funded mosques to prevent the spread of extremism.  The KRG MERA banned eight imams from delivering Friday sermons, citing extremist ideology and incitement to violence.  The imams continued to receive MERA salaries and were ordered to undergo a rehabilitation course to regain permission to preach in MERA-approved mosques.  MERA also banned 10 books by well-known Islamic scholars because they encouraged violence and extremism.  MERA also introduced a mandatory training program for new imams that included instruction on religious pluralism and tolerance and against extremist preaching and hate speech.

According to the international human rights NGO Heartland Alliance, KRG law protecting the rights of religious freedom was undermined by vague wording and did not provide implementation mechanisms or penalties for violations.

In September Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf said the central government had not opened an investigation into the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by the archbishop in 2017.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.  Estimates, including those cited by several Christian parliamentarians (MPs), the daily number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22.  A director of an Assyrian NGO reported that four Syriac language schools closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.  Some Yezidis and Christians maintained their own militias.  Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units.  Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.  Other minority leaders in the Ninewa Plain expressed hope that the Ministry of Interior would hire minorities to serve in local police forces to absorb and replace the minority militias in the region.  Some leaders conducted recruitment drives to demonstrate the considerable interest among minority communities in joining police units, including among current members of minority militias; however, no local police positions were available at year’s end.

One of the remaining members of the Jewish community in Baghdad described the prevalence of anti-Semitic rhetoric from both Muslim and Christian leaders.  Although the sermons did not advocate for violence against the Jewish community, the community member expressed concern that more priests were including anti-Semitic rhetoric in their sermons, comparable to the anti-Semitic rhetoric often heard from some Muslims.  He presented pictures of the continued desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the Shia-majority Sadr City section of Baghdad.  The small community did not file any reports on the desecration with local authorities due to reported fear of retribution.  Despite Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to speak out in favor of the return of Jews in a June 2 response to a follower’s question, the member of the Jewish community said Jews continued to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.

A group of IKR- and Ninewa Plain-based religious leaders from established apostolic Christian churches sent a letter to the IKR MERA director general of Christian affairs stating MERA made it too easy for new Christian groups to become established in the IKR.  The letter accused the newcomers of damaging the churches’ relationship with the Muslim community by proselytizing, and demanded MERA provide the names of adherents submitted by the new churches.  MERA refused to change the requirement for new churches to register but complied with the apostolic churches’ request to compile a list of adherents of evangelical and other Protestant churches.  Apostolic church leaders said the list would allow them to remove from their rolls the names of former members now attending other churches so the apostolic churches would not be blamed for any proselytizing performed by former members now belonging to evangelical or other Protestant churches.

NGOs continued to state constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate them and no legislation proposed to repeal them.  According to a December article on the website Al Monitor, Deputy Justice Minister Hussein al-Zuhairi stated during a dialogue with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the Baha’i Faith was not a religion, emphasizing the government’s commitment to legislation prohibiting the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays.  Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation.  Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate.  In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula included three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students.  Christian religious education was included in the curricula of at least 150 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk.  Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660 to $1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school.  To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection.  The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

The government continued not to require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, but some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates.  Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction.  Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.  By year’s end, schools still had not universally adopted the 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance.  Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language said it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom.  Seeking to establish private Christian schools, the Chaldean church in Basrah said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula for Muslim students.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students.  The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students.  The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies.  The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education partnered with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes.  The curriculum was still under development at year’s end.

The central government extended by one year the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010.  They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in northern Iraq.  For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes.  The director general of Christian affairs in the KRG MERA said that of 59 long-pending property dispute cases between Christians and Kurds, the KRG courts had only ruled on five cases, although in four of the five they ruled in favor of Christian plaintiffs.  In one such case in the Nahla Valley area of Dohuk , a court sentenced Kurds convicted of taking Christian-owned land to a three-month suspended sentence, a token fine, and a requirement the Kurds make a written pledge they would not encroach on the land again.  The KRG MERA director general, however, said authorities made no attempt to follow up on the case, and some of the Kurds continued to occupy land the court ruled belonged to the Christian community.  A land dispute dating from 2003 when the KRG seized 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of farmland near Ankawa owned by 220 Christian farmers for the construction of the Erbil International Airport remained unresolved.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for construction of new and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects.  The KRG spent approximately 2.5 billion dinars ($2.2 million) on the construction of an Armenian Apostolic church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, and another 500 million dinars ($439,000) on a community center for the Assyrian Church of the East.  The KRG said in 2017 that it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil, a Baha’i religious and cultural center near Erbil, and a Zoroastrian temple in Sulaimaniya.  According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry passed its recommendation for lands to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels, but by year’s end, no land had been allocated for any of the three projects.  The Zoroastrian representative in MERA said Ministry of Municipalities officials had refused to implement the government directives for religious reasons.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM, a situation unchanged from the previous year.  Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels.  Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities.  The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members included Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.  Although there are no reliable statistics, minorities stated they believed they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime.  Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime.  Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible.  Some Sunnis said Sunnis were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts from the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP has 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law does not restrict who may vote in quota seat races.  Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority voters said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the nine minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government.  Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against Yezidis by closing the Dohuk-Sinjar road and continuing to restrict commercial traffic after opening the road to passenger traffic in December.  Yezidi activists reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care, primarily due to the road closure.  Since the October 2017 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, although not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas.  KRG security forces, ISF, and the PMF had closed the road between the neighboring Christian towns of Telskuf and Batnaya, slowing the return of IDPs.  A local priest in Telskuf said KRG security forces refused requests from humanitarian organizations to pass through their roadblock to conduct relief and reconstruction work in Batnaya.  Authorities reopened the Telskuf-Batnaya road in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December, but both roads remained closed to commercial traffic at year’s end.

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

On March 21, the tomb of a Kaka’i religious leader was destroyed by an explosion in Daquq, south of Kirkuk.  A local Kaka’i NGO said members of the PMF were responsible.

Kaka’i leaders said the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk and converted them into mosques.

In observance of World Religion Day on January 21, the then speaker of parliament hosted 350 government officials, ethnic and religious leaders, and the international community in a celebration to urge interfaith dialogue and promote religious pluralism.  Although representatives from several religious minorities welcomed the event, they said it was unlikely discrimination against their communities would end anytime soon.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Mass graves containing victims of ISIS continued to be found.  According to KRG MERA’s Office of Yezidi Affairs, a total of 87 mass graves containing the bodies of over 2,500 Yezidis had been found in Sinjar District and other predominantly Yezidi areas of Ninewa Province since 2014.  On November 6, UNAMI and the United Nations Human Rights Office released a report documenting the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar and cautioned there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves each held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  On November 6, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”  Estimates available to the UN ranged from 6,000 to more than 12,000 victims buried in these graves.

According to the KRG MERA director general of Christian affairs, ISIS abducted 150 Christians from the Batnaya, Qaraqosh, and Tal Kayf areas in 2014; their fate remained unclear at year’s end.

In April Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria rescued a young Christian woman kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 from Qaraqosh.  She said she was sold four times to different ISIS fighters, each of whom raped her and subjected her to torture and other forms of mistreatment.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On July 23, three gunmen who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they then killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion before police killed the attackers.

In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime.  Others said the killers wanted to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.

There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but few reports of religious violence in the IKR.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In regular Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses.

During May court proceedings, a judge demanded the Zoroastrian representative in the IKR MERA swear on the Quran before testifying.  She refused and asked to swear on a copy of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathustra, but the judge did not allow it.

In June media continued to report political parties, criminal networks, and some militia groups seized more than 30,000 Christian properties in Baghdad, as well as areas of Anbar, Babil, Basrah, Diyala, and Wasit with impunity, despite pledges by the prime minister’s office to open investigations into the seizures.

