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China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Read A Section: China

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Executive Summary

Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.” Despite Chairman Xi Jinping’s decree that all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must be “unyielding Marxist atheists,” the government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. There were several reports of individuals committing suicide in detention, or, according to sources, as a result of being threatened and surveilled. In December Pastor Wang Yi was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in connection to his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. There was one self-immolation by a former Tibetan Buddhist monk reported during the year. According to The Church of Almighty God, a Christian group established in the country in 1991 and which the government considers an “evil cult,” authorities in Shandong Province arrested more than 6,000 members during the year as part of a nationwide crackdown. Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program. According to <i>Minghui, </i>a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. <i>Bitter Winter</i><i>,</i><i> </i>an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, beaten, and forced to take medication. The government continued a campaign begun in 2016 to evict thousands of monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Authorities in many provinces targeted religious groups with overseas ties, particularly Christian groups. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued a campaign of religious Sinicization to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, adopting a formal five-year plan on January 7. Officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, and placed surveillance cameras in houses of worship as a condition of allowing these venues to continue operating. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, and other houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country, including the last remaining crosses in Xiayi County, Henan Province, and all Jewish symbols identifying the site of the former Kaifeng Synagogue, also in Henan Province. Nationwide, the government prohibited individuals under aged 18 from participating in most religious activities. The Holy See maintained its 2018 provisional agreement with the government that reportedly addressed a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama.

The government continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang. The U.S. government estimates that since April 2017, the PRC government arbitrarily detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as Uighur Christians, in specially built or converted internment camps in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. There were reports of individuals dying as a result of injuries sustained during interrogations. In November <i>The New York Times</i> and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported on leaked internal government documents that included descriptions of the government’s mass internment program in Xinjiang and a manual for operating internment camps with instructions on how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camp’s existence, and methods of forced indoctrination. A third document, the “Karakax List,” originally leaked in November and later made public, presented evidence the government initially interned or extended the internment of individuals on religious grounds in four reeducation centers in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture. Authorities in Xinjiang restricted access to mosques and barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan. According to human rights groups and international media, authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. This surveillance included forcing Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities to install spyware on their mobile phones and accept government officials and CCP members living in their homes. Satellite imagery and other sources indicated the government destroyed mosques, cemeteries, and other religious sites. Nearly 40 percent of all elementary and middle school students – approximately half a million children – lived in boarding schools where they studied Han culture, Mandarin, and CCP ideology. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur and other Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uighur language, culture, and religion and the promotion of the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread

The President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other U.S. embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom throughout the country. At the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, the United States and other nations issued a statement calling on the government to cease its crackdown on religious groups. In a September 23 speech at the UN General Assembly, the Vice President said, “The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than one million Muslim Uighurs.” On September 24 the United States co-sponsored a panel discussion on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang during the United Nations General Assembly session, hosted by the Deputy Secretary of State. During a press conference on November 26, the Secretary of State said, “We call on the Chinese government to immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.” The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of Chinese officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance and the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

In October the U.S. government added 28 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List and imposed visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing these measures, the Secretary of State said, “The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region that includes mass detentions in internment camps; pervasive, high-tech surveillance; draconian controls of expressions of cultural and religious identities; and coercion of individuals to return from abroad to an often perilous fate in China.”

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states citizens have “freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities.” The constitution does not define “normal.” It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.” The constitution states “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution. Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

The CCP is responsible for creating religious regulations. The CCP manages the United Front Work Department (UFWD), which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities . SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations. SARA administers the provincial and local bureaus of religious affairs.

CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. Members found to belong to religious organizations are subject to expulsion, although these rules are not universally enforced. The vast majority of public office holders are CCP members, and membership is widely considered a prerequisite for success in a government career. These restrictions on religious belief and practice also apply to retired CCP party members.

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups. Criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison. There are no published criteria for determining, or procedures for challenging, such a designation. A national security law also explicitly bans “cult organizations.”

The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other such organizations. The government continues to ban Falun Gong, the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy), and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government also considers several Christian groups to be “evil cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Lord God religious group, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

The Counterterrorism Law describes “religious extremism” as the ideological basis of terrorism that uses “distorted religious teachings or other means to incite hatred, or discrimination, or advocate violence.”

The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Regulations require religious organizations to register with the government. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations are permitted to do so and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. These five associations operate under the direction of the CCP UFWD. The five associations are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the TSPM, and the CCPA. Other religious groups such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See are not permitted to register as legal entities. The country’s laws and policies do not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

The 2018 Regulations on Religious Affairs state that registered religious organizations may possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations. Religious and other regulations permit official patriotic religious associations to engage in activities such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities. The CCP’s UFWD, including SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

The SCIO April 2018 white paper states there are approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 are Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 Islamic mosques, 6,000 Catholic churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 Protestant churches and places of assembly.

Government policy allows religious groups to engage in charitable work, but regulations specifically prohibit faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities require faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once registered as an official charity, authorities allow them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government does not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government requires faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of the registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often require these groups to affiliate with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

The law requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad.

The regulations specify all religious structures, including clergy housing, may not be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. In December SARA issued regulations that place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating any such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions and state any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($14,400) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” must not accept donations from foreign sources with conditions attached. If authorities find a group has illegally accepted a donation, they may confiscate the donation and fine the recipient group between one to three times the value of the unlawful donations or, if the amount cannot be determined, a fine of RMB 50,000 ($7,200).

The Regulations on Religious Affairs require that religious activity “must not harm national security.” This includes support for “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling clergy credentials.

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations; many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect. In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices. In Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces, for example, local governments allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.

SARA states, through a policy posted on its website, that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government. A provision states, however, that religious organizations should report the establishment of a religious site to the government for approval.

According to the law, inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious beliefs while in custody.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states “Any state units, social organizations and individuals must not force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion.” Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 law criminalize the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments or symbols; doing so is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release, and a concurrent fine. Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

Regulations restrict the publication and distribution of literature with religious content to guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. The regulations limit the online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups by requiring prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools.

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must receive approval from the religious affairs department of the local government when the facility is proposed and again before services are first held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space. Therefore, every time such groups want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for each service. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, gained either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity, which may be criminally or administratively punished.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or construction of key projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local bureau of religious affairs (guided by SARA) and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools.

The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students.

The law states job applicants shall not face discrimination in hiring based on factors including religious belief.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). With respect to Macau, the central government notified the UN secretary general, in part, that residents of Macau shall not be restricted in the rights and freedoms they are entitled to, unless otherwise provided for by law, and in case of restrictions, the restrictions shall not contravene the ICCPR. With respect to Hong Kong, the central government notified the secretary general, in part, that the ICCPR would also apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Government Practices

Police continued to arrest and otherwise detain leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention. Reportedly, authorities used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.

There were reports of deaths in custody and forced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom, according to sources, authorities targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported some previously detained individuals were released but still denied freedom of movement.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation contained the following number of imprisoned religious practitioners at year’s end: 121 “non-cult” Protestants, 487 “cult” Protestants, including members of The Church of Almighty God, 114 Muslims, 22 Buddhists, and four Catholics, compared with 119 “non-cult” Protestants, 316 ”cult” Protestants, 136 Muslims, 22 Buddhists, and nine Catholics at the end of 2018. According to Dui Hua, these numbers were based on Dui Hua’s classification system for inclusion in the PPDB and were not the total number of religious prisoners. The number of Muslim prisoners did not include Uighur and ethnic Kazakh prisoners, which Dui Hua classified as “ethnic prisoners.” According to Dui Hua, these figures did not account for Muslims in detention centers, which the government referred to as “vocational skill education training centers.” The PPDB listed 2,979 Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned at year’s end, compared with 3,486 at the end of 2018. Dui Hua defined imprisoned religious practitioners as “people persecuted for holding religious beliefs that are not officially sanctioned.”

According to a report released by The Church of Almighty God, during the year at least 32,815 Church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 23,567 in 2018. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 26,683 church members (at least 12,456 in 2018), arrested 6,132 (11,111 in 2018), detained 4,161 (6,757 in 2018), tortured 3,824 (685 in 2018), sentenced 1,355 (392 in 2018), and seized at least RMB 390 million ($56 million) in Church and personal assets. At least 19 Church members died as a result of abuse (20 in 2018). These 19 included two who died as a result of undergoing physical abuse and forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and 11 who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the annual report of The Church of Almighty God, in January Ren Cuifang of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region died 12 days after being arrested. The report stated that on her remains there was bruising around her eyes and the left side of her chest. There was a burn scar on her thigh and lacerations with blood marks on her wrists and heels. The report also stated that on May 30, police arrested a couple in Xinmi City, Henan Province. During questioning, police struck the husband repeatedly across the face, kicked him in the lower back, clubbed his toes with an iron bar, and forced him to take off his clothes and kneel on an iron rod. He suffered two broken ribs on his left side. They stomped on the wife’s toes and instep, struck her in the face with a ruler, and handcuffed her behind her back with one arm twisted up over her shoulder and one arm twisted from below. In August Liu Jun of Jiangxi Province, who suffered from kidney disease, died in custody of uremia after authorities delayed his treatment. In July Cheng Dongzhu of Hubei Province, under the pressure of constant surveillance by authorities, drowned herself in a lake. The NGO Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Religious Freedom said that in May police attempted to arrest Li Sulian, a member of The Church of Almighty God, in her apartment, but before they entered she died from a fall in an attempt to escape out the window using a bed sheet. On November 22, Bitter Winter described the arrests, detentions, and seizure of assets of The Church of Almighty God members as part of the government’s nationwide campaign to “clean up gang crime and eliminate evil.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout Shandong Province arrested more than 50 members of The Church of Almighty God. According to the family of one of the individuals arrested in Dezhou City on April 17, eight police officers suddenly broke into his home and, without presenting any credentials, searched the dwelling, seizing RMB 6,000 ($860), two computers, and other items. The man’s wife was later taken away as well and held in detention. In another instance, according to Bitter Winter, police knocked on the door under the false pretense of checking the home’s electricity circuit. When the owner opened her door, more than one dozen police officers entered, searched the house, and seized spiritual books and other faith-related items and two computers. Police arrested her and took her away in handcuffs with a hood over her head.

The Church of Almighty God reported that in May 52 members were arrested in coordinated raids in Chongqing, Sichuan Province. Some detainees reported they were put in a “tiger chair,” a device used to create stress positions during interrogations, and others said authorities denied them medical treatment and prevented them from sleeping. During the raid police seized RMB 190,000 ($27,000) of Church and personal property

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,109 and harassed 3,582 Falun Gong practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith. At year’s end, 3,400 practitioners remained in custody. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Eighteen provinces, including Shandong, Hubei, Sichuan, Jilin, and Liaoning, reported hundreds of cases of harassment and arrests. According to Minghui, those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, and dancers. On April 17, more than 100 officers arrested 10 members of a family in Bozhou City, Anhui Province, including a mother, her five daughters, three sons-in-law, and a 12-year-old grandson. Four of the sisters stood trial on December 5 and were awaiting verdicts at year’s end. Wang Shaoqing of Hubei Province and 12 other practitioners, including Zhou Xiuwu (aged 79) were arrested on March 7 for talking to others about Falun Gong in a park. According to her daughter, as of November, Wang was being held at the Wuhan City No. 1 Detention Center and denied access to her attorney.

Minghui reported that during the year, authorities were responsible for the deaths of 96 individuals on account of their beliefs or affiliations, 19 of them while being held in prisons, police stations, or detention. In the early morning on January 11, Guo Zhenxiang (aged 82) of Zhaoyuan City, Shandong Province, was arrested for passing out leaflets at a bus station. At approximately 10 AM authorities informed her family that she had died after becoming ill at the station and being taken to a local hospital. Yang Shengjun of Jiamusi City, Heilongjiang Province, was arrested on August 2 and died on August 11. Authorities told Yang’s family that he had vomited blood at the detention center early that morning and been sent to Jiamusi Central Hospital for emergency treatment. According to the family, they were charged RMB 30,000 ($4,300) for Yang’s medical treatment. On December 7, Li Yanjie of Heilongjiang Province fell to her death while trying to escape out the window of her 6th floor apartment as police attempted to force open the front door.

