The constitution provides the individual the right to “freedom of conscience, thought, and religion and the practice of his religion and beliefs, including freedom to manifest and propagate his religion and beliefs” except where that practice infringes on another person’s rights or where it violates public laws, safety, and welfare of marginalized groups. The preamble of the constitution refers to “our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours.” There is no state religion.
Religious groups are required to register with the government in order to hold a bank account, own properties in the religious group’s name, have limited individual liability, and apply to the Internal Revenue Commission for exemption on income tax and to the Department of Treasury for exemption of import duty. To register, groups must provide documentation including a list of board or executive committee members and a constitution.
According to the law, religious instruction in public schools is noncompulsory, but Christian education is offered in most public schools. Students of non-Christian religious groups may opt out with approval of the school principal. Religious organizations are free to establish private schools, but students deciding to opt out of religious instruction might be asked to transfer to public schools.
Foreign missionary groups are permitted to proselytize and engage in other missionary activities. Religious workers receive a three-year special exemption visa from the government. Applications for the visa require a sponsor letter from a religious group in the country, an approved work permit from the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, and a 100 kina ($30) fee.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, authorities moved more than 300 refugees, primarily Muslims, from detention facilities on Manus Island to detention facilities in Port Moresby. Media reported the refugees were kept in extremely poor conditions, with many suffering from mental and physical illnesses. Some of the detainees had been in detention for six years, and at year’s end all were awaiting status determinations. Since religion, national origin, and refugee status are often closely linked, it was difficult to characterize their treatment as being based solely on religious identity.
In September police filed a defamation suit against Catholic Bishop of Alotau-Sideia Rolando Crisostomo Santos after he denounced what he said was police abuse of power. Santos posted on Facebook that police officers burned down 19 houses in Alotau after a night of drinking. The bishop stated this was the second time police had burned down homes in the area. On September 4, police arrested Santos and local Catholic education secretary Gregory Nimagale but soon released them on bail. Member of Parliament Charles Abel publicly apologized to Santos, said he would make changes to police personnel, and stated he asked police to drop charges against Santos.
The CLRC continued consultations with government agencies and churches at the national level on a proposed constitutional amendment defining the country as Christian, but funding and capacity shortfalls delayed the countrywide consultations. In November a CLRC lawyer reported progress had stalled because leaders at the DfCDR did not issue instructions on how the CLRC should implement its mandate. The lawyer further stated the National Executive Council, the country’s national cabinet, did not authorize the department to proceed with the consultations. The DfCDR stated that consultations were on hold due to lack of funding and capacity.
Parliament sessions and most government meetings began and ended with Christian prayers, but persons of different faiths were able to opt out with no repercussion. The speaker of the house selected a member of parliament to start the sessions with a Christian prayer. The National newspaper reported government authorities in Southern Highlands Province and some national government agencies continued to tell public servants they had to attend weekly morning devotions for 10 to 20 minutes; the specific day of the devotion varied by region and agency. Individuals choosing to opt out could do so without negative consequence. Pastors from different Christian denominations led the morning devotional sessions.
The Department of Education continued to set aside one hour per week for religious instruction in public schools. Such instruction remained legally noncompulsory, although almost all students attended. Representatives of Christian churches taught the lessons, and there was no standard curriculum. According to law, children whose parents did not wish them to attend the classes could opt out with approval of the school principal.
The Citizenship and Christian Values Education syllabus, making Christian life studies compulsory in elementary and secondary public, private, and church-run schools nationwide, was not finalized at year’s end.
The government continued to fund churches to deliver health and education services through the Church-State Partnership Program with additional funding from international partners. Mainline churches continued to operate approximately 60 percent of schools and health services in the country, and the government provided financial support for these institutions. The government subsidized their operation using a formula based on the number of schools and health centers run by each church. In addition, the government continued to pay the salary and provide benefits for the majority of teachers and health staff (generally members of the civil service) who worked at these church-administered institutions, as it did for teachers and health staff of national institutions. The facilities provided services to the general population irrespective of religious beliefs, and operations were not religious in nature.
In October Prime Minister Marape announced that by 2020, all state-owned companies would pay 10 percent of profits annually to churches to run social services.
Individual members of parliament continued to provide grants of government money to religious institutions in their constituencies to carry out religious activities. Nearly all of these institutions were Christian. In November the Post Courier newspaper reported one member of parliament procured a grant of 40,000 kina ($12,100) for the United Church in his constituency to implement local church programs. In previous years, there were reports of complaints from minority Christian churches because they had not received similar funding, but there were no such reports during the year.
The Church Partnership database, announced in 2018 by the DfCDR with the stated goal of providing more support to churches, was nonoperational at year’s end because technical issues made it inaccessible to the public, according to a statement from a DfCDR official.
In July Prime Minister Marape stated he wanted to make the country “the richest black Christian nation on earth.” Political opponents and civil society groups objected to the statement, saying the country did not have an exclusive ethnic or religious affiliation. In a September Post Courier editorial, the editorial board said the country prospered from a more diverse population and was not solely a “black Christian country.”
In August during National Prayer and Repentance Day, jointly organized by the PNGCC and the DfCDR, Prime Minister Marape said the country was declared a Christian country during Independence in 1975 and that status would remain unchanged.
The PNGCC continued to work with provincial governments to establish provincial church councils. According to the chairman of the PNGCC, the provincial church councils would “bring churches closer to the government.” The PNGCC included the Anglican, Seventh-day Adventist, Baptist Union, Roman Catholic, United, and Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the Salvation Army, as well as other churches and organizations as associate members.