In December, in response to the central government’s announcement that Christmas would be an official Iraqi holiday, prominent Sunni cleric and self-proclaimed “Grand Mufti” of Iraq Abdul-Mehdi al-Sumaidaie issued a fatwa that Muslims should not take part in New Year celebrations or congratulate Christians during Christmas.  Both the central government and the KRG Sunni Endowments rejected his fatwa and posted criticisms of it online.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura.  There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan.  Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment.  According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior.  Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment.  According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts helped to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

Minority religious leaders continued to report pressure on minority communities to cede land rights to their businesses unless they conformed to a stricter observance of Islamic precepts.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.  Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

In November the Catholic Patriarchs of the East held a four-day conference in Baghdad to bring attention to the challenges threatening the survival of Christian communities in the region.  Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Sako, who hosted the meeting, said the patriarchs wanted to encourage “families to stay in our homeland keeping up our faith, identity, ethics, traditions, and language.”  This was the first time the conference was held in the country.  Catholic rites representatives included Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara al-Rahi, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Monsignor William Hanna Shomali, and Cardinal Sako, who delivered the opening speech.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi and his predecessor former Prime Minister Haider Abadi, and through speeches and U.S. embassy coordination groups promoting religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act.  The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.  Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of jobs, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns.  Efforts included agreeing to recruit minorities in two Emergency Response Battalions, one for Sinjar and one for the Ninewa Plain, and reopening roads connecting persecuted religious communities to economic and urban centers.  The embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards.  U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, and medical supplies.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional Ministries of Education, Justice (which includes the functions of the former Ministry of Human Rights), Labor, and Social Affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.  They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.  On January 15, the Ambassador hosted an event to observe Religious Freedom Day that promoted religious pluralism and reconciliation.  A wide range of representatives from the country’s many religious communities attended, including the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syrian Church, Assyrian Catholic Church, Coptic Church, as well as members of the Yezidi, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, and Islamic faiths (both Sunnis and Shia).  On January 16, the embassy convened an interfaith dialogue with a former participant of two U.S.-sponsored exchange programs that focused on the promotion of religious diversity.  On October 16, the embassy hosted the Deputy Secretary of State for a roundtable with representatives of Iraq’s minority religious communities.

The U.S. government continued to develop, finance, and manage projects to support all religious communities, with special emphasis on assistance to IDPs and returnees.  As part of the continued commitment by the Vice President, Secretary of State, and the USAID Administrator to support ethnic and religious minorities, the United States announced over $178 million in U.S. foreign assistance to support these vulnerable communities in Iraq in October.  This brought total U.S. assistance for this population to nearly $300 million since fiscal year 2017, implemented by both the Department of State and USAID.  These efforts, implemented in close partnership with local faith and community leaders, included USAID’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response program totaling $133 million, funding of approximately $37 million to clear explosive remnants of war, $8.5 million for social, economic, and political empowerment of minority communities, and $2 million for the preservation of historic and cultural sites.  In July USAID also appointed a Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs, based in Erbil, to oversee U.S. assistance for Iraq’s minority communities.

Senior advisors to the Vice President accompanied the Ambassador to the Ninewa Plain to discuss with community leaders how the United States could improve support to endangered minorities recovering from ISIS’ genocide campaign against them.  In separate visits, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the USAID Administrator visited the Ninewa Plain and met with Christian, Yezidi, and Shabak leaders to assure them of the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador, senior embassy officers, Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah, and the USAID Administrator’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs made regular visits to minority areas to meet with minority community leaders, religious leaders, and local and provincial authorities to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

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

The Ambassador and the Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection.  Embassy officials met religious leaders on a regular basis to discuss broader religious freedom issues and to demonstrate U.S. interest in and support for resolving issues with the provision of assistance.  In particular, they met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Jordan

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion.  The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts, while six of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such matters for their members.  The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In December the attorney general ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released the two men two days later.  The government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require preachers to refrain from political commentary and stick to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons.  An official committee chaired by the grand mufti regulated which Islamic clerics could issue fatwas.  Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their true religious beliefs and practices.  Members of unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages, the religious affiliation of their children, and renewing their residency permits.  Security forces increased their presence in and protection of Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays, following an August 10 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian city of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media.  Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some converts worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced.  The government did not prosecute converts from Islam for apostasy, but some reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels to support the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths freely and to promote interfaith tolerance, raising issues such as the renewal of residency permits for religious volunteers.  The Charge and other embassy officers met with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to encourage interfaith dialogue.  The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population and Christians 2.2 percent.  Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered Muslim by the government).  These estimates do not include migrant workers or refugees.  According to the Ministry of Labor (MOL), there are approximately 670,000 migrant workers in the country, mostly from Egypt, South and East Asia, and Africa.  Migrant workers from Africa and South and East Asia are often Hindu or Christian.  There are more than 757,000 refugees in the country registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including approximately 670,000 Syrians and 67,000 Iraqis.  The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim.  Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion.  It states the king must be a Muslim.  The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and courts for non-Muslim for religious communities recognized by the government.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy.  Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the presence of a will that states otherwise.  Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution.  The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Churches before converting a Christian to Islam, to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction.  The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying Jordanians in a manner that violates their dignity, according to government statements.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.”  Although these prosecutions may occur in the State Security Court, cases are usually tried in other courts.  Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).

Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register.  Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration.  If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage (there is no provision for civil marriage).  They may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts.  Religious groups may also be registered as “associations” and if so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but may own property and open bank accounts.  They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding.  Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.

Nonrecognized religious groups lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff.  Individuals may exercise such activities and as such may designate an individual to perform these functions on behalf of the unrecognized group, however.  To register as a recognized religious group, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine.  In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the minister of the interior and the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations.  The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups:  the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

The law lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups:  Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.  In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the Ministry of Interior as well, but have not been permitted to establish a court:  the Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptists.  The government has continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The government granted legal status to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

The CCL consists of the heads of the country’s 11 historically recognized Christian denominations and serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents (marriage or inheritance).  In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries.  Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task.  Nonrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.

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

Since 2017, the government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons.  According to the law, Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from Ministry of Awqaf employment.  In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month, or be given a fine not to exceed 20 dinars ($28).

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

The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 dinars ($28,200).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father.  Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife loses custody of the children when they reach seven years of age.  In December an amendment to the Personal Status Law was passed, stipulating that mothers should retain custody of their children until age 18.  The new amendment contains no mention of religious affiliation.  Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion.  In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise.  All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion.

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

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine out of 130 parliamentary seats or 6.9 percent.  Christians may not run for additional seats.  No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups.  The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Attorney General ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  Authorities charged the men with sectarian incitement and causing religious strife per the article of the penal code stipulating hate speech, as well as with violations of the cybercrimes law and the press and publications law.  The cartoon, posted on December 8, depicted Turkish chef “Salt Bae” – real name Nusret Gokce – sprinkling salt on the food at the Last Supper of Jesus.  Social media users commented to the website that the drawing was religiously insensitive and would cause strife between Muslims and Christians in the country.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released Al-Wakeel and the editor, Ghadeer Rbeihat, two days later.

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials.  Because of the ban on conversion under sharia, government officials generally refused to change religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion.  Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  During the year, several adult Christians reported discovering that because of a parent’s subsequent conversion to Islam, the individuals had been automatically re-registered as Muslims in some government files, leading to inconsistencies in their records and causing bureaucratic obstacles and administrative holdups when trying to apply for marriage licenses or register for university.

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

According to journalists who cover religious topics, the government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require that preachers refrain from political commentary, which the government deemed could instigate social or political unrest, and to counter radicalization.  Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons.  Imams who violated these rules continued to risk being fined or banned from preaching.  According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year.  In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam.  In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight.  There continued to be unofficial mosques operating outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, as well as imams outside of government employment who preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision.

In March the government began enforcing a new residency policy enacted in October 2017 to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency, suggesting that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims.  Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the Ministry of Interior and a letter of sponsorship from the church.  Volunteers must now obtain additional approvals, including the MOL, lengthening the average renewal process by several months.

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

Other nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals, and also to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

According to observers, recognized Christian denominations with the rights and privileges associated with membership in the CCL guarded this status, and continued to foster a degree of competition among other religious groups hoping to attain membership.  Despite efforts to alter their status, some evangelical Christian groups remained unrecognized either as denominations or as associations.  Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches continued to say that there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.

Some Christian leaders continued to express concern the CCL did not meet regularly and lacked the capacity to manage the affairs of both recognized and nonrecognized Christian groups effectively and fairly, especially in relation to their daily lives.  Most CCL leaders remained based in Jerusalem.

Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after an August 10 attack targeting Jordanian security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for religious worshippers.  The church leaders stated they especially appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and large events.

Druze continued to worship at and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community.  The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze.  Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, served in parliament and as cabinet ministers.  Druze continued to report discrimination in reaching high positions in government and official departments.

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

Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for violating the public order if they proselytized Muslims.  Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers living in the country after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks.  Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations and additional requirements were imposed on residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.

There continued to be two recognized Baha’i cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government.  Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is.  In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said, they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process constituting a large financial burden.

The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rolling back of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017.  Intended to promote tolerance, parents and teachers’ groups stated that the changes were distancing students from Islamic values and promoted normalization of relations with Israel.  The curriculum continued the past practice of omitting mention of the Holocaust.