During the year, two international academic studies examined the country’s transplant system. These studies revealed new information about reports of the government’s practice of forcibly extracting organs from prisoners, including religious adherents, and noted ethical lapses on the part of the government and scientific research papers examining the country’s transplant system which the authors of the studies said left doubt about how voluntary the system actually was. On February 6 the peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ Open published the findings from an Australian-led academic study examining 445 scientific research papers that drew on Chinese transplant recipient data reported by the government and domestic hospitals. The academic study found 440 of the papers (99 percent) knowingly “failed to report whether organ donors had given consent for transplantation,” resulting in unethically published research. The Guardian reported the study found that some of the research papers stated organs were procured from volunteer deceased donors rather than from executed prisoners. The study concluded, however, that the government’s voluntary deceased donor program, instituted in 2010, was not in place at the time the research for the scientific papers took place, suggesting the government and hospitals had manipulated and falsified the data. The study further concluded the only source for organs at the time was executed prisoners, including prisoners of conscience. In an op-ed published in The Conversation on February 6, the study’s authors said, “[A] growing body of credible evidence suggests that organ harvesting is not limited to condemned prisoners, but also includes prisoners of conscience. It is possible therefore – though not verifiable in any particular case – that peer reviewed publications may contain data obtained from prisoners of conscience killed for the purpose of organ acquisition.”

In November a second Australian-led academic study reported in BMC Medical Ethics found the government and medical bureaucracy manipulated and falsified data on organ transplants. The study concluded that rather than the “untarnished voluntary system promised by officials,” a “voluntary system appears to operate alongside the continued use of nonvoluntary donors (most plausibly prisoners) who are misclassified as ‘voluntary.’” The study also said the goal of the manufactured data was “to create a misleading impression to the international transplantation community about the successes of China’s voluntary organ donation reform, and to neutralize the criticism of activists who allege that crimes against humanity have been committed in the acquisition of organs for transplant.” The study noted the government formalized regulations on organ transplantation in 2006, shortly after witnesses alleged Falun Gong practitioners were being used as an organ source, which the government denied.

In June an independent tribunal established by the international NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China issued its final judgment that “forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that Falun Gong practitioners have been one – and probably the main – source of organ supply.” The tribunal presented its finding to the United Nations in September.

Minghui reported that He Lifang, a Falun Gong practitioner from Qingdao City, Shandong Province, was arrested in May and died in custody on July 2. According to Minghui, his family observed a sewn-up incision on his chest and an open incision on his back. The police first said the incisions were a result of an autopsy, but his family suspected his organs had been harvested either while he was alive or shortly after his death. In November Wang Dechen of Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, died after serving four years of a 10-year prison term. According to the family, prison authorities would not allow them to get close to Wang’s body and pressured them to consent to have his body cremated two days after his death. His family said they suspected he had been a victim of organ harvesting.

In December Bitter Winter published an article describing instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. One member of an unregistered Christian house church said he was held in a mental asylum twice for evangelizing, spending a total of 248 days there. A member of The Church of Almighty God from Hunan Province said she was held for 154 days because of her faith. Both individuals described being forced to take medication. The woman said beatings for disobedience were commonplace and that staff used sticks and electric batons to force inmates to take medication.

International religious media outlets and watchdog groups reported local authorities in several districts around the country implemented rules awarding compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners of certain affiliations or confiscating donation money. Local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, media outlets reported in January that in Dalian, the second largest city in Liaoning Province, the National Security Bureau implemented a quota system in which police officers’ performances were evaluated based on the number of Christians they arrested. One Dalian police officer reportedly told the Gospel Herald magazine that senior officers risked losing their jobs if the quotas were not met. Bitter Winter reported the government of Qingdao, Shandong Province, launched a three-month operation in September and set quotas for the arrest of 100 to 200 adherents from various denominations and religious movements.

The whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups.

In June Bitter Winter reported that at least 45 of its correspondents and contributors in the country were detained, and some physically abused, as a result of the government’s retaliation against reporting on religious freedom.

Sources reported Pastor Yang Hua was detained several times throughout the year for his religious work. Yang was the pastor of the Livingstone Church, which was the largest unregistered church in Guizhou Province before the government shut it down in 2015.

In April AsiaNews reported national security agents took Father Paul Zhang Guangjun, a Catholic priest, into custody in Xuanhua, Hebei Province. Zhang had refused to join the government-run CCPA. According to AsiaNews, authorities stopped Zhang’s car, smashed the window, and beat him before taking him away. Another man in the car was also beaten but not taken into custody. Fifteen days prior to this event, police raided a house in which Zhang was leading Mass. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

On July 25, media reported authorities in Yunnan Province denied the appeal of Protestant pastor Cao “John” Sanqiang, a U.S. lawful permanent resident and Christian leader, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence for “organizing others to illegally cross the border.” In 2017 authorities arrested Cao and a fellow Christian teacher when they traveled by waterway from Burma to Yunnan Province. His lawyer was told of the hearing only days before it was scheduled and was denied contact with Cao before the appeal was heard.

According to Bitter Winter, on June 17, authorities arrested and interrogated a local pastor at a branch of the South Korea-based Sungrak Church (“Sacred Music Church”) in Liaoning Province. The police repeatedly asked the pastor whether the church accepted money from South Korean sources and pressured him for information about church members. Police released him after forcing him to write a statement promising not to hold gatherings anymore.

Minghui reported that in April authorities in separate cases sentenced 38 Falun Gong practitioners to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years. Authorities also fined 16 of the 38 practitioners a total of RMB 249,000 ($35,800). One man was convicted of “subverting state power” by mailing letters about the group. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined RMB 100,000 ($14,400). According to Minghui, authorities surveilled the man for several months before arresting him in August 2017. Authorities sentenced two Falun Gong practitioners in the town of Luodai in Sichuan Province to two years and eight months in prison for removing anti-Falun Gong posters from their neighborhood. Minghui reported one 76-year-old man from Ji’nan City, Shandong Province, was sentence to three years and fined RMB 5,000 ($720) for refusing to renounce his faith.

Minghui reported that on May 12, police arrested eight elderly practitioners in Zhuhai City, Guangdong Province, while studying Falun Gong books. The police recorded detailed information about each practitioner, including his or her children’s employment information and phone numbers, before taking them home and ransacking their residences.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 15, authorities arrested 150 pastors, elders, and leaders from Henan Province’s China Gospel Fellowship, a network of unregistered house churches. According to a source, the pastors, elders, and leaders had been under surveillance for an extended period of time. Authorities confiscated their mobile phones and recorded their personal information before transporting each individual to the police station in the municipality of his or her registered residence. Authorities forced each pastor to sign a “statement of repentance” prior to being released. One of the pastors said authorities placed a surveillance camera in front of her house and ordered her to report to the police station every day. According to sources, one pastor suffered a heart attack during the raid and was taken to the hospital.

According to the religious freedom advocacy NGO ChinaAid, most of the 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church – the church with the most members among Chengdu’s unregistered churches – who were arrested during a violent raid in December 2018, were released during the year. AsiaNews reported authorities released church elder Li Yingqiang in August. According to ChinaAid, authorities sentenced elder Qin Defu to four years in prison for “illegal business activity.” In December Pastor Wang Yi was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in connection with his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. According to a statement posted on the court’s website, the court also deprived Wang of his political rights for three years and confiscated RMB 50,000 ($7,200) of his personal property. Prior to his conviction, on July 15, authorities informed Wang’s lawyer that Wang was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegal business activity,” which carry the possibility of a life sentence. ChinaAid reported that Wang’s lawyer was prevented from meeting his client, was subjected to surveillance, and had other difficulties representing his client.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern, a member of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan Province said he was forced to move houses several times during the year. He had been detained for two weeks in February and then evicted from his home in September. Police threatened to arrest the member and his wife and to send his child to an orphanage if he did not immediately leave his home. The man said this was the third time he had been forced to move due to his religious beliefs.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that human rights attorney Jiang Tianyong, who had previously represented Falun Gong adherents and Tibetans, was released from prison in Henan Province in February at the end of his two-year prison term on charges of “inciting state subversion.” The U.S.-based NGO Human Rights in China said that, according to Jiang’s relatives, he was allowed to visit his parents’ home in Xinyang City, Henan Province, following his release. Jiang remained in his parents’ village throughout the year under house arrest, unable to see doctors for medical conditions that began when he was in prison, which included discoloration on his legs and swollen feet.

In its annual report, ChinaAid stated Jiang Rong, the wife of Early Rain Covenant Church Pastor Wang Yi, was released on bail in June after five months in detention, but authorities immediately placed her under house arrest and prohibited contact with all but family members. According to ChinaAid, while in detention authorities tortured Jiang, prohibited her from brushing her teeth for 50 days, and forced her to sit on a stool for long hours with her body bent at a 30 degree angle.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities compelling members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. ChinaAid, Bitter Winter, and other sources reported authorities pressured family members to encourage believers to renounce their faith, threatening to withdraw employment and educational opportunities from them and their family members, and to withhold social welfare benefits. According to ChinaAid, on January 31, Early Rain Covenant Church member Pan Fei was fired from his job at Yonghui Supermarket in Chengdu because he refused to stop attending church and renounce his faith.

The Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Religious Freedom reported that in April a long-time CCP member named Ms. Zhang committed suicide after the Sichuan Province CCP pressured her to renounce her faith and made multiple threats against her family. Zhang joined the TSPM True Jesus Church in 2011. The report stated that during the year, Zhang was subjected to a criticism session in front of 100 party officials, home visits from party leaders, and threats to remove social benefits from her children.

There continued to be no uniform procedures for registering religious adherents. The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the state-sanctioned religious associations. Only government-accredited religious personnel could conduct such activities and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

UCA News reported that on December 30, the government approved the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups, scheduled to take effect on February 1, 2020. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures emphasize that only registered groups could operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must adhere to the leadership of the CCP and implement the values of socialism. According to UCA News, if enforced, article 34, which governs money and finances, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to a 2014 SARA statistic, more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. According to a SCIO report on religious policies and practice released in September 2017, there were 21 officially recognized Protestant seminaries, 57,000 clerical personnel, and 60,000 churches and other meeting places. This report stated there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA, including nine Catholic schools, although students under 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as the CCPA’s propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were 35,000 mosques, 57,000 imams, and 10 Quran institutes (religious seminaries under the auspices of the state-sanctioned IAC) in the country.

The government did not recognize religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups, and continued to close down or hinder their activities. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered and other times because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate, but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader.

ChinaAid reported in June that authorities in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, shut down Dao’en Church, stating the Church had not registered with the government. Authorities had previously closed three of the Church’s five branches and pressured landlords to not renew leases for the Church. ChinaAid earlier reported authorities had fined the pastor and another minister of Dao’en Church RMB 10,000 ($1,400) and threatened to confiscate the Church’s offerings.

The government kept Zion Church closed, one of Beijing’s largest unregistered Protestant churches, led by Pastor Jin “Ezra” Mingzhi, saying it had broken rules by organizing mass gatherings without registering with authorities.

International media and NGOs reported the government continued a nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” across all faith traditions. On January 7, the government announced a formal five-year plan for this campaign.

From June 24 to 29, the Guangdong UFWD and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission jointly hosted a training session in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, on religious Sinicization. More than 70 individuals above the vice president level from provincial religious groups from the five officially recognized faiths attended. In his opening remarks, Deputy Director General of Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission Huang Zhongxing said religious Sinicization taught socialist core values to religious professionals and believers. He urged participants to study in depth and implement “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” the eponymous 30-year doctrine developed by Chairman Xi and the CCP in their religious work.

Gospel Times reported that on July 8, the Sichuan Provincial Party Committee held training to promote the “Sinicization of Christianity” for 178 church leaders. Lecture topics included how to implement Chairman Xi’s goal of guiding religious adherents to adapt to socialist society and the importance of church leaders keeping church members “politically reliable.” Similar events were held in other provinces.

Bitter Winter reported that in mid-July Liaoning provincial authorities launched a training course for TSPM church pastors at Shenyang Seminary. The director of the provincial religious affairs bureau was one of the instructors. A pastor who attended the mandatory training said the course focused on the Sinicization of Christianity. The pastor said authorities strongly emphasized the importance of wearing traditional Chinese clothing while delivering sermons; replacing European style church buildings with Chinese style buildings; and incorporating CCP policies and ideology into sermons. Training sessions on the Bible or Christian theology were not offered. Additionally, authorities reportedly told pastors their religious qualifications and preaching certificates would immediately be revoked if they preached that biblical teachings carried greater authority than CCP policies and ideology. One pastor told Bitter Winter that in Liaoyang City a police chief told a group of Christians at a local church, “We must regard the Party as God, just like God.”

