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Algeria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship.  The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam.  The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations.  Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense.  Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime.  In May authorities charged 26 Ahmadi Muslims in Bejaia with “insulting the precepts of Islam,” “operating an association without approval,” and “collecting money without authorization.”  The courts acquitted three of the Ahmadis while sentencing the others to three months in prison.  According to media reports, authorities charged five Christians from Bouira Province, three of whom belong to the same family, with “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.”  On December 25, a judge at the court of Bouira acquitted the five individuals.  In March a court in Tiaret convicted and fined two Christian brothers for carrying more than 50 Bibles in their car.  Prosecutors said the accused planned to use them for proselytism; the brothers said they were for church use only.  The court fined each man 100,000 dinars ($850).  In May another court convicted a church leader and another Christian of proselytizing, sentenced them to three months in prison, and fined them 100,000 dinars.  Leaders of the Ahmadi community reported the government conducted investigations of at least 85 Ahmadi Muslims during the year.  Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations.  There were reports of police confiscating passports and educational diplomas from Ahmadi Muslims, and pressuring employers to put Ahmadi workers on administrative leave.  Authorities closed eight churches and a nursery associated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) during the year on charges of operating without authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes.  At the end of the year, four churches remained closed.  Some Christian groups continued to report facing a range of administrative difficulties in the absence of a written government response to their requests for recognition as associations.  The government continued to regulate the importation of all books, including religious materials.  Senior government officials continued to oppose calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam.  They also continued to criticize the spread of what they characterized as “foreign” religious influences such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam.

Media outlets reported the killings of three Sunni imams during the year.  The government attributed the attacks to extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings.  Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity.  Media reported unknown individuals vandalized two Christian cemeteries, smashing tombstones and ransacking graves.  Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas.  Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups, as well as with other members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation.  The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.  In April the embassy hosted a delegation of nine Americans – a university program officer, one imam, six community and religious leaders, and the executive director of a think tank – for a ten-day tour focused on promoting people-to-people religious ties.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs facilitated the delegation’s visit to six cities – Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Biskra, Tlemcen, and Maskara – where the delegation met with a range of imams, community leaders, and ministry officials to discuss the role of religion in countering extremist narratives and religious communities in the United States.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In May authorities prosecuted 26 Ahmadi Muslims in Bejaia for insulting the precepts of Islam, operating an association without approval, and collecting money without authorization.  Their case went to trial in June.  The court acquitted three persons, sentenced a married couple in absentia to six months in prison, and sentenced the remaining individuals to three months in prison.

The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups.  According to media reports, authorities arrested, jailed, and fined several Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities not related to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in the local community Muslims might attend.  According to media reports, authorities charged five Christians from Bouira Province, three of whom belong to the same family, with “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.”  On December 25, a judge at the court of Bouira acquitted the five individuals.

In March a court in Tiaret convicted two Christian brothers on proselytism charges for carrying more than 50 Bibles in their car.  Prosecutors said the accused planned to use the Bibles for proselytism, while the brothers said they were for church use only.  The court upheld the proselytism charges and fined each man 100,000 dinars ($850).

In May a court convicted a church leader and another Christian of proselytizing for transporting Bibles.  The court fined each individual 100,000 dinars ($850) and sentenced each to three months in prison.

In July a court in Dar El-Beyda dropped all charges against Idir Hamdad, a man arrested in April 2016 at the Algiers airport for carrying a Bible and several religious artifacts including crucifixes, scarves, and keyrings.  The court originally sentenced Hamdad in absentia in September 2017 to six months in prison and fined him 20,000 dinars ($170) on charges of importing unlicensed goods.  On May 3, following his lawyer’s appeal, the court overturned the prison sentence but upheld the fine.  On July 9, the prosecutor appealed, asking for a harsher sentence, but the court dropped all charges against Hamdad.  In its verdict, the court found that Hamdad was prosecuted “simply because he converted to Christianity, and what he was carrying was only gifts.”

Throughout the year, the government conducted investigations of at least 85 Ahmadi Muslims, according to leaders of the Ahmadi community.  Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations.  There were reports of police confiscating passports and educational diplomas from the Ahmadis, and pressuring employers to put Ahmadi workers on administrative leave.  Some of those investigated during the year were placed in pretrial detention, put on trial, and given prison sentences of up to six months.  Others appealed charges and court decisions, were placed under house arrest, or were freed after pretrial detention or serving a prison sentence.  As of December no Ahmadi Muslims were in prison.

Between November 2017 and December 2018, according to the president of the EPA, the government closed eight churches and a nursery associated with the EPA for operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes.  In June authorities reopened three churches in Oran, Ain Turk, and El Ayaida they had closed between November 2017 and February 2018.  As of the end of the year, three churches affiliated with the EPA in Bejaia and one non-EPA church in Tizi Ouzo remain closed.  Media reported that on December 4, in Oran, the provincial government cancelled the closure of a Christian bookshop associated with the nursery.  The bookshop owner, Pastor Rachid Seighir, was not compensated for the losses incurred since authorities ordered the shop’s closure in November 2017.

The UN Human Rights Committee in July adopted a report including the following language:  “the Committee remains concerned by reports of closures of churches and evangelical institutions and various restrictions on worship by Ahmadi persons.  It also expresses concern regarding allegations of attacks, acts of intimidation and arrests targeting persons who do not fast during Ramadan…”

A lawyer for the Ahmadi community said judges and prosecutors on several occasions questioned Ahmadi defendants in court about their religious beliefs and theological differences with Sunni Islam.  Members of the Ahmadi community said government officials tried to persuade them to recant their beliefs while they were in custody.

In April Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, was released after spending 18 months in prison for posting statements in 2016 on his Facebook page deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.  In July 2017, authorities commuted his sentence as part of a presidential amnesty.  A court originally sentenced Bouhafs to five years in prison plus a 100,000 dinar ($850) fine; authorities later reduced that sentence to three years.

In May a court in Tiaret upheld a verdict against Noureddine Belabbes and another Christian, who previously had been found guilty of proselytizing and fined 100,000 dinars ($850) and legal expenses after their arrest in 2015 for transporting Bibles.  Authorities originally sentenced Belabbes and his colleague in 2017 to two years in prison and a 50,000 dinar ($420) fine, but after a March appeal, the judge overturned the prison sentences and instead gave them suspended prison sentences of three months each and doubled the fines.  Belabbes stated that he would not appeal the judgment.

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

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

According to the MOI, although religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their applications within 60 days of submission, the 60-day clock did not begin until the ministry considered the application complete and had issued a receipt to that effect.  Nongovernmental organizations and religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt proving they had submitted a completed registration application.  Ahmadis reported their request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns had not received a government response.

The Ahmadi community reported administrative difficulties and harassment since they are not a registered association and are unable to meet and collect donations.  Members of the Ahmadi community said they tried to register with the MRA and Ministry of Interior (MOI) as a Muslim group but the government rejected their applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims.  The government said it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis refused to file as anything but Muslims.

In accordance with the 2012 Associations Law that all organizations needed to reregister with the government, several religious groups registered under the previous law continued to try to reregister with the government.  The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church submitted paperwork to renew their registrations in 2014 but as of year’s end had still not received a response from the MOI.

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

Most Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006.  Other MRA officials, however, met regularly with Christian leaders to hear their views, including complaints about the registration process.  Christian leaders stated some Protestant groups continued to avoid applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations.  Other Christian groups, particularly in the Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.  There were no reports of the government shutting down house churches during the year.

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

The government did not grant any permits for the importation of Christian religious texts during the year, and at least one request remained pending from 2017.  Representatives of the EPA stated they had been waiting more than a year for a new import authorization; the last such authorization was in October 2016.  Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight.  The government enforced its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

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

According to religious community leaders, the government did not always enforce the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

In August a local Muslim man applied to a court in Tebessa to marry a Belgian Christian woman.  The court rejected his request because the woman “is Christian and does not embrace Islam.”

Sources stated that Christian leaders were able to visit Christians in prison, regardless of the nature of their imprisonment.

Church groups reported the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in an increase in de facto visa refusals.  One Christian leader said the government did not grant or refused 50 percent of visas requested for Catholic Church workers.  As of the end of the year, three members of the Catholic Church had been waiting a year for visas.  Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as a significant hindrance to religious practice.  One religious leader identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization.  Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups.

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

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight.  The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism include dedicated state-run religious TV and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media.

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

Government officials continued to invite leading Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions.  President Abdelaziz Bouteflika invited Christian and Jewish community representatives to the November 1 parade to commemorate the beginning of the revolution, according them the same status as Muslim, cultural, and national figures.

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

Government officials regularly made statements about the need for tolerance of non-Islamic religious groups.  In May imams, representatives from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and municipal officials participated in an interfaith event at a Catholic church in Algiers on the significance of the Virgin Mary in Islam and Christianity.  The same group attended an exhibition on the 99 names of Allah at a Catholic church during Ramadan.

In December a cardinal of the Catholic Church beatified 19 Catholics killed during Algeria’s civil war at a ceremony in Oran.  Algerian authorities facilitated the beatification process by providing transportation, security, and visas to members of the Catholic Church who attended the ceremony.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January unknown individuals hoping to regain control of mosques they reportedly considered too liberal physically killed two imams in the cities of Skikda and Tadjena, respectively.  The attacks took place during weekly committee meetings to manage the mosques’ space and affairs.  After the attacks, Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa filed a complaint and started an investigation of those who attacked the imams.  As of the end of the year, the government had not released updates or results of the investigation to the public.

In June Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa said, “It is no secret that radicals are constantly trying to seize the mosques of the republic and influence the mosques’ messages.  These individuals managed to infiltrate groups that seemed pacifist.  They are the cause of the death of two imams; they hurt and insulted dozens of others who did not share their ideologies.”  In July Aissa froze the weekly mosque management committee meetings because he reportedly felt extremist individuals would try to direct the mosques via these committee meetings.  He said these events were reminiscent of the 1990s when the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front forcibly seized control of mosques to spread its extremist ideology.