In August amendments to the cybercrimes law were introduced to parliament including increased penalties for a broadened definition of online hate speech, defined as “any statement or act that would provoke religious, sectarian, ethnic, or regional sedition; calling for violence and justifying it; or spreading rumors against people with the aim of causing them, as a result, physical harm or damage to their assets or reputation.”  After sustained public protest, the amendments were withdrawn and re-submitted to parliament with a tighter definition that excluded mention of religion.  The new amendment, still under consideration by parliament at the end of the year, defines hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke “sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”

In June the Templeton Foundation announced that King Abdullah would receive the 2018 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.  In the award announcement, the foundation said the king “has done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader.”  The king received the award in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral on November 13.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members.  Some converts from Islam to Christianity reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts.  Some converts from Islam reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media.  Mohammad Nuh al-Qudah, a member of parliament and prominent Muslim preacher, on his online television show criticized females, especially young women, who did not wear the hijab, calling them blasphemous and stupid.

There was also an uptick in hate speech in social media and in the press directed at the Jewish faith after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Articles frequently appeared in mainstream media outlets such as Al Ghad that referred to Judaism in Arabic as “the heresy of the Zionist people,” described estimates of the number of Jews as fabricated, celebrated a perceived decline in the number of Jews, and ended with statements such as “the future is ours.”

Some social media users defended religious freedom, including a mostly critical reaction to al-Qudah’s remarks and calls for his show to be cancelled.  Thousands of Christians and Muslims also left comments online condemning a University of Jordan professor’s lecture in March which criticized the Bible along with the Christian and Jewish faiths.  Following this incident, which provoked condemnation from Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarawneh and other members of parliament, the professor ended his many-year practice of posting lectures online.   

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

Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and individuals in interfaith romantic relationships.  Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence.  Individuals in interfaith romantic relationships continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward the individuals involved.

The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups.  In September the JICRC and National Council for Family Affairs hosted a Family and Societal Harmony Conference, which compared the family and institutional experiences of Muslims and Christians in Jordan and explored ways to work together to counter violence, extremism, and terrorism.  Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, the grand mufti, the minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of religious workers and volunteers.  In June the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith iftar during Ramadan with the expressed purpose of highlighting religious diversity, increasing engagement with civil society about tolerance and religious freedom, and building partnerships to advance minority rights.  The gathering brought together a diverse set of religious leaders including evangelical Christian pastors, the director of the Baha’i Faith Community, heads of interfaith cooperation nongovernmental organizations, sharia judges, and the grand mufti.

Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, and interfaith institutions such as the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.  In September the embassy hosted the Jordanian delegation to the summer Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. to discuss follow-up from the conference and general religious freedom trends in the country.  Representatives from the embassy attended the JICRC’s conference on Societal Harmony and engaged with conference leaders on potential programmatic collaborations.

The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability.  In October the embassy granted a $750,000 award for a project to preserve religious and cultural heritage, focusing on protecting the country’s interfaith tradition and highlighting the heritage of religious minorities.  The nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground is scheduled to implement the project, building interfaith youth coalitions in six communities to promote and preserve religious heritage sites.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad).  The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.  Freedom of religion is not provided under the law.  The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion.  The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.  In March UN experts said 15 Shia were convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism and were facing execution after legal processes that human rights organizations deemed lacking in fair trial guarantees and transparency.  In January the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law.  A December report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism expressed concern at the “systemic repression against the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shia population lives.”  Charges announced by the government during the year for prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, reportedly detained in September 2017, include alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-affiliated groups.  The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet.  The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, commonly known outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior to encourage obedience to laws and regulations protecting “public morals.”  Many observers noted a continued decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, and fewer reports of CPVPV harassment.  On March 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral.  On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.  Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  In addition, terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.

Embassy, consulate general, and other U.S. government officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs.  In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 33 million (July 2018 estimate), including more than 12 million foreign residents.  Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population.  Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shiites who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province.  Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region.  Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000.  Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari School of jurisprudence.  Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam).  Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they constitute the majority of the province’s inhabitants.  Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, number approximately 2,000, most of whom are of Yemeni or South Asian origin.  Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering a total of approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Foreign embassies indicate the foreign population in the country, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim.  According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there were approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion.  The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna.  The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

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

The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  By year’s end, authorities had not yet issued new implementation regulations, and the implementation regulations of the 2014 counterterrorism law remained in effect.  Those regulations criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”  The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.”  There is no right to access government-held evidence.

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

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

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

Since 2016 Saudi-based clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must first obtain the permission of MOIA.  The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel, particularly those the government regards as having questionable credentials, and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by Saudi-based clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

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

The CPVPV is a semiautonomous government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards consistent with the government’s policy and in coordination with law enforcement authorities.  A 2016 decree limited the CPVPV’s activities to only providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police.  CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but are required to wear identification badges and legally may only act in their official capacity when accompanied by regular police.  The CPVPV’s purview includes discouraging and reporting public and private contact between unrelated men and women (gender mixing); practicing or displaying emblems of non-Islamic faiths or failing to respect Islam; “immodest” dress, especially for women; displaying or selling media contrary to Islam, including pornography; producing, distributing, or consuming alcohol; venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices; practicing “sorcery” or “black magic”; and committing, facilitating, or promoting acts, publications, or thoughts considered lewd or morally degenerate, including adultery, homosexuality, and gambling.  The CPVPV reports to the king through the Council of Ministers, and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees its operations on the king’s behalf.

The judicial system is based on laws largely derived from the Quran and the Sunna, developed by fatwas issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king, and other royal laws and ordinances.  The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas.  The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions.  The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters.  The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).  There are no Shia members.  Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The country’s legal architecture does not derive from a common law system, and judges are not bound by legal precedent.  In the absence of a comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely.  Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and Supreme courts, although appellate decisions sometimes result in a harsher sentence than the original court decision.  Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, but with a focus on the Hanbali school.

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

Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims.  Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia.  The Human Rights Commission (HRC), a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints.  There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year, the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.

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

Government Practices

There were reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including one incident leading to death.  Online media and NGOs reported in March that Ahmed Attia, a Shia activist deported to the country from Bahrain in January, reportedly suffered memory loss as a result of physical abuse while in detention in Dammam prison.  Shia Rights Watch (SRW) also reported the March 13 death of 61-year-old Haj Ali Jassim Nazia as a result of physical abuse in prison.

Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law.  On March 15, UN experts said 15 individuals convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism were facing imminent execution after their sentences were referred to the Royal Court for ratification by the king.  The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced the 15 individuals, all of whom were Shia, to death in December 2016 and further court rulings in July and December 2017 upheld the sentences.  Human rights organizations widely decried the legal process as not heeding international standards for fair trial guarantees and transparency.  At the end of the year, the government had not carried out the sentences.

International NGOs stated they were unable to obtain any information on the status of Ahmad al-Shammari, who had reportedly been sentenced to death for charges related to apostasy in April 2017, and was believed still to be incarcerated.  It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

On January 4, the SCC sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  The ruling overturned a previous verdict issued by the SCC in July 2017, acquitting al-Habib of the charges of inciting sedition and sectarianism, incitement against the rulers, and defaming religious scholars.  According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

In August the public prosecutor announced charges against six Shia activists, including female activist Israa al-Ghomgham, from the Eastern Province arrested between September 2015 and April 2016 based on the Islamic law principle of ta’zir, in which the judge has discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime and over the sentence.  The charges include “instigating riotous gatherings” in Qatif, “joining a terrorist organization linked to an enemy state,” “chanting anti-government slogans,” and “providing moral support for those rioting and instigating sectarian strife.”  According to HRW, the SCC in the Qatif region was the venue for the defendants’ trial.  There were no updates on the case at year’s end.

Up to 34 individuals, all believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution as they awaited implementation orders for death sentences already confirmed by the Supreme Court for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012, according to human rights organizations.  Up to nine of these persons – including Ali al-Nimr (the nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, and Mujtaba al-Sweikat – may have been minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted; however, the government disputed these claims, noting the courts and sharia system use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations.  Human rights organizations said many of the convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.  Many of these individuals alleged authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation.  Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery.

On June 7, police arrested Vishnu Dev Radhakrishnan, an Indian national and employee of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (also known as Saudi Aramco) for “cybercrime pertaining to blasphemy and spreading messages against the Kingdom through social media.”  Radhakrishnan allegedly sent messages on Twitter criticizing the Prophet Mohammed.  On September 13, a court sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment and a 150,000 riyal ($40,000) fine.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet.  Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes.  By year’s end, the government had not carried out the remaining 950 lashes.

At year’s end, the status of Ahmad al-Shammari’s appeal of his death sentence following his 2017 conviction on charges related to apostasy was unknown.  According to media reports, Shammari allegedly posted videos to social media accounts in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

In September the SCC opened trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the MB.  The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari.  The three were arrested in September 2017.  The public prosecutor reportedly sought the death penalty against them.  The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents.  In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.”  None referred to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence, according to a HRW statement on September 12.  The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.”  The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization.