According to international media and the state-run news agency Xinhua, on November 26 in Beijing at a symposium of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, officials reaffirmed efforts to update religious texts to conform to “the core values of socialism.” Xinhua reported participants stressed the need to gradually form a religious ideological system with Chinese characteristics. According to Xinhua, “Participants suggested conducting a systematic study of the thoughts of various religions, and making accurate and authoritative interpretations of classical doctrines to keep pace with the times, so as to effectively resist the erosion of extreme thoughts and heresy.”

State media reported that in August Guangzhou’s Guangxiao Buddhist Temple and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government research institute and academic organization organized under the State Council, jointly established the “Buddhist Sinicization Research Base” in Guangzhou. At its inaugural meeting, multiple speakers said Buddhist philosophy and practice must be based on political identity and adapt to society and culture.

Media reported that in cities throughout Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, as well as in Henan Province, Inner Mongolia, and elsewhere, authorities replaced Islamic structures and symbols with traditional Chinese iconography as part of the nationwide “Sinicization” campaign. In the Ningxia Region authorities took down structures with “Arabic domes,” destroying minarets in the process, and replaced them with curving Chinese roofs. Sources told media that authorities prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians walking about wearing skull caps or veils.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating the Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clergy attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating one’s loyalty to the CCP over the church.

Bitter Winter reported that at a church in Shenyang during the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC on October 1, authorities hung national flags throughout the church, covering religious paintings and images. Authorities forced congregants to sing patriotic songs such as “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” During the event there were a total of 11 performances, most of which were secular programs promoting the CCP.

Bitter Winter and the website Aboluowang reported that on October 1, Buddhist monks at the Wanshan Temple in Lushan, Jiangxi Province, raised the national flag while fellow monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists waived small national flags and sang the national anthem. A Buddhist master led the group in shouting patriotic slogans such as “Long Live the motherland, Amitabha” and singing patriotic songs. One monk sang “My Chinese Heart,” and 16 nuns danced to the song “The Chinese Flag.” According to Bitter Winter, on September 26, the Jinxiang Temple in the Yindu District of Anyang, Henan Province, organized a National Day commemoration. An adherent asked to be allowed to sing a Buddhist song, but government officials told him “all Buddhist songs are forbidden, only songs advocating the Party are allowed.”

In October the website for the state-sponsored China Taoist Association reported its Sinicization efforts continued, promoting Taoism’s “advancing with the times” and “developing on the basis of maintaining its own Chinese characteristics.” Taoist ideology would, according to the website, use “new thinking, new ideas, and new theories to answer contemporary social life issues of social concern, public concern, and believers’ concerns, so that Taoism can better adapt to new society, serve the new era, and help push new developments.”

In October Bitter Winter reported the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau in Xiaoshan District in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, issued a “Scoring Form for the Standardized Management and Assessment of Buddhist and Taoist Activity Venues in Xiaoshan District.” Religious organizations could lose points for not promoting “core socialist values,” as well as for having religious publications that were not published by state-designated publishing houses. Groups could also lose points if they failed to raise the national flag, when video surveillance equipment inside the church did not work properly, or if clergy failed to give “Sinicized” sermons. According to Bitter Winter, a similar scoring plan went into effect in March in Henan Province. Under that plan, in addition to losing points, places of worship could gain points for “proactively reporting illegal religious activities” and “foreign infiltration.”

In September National Public Radio reported Hui residents of Tongxin said local officials offered rewards between $700 and $2,820 to those who reported suspicious religious behavior, such as proselytizing Islam or secretly teaching Islamic texts.

In August the pro-CCP media outlet Global Times stated 11,000 Uighur and other Muslims were expected to take part in the Hajj during the year, compared with 11,500 in 2018, although official statistics confirming this number was accurate were unavailable at year’s end.

Bitter Winter reported in early February authorities in Suiyang District, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, convened a meeting at which government personnel were ordered to collect the times and locations of house church gatherings and record that information in a newly established database operating 24 hours a day. According to Bitter Winter, officials said government informants would be rewarded for passing on information.

Bitter Winter reported that on May 12 in Gulou District in Fuzhou City, the capital of Fujian Province, more than 30 government personnel stood guard outside a meeting venue for the Fuzhou Reformed House Church. More than 20 police officers disrupted the meeting and ordered all individuals in attendance to leave. Police confiscated more than 200 books, including Bibles and hymnals. The police took the church’s elders into custody and threatened to arrest congregants who did not leave. According to one source, an official from the Religious Affairs Bureau told the congregants, “You should change your boss [referring to God] and join the Communist Party.” Police later posted a sign on the entrance stating the church had been shut down.

According to the South China Morning Post, Guangzhou officials from the Religious Affairs Bureau in March announced a new policy offering financial rewards to people who reported “illegal religious activities,” in an ongoing crackdown on underground gatherings. The new policy would also allow members of the public to earn up to RMB 10,000 ($1,400) for providing information leading to the arrest of a non-Chinese religious leader. Other payment incentives included RMB 3,000 to 5,000 ($430-$720) for tips about locally organized gatherings and their leaders. Some examples of “illegal religious activities” included building unauthorized temples and monasteries, organizing unauthorized pilgrimages, worshipping at unauthorized churches, and printing unauthorized religious publications. According to the solicitation, cash rewards for “whistleblowers” helped limit foreign infiltration through religion.

In July ChinaAid reported that in Guiyang City, the capital of Guizhou Province, officials announced cash awards for information related to illegal religious activity, missionary work, and foreign interference in religious affairs. Authorities placed posters advertising the program throughout the city, especially near Livingstone Church meeting locations. The program offered cash rewards of $1,000.

Bitter Winter reported that according to a foreign Jehovah’s Witness missionary, Church members in Shandong Province worshipped in secret, holding gatherings in small groups at constantly changing venues. One of their meeting venues was in a residential building. They placed a surveillance camera at the entrance to watch for government authorities. The missionary said they drew the curtains and sang hymns quietly to avoid being heard, and spoke in code when making plans over the phone for meetings, among other measures taken to ensure secrecy.

Bitter Winter reported that in March the UFWD in multiple counties in Jiangxi Province issued documents calling for a sweeping crackdown on private Christian venues. The documents stated that high-level government officials would conduct random inspections and that low-level government officials who did not shut down enough venues would be held accountable. On May 19, the Religious Affairs Bureau shut down Xunsiding Church in Siming District, Xiamen City, Fujian Province. and fined the priest, Yang Xibo, RMB 25,000 ($3,600). According to Bitter Winter, authorities also shut down government approved TSPM venues, closing at least 14 in Yuangzhou District, Yichun City, Jiangxi Province, in March and April.

Members of the Early Rain Covenant Church said they experienced routine harassment and arbitrary detention in the wake of a violent raid conducted by police in December 2018. ChinaAid reported 15 members of the Chengdu-based house church were arrested while gathering at a home in January. Among those detained were three children aged two to seven. One church member detained in the house raid was allowed to return home to her children when authorities realized they had already detained her the week before. The woman, who had been arrested six times in 2018, said she was severely beaten by police during the December 2018 raid.

Bitter Winter reported that on February 24, local government officials closed a house church in the Xincheng Sub-district of Suiyang District, Henan Province. Officials told church members gatherings of three people or more were not permitted and that holding meetings in their home was against the law. According to sources, during the raid one official said, “What’s more, several children are present. Allowing minors to believe in God is also against the law.” An officer from the local security services told the preacher, “If we find people coming to your home again to worship God, you will be treated as a criminal.” Authorities registered the names and addresses of attendees and photographed them. The report also stated security officials destroyed all religious symbols in the home and confiscated Bibles, hymnals, and other religious texts. Officials additionally forced the house’s landlord to terminate the rental agreement with the pastor.

According to Bitter Winter, on March 6, the local Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Affairs in Zhengzhou City’s Erqi District accused the Panshi Church of setting up a meeting place in violation of the law and shut down the church. During their raid, officials confiscated church items valued at RMB 70,000 ($10,100) and sealed off the venue with barricade tape. Government officials warned the landlord she would be fined RMB 200,000 ($28,700) if she allowed the group to hold additional meetings there.

According to RFA, on March 23, Beijing authorities banned the Shouwang Church (one of the largest Beijing churches by number of congregants), stating the church’s unregistered activities had violated the Regulations of Religious Affairs and the Regulations of Registration Management of Social Groups. According to one announcement from the church after the government ban, more than 30 police, along with officers and staff from the district-level civil affairs bureau and the Religious Affairs Bureau, interrupted Bible study class and other church activities at two sites in Beijing’s Haidian District. RFA reported the church members at the two sites were taken to a school and instructed to sign a document promising to no longer participate in Shouwang Church activities, but refused to do so. Police released them after several hours. Local authorities also replaced the locks at the two church venues.

According to RFA, on May 12, officers from provincial religious affairs bureaus interrupted religious services in at least eight house churches across six jurisdictions (Xiamen, Fujian Province; Chengdu, Sichuan Province; Guiyang, Guizhou Province; Xiangtan, Hunan Province; Nanchang, Jiangxi Province; and Shanghai) and accused those present of gathering illegally. In Guiyang, police raided a meeting of the Guiyang Reform Church taking place in a hotel room, removed the cross from the room and confiscated computers for further investigation.

According to Sound of Hope, a radio station operated by Falun Gong practitioners in the United States, Xiamen authorities shut down more than 40 house churches in the city in a May-June campaign.

Bitter Winter reported that on May 12, 30 to 40 enforcement officers from the Guangzhou Religious Affairs Bureau and the Public Security Bureau entered the Enzhu Church during a service, and registered the identity of the pastor and 70 worshipers. On the same day, more than 10 law enforcement officers raided a house church in Foshan and confiscated more than RMB 600 ($86) from the church’s donation box, claiming the money was “illegally raised.”

In May Bitter Winter reported that the government of Liaoning Province launched a campaign to intensify its crackdown on foreign religious activities as part of the national campaign to implement the “Work Plan for the Investigation and Handling of Special Actions and Activities of Overseas Christian Churches.” The plan, issued by UFWD and the Ministry of Public Security, specifically identified some Christian churches in the United States and South Korea, including the Young Disciples of Jesus, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Cru, the Bo’ai Church, the Loving Heart Church, and the Canaan Church. It also called for the further suppression of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Korean Christian churches that authorities had previously targeted. The document stated the purposes of the plan included: “resolutely cracking down on foreign religious believers; resolutely destroying the religious activities of foreign religious groups in the local area; and resolutely preventing organizations from attending trainings in neighboring countries and regions.” The plan also required supervision of foreign-related missions on the Internet, including social media apps QQ and WeChat. According to Bitter Winter, the plan called for cultivating foreigners and local individuals to act as informants.

Bitter Winter reported in August that provincial, city, and county officials in Jilin Province engaged in similar crackdowns on foreign churches and organizations. A confidential plan issued by Jilin government officials called for setting up an “Office for Resisting Infiltration by Foreign Christian Forces” to shut down meeting venues and underground seminaries founded by foreign religious groups, collect and analyze intelligence on foreign-related religious activities, surveil and control public opinion online, and monitor foreign-related religious activities at universities. A document issued by the UFWD called for launching a “Joint Alliance on Religious Work,” under which more than 20 government institutions would coordinate long-term control over religion, especially foreign-related religious activities. In addition to security services, the joint alliance would include government bodies such as the Civil Affairs Bureau, Women’s Federation, Bureau of Commerce, Hygiene and Health Committee, and customs enforcement.

According to Bitter Winter, in February authorities in the Huaiyin District of Huai’an, Jiangsu Province, reported they had installed surveillance equipment in 155 of the district’s 170 TSPM churches. Authorities said in the official report they had connected some of the cameras to the government’s public security system network. The cameras covered the gates, main entrance, worship halls, podium, and even the toilets of the churches. One of the church directors told Bitter Winter, “They can see every move in the church. If we didn’t follow their demands, the church would have to be shut down.”

According to religious community representatives, authorities continued to unofficially tolerate some members of foreign groups meeting for private religious celebrations. Churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

According to Bitter Winter, in September the government in a city in Liaoning Province told the person in charge of a local TSPM church to stop allowing 80 African international students to participate in gatherings at the church as part of efforts at “preventing foreign infiltration through religion.”

The Catholic News Agency reported that in July and August authorities shut down at least five Catholic churches in Yujiang Diocese because of their refusal to join the state-approved CCPA. There were reports the government placed informants in CCPA churches to monitor the content of sermons and other Church activities.