In October unknown individuals stabbed an imam in a mosque before dawn prayer near the city of Laghouat.  Mosque attendees found the imam and called emergency services, which declared the imam dead.  At year’s end, the government was conducting an investigation to find the individuals responsible.

Media reported a group of young people desecrated more than 31 Christian graves in the British Military La Reunion War Cemetery in Oued Ghir, Bejaia in September, smashing tombstones and ransacking the graves.  A few weeks earlier, unknown individuals vandalized another Christian cemetery in Ain M’lila.  Authorities stated they believed Islamic extremists were responsible for the vandalism but no news of those responsible had been released by year’s end.

Christian leaders said when Christian converts died family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf.  Christian groups reported some villages continued not to permit Christians to be buried alongside Muslims.

Several Christian leaders reported instances in which citizens who converted, or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity, were assaulted by family members, or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

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

Media outlets reported in August hundreds of imams had lodged complaints in recent years after suffering violent attacks.  MRA officials said extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings carried out the attacks, while others were related to interpersonal disputes.  The government said it would take additional steps to protect imams such as stationing security forces near mosques to deter future attacks and providing more support for local authorities to investigate and prosecute such cases.

The media criticized religious communities it portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims.  Some who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, harassed them to convert, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Christian leaders continued to state they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment.

Central African Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equal protection under the law regardless of religion.  It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism.”  The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion.  The government continued to exercise limited control or influence in most of the country, and police and the gendarmerie (military police) failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, such as killings, physical abuse, and gender-based violence, including those based on religious affiliation, according to human rights organizations.  The predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka militia forces continued to occupy territories in the western and northern parts of the country, respectively, and sectarian clashes between them and Christian and Muslim populations continued.  These clashes often included attacks on churches and mosques, and the deaths of religious adherents at those places of worship.  The Muslim community stated there was continued discrimination by government officials on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation, including exclusion from public services, such as access to education and healthcare.

Armed groups, particularly the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka, continued to control significant swaths of the country and clashes continued throughout the year.  In April and May a joint government and UN operation to disarm a militia group in Bangui’s predominantly Muslim PK5 neighborhood sparked renewed violence.  On May 1, militia gunmen attacked and killed one priest, Father Toungoumale-Baba, 26 worshipers, and injured more than 100 civilians, in the Notre-Dame de Fatima Catholic Church in Bangui.  The following day, anti-Balaka elements burned two mosques in Bangui.  On November 15, a suspected ex-Seleka militia group set fire to the Catholic cathedral and an adjoining internally displaced person (IDP) camp in the city of Alindao, killing Bishop Blaise Mada and Reverend Delestin Ngouambango and more than 40 civilians.

On May 25, the Platform of Religious Confessions (PCRC) composed of Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, published a memorandum on the continuing political crisis that started in 2012.  The memorandum expressed concerns about the persistence of violence and called for an end to the clashes among the religiously oriented factions.

In May the White House press secretary issued a statement condemning the attacks on the Notre-Dame de Fatima Church in Bangui and retaliatory attacks on Muslims in the weeks that followed.  The press secretary called on the government to provide security for all citizens, regardless of faith.  At the onset of the violence, embassy staff met with government representatives responsible for human rights and religious freedom and encouraged authorities to implement measures to stem the violence.  They also served as intermediaries to help increase communication and trust between the religious leaders and the government, address claims of religious discrimination, and support reconciliation efforts.  Embassy officials engaged the Christian and Muslim communities, including armed group representatives, to discourage further violence.  There were similar meetings with religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  These meetings explored possible solutions and offered assistance to aid the religious communities, promoted the return of IDPs that were dislocated because of religiously based violence, and highlighted the importance of religious tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government continued to exercise limited control or influence in most of the country, and police and the gendarmerie failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, including killings, physical abuse, religious and gender-based violence, according to human rights organizations.  The United National Multidimensional Stabilization Mission for Central Africa (MINUSCA) remained the only force capable of maintaining security in much of the country, but remained hampered in its ability to protect civilians due to limited resources and personnel.

According to religious leaders, government authorities continued to discriminate systematically against Muslims by denying them access to education and identity documents.  In August the Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Reconciliation launched public service announcements via nationwide radio stations, reaffirming the government’s commitment to treat all citizens equally.  Observers and Muslim leaders, however, stated Muslims continued to experience ongoing discrimination by government agencies and unequal access to public services.  NGOs stated there was an increase in harassment and exclusion of Muslims from national decision-making processes.

In January the Bangui Criminal Court convicted former anti-Balaka Commander Rodrigue Ngaibona, known as General Andjilo, on charges of murder, criminal conspiracy, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and illegal arms possession, and sentenced him to life in prison.  He had been in pretrial detention since his capture by MINUSCA troops in 2015.  According to media reports, Ngaibona could face additional charges from the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established to prosecute war crimes and serious human rights violations, on grounds of having orchestrated a massacre of Muslims in Bangui in 2013.

In November government officials transported Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, an anti-Balaka commander and Member of Parliament accused of war crimes, including killings, deportation, and torture of Muslims, to The Hague and turned him over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

The government continued to observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as official but unpaid holidays.  President Faustin Touadera hosted an iftar with Muslim leaders at the Presidential Palace.  During the dinner, President Touadera asked for tolerance and acceptance among all religious faiths.

The SCC held its inaugural session in October.  It launched several formal investigations.  At year’s end the investigations continued and no cases had come to trial.

MINUSCA supported government-led local peace and reconciliation initiatives that aimed to improve relationships between Christians and Muslims.  The efforts included public outreach and sensitization workshops.  MINUSCA assisted the government in its efforts to promote reconciliation through the media.  Observers stated that in April the initiative helped counter inflammatory rhetoric and dispel rumors, and public meetings held under the auspices of the initiative helped to reassure vulnerable communities of their safety.

In June, following an educational workshop organized by the High Council of Communication, the national regulator, and MINUSCA, journalists from local media outlets worked to improve relationships between religious groups.  They pledged to discontinue contributing to messages that incited hate based on religious differences and to improve the quality of their reporting with sensitivity toward their religious listeners and readers.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Non-State Actors

According to media and UN reports, armed groups, particularly the anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka, continued to control significant swaths of territory throughout the country and acted as de facto governments in the territory they controlled.  According to the UN and human rights organizations, the humanitarian and human rights situation worsened in the southeast, where clashes continued among various armed groups.

On January 4, in Bangassou, a man identified as a Muslim stabbed Catholic priest Alain Blaise Bissialo.  Church members stated they believed the attack was an attempt to thwart his activism and work towards Christian-Muslim reconciliation in Bangassou.

On February 7, three churches were burned and a pastor was killed in Bangui following the death of a gang leader at the hands of MINUSCA and the police.

On March 21, in the town of Seko, an unknown assailant shot and killed Catholic priest Joseph-Desire Angbabata.  The incident occurred when he intervened to prevent an attack by members of the Christian community on Muslim refugees seeking shelter on church grounds.

In April, following an operation by MINUSCA and government forces to disarm an ex-Seleka militia group in the Muslim PK5 neighborhood, heavy clashes broke out during which MINUSCA troops battled armed militias and criminal gangs for several days.  One UN peacekeeper and more than 20 civilians, mostly Muslim, died in the fighting.  In the weeks following the clashes, violence spread outside of PK5 as both ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka militias carried out reprisal attacks, including against individuals on account of their perceived religious identity or affiliation.

Ex-Seleka gunmen from PK5 attacked the Catholic Notre-Dame de Fatima Church in Bangui on May 1, killing Catholic priest Toungoumale-Baba and 26 worshippers.  More than 100 persons were injured when the attackers sprayed the church with bullets and detonated grenades, according to media and survivor reports.  This attack was followed by revenge attacks by members of the Christian community, including the lynching deaths of three Muslims and the burning of two mosques.

In mid-May unknown assailants killed three Muslim civilians in Bambari.  Muslim civilians in the local community, backed by the Muslim-dominated Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) militias, then attacked an IDP camp occupied by Christians and the gendarmerie located in the same Christian area.  During the attack, one police officer was killed, two others injured, and the IDPs were left in what the UN described as “desperate humanitarian conditions.”

On June 29 suspected members of the UPC militia killed Father Firmin Gbagoua, Catholic Vicar-General of Bambari.  According to the secretary general of the Central African Human Rights Observatory, he may have been targeted because the UPC believed he was giving preferential treatment to Christians by denouncing attacks inflicted by Muslims in the area.  Following the killing, Catholic officials expressed concern for the safety of their clerics.

A MINUSCA report on human rights violations indicated the overall security situation in Haute-Kotto Prefecture remained volatile, with sporadic fighting between anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka groups, and civilians bearing the brunt of the fighting as they were often caught in crossfire or targeted in retaliatory attacks based on ethnic or religious affiliation.  According to the report, as many as 30 civilians (including at least 12 women and two children) may have been killed and at least six injured during attacks along the Bria-Irabanda road and in Bria town and its vicinity from August 5 to September 10.

On November 15, UPC militia attacked the Catholic cathedral in Alindao and a neighboring IDP camp, which was completely destroyed.  The militia set the cathedral on fire and two Catholic clerics, Bishop Blaise Mada and Father Celestin Ngoumbango, were killed along with more than 40 Christian civilians.  Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Bangui Father Mathieu Bondobo told Vatican News that Bishop Mada had been receiving threats, indicating that the attack was premeditated.  According to a Christian advocacy organization, the attack stemmed from perceptions that the clerics killed were showing preferential treatment towards Christians in IDP camps and sheltering anti-Balaka elements at the church.  On December 4, the UPC attacked an IDP camp run by a local Catholic church in Ippy town.  The attackers razed the camp, destroying temporary shelters and personal belongings.

The UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic reported in December that hate speech and incitement to ethnic and religious-based violence had reached unprecedented levels.  The report cited a statement published by the League for the Defense of the Church following the June killing of Father Gbagoua, which called on “all Christians to join us and support the movement [the league] so that Muslims also feel endangered in the Central African Republic, especially in Bangui.”  The panel also stated some anti-Balaka affiliated groups were carrying out targeted attacks against the local Muslim population.