Authorities are reported to have arrested cleric Abdelaziz al-Fawzan in July after he spoke out against the arrests of other religious leaders in the country, according to the website Middle Eastern Eye.  The Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account reported that Fawzan, a professor of comparative religious law at the Saudi Higher Institute of Justice, had been arrested over a tweet in which he had “expressed his opinion against the suppression of sheikhs and preachers.”

According to Reuters, the government detained influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali and three of his sons in July, widening an apparent crackdown against clerics, intellectuals, and rights campaigners.  Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa [Awakening] movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.  Authorities reportedly transferred al-Hawali to a hospital in September after his health deteriorated.

In August multiple media outlets reported that the government detained Saleh al-Talib, an imam and preacher at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after he reportedly delivered a sermon on the duty in Islam to speak out against the spread of vice.

In September social media and activist websites reported on the suspension or detention of Mecca Grand Mosque imams.  Khalid bin Ali al-Ghamdi was reportedly suspended and ordered to refrain from preaching or engaging in Islamic da’wa (religious outreach).  No reason was announced for the suspension.  Sheikh Faisal bin Jameel al-Ghazawi was reportedly suspended from his position at the Mecca Grand Mosque.  Al-Ghazawi was reportedly also barred from all preaching and da’wa activities.  A third Mecca Grand Mosque imam, Sheikh Bandar Abdulaziz Balila, was reportedly detained by security forces for four days for unknown reasons.

In October the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki with calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labelling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS, among other charges.  He remained in detention waiting a second trial at year’s end.

On July 2, authorities detained Zuhair Hussein Bu Saleh to implement a prior sentence of two months imprisonment and 60 lashes for practicing congregational prayers at his house due to the lack of Shia mosques in the Eastern Province, according to the international NGO European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.  Bu Saleh was previously arrested in 2015 for “calling for unauthorized gatherings,” and the government closed the prayer hall he supervised.

In August authorities referred cleric Ali Al-Rabieei for prosecution for allegedly tweeting sectarian and anti-Shia content, according to media reports.  Al-Rabieei subsequently apologized for this tweet and reportedly fled abroad.

In August the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of a man who appeared in a video carrying machine guns and threatening to kill Shia citizens in Najran, in the southern part of the country.

According to Shia groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia, more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout the Eastern Province and additional individuals remained subject to travel bans.  Authorities had arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia, including acts of violence, according to NGO reports.  Most were held on charges involving nonviolent offenses, including participating in or publicizing protests on social media, inciting unrest in the country, and insulting the king.

SRW reported in April government forces raided a Shia prayer hall in Qatif, arresting three men.  According to SRW, the forces also surrounded multiple neighborhoods in Qatif, setting up checkpoints and restricting entry to and departure from the areas.  SRW also reported that authorities arrested a teenage female Shia activist, Nour Said Al-Musallam, for tweets critical of the government.

The UK newspaper The Independent reported that social media users who posted or shared satire attacking religion faced imprisonment for up to five years under strict new laws introduced in the country.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), the country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter:  “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

A December report by the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, issued after a visit to the country in April and May, stated “The special rapporteur is further concerned at the pattern of systematic repression in the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shi’a population resides.  The Special Rapporteur has received credible allegations that many individuals protesting against repression of the Shia have been detained.  Their cases are currently making their way through the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC).  Many of these individuals were reportedly peaceful protesters, simply asking for increased religious freedoms, equal rights for the Shi’a community and political reform.  Some have been convicted for the expression of their political views; some for coordinating protests through social media; and some even for providing first aid to protesters.  In this process, a number of individuals who were under the age of criminal responsibility at the time they committed the alleged offences have now been sentenced to death.  Others have already been executed.”

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

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religions.  According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons and restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons it considered sectarian or political, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy.  Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship.  The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence abroad, including in Syria and Iraq.  The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.  MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas.  In July the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to call in and report on statements by imams that observers considered objectionable.  In August Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh announced the ministry was developing a mobile phone app which would monitor sermons and allow mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work content and length.  According to a BBC report in August, the government was engaged in deliberations on the reform of religious teachings and in a debate on unifying the content of sermons to steer people away from “foreign, partisan, or Muslim Brotherhood” thought.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden.

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

In March MOIA official Hashem bin Mohammed al-Barzanji referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet.

Since 2016, authorities permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, home to the largest Shia population in the country.  As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was again a significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September.  According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.  Religious groups reported, however, that officials typically charged those arrested during private worship services with gender-mixing, playing music, or other infractions not explicitly related to religious observance.  There were again no known reports of individuals contacting these or other governmental agencies for redress when their ability to worship privately was infringed.

According to government policy, non-Muslims were prohibited from being buried in the country.  There was, however, at least one public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially.  The only other known non-Muslim cemetery was private and only available to Saudi Aramco employees.  Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

Authorities generally required Shia mosques to use the Sunni call to prayer, including in mixed neighborhoods of both Sunni and Shia residents.  In some predominantly Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Shia call to prayer.  In smaller Shia villages where there was virtually no CPVPV presence, reports indicated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunnis practice), or not at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government threatened to expel foreigners who did not refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.  According to media reports, it prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The CPVPV continued to monitor social behavior and promote official standards of morality, although instances of CPVPV interactions with individuals reportedly decreased significantly in most urban areas, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction or provide them employment benefits, which the government provided to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam.  The project continued as part of the government’s Vision 2030 development and reform plan announced in April 2016.  The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although intolerant material remained in circulation, including older versions of textbooks, particularly at the high school level, that contained language disparaging Christians and Jews.  Content included statements justifying the execution of “sorcerers” and social exclusion of non-Muslims, as well as statements that Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims, and Sufi Muslims did not properly adhere to monotheism.  In September Human Rights Watch reported some school textbooks continued to employ biased, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shia language.  Some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a report on textbooks in November, entitled “Teaching Hate and Violence:  Problematic Passages from Saudi State Textbooks for the 2018-19 School Year.”  The report found that school textbooks for the 2018-19 academic year contained “dozens of troubling passages that clearly propagate incitement to hatred or violence against Jews, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, women, homosexual men, and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam.”  In its press release announcing the report, the ADL stated “The Saudi curriculum is replete with intolerant passages about Jews and Judaism; some passages even urge violence against Jews.  Others retread classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and assert conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish and Israeli plots to attack the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.”

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

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

The CPVPV, in coordination with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that reportedly contained “objectionable” content and “ill-informed” views of religion.  The CPVPV shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anticybercrimes law.  The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.  In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger.  Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked, however.

The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, while the remaining 30 percent were at private residences or were built and endowed by private persons.  The construction of any new mosque required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits.  The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerical workers.

Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars.  Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports.  The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques.  Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques.  Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques.  Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers.  According to NGO reports, construction of Shia mosques was not approved outside Shia enclave areas.  There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar.  Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment.  Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.

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

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations.  The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management.  There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live.  According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September “the Saudi judicial system…often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices.”

Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities.  Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring.  There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated that public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown.  Many Shia reportedly stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.

Although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 12 percent of the total citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population, representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI.  In contrast with previous years, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister.  There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province.  There were five Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council.  A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia were concentrated, had large proportions of Shia as members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.  Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.  Shia were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard.  According to an article published in September by both Foreign Policy magazine and HRW, “Shiite students are generally kept out of military and security academies, and they rarely find jobs within the security force.”  In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools.  Shiites are regularly denied access to justice, are arbitrarily arrested, and face discriminatory verdicts.  Scores of them have described the … religiously motivated charges they face in court, including the standard charges of “cursing God, the Prophet, or his companions.”

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

There were continued media reports however, that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic, religiously intolerant language in their sermons.  Cases of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities.  During the year, the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.  According to the ministry, during the year, similar to the previous year, no clerics publicly espoused intolerant views warranting dismissal.  Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials.  The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.

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

The government did not formally permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services.  Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.  This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.  Multiple press outlets reported that visiting Bishop Anba Morkos of Shoubra el-Kheima held the first Coptic Orthodox Mass in the country in December, in a private residence.

The country’s crown prince told The Atlantic in an April interview that he recognized the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state.  According to the magazine, no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.  In the interview, he also said that the Shia “are living normally” in the country.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts:  “The Torah, The Talmud, The Protocols of Zion.” (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic tract originally disseminated by the Czarist secret police alleging a Jewish plot aimed at world domination.)  In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

According to the ADL, state television hosted several   hour-long programs   during Ramadan featuring Saad al-Ateeq, a preacher who called   for God to “destroy  ” the Christians, Shia, Alawites, and Jews.  State television also featured Saleh al-Fawzan, who remained   a member of the CSS and was visited   in April by the crown prince, according to al-Arabiya.  The Economist previously reported that Fawzan claimed   ISIS was actually a creation of Jews, Christians, and Shia.  According to Human Rights Watch, he characterized Shia Muslims as “the brothers of Satan.”  According to the ADL, the government gave the honor   of delivering the Eid al-Fitr sermon in June at the Grand Mosque in Mecca to Saleh bin Humaid, who holds a seat   on the CSS.  Bin Humaid previously claimed   it was in Jews’ “nature” to “plot against the peoples of the world.”