According to The Independent, Hui Muslims feared the high levels of government surveillance and oppression in Xinjiang, primarily targeting Uighur and other Muslims – including some Hui Muslims living there – could spread to other parts of the country, including their own communities.

Bitter Winter reported that in February the Urban Management Bureau of Lushi County in Sanmenxia, Henan Province, issued a document entitled “Statement of Commitment for Consciously Resisting Illegal Religious Activities.” The document prohibited organizing celebrations with religious overtones in public places, including posting, hanging, or selling goods (such as couplets [paired banners with poetry], calligraphy, ceramic tiles, and murals) with religious themes. Authorities seized calendars with Christian symbols on them from churches and vendors. One vendor said authorities conducted rigorous inspections and shut down vendors who were caught selling items with religious content, and as a result, “In the entire market, no one dares to sell them.”

Bitter Winter reported during the Spring Festival some local governments required churches and private homes to replace Christian couplets with couplets advising citizens to “love the Party.” The fine for posting a Christian couplet was RMB 2,000 ($290). The pastor of a TSPM church in Yongcheng City, Henan Province, said, “It is against our faith to post Spring Festival couplets that praise the Communist Party. But if we don’t post them, the CCP might use this as an excuse to seal off the church.” Authorities gave residents in Kaifeng City’s Weishi County couplets stating “love the Party” and wall calendars with portraits of Xi Jinping. Some officials personally posted the “love the Party” couplets in religious adherents’ homes.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 13, the leader of Enhui Church in Yanji town, Yongcheng City, Henan Province, attempted to distribute a calendar that included the image of a cross. Police demanded the church recover each of the 1,000 calendars it had distributed or the church would be shut down. The leader of Enhui Church and one of its clergy were detained by police and required to “study the policies of the CCP for one week.” The government reportedly also fined the church RMB 28,000 ($4,000).

According to the NGO Tibet Watch, on May 13, local authorities informed leaders of the Anfu Buddhist Temple in Guangxi Province that the temple’s main hall “violated Han Buddhist principles” and needed to be “rectified.” The monastery is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists from neighboring provinces. Authorities threatened legal action if the temple did not remove its Tibetan-style prayer wheels and stupa within a week, and banned prayer flags, bells, and other traditional Tibetan Buddhist religious items. On May 23, the Weibin District Buddhist Association issued similar restrictions for monasteries in Shaanxi Province.

Reuters reported in July that as part of the government’s expanded efforts to Sincize the country’s Muslim population, authorities in Beijing ordered halal restaurants and food stalls to remove signs containing Arabic script and Islamic symbols such as the crescent moon. According to the manager of a local noodle shop, “They said this [the sign in Arabic over the shop reading ‘halal’] is foreign culture and you should use more Chinese culture.” Reuters reported several larger shops in Beijing had replaced Arabic signs with ones reading “qing zhen,” the Chinese term for halal.

Bitter Winter reported that in January local government officials in Hebei Province issued a document entitled, “Notice on Comprehensively Investigating and Regulating Arabic Symbols and Religious Elements in Public Places and the Issue of ‘Generalization of Halal.’” The document set forth a policy requiring central, provincial, and municipal governments to remove Arabic-language symbols and religious elements from public places. “Generalization of halal” practices such as the use of Arabic-language symbols at halal restaurants, in school canteens for Muslim students, on halal foods, and in Muslim households were also banned.

Bitter Winter reported that in January authorities demolished a large outdoor Buddha statue and 11 small Buddha statues located in the Xiantang Mountain Scenic Area of Xiangyuan County in Shanxi Province. Officials cited a prohibition on construction of large outdoor religious statues outside of temple and church grounds.

During the year, authorities destroyed several Buddhist statues in Zhejiang Province. Bitter Winter reported in January authorities in Taizhou, Zhejiang, destroyed a 92-foot statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin inside a local temple. In March Taizhou authorities demolished a 59-foot Guanyin statue. In May authorities in Linhai dismantled a 48-foot tall Guanyin statue. Authorities told the local abbot in Linhai that “religious statues cannot be located outdoors.” In September authorities dismantled a 69-foot Guanyin statue at the Mingshan Temple in Wenzhou stating that the statue was too tall and would obstruct the view of airplane pilots. In Ningbo authorities ordered a Buddhist abbot to dismantle 500 statues embedded in a mountain behind his temple.

According to a February ChinaAid article, authorities in Yancheng, Jiangsu Province, removed the cross of Chengdong Christian Church, a large TSPM church with approximately 3,000 worshipers.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 4, the government of Xiayi County in Henan Province sent 100 security officials to remove three crosses from the roof of the Wangzhai Church in Wangzhai Village. According to a local official, the Wangzhai Church crosses were the last remaining crosses to be destroyed under the CCP’s years-long campaign to remove all public displays of crosses in the county. Eyewitnesses said authorities used a crane to remove the large cross atop the center of the roof. They also dismantled two small crosses on the left and right side of the church roof as well as 12 small crosses on the perimeter wall. They then used a bulldozer to tear down the church gate and sections of the perimeter wall. Officials also confiscated the church’s donation box and pictures of the cross on display inside the church.

According to Bitter Winter, in April officials in Kaifeng City, Henan Province, entered the site of the Kaifeng Synagogue, the oldest Jewish cultural site in East Asia, now a Jewish learning center. They removed the name of the synagogue from the exterior door, and Stars of David and the Israeli flag from the windows. On the building’s exterior, officials placed antireligious signs, including one that read, “Management of religious affairs should be in accordance with the principle of protecting the lawful and banning the unlawful, boycotting infiltration and fighting crime.” Authorities installed a surveillance camera at the entrance as part of what one neighborhood resident said were efforts to monitor and discourage foreign visitors. Bitter Winter reported that in the summer, the government rented a house next to the site, where personnel assigned by the government monitored the activities in the site and the movements of passersby. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Persian Jews emigrated to Kaifeng in the 12th century and a Jewish synagogue has existed in that location since 1163; the current structure dates from 1653. In February The Jewish Post reported the community had approximately 1,000 members.

Bitter Winter and the website Abolouwang reported in November that authorities forced Buddhist temples in Henan Province to fly the national flag during the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. The government maintained 2018 directives mandating that the national flag be raised at religious venues during national holidays and during each religion’s important festivals and celebrations.

In its annual report, ChinaAid stated authorities limited Christians’ ability to celebrate Christmas. ChinaAid reported that SARA ordered Christmas Eve services held by churches in large cities be reserved for adherents with admission tickets only. Sources said in some municipalities they were told not to hold Christmas celebrations in November and December. One local source said his congregation held its Christmas celebration in October. On December 17, a property management company in Yunnan’s Kunming Economic Development Zone issued a notice to local businesses and merchants banning any celebration of Christmas as well as Christmas-related messages and decorations, citing a police restriction. In Guizhou Province, the Qianxi County Education Bureau and the Science and Technology Bureau issued a notice banning celebrations of Christmas, Christmas Eve, and any “foreign holidays” among school students. Students were strictly prohibited from playing “angels” in church shows, joining church choirs, and singing hymns. Schools were also required to keep the parents of students from attending Christmas-related events.

During the year, there were reports of foreign missionaries being extensively surveilled, detained, and deported. On July 12, the government of Huaiying District, Huai’An City, Jiangsu Province, published a notice on its website about the establishment of a group in Sanshu Town “to carry out the special action of investigating and punishing overseas Christian infiltration in accordance with the law.” The standing committee of Wenxi County, Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, published on its website information about action being taken to investigate and punish the infiltration of foreign Christianity. Bitter Winter reported that in April a municipality in Jilin Province issued “The Plan for Jointly Investigating Religious Infiltration Activities.” According to Bitter Winter, on July 4, government officials in Dongfeng County of Liaoyuan, Jilin Province, held a meeting about the suppression of “foreign religious infiltration” from the United States and South Korea. More than 700 personnel – including officials from the local religious affairs bureau and the UFWD, as well as CCP secretaries from each township and village – attended the meeting “to coordinate the crackdown operation.”

According to Bitter Winter, in August authorities in Jiangxi Province raided an apartment where two Taiwanese church leaders were holding a church meeting. The authorities arrested the leaders and nearly 30 Chinese Christians. The two leaders were subsequently deported.

Bitter Winter reported that in May authorities in Qingdao, Shandong Province, arrested and deported a foreign Jehovah’s Witnesses elder. Also in May police in Jiangxi Province arrested a South Korean Jehovah’s Witnesses missionary. They confiscated the woman’s passport, religious books, and computer. Authorities then interrogated her and a local member of Jehovah’s Witnesses for seven hours before releasing them. The missionary was deported soon after. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, deported foreign missionaries may return after five years, but church elders are barred from the country for life.

Bitter Winter reported that in May two female Japanese Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries returned to Harbin, Heilongjiang Province after a short trip abroad. The day after they returned, police arrested them at their residence. The police interrogated them for 10 hours and gave them statements to sign promising not to return to preach in the country. The women refused to sign because the statement said, “I regret coming to China to preach.” Authorities deported one of the missionaries that day, while the other was released and deported three days later.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups.

The government continued to allow only the national TSPM, China Christian Council (CCC), and CCPA to publish and sell Bibles legally. There were approximately 11 provincial TSPM Christian publishers. Bitter Winter reported, however, that according to local sources, between November 2018 and January 2019 authorities confiscated Bibles and other religious works at approximately 11 TSPM churches in multiple regions in northern Heilongjiang Province.

The government limited distribution of Bibles to CCPA and TSPM/Chinese Christian Council entities such as churches, church bookshops inside churches, and seminaries. Individuals could not order Bibles directly from publishing houses. Members of unregistered churches reported the supply and distribution of Bibles was inadequate, particularly in rural locations. According to reports, while there were no independent domestic Christian booksellers, publishers without a religious affiliation could publish Christian books. Approximately 20 distribution centers and bookstores were linked to the national TSPM. In addition, authorities reportedly allowed churches with more than 2,000 members to sell books at their church facilities. Approximately 700 churches had such bookstores. During the year, authorities continued to limit the number of Christian titles that could be published annually, with draft manuscripts closely reviewed by the local religious affairs bureau.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. World Magazine reported in March online retailers such as Taobao and Jd.com stopped selling Bibles to the domestic market after authorities began enforcing the 2018 revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs. According to World Magazine, authorities restricted Christian channels on WeChat and other social networking apps and websites. In July government censors blocked domestic access to the Christian website WeDevote and scrubbed the WeDevote Bible app from most domestic app stores.

Bitter Winter reported Li Liang of the Anhui Provincial Church in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, remained under surveillance following his release from five years in prison for photocopying Bible chapters to distribute to individuals in his home. Li Wenqiang, librarian for the Seventh-day Adventist church in Shenzhen, also remained under surveillance. In 2017, authorities convicted Li of “conducting illegal business activities” when the library was found to have more than 200,000 copies of the Bible and other Christian books. Li was sentenced to three years in prison with a five-year suspension of the sentence, during which he was forbidden to leave the city.

Sources said the Nanping Culture and Tourism Administration in Fujian Province raided the library of the Nanping Christian Association in February and found the association had sold 253 copies of the Bible and gained a net profit of RMB 628 ($90). On July 9, the administration confiscated the profits and fined the association RMB 10,000 ($1,400) for selling publications without a license.

Bitter Winter reported that in April authorities fined the Fengyang Road Three-Self Great Church in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, RMB 10,000 ($1,400) for having Bibles that were printed in South Korea. Authorities also prohibited the church from selling Bibles of any kind.

Media reported in August authorities investigated a printing house in Shenyang, for printing Buddhist materials. According to Bitter Winter, the printing house avoided government restrictions by bribing the officials.

According to Bitter Winter, in August authorities in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, required the Fengzhuang Three-Self Church to display banners and panels promoting the campaign to “eradicate pornography and illegal publications” in the church. In Hubei Province, the Chongyang County government issued an open letter stating “dark forces” and “pornography and illegal publications” are associated with religious belief.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons for TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and praised government leaders. In March local authorities in Shangqiu City, Henan Province, withheld approval of a TSPM pastor’s sermon, indicating it was too religious and did not contain enough CCP ideology.