UN peacekeepers stated local anti-Balaka soldiers and Christian community members subjected returning Muslims to harassment and abuse.  Displaced Muslim minorities lived predominantly in peacekeeper-protected enclaves and the return to their homes proceeded very slowly, according to international organizations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs reported religion continued to be a primary feature dividing the population.  Many Muslim communities remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely.

Religious leaders generally avoided characterizing the ongoing conflicts as religiously based.  Instead, they identified political and economic power struggles and foreign influence as the root causes.

Catholic Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga cited the practice of Christian leaders sheltering Muslims and Muslim leaders sheltering Christians fleeing conflicts in their respective homesteads.  He highlighted the central role ownership of land and mineral resources played in exacerbating tensions that led to interreligious violence.  Muslim Imam Omar Kobine Layama echoed Nzapalaninga’s view and said the militias and criminal elements had instrumentalized religion to deflect from the true cause of the conflict.  Both Christian and Muslim religious leaders rejected the idea that religion was the cause of the conflict.

In the predominantly Muslim Fulani community, there were complaints that Christian sponsors financed most local media outlets, and these reported negative comments directed towards Muslims.  Since September 2015, there have been no Muslim-operated radio stations or Muslim-oriented programs on national radio stations.

Muslims reported social discrimination and marginalization, including their inability to move freely throughout the country or have equal access to schools, hospitals, or government, and most privately funded, services.

According to religious leaders, Muslims throughout the country faced challenges within their communities because of ethnic differences, such as Muslims of Arab and Peulh (Fulani) ethnicity.  For example, sources stated some Muslims of Arab descent considered themselves superior to Muslims of other ethnicities, and that Muslims who converted from Christianity were frequently treated as inferiors among the Muslim population.  The sources also stated that these converts were often prevented from living in and interacting with some Muslim communities.

Before his death, Father Gbagoua said some Christians reported they felt marginalized by the MINUSCA peacekeeping forces and that, because a large number of MINUSCA forces were Muslims, they exhibited a bias towards their coreligionists.

On February 17, members of the Organization of Young Volunteers for Development (OJVD), a Christian organization, visited the Attik Mosque in Bangui, where they met and discussed peace and cohesion with the Muslim imam.  Participants said this meeting signaled a significant step toward greater interreligious dialogue, especially following the recent outbreaks of violence in Bangui.  Leading the OJVD delegation was its founding president, a former anti-Balaka chief.

On January 14, the secretary general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bangui expressed concern over the increased number of attacks against churches and mosques as well as the killing of religious leaders.  On a separate occasion, Cardinal Nzapalainga and Imam Layama jointly denounced the killing of religious leaders.  In January the Central African Episcopal Conference, representing Catholic bishops in the country, made a public announcement via local media in which it emphasized the organization’s condemnation of sectarian violence and encouragement of interreligious community peace across the country.

On June 12, Cardinal Nzapalainga called on the population of the primarily Christian community of Yakite District, close to PK5, and Muslim armed groups in PK5, to make peace.

On May 25, the PCRC organized a meeting with participants from various religious groups.  They drafted a joint memorandum calling on the government to use the SCC to prosecute individuals who committed crimes against citizens on account of their religious affiliation.

During a closing Eid-al-Fitr ceremony on June 29, former national anti-Balaka spokesperson Emotion Namsio and former ex-Seleka leader General Abdel Kalhil (Christian and Muslim, respectively) called upon the audience of approximately 100 participants of Christians and Muslims to cease attacking each other because of their religious preferences.  The ceremony was held in a mosque located in a Christian neighborhood in Bangui.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religious belief.  During the year, international NGOs, media, and religious organizations reported the government subjected religious organizations and leaders, most prominently Catholic, to intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and in some cases violence due to the Catholic Church’s support for credible elections, involvement in protest marches in January and February, and the implementation of the December 2016 Sylvester Agreement between the government and opposition parties.  On January 21, security forces used lethal force to disrupt peaceful protests organized by the Catholic Lay Association (CLC) and some Protestant church leaders in support of credible elections and implementation of the December 2016 agreement.  At least six persons were killed, and as many as 50 injured when government security forces, including members of the Republican Guard, fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition at protesters inside church compounds.  As many as 100 persons were subjected to arbitrary arrest, including several dozen choir girls.  On February 25, state security forces killed two individuals, including Rossy Mukendi Tshimanga, who was shot by a rubber bullet inside a church compound during a protest organized by the CLC.  Due to the political nature of many of the CLC’s activities and practices, however, it is difficult to establish the government’s response as being solely based on religious identity.

Antigovernment militia members in the Kasai region and in North Kivu Province attacked and targeted Catholic Church property, schools, and clergy, according to Church sources.  On April 8, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Father Etienne Nsengiunva in Kyahemba in North Kivu.  In Kasai, media reported the Kamuina Nsapu rebel group continued to threaten members of the Catholic Church.  On April 1, unidentified armed men abducted Father Celestin Ngango in Kihondo in North Kivu after Easter Mass and demanded a ransom.  The kidnappers released Ngango approximately one week later.  Several CLC members said they received threats due to their support for credible elections, implementation of the December 2016 agreement, and peaceful protests.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy officers met with the foreign minister, minister of justice, minister of human rights, national police commissioner, and other senior government officials several times during the year to raise concerns about the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and harassment of CLC members.  U.S. embassy officials met regularly with the government to discuss religious freedom issues, including government relations with religious organizations.  Embassy officials also met regularly with religious leaders and human rights organizations and discussed relations with the government, the electoral process, their concerns about abuses of civil liberties, and the government’s use of excessive force in response to church-led demonstrations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Catholic Church leaders reported acts of violence and intimidation against Church officials in response to Church support for implementation of the December 2016 agreement and for supporting peaceful protest marches in January and February.  Because religious and political issues overlap, however, it was difficult to categorize some incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  On January 21, security forces forcibly disrupted protests led by the CLC and some Protestant church leaders in support of elections and implementation of the December 2016 agreement.  UN observers and others stated they witnessed members of the Republican Guard and other security force members fire directly at protesters, killing at least six persons and injuring as many as 50.  In some cases, government security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition into church compounds.  Among those killed was Therese Kapangala, a 24-year-old woman preparing to take vows as a nun.  She was shot and killed outside her church in Kinshasa.  The United Nations reported that 121 persons were arbitrarily arrested across the country for participation in the demonstrations.  During another round of CLC-organized protests on February 25, state security forces killed two individuals, including Rossy Mukendi Tshimanga, who was shot by a rubber bullet inside a church compound.  Another person died in the town of Mbandaka from wounds sustained during a confrontation with an off-duty police officer.  The United Nations reported that 194 persons were arbitrarily arrested.

CLC leaders were reportedly subjected to threats and harassment due to their support for implementation of the December 2016 agreement, credible elections, and peaceful protests.  Catholic leaders and institutions were also threatened after Church leaders expressed concern over violence they attributed to government security forces and the Kamuina Nsapu antigovernment militia in Kasai.  Church leaders in Kasai Province said local armed groups associated with Kamuina Nsapu forced them to accept armed group control of their communities.  In 2017, members of Kamuina Nsapu vandalized and burned numerous Catholic churches, schools, and buildings.

The MOJ again did not issue any final registration permits for religious groups and had not done so since 2014, reportedly due to an internal investigation into fraudulent registration practices.  The government, however, continued its practice that groups presumed to have been approved were permitted to organize.  Unregistered domestic religious groups reported they continued to operate unhindered.  The MOJ previously estimated that more than 2,000 registration applications for both religious and nonreligious NGOs remained pending and that more than 3,500 associations with no legal authorization continued to operate.  Foreign-based religious groups reported they operated without restriction after applying for legal status.  Under existing law, which was under review, nonprofit organizations could operate as legal entities by default if a government ministry gave a favorable opinion of their application and the government did not object to their application for status.  According to 2015 registration statistics, the latest year for which the MOJ had statistics, there were 14,568 legally registered nonprofit organizations, 11,119 legal religious nonprofit organizations, and 1,073 foreign nonprofit organizations.  Religious nonprofits that were legally operating and registered included 404 Catholic, 93 Protestant, 54 Muslim, and 1,322 evangelical nonprofits, the latter including those belonging to the Kimbangu Church.

The government continued to rely on religious organizations to provide public services such as education and health care throughout the country.  According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 72 percent of primary school students and 65 percent of secondary school students attended government-funded schools administered by religious organizations.  The government paid teacher salaries at some schools run by religious groups depending on the needs of the schools and whether they were registered as schools eligible to receive government funding.

Muslim community leaders again said the government did not afford them some of the same privileges as larger religious groups.  The government continued to deny Muslims the opportunity to provide chaplains for Muslims in the military, police force, and hospitals, despite a complaint filed in 2015 with the president and his cabinet.

In July the MOJ responded with an acknowledgement of receipt to a letter from the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ legal representative asking that the state protect its members against the Kimbilikit cult’s insistence that all community members, regardless of religion, participate in their rituals.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Members of the Kamuina Nsapu antigovernment militia in the Kasai region attacked and targeted Catholic Church property, schools, and clergy, according to Church sources.  In Kasai, Kasai Central, and Kasai Oriental Provinces, the Catholic Church reported threats and attacks against the Church by unidentified assailants believed to be members of the Kamuina Nsapu, other armed groups, or government security forces.  In September in Kananga in Kasai Central Province, Kananga Catholic Archbishop Marcel Madila stated there was “deep fear and insecurity” throughout Kasai Central Province after a rash of robberies and assaults targeting nuns, parishes, and civilians.  Archbishop Madila reported four attacks against nuns in Bena Mukangala, Kambote, Malole, and Tshilumba.  In North Kivu on April 8, unidentified gunmen shot and killed Father Etienne Nsengiunva in Kyahemba.