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, anti-Semitic books including Mein Kampf were offered for sale at the Riyadh Book Fair.

During the year, some Qatari nationals reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from the border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017.  The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah.  Qatari nationals were purportedly also able to register for Hajj through third country governments.

Al-Monitor, a website covering news from the Middle East, reported in November that the government halted visa issuances to people who held temporary passports and no national identification.  This prevented Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere from traveling to perform religious rites, particularly the Hajj and Umrah.

In April, in the first visit to the country by a senior Catholic official, Chairman of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss the role of followers of religions and cultures in renouncing violence, extremism, and terrorism and achieving worldwide security and stability.  On March 4, the crown prince met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral.

On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.  Following the meeting, the group met with the government-sponsored Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level.  Al-Issa stated the meeting was an exchange to advance understanding and the message of a “moderate and tolerant Islam.”  On January 28, al-Issa wrote a public letter to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, calling the Holocaust “an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”  In October MWL representatives discussed religious cooperation with several non-Muslim religious community leaders including a prominent U.S. Jewish leader at the MWL-sponsored Cultural Rapprochement Between the US and the Muslim World conference in New York.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.  Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  In addition, terms like “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.

Open Doors, an international NGO, reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution.  Women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, according to Freedom House, “self-censorship [on social media] remained prevalent when discussing topics such as politics, religion, or the royal family.”

Anti-Semitic comments continued to appear in the media.  For example, in May the newspaper Al-Iqtisadiyya printed an editorial cartoon showing a grinding machine in the shape of the Star of David, grinding Gazans into skulls.

According to MEMRI.org, Abdulwahab al-Omari, a government-licensed imam in Bisha, preached in January that Jews would be turned into apes and pigs, and that on Judgment Day, they would be the soldiers of the Antichrist.  According to MEMRI.org’s translation, al-Omari said Jesus would descend before the Judgment Day, accept sharia, and pursue and kill the Antichrist.  The Muslims would then “pounce on the Jews and kill them.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior embassy and consulate general officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.  In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, MOIA, the government-funded Muslim World League, and other relevant ministries and agencies during the year, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Syria

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.”  There is no official state religion.  Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees, including by imprisonment or death.  A new law passed on April 2 allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” that will be slated for reconstruction; multiple reports indicated the government planned to utilize the law to reconfigure religious demographics in certain areas at the expense of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.  There were continued media reports the government and its Shia Muslim militia allies (consisting mostly of foreigners) killed, arrested, and physically abused members of opposition groups which were predominantly Sunni Muslim.  According to multiple observers, the government continued to employ tactics aimed at bolstering the most violent elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition in order to shape the conflict with various resistance groups so it would be seen as one in which a religiously “moderate” government was facing a religiously “extremist” opposition.  As the insurgency continued to be identified with the Sunni population, the government reportedly targeted opposition-held towns and neighborhoods for siege, mortar shelling, and aerial bombardment, including the bombardment of East Ghouta and Daraa, and an April chemical weapons attack against the Damascus suburb of Douma, resulting in mostly Sunni casualties.  The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year.  According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Iran further exacerbated the conflict in areas that remained under its influence by continuing to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants from Iran to travel to Syria and assist the government in its conflict against majority Sunni opposition forces.  The government continued to monitor sermons, close mosques between prayer times, and limit the activities of religious groups, and to say the armed resistance comprised “extremists” and “terrorists.”  According to international media reports, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as their protector against violent Sunni extremists.  According to multiple human rights groups, the government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.

The United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, U.S. and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict.  ISIS lost the vast majority of the territory it once controlled and was reduced largely to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year.  As a result, ISIS witnessed a significant decline in its ability to target religious groups.  ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze-inhabited city of Sweida in late July.  The attacks left over 250 people dead, and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was executed by ISIS.  Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.  ISIS continued to hold thousands of enslaved Yezidi women and girls kidnapped in Iraq and trafficked to Syria because of their religious beliefs to be sold or distributed to ISIS members as “spoils of war.”  While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing.  ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for what ISIS said were religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress.  ISIS required Christians to convert, flee, pay a special tax, or face execution.  It destroyed churches, Shia shrines, and other religious heritage sites, and used its own police force, court system, and a revised school curriculum to enforce and spread its interpretation of Islam.  HTS replaced governmental courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against members of religious minorities.  HTS also continued to indoctrinate children with its interpretation of Salafi-jihadist ideology, including through schools and youth training camps.  In January the Turkish Army, along with Turkish-sponsored opposition groups, including elements of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), launched an air and ground campaign against the enclave of Afrin, held by the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG), displacing approximately 167,000 people, including Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians.  According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis, forced them to convert to Islam, and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.

There were reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, ISIS and HTS targeting of religious groups, and sectarian rhetoric.  Alawites reportedly faced attacks because other religious groups believed government policy favored Alawites; sectarian conflict was one of the driving factors of the insurgency, according to observers.  Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence, including kidnappings, at the hands of violent extremist groups.  Once religiously diverse neighborhoods, towns, and villages were increasingly segregated between majority Sunni neighborhoods and communities that comprised religious minority groups, as displaced members of religious groups relocated seeking greater security and safety by living with coreligionists.  There were more than 6.1 million internally displaced Syrians and more than 5.48 million Syrian refugees.

The U.S. President and the Secretary of State stressed the need for a political transition in the country leading to an inclusive government that would respect the right of all persons to practice their religion freely.  The Secretary of State highlighted that ISIS was guilty of genocide against religious groups during his remarks in July at the Department of State-sponsored Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom.  Although the U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, the U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other senior U.S. officials continued to meet elsewhere with leaders of minority religious groups to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations and ways to counter sectarian violence.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  At year’s end there were more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees, primarily Sunni, registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries and 6.2 million IDPs.  Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates approximately 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans.  According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

U.S. government estimates put the Christian population at 10 percent of the overall population, although media and other reports of Christians fleeing the country as a result of the civil war suggest the Christian population is now considerably lower.  Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, and NGOs estimate fewer than 20 Jews remained in the country in 2012.  It is unclear how many, if any, Jews currently reside in Syria.  There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

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

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox churches, the Eastern Catholic (or Uniate) churches (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church), or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian churches.  Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast section of the country.  While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has since moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq.  Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Governorate of Sweida, where they constitute the majority of the local population.  Yezidis, found primarily in the northeast, also previously lived in Aleppo.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

The constitution states “[issues] of personal status of the religious communities shall be protected and respected,” and “the citizens are equal in rights and duties, without discrimination among them on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or creed.”  Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it has violated their rights.

According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees.  This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism.  Neither the government nor the state security court have defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity.  Affiliation with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment.

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

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

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

According to a Washington think tank, in October the government issued a law regulating the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf).  The new law grants the Awqaf additional powers, including the establishment of a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist or deviant thought.  The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Wahhabism.”  The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight over the country’s religious affairs.

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

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

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

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

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians.  According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs.  In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.  When a Christian woman marries a Muslim, she is not entitled to an inheritance from her husband unless she converts to Islam.

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

Law No. 10, passed on April 2, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction.  Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.  If an individual does not claim ownership successfully during the one-year period, as amended by Law No. 42, the property reverts to the local government.  An individual can prove ownership in person or through designated proxies.

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

Government Practices

There were continued reports that the war waged by the Alawi dominated government against opposition forces and terrorist groups resulted in significant casualties among the majority Sunni population.  The government continued its widespread and systematic use of unlawful killings, including through the repeated use of chemical weapons, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, including civilians, the majority of whom were Sunni Muslims.

According to some analysts, religious and sectarian factors were present on all sides of the civil war, but there were also other factors underlying the violent competition for political power and control of the central government in Damascus, and violence committed by the government against opposition groups and civilians inherently had sectarian and nonsectarian elements.  According to many observers, including academic experts, the government’s policy, aimed at eliminating opposition forces threatening its power, was sectarian in its effects, although it was not motivated primarily by sectarian ideology.