In March one pastor told Bitter Winter, “There is a lot of pressure on us when giving sermons now. If we don’t say the right thing, personnel from the State Security Bureau can say we’re anti-government[.] All sermon topics must be submitted to the Religious Affairs Bureau for review…Chinese culture must be incorporated into the sermon as per the government’s requirements. At Three-Self churches, this is how we have to talk about the Bible, because there are CCP spies in the churches. As soon as they discover that the sermon’s content is not in line with national requirements, we will be severely punished. We might have our pastoral duties revoked for life, so that we cannot serve as pastors at any church.”

Bitter Winter reported destruction of religious structures and symbols was widespread throughout the country. According to the publication, in March authorities in Ji’an City, Jiangxi Province, initially sought to destroy a 16-meter (52 feet) wide 23-meter (75 feet) high statue of Lao-Tzu, the founder of Taoism, that was carved into the Wugong Mountain in the scenic area of Yangshimu in Anfu County. After local administrators objected that demolition would excessively damage the surroundings, authorities instead erected a large-scale plant-covered barrier in front of the sculpture to completely block it from view.

According to Bitter Winter, in April authorities in Dalian, Liaoning Province, sealed off a Taoist temple and forced the head of the temple to sign a statement saying he would not sell incense or hold Taoist ceremonies. In May authorities sealed off another Taoist temple in Dalian and destroyed the scriptures, calligraphy, and paintings inside.

According to Bitter Winter, on March 14, approximately 100 government officials and police officers in Henan Province, led by the secretary of Xianglushan Town, demolished a state-controlled TSPM church for allegedly violating building laws.

According to Bitter Winter, in June local officials dismantled and repurposed five churches as “cultural activity centers” in Xingyang County in Zhengzhou Prefecture, Henan Province. Local government officials threatened to demolish the churches if the congregation did not agree to let the government take possession of the property.

Bitter Winter reported that on March 1, local government officials demolished all but the main hall of Taoist Nainai Temple, located on Hou Mountain in Yi County, under the jurisdiction of Baoqing City, Hebei Province. Within 20 days, authorities also demolished 32 temples and at least 164 faith-related buildings in the surrounding area. Authorities hung signs along the path leading up to Hou Mountain, warning “illegal buildings will be demolished.”

According to Bitter Winter, in March authorities in Gaoyao, Jiangsu Province, destroyed nearly 6,000 Tudi temples dedicated to the local land god. Authorities from the Gaoyou Department of Land and Resources stated the temples were illegal buildings that occupied arable land or public spaces. In April authorities in Xianju, Zhejiang Province, destroyed 21 folk temples as part of a “rectification” campaign.

Bitter Winter reported that in August authorities in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, forcibly converted two Buddhist temples into elderly care activity centers. In one of the temples, which was 800 years old, authorities removed Bodhisattva statues and transformed rooms into areas to play chess, watch television, and read. In another temple, mahjong tables were placed in the prayer room that contained Bodhisattva statues.

The government continued limitations on religious education.

At the county level, religious affairs bureaus in provinces including Henan, Shandong, Guangxi, Hunan, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, and Guizhou released open letters during the year instructing parents not to take their children under 18 to religious activities or education. Media reported authorities increased pressure against churches to prevent children under 18 years old from studying the Bible.

Bitter Winter reported local UFWD and SARA officials in July raided a TSPM church in Weinan, Shaanxi Province, and found a notebook with Bible verses, including some transcribed by children. Authorities closed the church for 10 days for “rectification.” The city’s Education Bureau sent notices to primary schools and kindergartens stating that religion was dangerous for minors, and they were prohibited from participating in any religion-related activities “so as to help them establish a correct worldview, outlook on life, and system of values and form a healthy mind.” One Sunday school teacher in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, said as a result of the government’s strict control over minors in places of worship, the school held sessions in secret and the number of children attending the Sunday school had dropped from more than 100 to just over 20.

UCA News reported local authorities continued to issue warnings to Catholic dioceses throughout the country prohibiting summer camps designed as faith-building activities for school-age children. One diocese member said the government would not allow churches to organize educational activities for children. Bitter Winter reported police raids on church-run summer camps in Jiyuan City in Henan Province and Foshan City in Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported in July that some primary schools’ curricula taught kindergarten and primary school children to resist religion as heterodox teaching. In late April a primary school in Xinzheng City, Henan Province, held a meeting to instruct students to be atheists and never believe in the existence of deities. “If your mom goes to church and believes in God, she doesn’t want you as her child anymore,” the teacher reportedly said. Another primary school teacher in Xinzheng City showed students an animated antireligion propaganda film depicting religious adherents as black monsters. The teacher reportedly told students religious people might hex them and they should report to the police any “believers” they encounter.

According to AsiaNews, authorities expunged words such as “God,” “Bible,” and “Christ” from textbooks for elementary school children. These words and any other reference to religion were removed from a fifth-grade textbook containing stories by foreign writers and classical Chinese authors printed by the government-linked Publishers for the Education of People. For example, in the original story The Little Match Girl, a girl’s dead grandmother appears to her in a vision and says, “When a star falls, a soul goes to be with God,” but in the textbook version the grandmother says, “When a star falls, a person leaves this world.”

Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning continued to be required to obtain the support of the corresponding official state-sanctioned religious association. The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates from religious schools. Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.

Religious groups reported state-sanctioned religious associations continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice. They also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National Public Radio reported in September that sources said imams in Henan and Ningxia Provinces were required to attend monthly training sessions in which they learned Communist ideology and state ethnic policy and discussed Chairman Xi’s speeches. According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge in order to renew their license each year.

In September Bitter Winter reported that, according to an imam in Qinghai Province, the CCP frequently required imams to undergo mandatory political training. University professors covered topics such as CCP history, policy, regulations, and international relations. An imam from Sanmenxia, Henan Province, said authorities required him to study prominent CCP historical figures. He said there were surveillance cameras in mosques to ensure he and other imams promoted CCP ideology during sermons. An imam in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, said, “Every day, we have to say, ‘The Communist Party is good and great.’ Otherwise, we’ll get in trouble with the government!” According to a members of a congregation at a mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, authorities closed the mosque because the community refused to accept a government-appointed imam, although authorities said the mosque was closed due to “inadequate fire-control measures.”

Approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized on April 16 by the Hainan United Front Work Department, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School on April 16. Participants studied the principles of the 19th Communist Party Congress, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creating of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the 2018 revised Regulations on Religious Affairs Regulations. Deputy Director General Liu Geng of the Hainan UFWD in his opening remarks requested the religious professionals “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.”

A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. The government and the Holy See remained without diplomatic relations, and the Holy See had no official representative in the country.

In March the Catholic Herald wrote that, in his blog, retired Archbishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun continued his criticisms of the September 2018 two-year provisional agreement between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Holy See that addressed a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops, stating it gave too much power to government and CCP authorities. Similar to the previous year, neither side provided details of the provisional agreement, such as how the Holy See and the government would make decisions regarding appointment of bishops. The existing government regulation on the election and consecration of PRC-appointed bishops required candidates to publicly pledge to support the CCP. To also be accepted by the Holy See, these bishops normally would later seek “reconciliation” with the pope. Under the provisional agreement, however, the Holy See agreed to recognize seven bishops who had been previously ordained by the PRC without papal recognition. The seven were granted this reconciliation and joint approval in the 2018 provisional agreement, an irregular occurrence within the Catholic Church.

In August the Holy See appointed its first two bishops in the country who were not among the seven individuals named in the 2018 provisional agreement. Monsignor Antonio Yao Shun took up his position in Ulanqab, Inner Mongolia, and Monsignor Stefano Xu Hongwei took up his position in Hanzhong, Shaanxi Province.

At year’s end, Bishop Vincenzo Guo Xijin, an underground bishop recognized by the Holy See, remained in a subordinate position under Bishop Zhan Silu, who was originally ordained without Holy See approval. The Holy See had previously excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province. Zhan was one of the seven individuals whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. Police had detained Guo, who had been appointed by the Holy See, earlier in 2018 for his refusal to jointly lead Easter services with Zhan, who at the time was not recognized by the Holy See. Cardinal Zen criticized the Holy See for agreeing to compel Guo and one other bishop to step aside to make room for state-approved bishops.

According to Bitter Winter, the government-run CCPA attempted to force 57 underground Catholic priests from Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 complied, three resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. The local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it identified as “cults” and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities.

Bitter Winter reported in March on a leaked notice from 2018 in which officials instructed a military unit in Shandong Province to investigate the religious status of all military personnel “to resist political infiltration, prevent political sabotage, and purify the political ecosystem.” The notice included strict instructions to check the religious status of each individual, including those omitted from previous investigations, such as new recruits, retirees, or those on vacation or hospitalized. All results of the probe were to be entered into the “military personnel religious status registration system.”

In March Bitter Winter reported teachers in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region who belonged to religious groups faced extra scrutiny from education authorities compared to nonreligious teachers. Party members were assigned to “assist” these teachers to ensure they taught in a way that conformed to CCP ideology. Authorities required teachers to fill out a document that read, in part, “[I must] align my thinking with Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism [with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era]…No person or organization is allowed to promote religious ideology on campus.”

In August Bitter Winter reported religious adherents faced official discrimination when receiving medical treatment. Residents in Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Henan, and other provinces reported being asked questions about religious beliefs before being admitted seeing a doctor. Hospital staff stated the government required them to ask about their patients’ religious status. Religious adherents were not allowed to pray with ill relatives who had been admitted to the hospital.

Multiple provincial governments included their work against religions and “cults” in their annual work reports. At a meeting of the 13th People’s Congress of Guizhou Province on January 27, leaders extolled the provincial government’s efforts to “strike down on illegal religious and cult activities” and to increase public safety through social control, supervision, and surveillance.

Media reported that on September 17, Chongqing authorities held a ceremony to mark the 20th year of the municipality’s “cult prevention propaganda” program. Senior party leaders spoke at the event, pointing to the program’s success at helping “the broad masses of cadres to recognize, prevent, and reject evil,” in addition to raising “awareness of conformity” for people in the city.

Media reported that on September 19, the Guangdong Political and Legal Affairs Commission and Guangdong Anti-Cult Association jointly hosted an anticult event in Foshan City, Guangdong Province. More than 700 residents, including students, attended. At the event, awards were given for top anticult propaganda posters.

Media reported the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, United Front Work Department, and Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau of Huidong County, Guangdong Province, hosted a program on April 13 at the Qingyun Temple to “strengthen management of religious venues and resist penetration by the occult.” Religious community representatives read aloud a “Letter of Advocacy on the Work of Anticult,” and more than 100 religious adherents signed a “Say No to Cult” declaration. More than 200 copies of anticult leaflets were distributed at the event.

There were reports that government-run hospitals in Xinyu, Jiangxi Province continued to post banners and notices characterizing religious beliefs as cults.

AsiaNews reported that from July 21-27, the Central Institute of Socialism in Fujian Province organized a course on the work of the Catholic Church in the province. Thirty-three priests, all members of the CCPA, and more than 20 religious affairs officials participated. The lessons and activities centered on the theme of “guiding the Catholic Church to follow a path conforming to socialist society.” AsiaNews noted the course seemed to focus almost entirely on political doctrine with very little mention of Christian teachings.

According to the Catholic News Agency, Catholics on the mainland faced increased harassment and abuse as a result of the role Catholics played in Hong Kong protests during the year, which reportedly raised concerns with mainland authorities that Catholics there would inspire similar protests in other parts of the country. Authorities reportedly banned some Catholics from traveling to Hong Kong.

France

Executive Summary

The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced that since 2018 authorities had closed 159 institutions open to the public, including 13 places of worship, to combat Islamism and secluded communities. President Emmanuel Macron and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government augmented from 7,000 to 10,000 the number of security forces it deployed to protect religious and other sensitive sites. President Macron publicly stated anti-Semitism had grown and reached its worst level since World War II. He called anti-Zionism a modern form of anti-Semitism and said it was why the government would implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The National Assembly separately passed a resolution adopting the IHRA definition. Interior Minister Castaner and Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet announced additional measures to combat anti-Semitism, including enhanced security for religious sites and improved guidance for prosecutors evaluating hate crimes. As part of the 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism, the government awarded the first annual national anti-racism prize and dedicated 2.3 million euros ($2.58 million) for local projects on the issue. The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools and by officials offering public services. Police in Grenoble fined female Muslim protesters for bathing in burkinis in a public swimming pool. An assemblyman in Dijon turned away a Muslim woman accompanying her son to the regional legislature for refusing to remove her hijab. Interior Minister Castaner included “rigid religious practice, particularly exacerbated in Ramadan,” and “regular and ostentatious practice of ritual prayer” in a list of possible indicators of Islamist radicalization. The minister of the armed forces acknowledged government responsibility for the 1942 roundup of 13,000 French Jews deported to extermination camps.