On April 1, in Kihondo in North Kivu, unidentified armed men abducted Father Celestin Ngango after Mass and demanded a ransom.  He was released one week later.

Some religious leaders reported continued tensions between Christian and Muslim communities in the north but also signs of improved relations in the eastern part of the country linked to the government’s ongoing fight against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF).  On November 27, for example, both Muslim and Christian leaders peacefully marched in Beni expressing their support for joint offensive operations against the ADF.

In Budjala in Sud Ubangi Province, Voice of America reported that on March 30, Christians burned a mosque and the home of a man who allegedly killed a Christian man he caught in a sexual relationship with his wife.

Leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported generally positive relations with the rest of the community but noted that 21 cases of assault on or suspected killings of Jehovah’s Witnesses dating from as early as 2015 were languishing in the court system or never sent to court for criminal prosecution after the arrests of suspects.  They also reported three assaults during the year that they stated were due to their religious beliefs in rural areas of Wapinda, Equateur Province, Luono, Kwango Province, and Fube, Katanga Province.

In South Kivu Province, Muslims in the Katana area said they had not received funds to rebuild their mosque after it was burned down in October 2016, despite a promise in November 2016 from the former governor of South Kivu to provide funds to rebuild the mosque.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution states that citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.”  The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.”  The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship.  In February authorities launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS in part to respond to the November 2017 attack on a mosque in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals; the mosque was reportedly targeted because it was frequented by Sufis.  In November a court sentenced an alleged supporter of ISIS to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta in 2016 and 2017 that killed more than 80 persons.  According to multiple sources, prosecutors employed charges of denigrating religion to arrest anyone who appeared to criticize Islam or Christianity, with a disproportionate number of all blasphemy charges brought against the country’s Christian population.  Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 783 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings out of 5,415 applications for licensure, and authorized the building of 14 new churches since September 2017.  Local authorities frequently responded to sectarian attacks against Christians through binding arbitration sessions rather than prosecuting perpetrators of violence, leading to complaints by members of the Coptic community.  In December President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree creating the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents and to address them as they occur, applying all relevant laws.  The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications to imams, and register and license all mosques.  In May, based upon a 2015 policy, the ministry announced a ban on imams from Friday preaching at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques.  In October the ministry announced the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse.  In January Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches was “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church are “martyrs.”  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed two Christian governors, including the country’s first-ever female Christian to hold the position, the first such appointments since April 2011.

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Attacks continued on Christians and Christian-owned property, as well as on churches in the Upper Egypt region.  On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  Reports of anti-Semitic remarks on state-owned media, as well as sectarian and defamatory speech against minority religious groups, continued during the year.  Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine, held conferences on interfaith dialogue, and gave statements condemning extremism and supporting improved relations between Muslims and Christians.

The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of the Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly meetings in September.  U.S. officials, including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior-level delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law.  In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy and consulate general officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In February security forces launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS, in part to respond to a November 2017 attack on a mosque in Al-Rawda village in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals at worship; the mosque was reportedly attacked because it was frequented by Sufis.  Although the government reported significant successes in the campaign, ISIS attacks continued in North Sinai.

In November a court sentenced an alleged ISIS supporter to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  Authorities did not identify the defendant.

On July 12, police thwarted an attempted suicide bombing at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Qalioubiya, near Cairo.  After encountering security forces, the attacker detonated an explosive vest in the vicinity of the church, killing a police officer and civilian.  On August 11, security forces foiled a suicide bombing at the Coptic Virgin Mary Church in the Cairo suburb of Mostorod.  After being denied entry to the church, the bomber died when he exploded his suicide belt; no one else was injured.

During the year, courts imposed death sentences on several people convicted of killing Christians.  On February 12, a court confirmed a death sentence against the killer of Semaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest from Beni Suef.  The killer stabbed Shehata to death in the Cairo suburb of El-Salaam City in 2017 and carved a cross on his forehead.  On April 1, the Cassation Court upheld the death sentence of the killer of liquor storeowner Youssef Lamei, who had confessed to slitting Lamei’s throat outside his store for selling alcohol in January 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 people.  ISIS claimed responsibility.  International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and asserted the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In March media reported that Matthew Habib, a Christian military conscript who had complained to his family of persecution from superiors due to his religion, committed suicide while on duty.  Although the official cause of death was determined to be multiple self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the family alleged that Habib had been killed by a more senior officer.

On January 31, the Giza misdemeanor court sentenced 20 individuals to one-year suspended jail sentences for an attack on an unlicensed Coptic church in Kafr al-Waslin village south of Cairo, carried out on December 22, 2017.  Each was fined 500 pounds ($28) on charges of inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity, and vandalizing private property.  The court also fined the owner of the unlicensed church 360,000 pounds ($20,100) for building without a permit.  The Archdiocese of Atfih has reportedly applied for the Kafr al-Waslin Church to be legalized.

On January 2, press reported that the public prosecutor filed murder charges against an individual accused of killing 11 people on December 29, 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.  On December 1, the prosecutor general referred 11 additional suspects to trial for forming a terrorist group, murder, attempted murder, and other charges related to the attack.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, citing its 2016 report, reported in October that 41 percent of all blasphemy charges had been brought by authorities against the country’s Christian population

March 14, police in Beni Suef Governorate arrested social studies teacher Magdy Farag Samir on charges of denigrating Islam after he included wordplays in a set of questions for students about the Prophet Muhammad.  Samir was detained for 15 days while police investigated the charges.  A court acquitted him on April 19.

In December a court in Upper Egypt upheld a three-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Christian Abd Adel Bebawy for a Facebook post that allegedly insulted Islam.  Authorities arrested Bebawy in his home village of Minbal on July 6 and the original court passed the prison sentence in November.  Bebawy’s lawyers stated that he reported the hacking of his Facebook account in July and that the post was immediately deleted.  On July 9, reportedly in response to Bebawy’s social media posts, a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian-owned homes in Minbal.  Police arrested over 90 Muslim attackers, charging 39 with a variety of crimes related to the attack.

On May 3, police arrested atheist blogger Sherif Gaber and detained him for four days.  Authorities accused Gaber of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube.  Police had earlier arrested Gaber on similar charges in 2015 and 2013.  In October Gaber tweeted that he had been prevented from leaving the country and that authorities had charged him with three additional felonies and that the charges now included blasphemy, contempt of religion, supporting homosexuality, and religious extremism.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), during several incidents of interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt from August 22 to 25, security forces delayed providing protection to Christians.  On August 22, in the village of Esna in Luxor Governorate, a crowd of Muslims gathered to protest Christian worship in a church that was seeking legalization.  Following Friday prayers on August 24, the crowd gathered a second time.  While the police prevented this second gathering from escalating, local sources report that authorities arrested five Christians, who were charged with conducting religious rituals in an unlicensed church and incitement, and 15 Muslims.  All those arrested were released in September.  Also on August 24, a crowd gathered in the village of Sultan in Minya Governorate to protest efforts by a local church to seek official legalization.

Security forces arrested members of what they described as a terrorist cell in Nag’ Hammadi in Qena Governorate during Coptic celebrations for Easter in April.  Security forces increased their presence in Coptic institutions and communities around Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays.

Religious freedom and human rights activists said government officials sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, including by closing churches in violation of the 2016 church construction law.  On April 14, a group of Muslim villagers hurled stones and bricks, breaking the windows of a building used as a church in Beni Meinin in Beni Suef Governorate.  The attack followed a government inspection of the building, a step toward legalizing the church.  Authorities arrested 45 Muslim and Christian residents of the village, and, following an agreement according to customary reconciliation procedures (a binding arbitration process, often criticized by Christians as discriminatory), all arrestees were released and the church remained unlicensed and closed.

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of sectarian violence committed in previous years.  Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  Authorities charged four people with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six others owned by Christians.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests, particularly in Upper Egypt.  In November the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reported that from September 28, 2016, when the church construction law was issued, to October, authorities shuttered nine churches that hosted religious services prior to the closure orders.  Four of these churches were closed during the year, with Copts denied access and religious services in them prohibited.  In July media reported that police closed a church in Ezbet Sultan after a series of protests and the destruction of Christian-owned property.  During one protest, Muslims reportedly chanted, “We don’t want a church.”

In a November report, EIPR documented 15 instances of sectarian violence related to the legalization of 15 previously unlicensed churches from September 2017 to October 2018.  The churches had been functioning for several years and were well known to both state institutions and local residents.  EIPR’s report also documented 35 cases of violence since the church construction law was issued, not including incidents associated with the construction of new churches.

On August 22, in Zeneiqa village in Upper Egypt, police closed a church following protests by local Muslims against legalization of the church.  They arrested five Copts and five Muslims, plus an additional 10 Muslim residents during protests held a week later.  In March local mosque personnel in Al-Tod village near Luxor encouraged Muslims to protest the licensing of a church that had been in use for a decade.  Protestors built a wall to block access to the church.  Christians and Muslims took part in a customary reconciliation session led by Muslim elders and, reportedly under pressure, the Christians agreed to abandon their application for a church license.

According to official statistics, from September 2017 the government approved 783 of the 5,415 applications for licensure of churches.  According to a local human rights organization, the increased pace of legalization and construction of churches was causing sectarian tensions in some communities where Muslim citizens did not want a legal church in their village.

As it did in recent years, the government in October closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura.  The government explained the closure was due to construction, but multiple news reports described it as an attempt to discourage the celebration of Shia religious rituals.  The main area of the mosque remained open; only the room containing the shrine was closed.

In September the Ministry of Awqaf cancelled the preaching permit of prominent Salafi cleric Mohamed Raslan and banned him from delivering sermons for refusing to recite the official sermon written by the ministry.  The ministry reinstated his license after he apologized publicly and committed to follow the government’s weekly sermon.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.