According to the COI, multiple human rights organizations, and media reports, the government and progovernment forces used weaponry incapable of adequately discriminating between civilian and military targets in densely populated areas, used chemical weapons, and deliberately denied humanitarian aid.  In April the government and progovernment forces launched a massive assault on the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, culminating in the government’s recapture of an area it had besieged since 2013.  SNHR compiled a list of 1,473 civilians killed in the offensive, most of whom were Sunni Muslims.  During the battle for East Ghouta, according to UN and press reports, the government resumed chemical weapons attacks on civilians, with bombing in the predominantly Sunni Damascus suburb of Douma involving the possible use of sarin that killed at least 70 civilians.  The government and progovernment forces subsequently launched an assault on opposition-controlled areas of Daraa Province and reasserted government control in July.  The government’s military victories in the Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa resulted in the forced displacement of mostly Sunni residents.  The government forced them to relocate primarily to opposition-held Idlib Province due to its suspicion that they were supportive of the opposition.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Commission of Inquiry, SNHR, and Syrian human rights activists reported government-affiliated forces and militias continued to seize the homes of Sunnis with the explicit intention of permanently displacing these individuals and thus altering the demographics of areas held by the regime.  Analysts said this was evidenced by population shifts in Homs.  Groups such as SNHR said the government’s displacement operations were sectarian in nature.

According to numerous reports, government and partner forces, including Iranian-backed Shia militias composed mostly of foreigners, killed, arrested, and physically abused individuals in attacks on opposition-held territory as part of their effort to defeat the armed insurrection mounted by opposition groups, as well as terrorist groups, and to intimidate Sunni communities that might support opposition groups.  According to SNHR, the civilian death toll for 2018 was 6,964, including 4,162 killed by government forces and Iranian militias.  The COI stated Sunnis accounted for the majority of civilian casualties and detainees.

Human rights organizations and civil society groups reported the government continued to arbitrarily detain tens of thousands of citizens without due process.

The SNHR report noted that arbitrary arrests of individuals have been made in the country on a daily basis since the start of the conflict for “exercising one of their basic rights such as the freedom of opinion and expression, or because they were denied a fair trial, or because they were detained after their punishment had ended.”

Human rights groups and opposition activists stated the majority of detainees the government took into custody were Sunni Arabs.  The UN and human rights organizations reported the continued detention and disappearance of individuals who appeared to be predominantly Sunni Muslims.  According to an SNHR report, the government used “enforced disappearance” and secretly arrested more than 95,000 Syrians since 2011.  The report stated that detainees were subject to torture intended to “inflict serious physical damage or cause severe pain for numerous purposes, whether to extract information, for retaliation, or to cause panic among detainees.”  According to the report, 13,608 individuals died from torture between March 2011 and August 2018.  The vast majority of tortured and executed prisoners were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition, or likely to support the opposition.  The SNHR report stated that at least 7,706 arbitrary arrests were made in 2018.

The SNHR report stated that the government was responsible for at least 87 percent of all arbitrary arrests; nonstate actors also engaged in this practice.  In most cases, victims’ families could not accurately identify the entity that made the arrest, since Iranian militias, the predominantly Shia Lebanese Hezbollah, and all other progovernment forces were able to engage in arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances.

Over the course of the summer, government officials released death notices of prisoners held in government detention facilities.  SNHR stated that the number of detainees certified as dead was unknown, but it was estimated to be in the thousands.  The SNHR noted the government delayed announcing those detainees certified dead until years later as a way to punish the victims’ families.  In its review of the notifications, the Washington Post wrote that the notices were of detainees who died between 2013 and 2015, with the overwhelming majority of them Sunni Muslim.

Some opposition groups and terrorist groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist groups in statements and publications and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis, giving government targeting of the opposition a sectarian element.  NGO sources also stated the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from Sunni extremist groups, while simultaneously bolstering radical Sunni groups and controlling the activities of religious groups.  As a result, a number of minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists, according to international media reports.

In May Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government’s adoption of Law No. 10 would lead to confiscation of property without due process or compensation and would create a major obstacle for refugees and IDPs to return home.  HRW said it would be nearly impossible for thousands of refugees and IDPs to claim their property and that the procedural requirements of the law, coupled with the political context, created significant potential for abuse and discrimination, particularly toward the Sunni population.  Subsequent to the law’s passage in April, an October report by HRW detailed how the government began preventing mostly Sunni displaced residents from former antigovernment-held areas in Darayya and Qaboun from returning to their properties, including by demolishing their properties without warning and without providing alternative housing or compensation.

According to multiple press reports and human rights organizations, the vast majority of refugees and displaced were Sunni and viewed with suspicion by the government.  Other human rights organizations joined with HRW in observing that the government could potentially use Law No. 10 to engage in abuse and discriminatory treatment of mostly Sunni displaced residents and residents from areas previously held by opposition forces.  They stated they feared Law No. 10 would be used to reconstruct religious demographics.  According to the Carnegie Endowment of Peace, significant numbers of the Syrian refugee population indicated that they were unlikely to return if they were unsure of being able to repossess their house or property.  According to refugee and human rights organizations, 70 percent of refugees lacked the basic identity documents needed to claim property.  The organizations stated that mostly Sunni displaced individuals without the proper documents required to claim property ownership feared persecution, arbitrary arrest, or mistreatment by the security services.

According to HRW, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continued to recruit Shia Afghan refugees and migrants residing in Iran to assist the government in its conflict against armed opposition groups.  HRW reported Iran had supported and trained thousands of Afghans to fight in the country as part of the Fatemiyoun Division since 2013.  HRW and other sources estimated the size of the division to be up to 14,000 fighters.  The Washington Post reported most Afghan fighters of the Fatemiyoun Division were refugees or migrants living in Iran, and hundreds came from poor, ethnic Hazara communities near the Iranian border, as well as other regions of Afghanistan.  According to analysts, the use of Shia fighters from as far as Afghanistan as soldiers in an armed conflict against a mostly Sunni opposition further exacerbated sectarian divisions.

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

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

The government continued its support for radio and television programming related to the practice and study of a form of Islam it deemed appropriate.  State media allowed only those clerics it approved to preach on the air, and booksellers were prohibited from selling literature that the government deemed was against the government’s interpretation of Islam.

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

Media and academic experts said the government continued to portray the armed resistance in sectarian terms, saying opposition protesters and fighters were associated with “extreme Islamist factions” and terrorists seeking to eliminate the country’s religious minority groups and its secular approach to governance.  The official state news agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on the government’s fight against “takfiri terrorist organizations” throughout the year (a group is defined as takfiri if it declares another Muslim or a Muslim group as apostate).  An August 14 SANA article, referring to a Roman-era historic site destroyed in the civil war, was titled “Zein El-Abidine Palace in Daraa stands witness to Takfiri terrorist crimes.”

According to international media reports, leaders from a number of minority religious groups, such as representatives of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities as well as prominent Druze activists, continued to state the government had their support because it protected them from violent Sunni extremists.

The government continued to warn the Sunni population against communications with foreign coreligionists that it described as communication for the purpose of political opposition or military activity.  For most other religious groups, the government did not prohibit links between citizens and coreligionists in other countries or between citizens and the international religious hierarchies governing some religious groups.  It continued to prohibit, however, contact between the Jewish community and Jews in Israel.

Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.  SANA frequently reported on the “Zionist enemy” and accused the opposition of serving “the Zionist project.”  The government repeated its claim a “Zionist conspiracy” was responsible for the country’s conflict.  In response to an alleged Israeli airstrike in July, the government stated “the Zionist enemy returned in its desperate attempts to support defeated terror organizations in Daraa and in Quneitra.”

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

SNHR reported the government continued to conduct indiscriminate aerial and artillery attacks, which at times resulted in damage or destruction of places of worship and religious cultural property, including numerous churches and mosques.  Additionally, the government conducted targeted attacks against places of worship the regime claimed were occupied by armed actors.  SNHR documented 67 attacks by government forces against places of worship during the year.  On January 31, for example, government helicopters dropped barrel bombs near al Omrai al Kabir Mosque in Kafr Amim village, causing moderate damage to the mosque and its furnishings.  On February 27, government forces shelled Um Habiba Mosque in Douma city, partially destroying the mosque and putting it out of operation.  The government continued to state the mosques it targeted were being utilized by opposition forces for military purposes.

Jews generally were barred from government employment and did not have military service obligations.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

The COI and numerous independent sources reported nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the UN, the U.S., and other governments, such as ISIS and HTS, targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and arrests, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the areas of the country they controlled throughout the course of the conflict.

As of the end of the year, forces comprised of a coalition of 79 partners and the SDF liberated the vast majority of Syrian territory that ISIS once controlled and governed.  Until military operations largely removed ISIS from control of the country’s territory, ISIS killed hundreds of civilian men, women, and children through public executions, crucifixions, and beheadings on charges of apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and cursing God.