Religiously motivated crimes included attempted murder, assault, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. The government reported 1,052 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or arson of churches and cemeteries, compared with 1,063 in 2018; 154 incidents targeting Muslims, including attempted murder, compared with 100 in 2018; and 687 anti-Semitic incidents, including a violent assault against a Jewish taxi driver, death threats against a mayor, harassment of a prominent Jewish philosopher, and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, an increase of 27 percent compared with the 541 incidents recorded in 2018. The rise in anti-Semitic incidents stemmed from a 50 percent increase in threats; other incidents, including attacks on persons – which fell by 44 percent – declined by 15 percent. Authorities charged a man with attempted murder for shooting outside a mosque two persons who caught him as he tried to set fire to the mosque. A court ruled the confessed killer of a Jewish woman in 2017 could not be held criminally responsible because he was in a delusional state from smoking marijuana before the killing. Lawyers for the family announced their intention to appeal the ruling. A Paris court of appeals convicted Abdelkader Merah of complicity in the 2012 killings by his brother of seven persons outside a Jewish school. A study found 42 percent of Muslims reported experiencing religious discrimination at least once in the previous five years. A European Commission (EC) survey found 72 percent of respondents thought anti-Semitism was a problem in the country and another EC survey found 69 percent believed religious discrimination was widespread. A sports retailer cancelled plans to sell a hijab for runners after widespread criticism of the measure.

The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Interministerial Delegation to Fight Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH). The Ambassador and embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and religiously-motivated hate crimes. The embassy sponsored the participation of interfaith representatives in a U.S. program with themes of religious cooperation and pluralism. It also funded religious tolerance workshops for youths led jointly by Jewish and Muslim organizations in Bordeaux.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and shall respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.

The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,700) and imprisonment of one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.

Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($50,600-$84,300), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($50,600). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.

Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.

Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. In order to qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order. Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. To apply for this tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association. In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI), 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status. The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently. Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website. Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition.

The law states, “Detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They may practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”

Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,400). The core provisions of the legislation will expire at the end of 2020 unless renewed by parliament.

The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($33,700) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.

The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross. The prohibition applies during working hours and at the place of employment.

By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.

The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the interior ministry, and the country’s president, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The prime minister appoints the chief rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories in Alsace-Moselle, and the interior minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.

Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state. Elsewhere in the country, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.

By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.

Missionaries from countries not exempt from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from non-exempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.

The law criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”

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

Government Practices

On November 28, at a conference of the country’s prefects, Interior Minister Castaner announced the nationwide expansion of an initial program authorities had implemented since February 2018 to counter “Islamism and communitarianism,” the latter term referencing, according to the Observatory for Secularism, a trend for community withdrawal and separation from the rest of society, up to and including enforcement of rules specific to that community. The initial project targeted 15 communities “particularly touched by the phenomenon of political Islam,” according to Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Laurent Nunez in a November 15 interview. In these communities, the MOI had conducted 1,030 inspections of establishments open to the public, including pubs, cafes, and liquor stores; cultural and sports establishments; private schools; and places of worship. As a result of the inspections, during that period the MOI closed 133 drinking establishments, 13 places of worship, four schools, and nine cultural establishments because, according to Nunez in his interview, those establishments employed a “communitarian” or “political Islam” discourse that put “the laws of God before the laws of the Republic.” The government did not identify the specific sites it closed under the initial program.

The prefect of Isere, who is subordinate to the minister of interior, closed the Al-Kawthar Mosque in Grenoble for six months starting February 7. The MOI stated it closed the mosque because it posted videos on its YouTube channel that incited hatred and violence towards Christians and Jews; its imam’s sermons justified armed jihad; and the mosque was frequented by known extremists. There were no reports the mosque reopened after the six-month period. The government said it closed one other mosque and monitored 63 mosques during the year but did not identify them or provide other details. On June 13, the association Action Muslim Rights (ADM) released a report criticizing the MOI’s closures of mosques. ADM stated that while the mosques were shut down, the government did not investigate them for terrorist ties. According to the report, none of the mosques had reopened, although the law limits the closures to a period not to exceed six months.

Between January 1 and July 18, the interior ministry expelled 44 foreigners it considered radicalized, a new record, Le Point magazine reported. While the article did not cite 2018 deportations, it reported that in 2017 the country deported a total of 20 radicalized foreigners. (A 2018 report the country had expelled 300 radical imams since 2017 was incorrect.)

On October 8, as President Macron paid tribute to four victims of an insider knife attack at the Paris police headquarters, he stated the country must develop a “society of vigilance” in which citizens look out for signs of individuals being influenced by Islamist extremist networks in the fight against the “hydra” of Islamist militancy. The attacker, a police employee who had converted to Islam, had contacts with individuals believed to be linked to an Islamist Salafist movement, according to prosecutors, who also said they believed the attacker harbored work-related grievances linked to his disabilities.

In response to the same knife attack, Interior Minister Castaner spoke before the National Assembly October 8 and articulated several signs that might indicate a person’s radicalization through changes in behavior, including “rigorous religious practice, particularly exacerbated during the period of Ramadan,” “wearing a beard,” whether or not he greets a woman with a traditional kiss on the cheek, if the person “has a regular and ostentatious practice of ritual prayer,” and the presence of hyperpigmentation on the forehead, widely interpreted as a reference to the zabiba, a mark often resulting from repeated contact of the forehead with a prayer rug.

The government maintained the deployment of security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship, and increased their number from 7,000 to 10,000. After the March terrorist attacks against mosques in New Zealand, the MOI increased patrols around religious sites.

At year’s end, the Paris Appeals Court had not issued a ruling in the case of Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four and injuring 40. In 2018 investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Diab and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed the case’s dismissal, and the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. Upon his release in 2018, Diab returned to Canada where he remained at year’s end.

In June police fined a group of Muslim women 35 euros ($39) each for bathing in burkinis at a municipal swimming pool in Grenoble in protest of local regulations banning the garment. Women from the same association reported the Citizen Alliance of Grenoble had carried out a similar protest “Operation Burkini” in May, which they called an “act of civil disobedience.” One of the women told the BBC they were being deprived of their civil rights and that “We must fight against discriminatory policies and prejudice in France….” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed support for the mayor of Grenoble and the regulations, saying, “No citizen can be released from the respect of the law or the common regulation on the basis of his religious convictions.” Marlene Schiappa, Junior Minister of State for Gender Equality and the Fight against Discrimination, said, “There is a political message” behind the burkini, which is: “cover up.” She added, however, “Women, whatever their religion or their way of life, must be able to access municipal swimming pools.” In 2016 the Council of State, the country’s highest court on administrative matters, overturned several burkini bans on the basis that local authorities could only restrict individual liberties if there was a “proven risk” to public order. The court ruling did not overturn other anti-burkini regulations nor did it make them illegal; other anti-burkini regulations thus remained in force unless mayors or prefectures suspended them. The ruling did, however, set a legal precedent upon which persons could contest those regulations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported three cases in which authorities had interfered with proselytizing during the year. They did not provide additional details on the incidents.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as of August 2017, the latest year for which statistics were available, the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains: 695 Catholic, 347 Protestant, 224 Muslim, 76 Jewish, 54 Orthodox Christian, 170 Jehovah’s Witness, and 19 Buddhist. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.

At year’s end, the government did not respond to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) following the latter’s October 2018 finding that French authorities violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqabs in two separate cases in 2012. The UNHRC gave the government a deadline of 180 days to report to it action taken to respond to the violation and prevent other such violations. According to a statement the government issued on the same day as the UNHRC ruling, the law prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces was legitimate and did not infringe upon freedom of religion. The government added it would convey its views to the UNHRC in a follow-on report.

During an October 11 meeting of the Burgundy-Franche-Comte Regional Assembly in the central-eastern part of the country, Julien Odoul, an elected official representing the National Rally (RN) Party, told a woman who was accompanying her son on a school outing to the legislature to remove her hijab or leave. The law does not prohibit women from wearing hijabs while attending an assembly session. In response, Junior Minister Schiappa said that “it is by publicly humiliating mothers in front of their children that we create divisions” in society. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, however, said, “The law does not prohibit veiled women from accompanying children, but we do not wish to encourage the phenomenon,” which is “not in agreement with our values.” Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire stated the veil “is legal, but not necessarily desirable.” The woman filed one legal complaint against Odoul with the Dijon public prosecutor’s office for violence of a racial nature by persons of authority, and a separate legal complaint with the Paris prosecutor’s office for “incitement of racial hatred by elected officials.” The complaints were pending at year’s end.

In April the Ministry of Culture created a five-person Mission for Research and Restitution of Spoliated Cultural Property in April to seek out the rightful owners or heirs of artworks, including those in museums and galleries, stolen or sold under duress during the country’s occupation. In the spring the government transferred authority for final decisions on art restitution claims from the Ministry of Culture to the Commission for the Compensation for Victims of Spoliation, a separate administrative body reporting directly to the prime minister, in order to address criticism that museum officials would be reluctant to hand over valuable artwork. On April 1, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attended a ceremony returning artwork to its pre-WWII owners at the French consulate in New York.

The government continued to implement a 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the country, with a strong focus on countering online hate content. As part of the plan, Prime Minister Philippe awarded the first annual national anti-racism prize, named for Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man tortured and killed in 2006. In October DILCRAH dedicated 2.3 million euros ($2.58 million) and announced a call for local projects addressing education, prevention, training, and aid for victims of racism and anti-Semitism. The government also continued with an initiative for European Union legislation to require faster removal of illegal content online; created a national reaction team to improve education countering racist and anti-Semitic behavior; funded two thesis grants annually to finance work on racism and anti-Semitism; and established an online precomplaint system for victims of discrimination or racist or anti-Semitic acts.

Prime Minister Philippe advocated for a bill requiring websites to remove “obviously hateful” content, specifically racist or anti-Semitic content, within 24 hours. Deputy Laetitia Avia introduced the draft bill at the direction of Prime Minister Philippe and as part of the 2018-2020 national plan to combat racism and anti-Semitism. The National Assembly passed the bill in July, but the senate did not vote on it by year’s end. Among other critiques on freedom of expression grounds, the European Commission published a letter November 22 raising concerns about the bill’s impact on freedom of expression and its potential conflict with European Union free speech directives. Facebook and others questioned the 24-hour window to remove content, citing the legal analysis needed to evaluate posts.

On April 2, Minister of Justice Nicole Belloubet introduced a circular, which she said was part of the effort to combat anti-Semitism, urging prosecutors to use simplified, faster procedures (such as civil referrals to block access to “hate sites”) and criminal orders (trial without a hearing) to prosecute and convict authors of “racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic” writings.

In a September 12 speech before the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF) in Bordeaux, Interior Minister Castaner detailed several government measures to fight what he called “the poison of anti-Semitism,” including enhanced surveillance of 800 places of worship, the dissolution by decree of the Council of Ministers of several neo-Nazi groups, including Bastion Social and six affiliated associations, Combat 18, and Blood and Honor Hexagon, and an increase in the government contribution for the Shoah Memorial. He repeated President Macron’s February statement that the National Assembly would take up a proposal to adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, and said, “Anti-Zionism often has nothing to do with criticism of the foreign policy of the State of Israel; it is too often aimed at people of Jewish faith. It has become a disguised anti-Semitism.”

On July 10, the Observatory for Secularism, a body composed of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its sixth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals. According to the report, the subject of secularism remained a sensitive one, although “direct attacks on secularism” appeared better contained, for the third year in a row. The report credited a proliferation of training on secularism and treatment of religious subjects, as well as improved targeting of implementing partners for the training. Since 2013, the Observatory for Secularism said it had directly or indirectly contributed to training more than 250,000 persons to respond to questions of secularism in the workplace.

On April 14, a fire broke out at the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, destroying the roof and spire and causing extensive damage to the windows and vaulted ceilings. President Macron, Prime Minister Philippe, and Secretary of State to the Minister of the Interior Nunez visited the cathedral, which is government-owned, while the fire still burned. Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz said in a statement June 26 that a preliminary investigation found no signs the blaze was started deliberately, and that it was likely due to negligence. Macron vowed in a televised address on April 16 that the country would rebuild the cathedral in five years.