In May the government announced a policy to ban imams from preaching on Fridays at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques and restricted their use to daily prayers.  In a statement, the Ministry of Awqaf said the measure would prevent “fundamentalist” preaching during Ramadan.  The May announcement repeated a policy first announced in 2015 that resulted in the closure of 27,000 zawiyas and forbade preaching in them.  Authorities also increased the penalties for mosques using their loudspeakers for anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

In October the Ministry of Awqaf announced that the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse in the country and cited the ministry’s “complete” control of Islam as expressed through “the media, lessons, seminars and [public] forums.”  Public issuances of fatwas were, according to a senior advisor at the Dar al-Iftaa, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, restricted to Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar University, 40 clerics from Dar al-Iftaa, and a small number of clerics affiliated with the Ministry of Awqaf.  The ministry announced that any unauthorized cleric offering religious sermons or issuing fatwas would be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution for “carrying out a job without a license.”

In September the Court of Urgent Matters suspended a July ruling by an administrative court that had allowed policemen with long beards to return to work.  The court upheld MOI regulations on facial hair and stated the government had an obligation to keep the police force a “secular organizational entity.”

During Ramadan in May the government put in place regulations governing the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan.  Authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

On June 22, a video showing adherents performing Sufi religious rituals in a mosque sparked demands on social media to ban Sufi rituals inside mosques.  In response, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended the mosque attendant for participating in the incident, and announced a public campaign to raise awareness of “correct Islam.”

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from worshiping privately in small numbers.  However, Baha’i sources said the government refused requests for public religious gatherings.  According to members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, security officials engaged in surveillance and frequent home visits during which adherents were interrogated and sometimes threatened.  The National Security Services (NSS) also summoned members to their offices for interrogations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on April 3, a security officer who has interrogated and threatened its members in the past questioned a male Witness at length, asking numerous probing questions about the operations and activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.  In July NSS officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Beni Suef and confiscated their religious materials.  NSS officers did the same with two other Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived later.

Twelve Baha’i couples filed lawsuits requesting recognition of their civil marriages, four of which were approved by October.  While Baha’i sources hailed the first issuance of a civil marriage license that took place in 2017, they reported that courts remained inconsistent in their rulings on the matter.  By year’s end, standardized procedures for issuing civil marriage licenses to couples with no religious affiliation designated had not been developed.

In May the country’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that regulators must block the YouTube service for one month because of the availability of a video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.  A lower court had ordered in 2013 the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to block YouTube because of the video, but the decision had been appealed and the court’s ruling has not been implemented.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet.  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011 when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests.  The new Governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services.  Christians admitted at the entry-level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks of government entities, according to sources.  According to a press report, a senior Christian judge in line for promotion to the leadership of the Administrative Prosecution was reportedly denied the position in May due to her religion.  When a Muslim judge challenged the failure to promote her, he was dismissed.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities.  In January for the first time, a Christian was appointed as dean of the dental school of Cairo University.  The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

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

The Ministry of Education (MOE) stated that it continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In the fall, kindergarten and first grade students began instruction under the new curriculum.  According to the MOE, the new curriculum for subsequent grade levels would be introduced yearly.  Local English-language press reported in May that curriculum reform plans, aimed at encouraging tolerance, included a textbook for use in religious studies classes to be attended jointly by Muslim and Coptic Christian students.  Muslim and Christian students previously attended separate religion classes.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa, whose ministry oversees Islamic studies courses in the country’s schools, announced the plan.  The press reported that the planned textbook drew criticism from conservative Muslims.

In January the grand mufti issued a fatwa that defined greeting Christians on Coptic Christmas as an act of righteousness.  During the same month, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church were “martyrs.”

In August Al-Azhar issued a statement criticizing ISIS for issuing fatwas justifying the killing of non-Muslims and stressed its prohibition.

In June the Ministry of Awqaf completed training in Quranic interpretation and other Islamic texts for 300 female preachers (wa’ezaat).  In July the government published an action plan for “renewing religious discourse” that included hiring and training imams and expanding the role of women in religious preaching.  The ministry opened a new training academy for preachers in October and announced that women could begin to serve as preachers in mosques and schools, serve on governing boards of mosques, and sing in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

In December President al-Sisi decreed that the government create an agency tasked with countering sectarian strife.  The new Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents would be headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs and composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the NSS, and the Administrative Oversight Agency.  The new committee was charged with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents, address them as they occur, and apply all antidiscrimination and antihate laws in carrying out these responsibilities.  The committee had the authority to invite ministers, their representatives, or representatives of concerned bodies to meetings.  The government stated that the strategy would include awareness-raising campaigns, promotion of religious tolerance, and possible mechanisms for dealing with individual incidents.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance.  In February the grand imam received a delegation from the Anglican Communion and stressed the importance of dialogue between religions.  In July the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury organized an interfaith conference in London for young Muslims and Christians.  In October Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, where they stressed their commitment to religious dialogue.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Media reported the attackers used automatic weapons to spray the buses indiscriminately, targeting men, women, and children.  The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.  Media reported that ISIS repeatedly vowed to attack the country’s Christians as punishment for their support of the government.  Following the attack, authorities stated they killed 19 individuals suspected of involvement in the assault in a shootout west of Minya.  The government did not present evidence to link these individuals to the attack, and a local human rights activist argued these shootings might have constituted extrajudicial killings.

On January 14, armed assailants killed a man in North Sinai upon discovering he was Christian, according to press.  Following a series of attacks against Christians in North Sinai that began in January 2017, more than 250 Christian families left the region, according to EIPR.  Displaced families reported they remained unable to return to their homes.

On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf in Beheira while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  The church had been used for religious services for three years, and had applied for a license in January 2017.  According to the press, calls to attack the church had come from a nearby mosque.  Police arrested 11 Muslims and nine Christians.  All of those arrested were released following a customary reconciliation session, and the church remained open.

There were reported incidents of mob action against, and collective punishment of, Christians.

On January 17, Muslim villagers attacked the houses of three Christian families in the village of Al-Dawar in Beheira after a Christian man was accused of attempting to sexually assault a Muslim woman, according to press.  Muslim villagers used stones and Molotov cocktails to attack local Christian property.  Police arrested the Christian accused of sexual assault and two of his relatives, but none of the Muslim attackers.  Following a customary reconciliation session attended by a number of parliamentarians, the village mayor and elders, it was agreed that the accused Christian would pay a fine and be expelled from the village.

In late August and early September local press reported Muslim residents of the village of Dimshaw Hashem in Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt protested Christian religious services held in an unlicensed church, and looted four Christian-owned houses before setting them on fire.  The attack injured two Coptic villagers and a firefighter.  Coptic Orthodox Bishop Macarius told the press numerous Christian villagers had informed local police about an imminent attack and that the police failed to take action.  After the attack, police arrested and criminally charged multiple protesters, releasing them on September 27.  EIPR subsequently criticized authorities for pressuring Copts to accept customary reconciliation in addressing the attacks.  Referring to this case, Human Rights Watch stated that customary reconciliation “allows perpetrators to evade prosecution, while authorities offered no concrete future protections to the worshippers and their families.”

Similar to the previous year, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in government-sponsored customary reconciliation as a substitute to criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches.  However, customary reconciliation continued to take place without its participation.  Human rights groups and Christian community representatives said that the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system.  Human rights activists said that, as part of the process, Christians were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities.  According to the press, the country’s participation in the World Cup highlighted the absence of Christian players from the national team and major club teams.  The Christian community told the press clubs excluded Christian players from tryouts.  Press reported there were no Christian players on the national soccer team for more than 15 years.  A single Christian player played for one of the 18 top clubs the previous season.  Coptic Pope Tawadros II told the press that the lack of Christians in Egyptian soccer was “extraordinary.”

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.  In March exiled Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim told the press senior officials who maintained good relations with Christians were kafirs (infidels).  Dar Al-Iftaa condemned the statement, and said Ghoneim wrongly interpreted Islamic texts.  Television preacher Abdullah Roshdi said that “It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief.”  Dar al Iftaa and Al Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued.  Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned TV endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  In a June interview on a state-owned channel, law professor Nabil Hilmi said, “Jews control the money and the media,” adding that they have a 50-year plan to reach Mecca and Medina.

In May Chair of the Hebrew Language Department at Menoufia University, Professor Amr Allam, said on a weekly show on a state-owned channel that “Israeli violence…is embedded in the Jewish genes.”

Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements continued in the wake of the December 2017 U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent move of the embassy to Jerusalem.  According to a MEMRI report, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb blamed Israel for terrorism in the Middle East in a January interview on a state-owned channel.  He described Israel as a “dagger plunged into the body of the Arab world,” and said that were it not for “Zionist entity abuse…the Middle East would have progressed.”  He said Arab infighting worked to the advantage of Israel, which he claimed would “march on the Kaaba and on the Prophet’s Mosque [in Medina].”

In January Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church co-sponsored a conference addressing terrorism.  Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, secretary general of the Egyptian Family House, an Al-Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church initiative created to send religious leaders to defuse community tensions following sectarian violence, called for religious scholars to challenge terrorism and include education to protect future generations from what he termed the mistaken ideas of extremism.  He stated that all Muslims suffered from the consequences of terrorism.

Eritrea

Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion.  The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.  Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to additional security service scrutiny.  The government appoints the heads of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community.  International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media continued to report members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions.  Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions, and detention without explanation of individuals observing the recognized faiths.  In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur died of unknown causes in police custody, where he had been kept since October 2017.  Reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters, including minors, at or soon after his funeral.  In 2017, the government closed a secondary school sponsored by an Islamic organization but later allowed the school to reopen for one year; in contrast, a private school sponsored by an Islamic organization remained closed.  NGOs reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside of Asmara.  International media and NGOs reported authorities conditionally released some Christians from unregistered groups from prison during the year after they had renounced their faith in 2014.  Authorities continued to confine Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios under house arrest, where he has remained since 2006.  The government granted entry to prominent Ethiopian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June as part of the first set of flights between Addis Ababa and Asmara after the airways reopened; onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.  NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.  The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994.  Some religious organization representatives reported an improved climate for obtaining visas for foreign colleagues to visit Eritrea and increased ability to call their counterparts in Ethiopia.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious community sources created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom.  Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended celebrations or funerals organized by the recognized religious groups.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the March protests surrounding the death of Hajji Musa Mohamed Nur, the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios.  Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with visiting senior Eritrean officials in Washington on multiple occasions during the year.  Embassy officials met with clergy, leaders, and other representatives of religious groups, both registered and unregistered.  Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of interlocutors, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, as well as UN officials.  Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.  Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The UK-based religious freedom advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses news service reported two elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses died early in the year in Mai Serwa Prison outside Asmara.  Both had been in detention since 2008 without charge.  The organizations stated that 76-year-old Habtemichael Tesfamariam died on January 3, and Habtemichael Mekonen, age 77, died on March 6.