ISIS was reduced to a small area in the eastern part of the country by the end of the year; it no longer governed large populations, and was limited in its ability to subjugate religious groups and subject them to harsh treatment.  It continued, however, to operate and target individuals on the basis of religion on a smaller scale.  ISIS and HTS targeted religious minorities, including Shia and Ismaili Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and Yezidis, and members of the majority Sunni community who violated their strict interpretations of Islamic law.  In late July, for example, ISIS claimed credit for a wave of suicide attacks against the majority Druze population in the city of Sweida.  The attacks left more than 250 people dead and resulted in the capture of more than 30 Druze hostages by ISIS fighters, one of whom was later executed.  Al-Qaeda affiliated groups also lost significant territory, and at year’s end were mostly limited to the Idlib Governorate and had limited ability to target religious groups outside of their areas of control.  On September 7, al-Qaeda-linked rebels fired several missiles at the predominately Christian town of Mhardeh, according to multiple press reports.  The missiles killed at least 10 civilians and seriously wounded 20 others.  The charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reported that on January 22 rebels bombed Bab Touma, the Christian district in Damascus, leaving 12 dead and 35 injured.  ACN also reported that in early January shelling by rebels caused damage to the Syriac Orthodox patriarchate office in Bab Touma.

Many rebel groups self-identified as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist and drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis.  Armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law.  Religious offenses ISIS deemed punishable by death included blasphemy, apostasy, and cursing God.  ISIS punished individuals with floggings or imprisonment for other religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), as of June, Hezbollah had between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters in Syria, its largest deployment outside of Lebanon.  CSIS reports stated the bulk of Hezbollah’s forces and proxy militias were deployed along the Lebanese-Syrian border, where there were large numbers of Shia communities and shrines – and near Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah also deployed fighters around Damascus and Homs, and as far east as the Deir al-Zour Governorate in the Middle Euphrates River valley.

Hezbollah participated in the military campaigns against the mostly Sunni Damascus suburbs of East Ghouta and Daraa, which resulted in thousands of casualties.  Sources reported that Syrian soldiers and government-affiliated militias seized homes in these areas after “reconciliation” agreements forcefully displaced previous inhabitants, who were mostly Sunni Muslims.  The May COI report detailed a practice in which, after hostilities ceased and local truces were implemented, government and progovernment forces required individuals from the previously besieged areas to undergo a “reconciliation process” as a condition for remaining in their homes.  The option to reconcile reportedly often was not offered to healthcare personnel, local council members, relief workers, activists, dissidents, and family members of fighters.  In effect, the COI assessed that the “reconciliation process” induced displacement in the form of organized evacuations of those deemed insufficiently loyal to the government and served as a government strategy for punishing those individuals.

ISIS regularly targeted and massacred Shia Muslims, and used its media arms to target, demonize, and incite violence against Shia.

Numerous sources stated ISIS also targeted Christians throughout the country.  Activists, media, and ISIS sources reported ISIS continued to force Christians and other minorities in areas under its control to pay a protection tax – 164,000 Syrian pounds ($320) per person, according to a Christian organization – convert to Islam, flee, or be killed.

Starting in 2014, ISIS abducted thousands of Yezidi women from Iraq, as well as numerous Christian and Turkmen women, and brought them to the country to be sold as sex slaves in markets or given as rewards to ISIS fighters as “spoils of war” because of the captives’ religious beliefs.  According to numerous sources, ISIS fighters held the women as slaves and subjected them and other captured women and girls to repeated sexual violence, systematic rape, forced marriages, and coerced abortions.  While many Yezidi women were liberated when coalition forces and the Kurdish-dominated SDF liberated ISIS-held territory, thousands remained missing.

According to ISIS statements and other sources, in areas once under its control, ISIS police forces continued to administer summary punishments for violations of the ISIS morality code.  Men and women continued to face public beatings and whippings for smoking, possessing alcohol, listening to music, having tattoos, conducting business during prayer times, not attending Friday prayers, fighting, and not fasting during Ramadan.

HTS continued to characterize its fight against the government in derogatory terms aimed at delegitimizing and dehumanizing government supporters on the basis of their Alawite religious identity.  HTS and other rebel groups also used sectarian language to describe the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Unit (YPG) and SDF.  HTS replaced government courts with sharia councils in areas it controlled, authorizing discrimination against religious minorities.

In January the Turkish army, along with Turkish-opposition groups, including elements of the FSA, launched an air and ground campaign against the YPG-held enclave of Afrin.  The attack allegedly was designed to clear out Kurdish YPG fighters from the border region.  According to the United Nations, the press, and human rights organizations, approximately 167,000 people, mostly Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, were displaced.  According to media reports, displaced Yezidis said FSA forces in Afrin rounded up Yezidis and forced them to convert to Islam and destroyed Yezidi places of worship.  In the aftermath of the conflict, Turkish forces implemented a resettlement policy by moving displaced Sunni opposition forces and their families into the empty homes that belonged to displaced people, comprised mostly of religious minorities.

ISIS, HTS, and some Islamist opposition groups continued to call for establishing a Sunni theocracy in press statements and media interviews.

HTS and affiliated groups continued to use schools, youth training camps, and other means to teach children their Salafi-jihadi philosophy in areas under their control.  In “proselytization sessions,” a term used by HTS, the group invited children to participate in games whose content was based on al-Qaida’s religious beliefs.

In September multiple news outlets reported that the SDF shut down 14 Syriac Christian schools in the cities of Qamishli, Hasakeh, and Al-Malikiyeh for their refusal to implement a new school curriculum that required courses to be taught in the Kurdish language.  The schools were administered by the Syriac Orthodox Church diocese and had been in operation since 1935, serving Assyrian, Armenian, Arab, and Kurdish communities in the area.  School officials accused the SDF of attempting to “erase” Syriac history and culture and imposing a Kurdish nationalist curriculum.  In September journalist Soulman Yousph was arrested and detained for five days following an article he wrote criticizing the SDF for closing down Chaldean Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church private schools.  The Kurdish authority and the local Syriac Orthodox archbishopric eventually reached a deal that allowed the schools to reopen.  Samira Haj Ali, head of the Kurdish authority’s education authority, said the agreement ensured students in the first two grades followed a Syriac version of the Kurdish region’s curriculum.  In exchange, the agreement allowed students in classes three to six to follow the Damascus education curriculum with extra Syriac language classes available.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be reports of sectarian violence due to tensions among religious groups, exacerbated by government actions, cultural rivalries, and sectarian rhetoric.

Christians reported they continued to feel threatened by religious intolerance among the opposition as the influence of violent extremist groups increased.  According to observers, the Sunni Islamist character of the opposition continued to drive members of the Christian community to support the government.  Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi cosigned an April 14 statement strongly condemning Western air strikes against Syrian government positions while reasserting their support for the Syrian government.  The statement saluted, “the courage, heroism and sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army, which courageously protects Syria and provides security for its people.”

Advocacy groups reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversion relatively rare, especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which were banned by law.  They also reported societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or leave the country to practice their new religion openly.

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President and the Secretary of State continued to condemn the government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens, including the right to religious freedom.  The President repeatedly stressed the need for a political solution to the conflict that would be inclusive of all religious groups in the country.

The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, the moderate opposition, and the international community to support the UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens.  In July the Secretary hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom where he discussed the future of the country and supported the UN-led intra-Syria negotiations with foreign counterparts.  The Secretary highlighted the ISIS genocide against minority religious groups during his remarks.  The Secretary attended the Syria Small Group meeting with ministers from like-minded states during the UN General Assembly session in September, where he and the Small Group Ministers expressed their support for the UN’s role in negotiating a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for free, fair, and inclusive elections in Syria.  In addition, the Secretary affirmed the U.S. commitment to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and nonsectarian character; to ensuring state institutions remain intact; and to protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012.  U.S. government representatives met with Syrian religious groups and leaders in the U.S. and elsewhere in the region and the world, such as John X, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, leaders from the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, and Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam of the Umayyad Mosque, as part of its effort to promote an inclusive political settlement for the conflict.  The U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Levant, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other high ranking U.S. officials met with members of the Orthodox Christian, Sunni, Druze, and Alawite communities to discuss assistance to vulnerable populations, countering sectarian violence, and encouraging positive dialogue between members of the opposition and minority communities who felt threatened.  The Deputy Assistant Secretary and other officials participated in dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on increasing religious tolerance and countering extremist violence, including meetings with Yezidi-rights groups, Greek Orthodox leaders, and an August meeting with Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

The U.S. continued to support the documentation of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict through the COI and through direct support to Syrian-led documentation efforts.