Interior Minister Castaner did not attend the iftar hosted by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), but attended an iftar in Strasbourg hosted by the Alsace Regional Council of Muslim Faith (Alsace CRCM) on May 29. At that event, Castaner, whose ministry oversees government relations with religious communities, expressed his disappointment with CFCM for its “reluctant” approach to implementing reforms. He praised the Alsace CRCM, however, as a “laboratory of ideas for the future of Islam in France.” He lauded the “peaceful and constructive approach” of the Alsace CRCM, specifically its work on prevention of radicalization, creation of a council of imams and religious leaders, and interreligious dialogue. Attendees at the event included regional Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, other government officials, and the mayor of Strasbourg.

Interior Minister Castaner continued a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the structure and the funding of Islam in the country. In his New Year’s address to CFCM at the Grand Mosque of Paris on January 23, he called for “powerful representatives” of Islam in the country, and stated, referencing the recurring “Yellow Vest” cost of living protests in the country, that he counted on Muslim leaders “to influence public debates including on nonreligious issues such as the protests”. “Islam,” he said, “like every organized religion, has its place in France. There is no incompatibility between praying to Allah and loving the Republic.” In December prefects in each department held a second round of listening sessions with local representatives from the Muslim community on issues related to institutional representation, financing of Islamic places of worship, and training of imams.

On October 28, President Macron met with Muslim leaders of the CFCM and called on them to fight Islamism and “communitarianism,” which he called a form of “separatism” in the country. He urged the CFCM to adopt clear position on issues including public wearing of the veil, women’s roles, and education in the Muslim community.

On August 29, President Macron met with the newly elected President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France, Archbishop Eric de Moulins-Beaufort, to discuss reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, migration, relations between religions and the state, and proposed legislation on access to medically-assisted reproduction treatments. Archbishop Moulins-Beaufort expressed his concern about the proposed legislation, but said it was not the role of the bishops to prescribe political actions to Catholics. In September the archbishop stated those who were concerned about the law should protest it, but did not call on Catholics to do so. At year’s end, the national assembly passed the legislation, but the senate did not vote on it.

On September 19, Interior Minister Castaner attended the inauguration of the French Institute of Muslim Civilization (IFCM), a new national Islamic cultural center in Lyon. At the opening ceremony, Castaner spoke out against anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and all types of hate, and called the organization an essential initiative to fight prejudice and make Islam better understood in the country. Secretary General of the Muslim World League Mohammed al-Issa and Lyon Mayor Gerard Collomb also delivered remarks at the event. Collomb expressed his expectation that the IFCM would be “an instrument of peace.” The project was funded by one million-euro ($1.12 million) grants each from the central government, the city of Lyon, and the greater metropolitan region of Lyon, in addition to 1.5 million euros ($1.69 million) from the Muslim World League.

On January 9, Interior Minister Castaner, Justice Minister Belloubet, then-government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux, and Junior Minister for the Disabled Sophie Cluzel attended a CRIF-organized memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where four years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other persons hostage.

On February 20, President Macron delivered a televised speech at the annual CRIF dinner. Among the guests in attendance – who all wore badges reading “All united against Anti-Semitism” – were First Lady Brigitte Macron, former president Francois Hollande, former prime ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve, 10 current cabinet members, the U.S. Ambassador, and the Israeli Ambassador. Macron stated anti-Semitism had grown and reached its worst level since World War II in the country and Europe and had gotten “worse in recent weeks.” He said he was drawing “new red lines” in the fight against hatred of Jews and announced a package of measures – some previously announced, some new – to combat the rise of anti-Semitism. Among these were that the country would define “anti-Zionism as a modern-day form of anti-Semitism,” putting it in line with the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The government adopted the IHRA definition based on this direction, and the National Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution adopting the definition on December 3. Macron also announced the Ministry of Education would investigate the phenomenon of parents pulling their Jewish children out of public school over fears of anti-Semitism, and the government would dissolve several far-right extremist groups.

In response to a May 13 written request from Parliamentarian Meyer Habib of the Union of Democrats and Independents Party, Interior Minister Castaner declined to prohibit regular protests in favor of BDS in Paris. The minister cited as justification the right of assembly and protest enshrined in the constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Before the July 25 Europa League match between Strasbourg Racing and Haifa Maccabi (professional soccer teams from France and Israel, respectively), the local police subprefecture announced a ban on any display that could serve to identify someone as a supporter of Haifa Maccabi in key areas of Strasbourg – including in all areas in and around the stadium. The ban included not only team logos, clothing, and paraphernalia, but any “national flag” associated with the team, widely accepted as a reference to the Israeli flag. The police notice specifically stated the risk for violence, referencing that contact had been established between “violent supporters of both teams, some of whom are politicized or identified as being at the origin of manifestations of anti-Semitism.” The notice, which stated identifying as a Haifa supporter “implicated risk” to that person, was followed by an outcry on social media in both France and Israel. Critics said the ban limited freedom of expression of the potential victims of anti-Semitism rather than demanding and enforcing law-abiding behavior from all fans. Following outreach to the interior ministry by leaders of the Jewish community and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by the Israeli Embassy in Paris, the subprefecture issued a new notice on July 25 – just before the match – rescinding the rules.

On July 21, Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the 1942 Velodrome d’Hiver roundup in which 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “France betrayed its own children,” Parly said in her statements, adding, “The roundup … was the work of the French government, accomplished by the French.” She also promised to take up the late 19th century Dreyfus Affair, where authorities wrongly convicted Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason before eventually pardoning and reinstating him in the army. Parly said it was time to posthumously recognize the honor and years taken from Dreyfus and said she would take up the case “personally.”

President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions, including a February 19 visit to the Shoah Memorial, the same day thousands marched in Paris and elsewhere in protest of anti-Semitic acts; the February 20 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 Judaism Day observance. On October 29, President Macron, along with several government officials, attended the inauguration of the European Center of Judaism in Paris. “Judaism has played a key role across the continent to build all that is thought and all that is European civilization, to fundamentally forge who we are,” said President Macron in his speech.

As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities. The imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries. During Ramadan, when there was an increased number of worshippers, between 250 and 300 imams came to the country temporarily, including 164 from Morocco.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Hong Kong

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Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states that residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In February, the SAR government introduced a bill that would have allowed for extradition of SAR residents to other jurisdictions worldwide, including mainland China. Protests against this bill took place regularly throughout the latter half of the year. Some Christian groups used the broader protest movement to highlight what they stated was the high degree of religious freedom in Hong Kong, contrasted with the lack of religious freedom in mainland China and strongly supported the SAR government’s eventual withdrawal of the extradition bill. While Christian sources did not express concern about Hong Kong’s current level of religious freedom, foreign-based religious freedom advocates expressed fears for the potential future of religious freedom in Hong Kong if the mainland government further encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Falun Gong practitioners reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and difficulty renting venues for large events, including from the SAR government. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in July with the stated purpose of raising awareness of 20 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in mainland China.

In September two assailants attacked a Falun Gong practitioner after she met with police to discuss a planned Falun Gong demonstration. In November a printing warehouse for the Epoch Times Hong Kong Edition, a Falun Gong-associated media outlet, was subject to an arson attack by four masked assailants armed with batons. According to media reports, some Hong Kong Christian churches reduced their physical assistance to counterparts in mainland China for fear of endangering those counterparts but continued to travel there to dine and pray with them. Christian media sources reported that Christian protesters received anonymous messages threatening them and their families with physical violence if they did not stop speaking out against the government. Other sources stated that many other people on both sides of Hong Kong’s political divide received similar messages.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government. The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Hong Kong in March to meet with religious leaders and promote religious freedom in China.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states that residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws. The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.” The Basic Law states that religious organizations “may maintain and develop their relations with religious organizations and believers elsewhere.”

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching. The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language. The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.” These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others. Such limitations may not discriminate solely on the basis of religion.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government. They must, however, register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, the use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services. To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons. Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization. If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups. Religious groups may register as a society and/or tax-exempt organization as long as they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days. The Falun Gong is registered as a society rather than a religious group; as a society, it is able to establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education. The government offers subsidies to schools that are built and run by religious groups. Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum. Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs. The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land on concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship. Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs, has a direct role in managing the affairs of some temples. The SAR chief executive appoints its members. The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and gives grants to other charitable organizations. The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens. The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive. The Basic Law stipulates that the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.” Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups. The religious subsector is comprised of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association. These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee. The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance. Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion. Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

Protests, including several with over a million participants, took place regularly throughout the latter half of the year. The protests began in response to the SAR government’s introduction of a bill in February that would have allowed for extradition of SAR residents to other jurisdictions worldwide, including mainland China. Participants included a wide variety of civic groups, including some religious groups. Observers said that while the protesters did not highlight religious issues and the majority of the protesters did not claim affiliation to any religious groups, some Christian advocates used the protest movement to highlight what they stated was the high degree of religious freedom in Hong Kong, which they contrasted with the lack of religious freedom in mainland China, also expressing strong support for the SAR government’s eventual withdrawal of the extradition bill. While Christian activists did not express concern about Hong Kong’s current level of religious freedom, foreign based religious freedom advocates expressed fears for the potential future of religious freedom in Hong Kong if the mainland government further encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature and conducting public exhibitions. A court in November heard the government’s appeal of a 2018 decision overturning the government’s confiscation of Falun Gong banners based on a requirement to obtain prior government approval for such displays. The court’s decision remained pending at year’s end. Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at public events. Practitioners also reported continuing difficulties renting venues for large meetings and cultural events from both government and private businesses. According to Falun Gong practitioners, the SAR government, which controls a significant number of large venues in the city, denied Falun Gong members’ applications to rent venues, often telling practitioners that the venues were fully booked. In April a private camping ground agreed to rent space for a Falun Gong conference with more than 1200 participants, of which 800 had planned to stay at the campsite; however, two days before the event, the private venue cancelled.

Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in July with the stated purpose of raising awareness of 20 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in mainland China.

In October police sprayed the front of a mosque with blue dye using a water cannon during a police response to protest activity in the vicinity of the mosque. Government officials, including the chief executive and chief of police, apologized for the incident.

In December Hong Kong police pepper-sprayed prodemocracy protestors who demonstrated in support of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim minority groups in mainland China. The police said the protesters assaulted police officers and threw hard objects at police officers.

Senior government leaders often participated in large-scale events held by religious organizations. The SAR government and Legislative Council representatives participated in Confucian and Buddhist commemorative activities, Taoist festivals, and other religious events throughout the year.

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of “enmity against God,” including two Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority prisoners at Fajr Prison on August 4. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, beatings in custody, forced confessions, poor prison conditions, and denials of access to legal counsel. International media and human rights activists reported authorities in Qarchak Prison for Women routinely targeted Gonabadi Sufi inmates for mistreatment and denied them access to legal counsel. In January the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi Order in Iran, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. Human rights organizations, as well as UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman, widely decried Ahmadi’s mistreatment, along with that of 10 Gonabadi Sufi women serving prison sentences at Qarchak. They also deplored the high number of deaths and arrests in ethnic and religious minority provinces that, according to the organizations, resulted from the government’s excessive use of force against protesters during November demonstrations. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. In March CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms of up to 26 years each on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to media, these individuals were among the more than 300 Gonabadi Sufis arrested in 2018 for protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader and the arrest of a fellow devotee, Nematollah Riah. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, non-Armenian Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported in September authorities sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term for charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “supporting opposition groups,” and “propaganda against the state.” The website IranWire reported that between March and October judiciary officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is, and during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial in various cities across the country. According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati to serve a one-year prison sentence after he was tried in absentia for defending the “false Baha’i Faith.” On February 10, according to NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents arrested a pastor from Rasht and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to his congregants. Yarsanis stated authorities continued to discriminate against and harass them. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher education opportunities for members of religious minorities and confiscated or restricted their use of religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on businesses owned by Baha’is or forcing them to shut down. The government continued to crack down on public displays of protest of the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. In August international media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to a May report by CHRI, state agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of minority religious groups, particularly those of Gonabadi Sufis. The Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported Baha’is remained barred from government employment at the local, provincial, and national levels, not only in the civil service but also in such fields as education and law.