In March Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur died of unknown causes while in police custody.  He was reportedly in his late 80s or early 90s when he died.  He had been in custody since October 2017.  NGO and international media reports indicated police arrested hundreds of protesters (including minors) at his funeral.  It was not clear how many protesters remained in detention at year’s end, although sources indicated authorities released many of them.

CSW reported in October that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including three men who had been imprisoned without charge for 22 years, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 53 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith.  An unknown number of Muslim detainees remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and in March.

Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who appeared in public in July 2017, remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting the government’s interference in church affairs.

Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.

The government did not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service and continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service.  The government continued to hold Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons.  Authorities prevented prisoners held for national security reasons from having visitors, and families often did not know where the government held such prisoners.  Authorities generally permitted family members to visit prisoners detained for religious reasons only.  Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter.

In July and August international media and NGOs reported the release from detention of more than 30 Christians from unregistered groups.  Reports stated the government released 35 Christians after they renounced their religion four years earlier.  Another individual reported that one Jehovah’s Witness was transferred from prison to house detention but was still surveilled by security authorities.

Christian advocacy organizations reported the detention of 19 members of the Full Gospel Church in Godaif, Asmara, in July, and of 21 Christians at a gathering in Asmara in August.  The status of the members was unknown at year’s end.

Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.

The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders.  Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching religious beliefs to others.

The government permitted the Al Diaa Islamic secondary school, which the government had closed in 2017, to reopen in September.  Al Mahad, another school originally founded as an Islamic-based primary and secondary school, remained closed since 2017.  Al Mahad reportedly faced increasing government pressure, including to deemphasize the religious aspects of its curriculum; in recent years, the government permitted the school to teach only elementary school-age children.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.  The government also required all customers to present a national identification card to use computers at private internet cafes, where most individuals accessed the internet.  This identification requirement rendered Jehovah’s Witnesses generally unable to use the internet.

Arrests and releases often went unreported.  Information from outside the capital was extremely limited.  Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge.  International religious organizations reported authorities interrogated detainees about their religious affiliations and asked them to identify members of unregistered religious groups.

The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.

When the government opened the land border with Ethiopia in September, the government did not require exit visas or other travel documents for Eritreans crossing into Ethiopia.  How long this procedure would remain in effect was unclear.  The government continued to require all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to airport departure.  The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.  Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences.

The government continued to allow only the practice of Sunni Islam and continued to ban all other practice of Islam.

Official attitudes toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities differed.  Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting.  Local authorities sometimes denied government coupons (which allowed shoppers to make purchases at discounted prices at certain stores) to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.

Diaspora groups noted authorities controlled virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups.  The leaders of the four groups continued to state their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice, but individuals privately reported restrictions on import of religious items used for worship.  Whether authorities used these restrictions to target religious groups was unclear, since import licenses remained generally restricted.  Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.

The government permitted church news services to videotape and publish interviews with foreign diplomats during the public celebration of the Eritrean Orthodox holiday Meskel.

Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged.  Religious structures used by unregistered Jewish and Greek Orthodox groups continued to exist in Asmara.  The government protected the historic Jewish synagogue building, maintained by an individual reported to be the country’s last remaining Jew.  Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Christ, remained shuttered.  The government allowed the Baha’i center to remain open, and, according to reports, the members of the center had access to the building except for prayer meetings.  The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, but the government did not permit religious services on the site.  The Anglican Church building held services but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.

Government control of all mass media continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government repression against them, according to observers.  Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship, according to group members.

The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the mufti of the Sunni Islamic community and the patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower-level officials for both communities.  Lay administrators appointed by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice managed some Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.

The government continued to permit a limited number of Sunni Muslims, mainly the elderly and those not fit for military service, to take part in the Hajj, travel abroad for religious study, and host clerics from abroad.  The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened to import foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.

The government granted entry to the prominent Ethiopian Pentecostal Christian television evangelist Suraphel Demissie in June.  Onlookers filmed him preaching on the streets of Asmara.

The government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations.  The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers Church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas.  Students attending the Roman Catholic seminary, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials.  Some Catholic leaders stated, however, national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.

Three ministers, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims.  Foreign diplomats, however, reported that individuals in positions of power, both in government and outside, often expressed reluctance to share power with Muslim compatriots and distrusted foreign Muslims.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Government control of all media, expression, and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom.  Churches and mosques were located in close proximity, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on various religious holidays and other events.  Senior Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran religious leaders sat as honored guests alongside the ranking Eritrean Orthodox officials during the high-profile public celebration of Meskel on September 27.

Some Christian leaders continued to report Muslim leaders and communities were willing to collaborate on community projects.  Ecumenical and interreligious committees did not exist, although local leaders met informally, and religious holidays featured public displays of interfaith cooperation.  Representatives of each of the official religions attended the state dinners for several visiting foreign officials.  Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their faith.

In January media reported that unknown persons vandalized the Jewish section of the main cemetery in Asmara.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state.  On January 20, security forces fired teargas on a group of youth singing politically charged messages in Woldia town during Epiphany celebrations.  The Amhara regional government pledged to investigate the incident.  The local Human Rights Council (HRCO) reported security forces subsequently shot and killed eight Orthodox Church members; this was followed by further protests and killings.  On February 16, the government declared a state of emergency (SOE) that restricted organized opposition and antigovernment protests, which also affected religious activities.  The House of Peoples’ Representatives voted on June 5 to lift the SOE, effective immediately.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  On August 1, representatives of the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC), headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to the country and reunited with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation effort had the direct support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali and ended a 26-year schism in the Orthodox Church.  On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and build the country.

On August 4, in the Somali region, an organized group of Muslim youth reportedly killed six priests and burned down at least eight Ethiopian Orthodox churches during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.  On August 25, in Bure town, followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church stoned a man to death after accusing him of attempting to set a church on fire.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups.  The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) said it continued to hold foreign actors responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.  The Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE) stated that the major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

U.S. embassy and Department of State officers met officials from the Ministry of Peace, which includes the previous Ministry of Federal and Pastoralist Development Affairs, throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance, radicalization, and ongoing reforms led by Prime Minister Abiy.  Embassy representatives also met with the leaders from the EIASC, Catholic Church in Ethiopia, IRCE, the Jewish Community, and EOC to discuss how these groups could contribute to religious tolerance.  Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim community and with NGOs to discuss their concerns about government interference in religious affairs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On January 20, during Orthodox Christian Epiphany celebrations, also known as the Timket festival, security forces fired teargas in Woldia town, North Wollo Zone of the Amhara Region, on a group of youth who, while following a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (Tabot), the most sacred item in the church, shifted to political messaging in their cheers and songs, according to media reports.  The Tabot fell to the ground during the incident, after which the youths threw rocks at the security forces.  According to an August 9 report by independent rights group Human Rights Council (HRCO), government security forces shot and killed eight and wounded 16 followers of the EOC during the protest.  Subsequently, residents of Woldia and nearby towns Kobo, Robit, Mersa, Wurgessa and Dessie staged protests, which the report stated turned violent; according to the HRCO, security forces killed eight of those protesters and injured nine others.  Government officials promised to investigate the incident, but as of year’s end there was no public report of findings or of anyone being held accountable.

The government released Ahmedin Jebel and his co-defendants from Kality Prison on February 14.  Ahmedin, a member of the Muslim Arbitration Committee, a group formed in 2011 to protest the government’s interference in religion and to advocate for the resolution of Muslim grievances, was arrested in 2012 along with several other activists.  The government brought terrorist charges against him and several codefendants, and they were found guilty.  In August 2015, the court sentenced Ahmedin to 22 years in prison.  Prior to his release, he was one of the few Muslim activists who remained in jail following the pardoning of several other detainees in recent years.

The SOE made protests illegal for four months.  There were no reports of religious communities engaging in protests either before or after the lifting of the SOE.  No religious group reported repression of religious freedom under the SOE.

Reports of government imposition or dissemination of Al-Ahbash teachings (a Sufi religious movement rooted in Lebanon and different from indigenous Islam) declined during the year.

The Directorate for Registration of Religious Groups within the Ministry of Peace reported 816 religious institutions and 1,640 fellowships and religious associations were registered as of late in the year.

The EIASC remained the lead religious organization for the country’s Muslims, managing religious activities in the approximately 40,000 mosques and annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca.  Some Muslims stated there was continued government interference in religious affairs, and some members of the Muslim community stated the EIASC lacked autonomy from the government.

Protestants continued to report that local officials discriminated against them with regard to religious registration and the allocation of land for churches and cemeteries.

On August 1, the exiled synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, headed by Patriarch Abune Merkorios, returned to Ethiopia after 27 years of exile in the United States, to reunite with the synod in Ethiopia headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.  The reconciliation ended 26 years of schism in the Orthodox Church.  Following the reconciliation, the two patriarchs were designated as equal heads of the reunited church, with Abune Merkorios assuming spiritual leadership and Abune Mathias assuming administrative leadership.  Media reported that Prime Minister Abiy played a central role in the mediation efforts by tasking mediators, and by personally attending and addressing a mediation conference in Washington D.C.

In collaboration with the government-sanctioned rights body Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC), an inquiry committee of the EOC on August 8 reinstated 300 priests of the Addis Ababa Diocese, who were suspended in 2016 by the diocesan leadership.  In addition to concluding the priests should be paid their two-year salary in full, the committee dismissed 14 individuals, including the manager of the Addis Ababa Diocese, for illegally suspending the priests and violating their rights.