Yemen

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the state religion and sharia the source of all legislation.  It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion.  The law prohibits denunciation of Islam, conversion from Islam to another religion, and proselytizing directed at Muslims.  The conflict that broke out in 2014 between the government, led by President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Houthi-led Ansar Allah, a Zaydi Shia movement, continued through year’s end.  While the president, vice president, and foreign minister remained in exile in Saudi Arabia, the remainder of the cabinet moved to Aden in October.  The government did not exercise effective control over much of the country’s territory.  Although causes for the war were complex, sectarian violence accompanied the civil conflict, which observers described as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”

In January the Houthi-controlled National Security Bureau (NSB) sentenced to death Hamed Kamal Muhammad bin Haydara, a Baha’i, on charges of espionage.  He had been imprisoned since 2013, accused of apostasy, proselytizing, and spying for Israel.  He remained in prison awaiting execution at year’s end.  According to the Baha’i International Community (BIC), in October armed soldiers in Sana’a arrested Baha’i spokesperson Abdullah Al-Olofi and detained him at an undisclosed location for three days.  According to the BIC, in September a Houthi-controlled court in Sana’a charged more than 20 Baha’is with apostasy and espionage.  A group of UN independent experts reported that authorities arrested 24 individuals in the incident, at least 22 of whom are Baha’is.  Amnesty International reported the charges could possibly result in death sentences.  The five UN experts said charges “must be dropped and discriminatory practices based on religion outlawed” and added, “We reiterate our call to the de facto authorities in Sanaa to put an immediate stop on the persecution of Baha’is.”  According to the BIC, as of October there were six Baha’is in prison in the country for practicing their faith.  During a speech in March, Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi called on his followers to defend their country from the Baha’is, who he described as infidels.  According to media reports, Houthi authorities modified the University of Sana’a student and faculty identification cards to include the Houthi flag and slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.”  Houthi Cultural Supervisor Yahya Abu Awadah introduced a mandatory course into the university curriculum called “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.”  Course material included the glorification of Hezbollah and condemnation of Zionism.  Sectarian polarization stimulated by the war with the Zaydi Houthis attracted recruits to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  United Arab Emirates (UAE) government forces aligned with local tribal fighters forced AQAP out of Mukalla during the year.  While in control of the city, AQAP institutionalized and enforced its interpretation of sharia.  It continued to have an operational presence in Wadi Belharith and Azzan in Shabwah, Wadi Obaidah in Ma’rib, Radda’a city in Bayda’, and Lawdar, Wadi and Mudiyah in Abyan.  The estimated number of AQAP operatives inside the country was between 6,000 and 7,000.  On January 23, Khaled Batarfi, a senior AQAP leader, recorded a video calling for knife and vehicle attacks against Jews in response to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

According to media reports, as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years.  Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print.  Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.

On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing U.S. government concern about the treatment of the Baha’i population in the country and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is.  On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit, based in Saudi Arabia, posted a statement cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen.  On November 28, the Secretary of State designated the Houthis as an “Entity of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  More than 99 percent of the population is Muslim (2010 estimate), belonging either to the Shafi’i order of Sunni Islam or the Zaydi order of Shia Islam.  While there are no official statistics, the U.S. government estimates 65 percent of the population to be Sunni and 35 percent Shia.  There is an indeterminate number of Twelver Shia (residing mainly in the north), Ismailis, and Sufis.  Jews, Baha’is, Hindus, and Christians, many of whom are refugees or temporary foreign residents, comprise less than 1 percent of the population.  Christian groups include Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

Ismailis include both the al-Makarem and Bohra communities.  Following the outbreak of the conflict, many Bohras fled the country for India.

Due to the continuing political instability and violence in the country, the once sizable population of Indian nationals continued to decrease.  There is no firm estimate of persons of Indian origin or of those who practice Hinduism residing in the country; according to one source, the population of Indian nationals numbers fewer than 3000.

The Jewish community is the only indigenous non-Muslim minority religious group.  Reports estimate approximately 50 Jews remain, concentrated in Sana’a and Raydah.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion.  It provides for freedom of thought and expression “within the limits of the law” but does not mention freedom of religion, belief, or conscience.  The constitution states sharia is the source of all legislation, although it coexists with secular common law and civil code models of law in a hybrid legal system.

Sharia serves as the basis of the legal system.  The courts of the first instance address civil, criminal, commercial, and personal status cases.  Informal tribunals, operating mostly in rural areas, administer customary law in addition to sharia to resolve disputes.

The constitution states the president must be Muslim (“practices his Islamic duties”); however, it allows non-Muslims to run for parliament, as long as they “fulfill their religious duties.”  The law does not prohibit political parties based on religion, but it states parties may not claim to be the sole representative of any religion, oppose Islam, or restrict membership to a particular religious group.

The criminal code states “deliberate” and “insistent” denunciation of Islam or conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy, a capital offense.  The law allows those charged with apostasy three opportunities to repent; upon repentance, they are absolved from the death penalty.

Family law prohibits marriage between a Muslim and an individual whom the law defines as an apostate.  Muslim women may not marry non-Muslims, and Muslim men may not marry women who do not practice one of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism).  By law, a woman seeking custody of a child “ought not” to be an apostate; a man “ought” to be of the same faith as the child.

The law prohibits proselytizing directed at Muslims.  The law prescribes up to three years’ imprisonment for public “ridicule” of any religion, and prescribes up to five years if the ridiculed religion is Islam.

There is no provision for the registration of religious groups.

By law, the government must authorize construction of new buildings.  The law, however, does not mention places of worship specifically.

Public schools must provide instruction in Islam but not in other religions.  The law states primary school classes must include knowledge of Islamic rituals and the country’s history and culture within the context of Islamic civilization.  The law also specifies knowledge of Islamic beliefs as an objective of secondary education.  Public schools are required to teach Sunni and Shia students the same curriculum; however, instructional materials indicate that schools in Houthi controlled areas are teaching Zaydi principles.

The Houthis and officials residing in Houthi-controlled areas representing the largest secular political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), jointly established the Supreme Political Council (SPC) in July 2016.  The SPC is a 10-member entity organized to establish and determine a governing structure for Yemen under the Houthi-led regime in Sana’a.  The government and the international community have deemed the SPC unconstitutional and illegitimate.

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

Government Practices

The cabinet, with the exception of President Hadi, Vice President Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who remained in Saudi Arabia, returned to Aden under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed in late October.  The government, however, did not exercise effective legal or administrative control over much of the country.

Although causes for the war are complex, sectarian violence has accompanied the civil conflict.  Since March 2015, the government has engaged in a military conflict with Ansar Allah (Houthis).  After the Houthis established control over Sana’a in September 2014, and expanded their control over significant portions of the country, senior government officials fled to Saudi Arabia, where they requested assistance from Saudi Arabia and other regional states.  As noted by the BBC, “Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring [President] Hadi’s government.”  The BBC report later described the conflict as “part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes damaged places of worship and religious institutions and caused casualties at religious gatherings, according to the UN, nongovernmental organizations, and media.

Prior to the outbreak of the current military conflict, the government permitted the use of Hindu temples in Aden and Sana’a as well as existing church buildings for religious services of other denominations.  Due to the conflict, information on the use of these religious sites was not available during the year.

The government was unable to verify the content of the religious curriculum taught in some private schools, although the government said it was aware of the forced introduction of Zaydi Shia teaching into the curriculum of schools within Houthi-controlled areas.  Some Muslim citizens attended private schools that did not teach Islam.  Most non-Muslim students were foreigners and attended private schools.  According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, schools were open for only a few hours a day in many areas and over 2,000 were closed because of damage or because displaced persons or armed groups had occupied them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Media reports indicated that as of August, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden during the last two years.

Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in print.

Jewish community members reported their declining numbers made it difficult to sustain their religious practices.

Ismaili Muslims continued to complain about discrimination.  The outbreak of the conflict hindered the ability of Indian Ismailis to perform pilgrimages to sites of religious significance within the country.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Because of the deteriorating security situation in Sana’a, the Department of State suspended embassy operations at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a on February 11, 2015, and resumed operations as the Yemen Affairs Unit, initially from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia until it moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in September 2018.  In meetings with officials from the government, U.S. officials continued to stress the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue.  Yemeni government officials routinely stressed they upheld these principles, and criticized the Houthis for persecuting religious minorities.

On May 14, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement expressing the U.S. government’s concern about the Baha’i population of Yemen and called on the Houthis to end their unacceptable treatment of the Baha’is, stating, “The Houthis have targeted the Baha’i community in inflammatory speech along with a wave of detentions, ‘court summons,’ and punishment without a fair or transparent legal process.  These actions over the past year indicate a persistent pattern of mistreatment of Baha’is in Yemen.  These actions appear to be an effort to pressure Yemeni Baha’is to recant their faith.”

On November 8, the Yemen Affairs Unit posted a statement that it signed on behalf of the United States and that was cosigned by the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom expressing deep concern about the worsening treatment of Baha’is in Yemen, stating, “We join others in calling on the Houthis to immediately release all Baha’is in their custody.  Respect for religious freedom is an essential building block for peace and prosperity in Yemen.”

On November 28, the Secretary of State designated the Houthis as an “Entity of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.