On July 3, Prime Minister Abiy initiated an effort to resolve disputes within the Muslim community by bringing together leaders of the EIASC and the Muslim Arbitration Committee (MAC), previously rival groups.  The prime minister’s office stated the government maintained its neutrality when arbitrating between the two groups.  In a joint meeting, the two sides apologized to each other and pledged to resolve their disputes.  They agreed and set up a committee of nine members, three from each group as well as three elders and religious scholars.

On August 4, three Muslim scholars, Sheik Seid Ahmed Mustafa, Sheik Jabir Abdella, and Sheik Sherif Muhdin, returned to the country after more than two decades of exile in Saudi Arabia.  The scholars told local media that they returned in response to Prime Minister Abiy’s calls to return and help build the country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 4, according to national and international media reports, an organized group of Muslim youth killed six priests and burned down at least eight EOC churches in the Somali Regional State during widespread civil unrest in Jijiga.

Participants at the annual Irreecha festival in late September celebrated peacefully, free of the violence that marred the event in 2016.  The PM’s office issued the following statement: “As we celebrate Irreecha, let’s all cherish our rich cultural heritages and unite in a shared purpose to build a bright future for our children.”

The IRCE, an organization established by seven religious institutions and operating independently from the government and whose mission is to promote interfaith harmony throughout the country, reported that major faith communities in most of the country respected each other’s religious observances and practices while permitting intermarriage and conversion.

In May Muslim community leaders said that Islam in the country was threatened by internal fracturing due to discord within the community.

The EIASC expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community.  The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

Kenya

Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance and to debate religious questions.  The constitution provides for special qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law.  Human rights and Muslim religious organizations stated that certain Muslim communities, especially ethnic Somalis, continued to be the target of government-directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention.  The government denied directing such actions.  The Registrar of Societies did not register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end.  According to the Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, more than 4,400 religious group applications were pending as of the start of the year.  The High Court in Nairobi overturned a decision to suspend the registration of the Atheists in Kenya Society (AIK), following 2017 court hearings regarding the attorney general’s suspension of the group’s registration.  A 2016 appeal by the Methodist Church opposing the wearing of hijabs as part of school uniforms remained pending as of the end of the year.  In May filings to the Supreme Court, the attorney general and Teachers Service Commission continued to support the right to wear a hijab in school.

The Somalia-based terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties and said the group had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith.  In September al-Shabaab reportedly stopped a bus in Lamu County and killed two Christian travelers.  In October a group of residents in Bungale, Magarini Sub County, burned and demolished a Good News International Ministries church.  The government reported that local residents took action following claims the pastor was indoctrinating local residents with false Christian teachings promoting extremism among followers.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.  In June the Kenya National Union of Teachers presented a report to the Senate Education Committee detailing religious and gender discrimination against nonlocal teachers in Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa Counties.  Muslim minority groups, particularly those of Somali descent, reported continued harassment by non-Muslims.  There were again reports of religiously motivated threats of societal violence and intolerance, such as members of Muslim communities threatening individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity.  According to religious leaders, some Muslim youths responded to alleged abuses by non-Muslim members of the police who came from other regions by vandalizing properties of local Christians.

U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, especially underscoring the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering violent extremism.  Embassy representatives regularly discussed issues of religious freedom, including the importance of tolerance and inclusion, with local and national civic and religious leaders.  The embassy urged religious leaders to engage in interfaith efforts to promote religious freedom and respect religious diversity.  The embassy supported interfaith and civic efforts to defuse political and ethnic tensions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders and religious organizations stated the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately impacted Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis and particularly in areas along the Somalia border.  The government’s actions reportedly included extrajudicial killing, torture and forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship.

Prosecution was pending at year’s end of Christian televangelist Paul Makenzi of the Good News International Ministries and his wife Joyce Mwikamba, whom, in October 2017 in the coastal city of Malindi in Kilifi County, authorities charged with radicalizing children by teaching them to reject medical care, enticing them to drop out of school, and teaching them formal education is evil.  According to multiple press reports, police raided Makenzi’s church and rescued children who had abandoned their homes and schools to follow Makenzi’s ministry.

The Registrar of Societies continued not to register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end.  According to the Alliance of Registered Churches & Ministries Founders, more than 4,400 religious group applications were pending as of the start of the year.  In 2016 the government withdrew proposed Religious Societies Rules in response to religious leaders’ objections after a meeting between President Uhuru Kenyatta and religious leaders.  Religious leaders reported the attorney general proposed the rules to make leaders of religious organizations more accountable for financial dealings and radical or violent teachings.  The government agreed to consult religious leaders and the public and allow them to provide input on a new draft.

In January the High Court in Nairobi overturned the registration suspension of the AIK imposed after court hearings in 2017.  The attorney general suspended AIK’s registration due to questions surrounding the issue of the group’s constitutional rights.  Opponents of AIK’s registration argued AIK’s beliefs were not consistent with the constitution, stating the constitution “recognizes Kenya as a country that believes in God.”

In July the Anglican Church of Kenya (ACK) reinstated three priests who had been dismissed in 2015 on suspicion of homosexual acts.  Shortly after their dismissal, an Employment and Labor Relations judge ordered the Church to reinstate the priests, citing a lack of any evidentiary findings against them.  The ACK reinstated the priests after a court ordered the Church provide back pay and held the presiding bishop in contempt for having failed to adhere to the 2015 ruling.  Protesters, however, prevented the priests from returning to work at their parishes.

An appeal by the Methodist Church was still pending at year’s end regarding a 2016 ruling by the Court of Appeal that Muslim female students be allowed to wear a hijab as part of their school uniforms.  The ruling overturned a 2015 High Court verdict that declared hijabs were discriminatory because they created disparity among students.  In filings to the Supreme Court in September, the attorney general and Teachers Service Commission continued to support the right to wear the hijab in schools.  Religious leaders reported public schools complied with the Court of Appeals’ ruling, while some private schools – particularly religious ones – continued to insist students remove the hijab.  Schools applied the ruling to members of the Akorino religious group, which combines Christian and African styles of worship and requires adherents to cover their heads with turbans for men (referred to as headgear) and veils for women.

Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab.  The Independent Policing Oversight Authority, a civilian government body that investigates police misconduct, reported numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police.  Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab.

Religious leaders reported the government sought to circumvent a legal prohibition on taxing religious organizations by applying certain regulations to both religious and secular institutions, such as requiring licensing fees for marriage officiants and venues for large social meetings.  Religious leaders stated the fee regulations were unevenly enforced, although not in a discriminatory manner.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Authorities received more than 150 reports of terrorist attacks in the northeast of the country bordering Somalia by al-Shabaab and its sympathizers that targeted non-Muslims.  In one such attack in September, al-Shabaab reportedly ordered travelers to disembark a bus in Lamu County, then identified and killed the two Christians before letting the other travelers proceed.

On February 23, al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers near Wajir Town.  Reports indicated that, following the attack, more than 60 teachers fled Wajir and neighboring Mandera.  In June the Kenya National Union of Teachers presented a report to the Senate Education Committee detailing the plight of nonlocal teachers in Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa Counties.  According to the report, female teachers “suffered discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, and language,” including being forced to wear deeras (long dresses) and hijabs.

On January 24, media reported al-Shabaab militants raided a village in the Lamu region where they forced villagers to listen to “radical” preaching and hoisted a black flag at the deserted police station.  The militants called upon all civilians to enroll their children in Arabic and Islamic education classes, causing many to flee the scene due to fear of violence.  Many villagers fled the area, and a number of schools remained closed because of security concerns.

Al-Shabaab remained the focus of government antiterror and police efforts throughout the northeast and coastal region.

In October a group of residents in Bungale, Magarini Sub County of Kilifi County, reportedly burned down a house belonging to a pastor associated with the Malindi televangelist, Paul Makenzi.  The group also demolished a Good News International Ministries church and residence belonging to Pastor Titus Katana, also linked to Makenzi.  The group threatened to kill Katana and demanded he leave the area.  Local government officials reported that residents took action following claims Makenzi was promoting extremism and indoctrinating followers with what they characterized as false Christian teachings that included opposition to formal education for children and rejection of modern medicine.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.

Authorities continued to receive reports of threats of violence towards individuals based on religious attire and expressions of intolerance toward members of other faiths.  Since religion and ethnicity are closely linked, authorities could not categorize many incidents as being based exclusively on religious identity.

According to NGO sources, some Muslim community leaders and their families were threatened with violence or death, especially some individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity, particularly those of Somali ethnic origin.

Interreligious NGOs and political leaders said tensions remained high between Muslim and Christian communities because of terrorist attacks in recent years.  Non-Muslims reportedly harassed or treated with suspicion persons of Somali origin, who were predominantly Muslim.  Police officers often did not serve in their home regions, and therefore officers in some Muslim majority areas were largely non-Muslim.  Religious leaders suggested, anecdotally, that some Muslim youths responded to reported police abuses by largely non-Muslim police forces by vandalizing properties of local Christians.

A two-year survey conducted by DevTech systems on indicators of violent extremism found that fundamental religious beliefs alone do not lead to violent extremism, but that violent extremists often manipulate or invoke religion and ethnic tensions to frame grievances, divide communities, and justify violence.  When asked about the perceptions of ethnic and religious social cohesion, acceptance of identity-based grievances, and the use of violence to defend religious beliefs, 83 percent of respondents believed they could practice their religion freely.  Reports of discrimination were highest in Nairobi at 24 percent.  Nationally, 84 percent of respondents said diversity made the country a better place to live, and 25 percent said violence was always justified in defending one’s religion or culture.

Religious leaders representing interfaith groups, including the Anglican, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu communities, engaged with political parties and the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission in the national reconciliation process following violent 2017 presidential elections.  Representatives of a number of religious organizations participated in an October National Dialogue Reference Group conference to promote national healing and identify social cohesion challenges.

South Africa

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.  The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status.  In September Rastafarians welcomed a Constitutional Court ruling that declared unconstitutional a ban on marijuana cultivation and personal consumption by adults in private homes.  Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws, one requiring religious groups to register with the government and the other criminalizing, defining, and punishing hate crimes and speech, could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech.

On May 10, three men attacked the Imam Hussain Mosque, a Shia mosque, located in Durban, in what many stated they believed was a sectarian attack.  The assailants stabbed two worshippers, cut the throat of another, and set parts of the mosque on fire, leaving one dead.  In July police discovered five explosive devices around Durban.  Police affidavits stated the 11 men arrested in connection with the devices and the mosque attack had links to ISIS.  The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 62 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 44 in 2017.  Numerous individuals made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year.

The U.S. consulates in Durban and Cape Town coordinated with several U.S. government agencies to offer workshops on social cohesion and peaceful religious coexistence to local audiences including government officials, law enforcement, NGOs, civil society organizations, religious leaders, academics, and representatives of refugee and immigrant communities.  U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and Jewish representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

In September the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, declared unconstitutional a ban on marijuana cultivation and personal consumption by adults in private homes.  The court upheld a lower court ruling from 2017.  Since 2002, the Rastafarians had called for the drug, colloquially known as dagga, to be declared lawful on religious grounds.  Jeremy Acton, the head of the Dagga Party of South Africa, brought the court case.

Several groups, including the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the nonprofit Christian organization Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), and the International Institute for Religious Freedom, stated their continued opposition to a 2016 CRL legislative proposal requiring religious groups to register, stating it would restrict their religious freedom.  The proposal would require religious groups to register formally with the government and would create a peer review council, consisting of representatives from various religious groups, which would grant organizations and individual religious leaders’ permission to operate.  Accredited umbrella organizations for each religious group would recommend the licensing of institutions and individual members of the clergy.  Another recognized umbrella organization would then either approve or decline licensing the institutions.  The groups in opposition stated the proposal’s intent to regulate all religious organizations was unconstitutional and unnecessary because existing laws could be used to address governmental concerns of improper religious activities, such as feeding congregant’s snakes and dangerous substances.  In January the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs announced that every comment it had received from the religious community opposed the CRL proposal.  The committee recommended a national consultative conference, where a full discussion could take place on the issues in the CRL proposal.  The committee also suggested a code of ethics.  No member of the committee recommended that the CRL proposal be forwarded for adoption by parliament.

According to the media, the legislative proposal was prompted by the CRL’s 2016 investigation that revealed some independent church leaders instructed their congregations to eat live snakes, expose their faces to insect repellant, drink gasoline, and pay large sums of money to receive blessings and miracles.  The CRL also found that some religious organizations failed to adhere to tax rules and demonstrated a lack of financial transparency.  Opponents of the proposal stated the CRL based its investigation and subsequent report that justified the recommendation for legislation on generalizations about alleged abuses.  Opponents further stated that the supporting evidence upon which the CRL based its investigation consisted of an inadequate number of interviews with religious groups.  The Council for the Protection and Promotion of Religious Rights and Freedoms – established to oversee the process drawn up by religious and civil organizations that define religious freedoms, rights, and responsibilities of citizens – described the report’s proposals as “the fruit of a poisonous tree.”  The proposal remained with the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs at year’s end.

In May the Department of Justice introduced to parliament a hate crimes and hate speech bill that would criminalize any action or statement motivated by bias or hatred towards an individual based upon a number of categories, including his or her ethnic, national, religious, or sexual identity; health status; employment status or type; or physical ability.  The bill would provide law enforcement officials and courts increased authority to arrest, punish offenders, and would mandate prison sentences of up to three years for first-time offenses.  The Department of Justice invited public commentary on the draft bill in 2017 and received more than 77,000 responses from individuals, religious groups, and other organizations.  Opponents to the bill, including religious figures, media representatives, and civil society and NGOs, argued the bill’s definition of hate crimes and speech was too vague and could potentially restrict freedom of religion and speech.  FORSA expressed concern that the bill’s provisions were “over-broad and unconstitutional” and could punish churches and Christians who spoke out against homosexuality; sexual identity is among the categories covered in the legislation.  The Hate Crimes Working Group, a network of civil society groups, stated that existing laws adequately addressed hate speech and the bill, if passed, could have unintended consequences.  The draft legislation was expected to be debated in parliament in early 2019, according to media reports.

Twin brothers Brandon Lee Thulsie and Tony Lee Thulsie continued to await trial on charges of contravening the Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terror and Related Activities.  The brothers, along with two others who were alleged to have links to ISIS, were arrested in 2016 for allegedly planning to set off explosives at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria and Jewish institutions in the country.  The case continued at year’s end.

In August the Western Cape High Court in Cape Town ordered the state to pass legislation that recognizes Islamic marriages.  The Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) successfully argued that the failure of legislation to recognize Islamic marriages degraded Muslim women’s rights.  The Association of Muslim Women of South Africa and the United Ulama Council of South Africa opposed the WLC case, stating it violated freedom of religion by singling out Islam.  The court found that marriage was given “a seal of constitutional significance” and that the only reasonable way the state could fulfill its constitutional obligations would be by enacting legislation that recognized Islamic marriages.  The court gave the government 24 months to pass the legislation; otherwise, all marriages validly concluded under sharia would be dissolved according to the existing legislation.

In September several Muslim pupils at Jeppe Girls School in Johannesburg were charged with “misconduct for repeated dress code infringements” for wearing hijabs without formally asking permission.  The Gauteng Education Department launched an investigation into the matter.  School officials agreed in principle to amend the school’s code of conduct to allow for religious headwear.  The girls’ families retained counsel, who said that if the school attempted to hold a planned hearing on the “defiance and disregard” the school officials said the pupils had shown, they would sue for religious discrimination.

Some prominent individuals and politicians were quoted throughout the year making anti-Semitic statements.  Economic Freedom Fighters political party leader Julius Malema stated at a media briefing in August, “There’s a group of white right wingers who are being trained by Jews in Pretoria to be snipers.”

In February African National Congress Western Cape legislator Sharon Davids accused the Democratic Alliance party of fabricating the Cape Town water crisis in order to obtain desalination contract kickbacks from what she referred to as the “Jewish mafia.”

In February the Democratic Alliance party instructed deputy provincial chair nominee and Women’s Network provincial leader Shehana Kajee to apologize for a 2013 online post in which she called for the Muslim community to “go on the attack” against non-Muslims in the name of Islam.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On May 10, assailants attacked the Shia Imam Hussain Mosque in Verulam, north of Durban, in what many stated they believed was a sectarian attack.  The assailants entered the mosque during midday prayers, stabbed the imam and a worshipper, cut the throat of a man who attempted to help the two being attacked, and set a section of the mosque on fire.  The victim whose throat was cut later died of his injuries.  According to police, the motives behind the targeting of the mosque remained unknown.  Representatives of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Muslim community pointed to growing anti-Shia rhetoric – from some of KZN’s Muslim leaders, local analysts, and community members – as fomenting hate and divisions between majority Sunni and minority Shia Muslims.  In July police discovered five explosive devices around Durban.  Police affidavits stated the 11 men arrested for the mosque attack and the explosive devices were linked to ISIS.  The investigation remained ongoing at year’s end.

In June a man killed two worshippers and wounded two others during prayers at the Sunni Malmesbury Mosque near Cape Town.  Police responding to the incident killed the attacker, who was described by authorities as a Somali national.  The motivation for the attack remained unclear, according to a local news channel.

In a Friday sermon in March at the Masjid Al Furqaan in Cape Town, Sheikh Riyaad Fataar, Deputy President of the Muslim Judicial Council, said the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was “slipping from the hands of the Islamic nation…because the plans of the Jews are moving [ahead]…There is a new page coming that is going to exclude the Zionists from that page.”  The SAJBD stated anti-Semitism increased after South Africa recalled its ambassador to Israel in May following the deaths along the Gaza border of 52 Palestinians in clashes with Israeli security forces.

In June the SAJBD filed a criminal complaint against three individuals it accused of using anti-Semitic and threatening hate speech.  Muhammad Hattia, Tameez Seedat, and Matome Letsoalo made disparaging remarks on social media, including “The #Holocaust Will be like A Picnic When we are done with all you Zionist Bastards” (Letsoalo), and “Hitler [expletive] he should’ve killed you all” (Hattia).  The SAJBD withdrew the charges against Hattia and Seedat after they met with SAJBD and said they showed “remorse” and “anguish.”  Letsoalo did not apologize but instead created additional Twitter accounts.

In June a man arriving at Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg shouted at fellow passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv, “Jews are wicked.”  The man said he had been denied entry into Israel and returned to South Africa.  The incident was filmed in the baggage claim area by a passenger who had just arrived in Johannesburg on the flight.

In August the South African Human Rights Commission ruled that Tony Ehrenreich, former Western Cape Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, was guilty of hate speech for a Facebook post in which he said, “If a woman or child is killed in Gaza, then the Jewish board of deputies, who are complicit, will feel the wrath of the people of South Africa with the age old biblical teaching of an eye for an eye.”

In November pro-Palestinian groups and supporters of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel called for the withdrawal of seven professors from Israeli universities from participation in a December conference at the University of Stellenbosch titled “Recognition, Reparation, Reconciliation:  The Light and Shadow of Historical Trauma.”  The conference chair, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, issued a statement defending the participation of the Israeli scholars, but she later posted a letter to delegates on the conference website stating the scholars had “rescinded their participation” after discussion.  The media and others, however, stated conference organizers had withdrawn their invitations.

The SAJBD recorded 62 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 44 during 2017.  The incidents included verbal threats and intimidation, verbal abuse, abusive communications, and graffiti/offensive slogans.

In June in Cape Town, several Islamic leaders, both Sunni and Shia representatives, signed the “Cape Accord,” a document meant to encourage peace and unity and to eradicate extremism in the country.  The document also emphasized a tolerance of differences among Muslims and a call not to escalate intrafaith hostilities.

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