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

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. At the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom…We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs, and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.” On August 2, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz, whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.” The United States supported the rights of members of minority religious groups in the country through actions in the United Nations. In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

The penal code specifies the death sentence for “enmity against God” (which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents, and not for other categories of death such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

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

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

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Rehman expressed deep concern about the government’s use of “excessive” force during the November protests in provinces with a majority population of ethnic minorities. The report pointed to the highest number of deaths in these provinces, with at least 84 persons killed in Khuzestan (predominantly Sunni Arab) and 52 in Kermanshah (predominantly Kurdish). IranWire, citing an unnamed Khuzestan official, reported on December 17 that the total number of protester fatalities in Mahshahr, a major city and residence for Ahwazi Arabs in the region, was 148 over five days. On December 1, The New York Times reported IRGC forces killed as many as 100 protestors on a single day, many of whom were local Sunni Arab citizens, by machine gun fire in a marshland in Mahshahr. The special rapporteur also reported officials arrested dozens of activists from ethnic minorities, including Kurds and Azerbaijani-Turks, as well as 10 Baha’is who were arrested in Baharestan on November 29 and 30.

According to AI, authorities executed Abdullah Karmollah Chab and Ghassem Abdullah, two Sunni Ahwazi Arab-minority prisoners, at Fajr Prison on August 4, after they were convicted on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with an armed attack on a Shia religious ceremony in Safiabad. The convictions and executions proceeded despite AI’s and other human rights NGOs’ concerns regarding what they stated was the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.

The NGO Iran Human Rights reported on May 23 that authorities hanged Mehdi Cheraghi on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with the robbery of a jewelry shop in April 2015. According to the report, authorities hanged Cheraghi in public, in the city of Hamadan, during Ramadan. Iran Human Rights also reported authorities executed two prisoners, Hossein Roshan and Mohsen Konani, at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj on charges of “enmity against God” on October 2. Authorities originally arrested and convicted the two prisoners for armed robbery.

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 27, international media reported police in Sistan and Baluchistan Province shot and killed a young Sunni Baluchi man, Mousa Shahbakhsh, after he did not follow orders to stop following a police pursuit because he did not have a driver’s license. Following his death, protests broke out at the governor’s office in the provincial capital of Zahedan; authorities arrested approximately 30 protesters. Media reports noted a tense relationship between the Sunni Baluchi population and the Shia authorities.

AI reported on June 26, Benyamin Alboghbiesh, a Sunni Ahwazi Arab arrested on May 26, died under suspicious circumstances at a detention center believed to be under the control of the IRGC in Ahvaz, Khuzestan. Alboghbiesh’s mother and brother were arrested with him and remained detained at year’s end. Intelligence agents notified Alboghbiesh’s family on June 26 of his death. AI raised concerns that he might have been tortured. AI urged authorities to undertake immediately an impartial investigation into Alboghbiesh’s death and to hold accountable anyone found responsible.

According to HRANA and AI, after arresting Kurdish singer Peyman Mirzazadeh in February, authorities sentenced him to a two-year prison term in May and flogged him 100 times on July 28 for sabb al-nabi, or “insulting the prophet” (80 lashes) and drinking alcohol (20 lashes). AI said the flogging left Mirzazadeh “in agonizing pain with a severely swollen back and legs.”

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards routinely targeting Gonabadi Sufi prisoners for mistreatment, such as encouraging other inmates to physically abuse them. In January CHRI reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi order, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. She reportedly had said that another imprisoned Gonabadi Sufi, Shahnaz Kianasl, did not receive proper medical attention.

In his July report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran commented on Ahmadi’s case and those of other Gonabadi Sufis at Qarchak Prison. According to the report, “The special rapporteur is deeply concerned about the situation of members of the Gonabadi Dervish community who remain in detention in Qarchak Prison without access to their lawyers since the protests of 2018. This includes at least 10 women serving prison sentences of up to five years.” CHRI and the special rapporteur reported that in April, according to an unnamed source, a fellow inmate beat Sima Entesari, a Gonabadi Sufi detainee at Qarchak Prison, after prison authorities promised the attacker a case review if she assaulted her fellow prisoner, and they promised to consider her request for conditional release if she attacked Sufi dervishes. The special rapporteur also reported the authorities placed Entesari and four other Gonabadi Sufi detainees sentenced on national security charges in the same ward as prisoners convicted of drug-related charges, theft, and social crimes, in contravention of the prison’s regulations.

Human rights NGOs also reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities in Great Tehran Penitentiary. On January 28, CHRI reported two Gonabadi Sufi dervishes – Hassan Shahreza and Vahid Khamoushi – were denied medical treatment for infected wounds received when security forces shot them with pellet guns during protests in 2018. According to CHRI, Shahreza reportedly retained 200 pellets in his body, which had led to the infections. In addition to pellet gun wounds, Khamoushi had a broken ankle. CHRI reported authorities denied both men access to medical care.

CHRI reported Mitra Badrnejad, a Baha’i woman arrested in March 2018 during a raid by security agents on her home, began her one-year prison sentence on September 22. The revolutionary court in Ahvaz convicted Badrnejad of “membership in the Baha’i Organization” and “propaganda against the state,” with a sentence of five years in prison and two years in exile. Upon appeal, the sentenced was reduced to one year. According to her son, authorities held Badrnejad in solitary confinement for 50 days in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center and in Ahwaz’s Sepidar Prison. Her son also said authorities blindfolded her during interrogation and subjected her to threats and other forms of psychological abuse.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Mohabat News reported that on January 23, eight security officers raided the Isfahan home of Christian convert Sina Moloudian and arrested and beat him, leaving bruise marks on his face. The officers also confiscated cellphones, computers, Bibles, and other religious materials. Authorities emphasized they had been monitoring Moloudian for months prior to the arrest. He was released on bail on February 4.

On February 7, HRANA reported special forces agents beat several Sunni prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison. According to HRANA, the beatings came in retaliation for Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi’s refusal to attend his court hearing. Ghoreishi, Hamzeh Darvish, Marivan Karkuki, and Namegh Deldel were among the Sunni inmates severely injured in the beatings.

On February 12, a Baloch NGO reported security guards in the city of Iranshahr, in Sistan and Balochistan Province, shot and killed a young Baluchi man, Davood Zahroozah, while he was transporting fuel in his personal vehicle. HRANA reported a Balochi man, Muhammad Kurd, was shot and killed on February 9 by security forces when they opened fire on his vehicle without warning as he was transporting fuel for sale, a common activity in that region that the government viewed as “smuggling.” According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, at least 103 were imprisoned on charges of “enmity against God”, 49 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 15 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam,” and 15 for “corruption on earth.” At least 10 were arrested for a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (“baghi”), which officials have used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.”

Noor Ali Tabandeh, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Surfi order, died on December 24 after almost two years of house arrest and denial of urgent medical care. He was under house arrest resulting from 2018 protests in Tehran. According to the Majzooban Noor website, as of March, approximately 110 dervishes remained imprisoned in inhumane conditions in Great Tehran Penitentiary and Qarchak Prison. On March 15, CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms ranging from six to 26 years each, which included 74 lashes, two years in exile, a two-year ban on social media and interviews, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad for each. Charges included “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to the November CHRI report, Gonabadi Sufi religious centers remained closed following the 2018 protests.

According to the July report to the UN General Assembly from the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, on March 13 Amir Noori, a member of the Gonabadi Dervish community, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “acting against the internal security of the country, and disrupting public order.” Noori lost a finger during the 2018 protests, when authorities initially arrested him.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. In January IranWire reported security agents detained and threatened at least three Sunni seminary students and clergymen traveling from Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Mashhad and banned them from entering Sunni seminaries and mosques. Similarly, according to the same report, intelligence agents detained another group of Sunni seminary students traveling from Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Khaf, in Khorasan Province. The agents inspected their phones, notebooks, and cars and forced them to return to Zahedan.

HRANA reported that on September 24, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term. Ghoreishi, the former imam of Friday prayers at Imam Shafi’i Mosque in Talesh, was originally arrested in April 2014 and had just completed a five-year sentence. The 16-year sentence was based on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security (10 years), “supporting opposition groups” (five years), and “[disseminating] propaganda against the state” (one year).

IranWire reported the arrest of several Baha’is in late November, noting the reasons for the arrests were unclear but appeared related to claims Baha’is had led and spurred on the nationwide protests. On November 27 and 29, security officers in Baharestan, a satellite city of Isfahan, arrested at least ten Baha’is – Soroush Azadi, Shahab Ferdowsian, Nasim Jaberi, Mehranollah Daddy, Shahbaz Bashi, Vahid Niazmand, Naser Lotfi, Ghodus Lotfi, Saghar Manouchehrzadeh, and Homa Manouchehrzadeh – and took them to an unknown location. Following Friday prayers, residents of Baharestan held up signs calling for the arrest of Baha’is and protesters. On November 30, a social media application, Telegraph, reported the arrestees in Baharestan were of Baha’is involved in the unrest and called for them to receive the worst possible punishment.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

According to the Geneva-based Baha’i International Community (BIC) and the UN special rapporteur’s June report, more than 49 Baha’is remained in prison. According to BIC, the Baha’i citizens were arbitrarily detained, and some were subsequently given harsh sentences due to their professed faith and religious identity. IranWire reported between March and October, officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is since the appointment of a new chief justice earlier in the year. It said during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial. According to media and NGO reports, Baha’is continued to face charges that included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” “espionage and collaboration with foreign entities,” and “actions against national security.” Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution offering mainly distance learning, that the government considered illegal. According to BIC, in many cases, authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRANA, IranWire, and Iran Press Watch (IPW) reported that on April 30, MOIS masked agents arrested three Baha’is in Semnan – Ardeshir Fanaeian, Behnam Eskandarian, and Yalda Firoozian – following a search of their homes. According to the reports, the three were initially held at an unknown location without the right to legal counsel and were accused of “propaganda against the regime.” According to an updated October Iran Wire report, the three were detained in the central prison of Semnan and the judge handling the case held them without clear reason, despite the completion of their interrogations three months prior. In August Iran Wire and IPW reported prison officials allowed inmates to beat Eskandarian, resulting in a ruptured ear, blood clots, and severe inflammation of the inner ear. According to the report, guards observed the attack but did nothing to intervene. On December 16, following an initial ruling by the revolutionary court in Semnan in October, the Semnan Court of Appeals sentenced Fanaeian to a prison term of six years, Eskandarian to three years and six months, and Firouzian to two years and six months.

According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati in his home. Hajati’s wife stated the day before, Hajati had received a text message notifying him authorities had sentenced him in absentia to one year in prison and two years of exile. On June 19, IPW reported 29 prominent political and civil rights activists issued a statement strongly condemning Hajati’s imprisonment. International media and human rights NGOs reported the government previously detained him for 10 days in 2018 for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. Following that detention, the judiciary placed Hajati under surveillance and banned him from holding his seat on the council for approximately three months.

CHRI and international media reported authorities in February sentenced Mehdi Moghaddari, a member of the Isfahan City Council, to six months in prison for his social media support of Hajati and Baha’i rights. An appeals court upheld the sentence, but authorities did not summon him to prison by year’s end. On April 15, the revolutionary court in Isfahan handed down a six-month suspension from the city council.

In January IPW reported authorities arrested four Baha’is in Isfahan stemming from 2017 convictions of “membership in illegal Baha’i organizations with the intention of acting against national security.” Sohrab Naghipoor was sentenced to five years, while Farzad Homayooni, Mohsen Mehregani, and Manouchehr Rahmani each received 20-month sentences. All remained imprisoned at year’s end.

IPW reported in January the Isfahan Court of Appeals sentenced, in separate judgments, nine Baha’is to prison sentences averaging more than five years each. Authorities charged them with “membership in the illegal Baha’i community and disseminating propaganda against the regime by spreading the Baha’i faith in society.”

CHRI and BIC reported that on May 6, a revolutionary court in Bushehr sentenced seven Baha’is – Asadollah Jaberi, Ehteram Sheikhi, Emad Jaberi, Farideh Jaberi, Minoo Riyazati, Farrokh Faramarzi, and Pooneh Nasheri – to three years in prison each for answering questions about their religious beliefs to Muslim guests in their homes and for “membership in an organization against national security.” According to the report, intelligence ministry agents arrested the seven in February 2018.

HRANA reported that on July 6, the revolutionary court in Birjand sentenced nine Baha’i residents to six years each in prison. According to the report, the court authorities did not allow the defendants to have their lawyer present during the hearing. The nine – Sheida Abedi, Firouz Ahmadi, Khalil Maleki, Simin Mohammadi, Bijan Ahmadi, Maryam Mokhtari, Saghar Mohammadi, Sohrab Malaki, and Bahman Salehi – were convicted of “membership in an illegal…Baha’i group” and “propaganda against the state by promoting Baha’ism.” Authorities also confiscated funds the Baha’i community raised to support the needs of Baha’i residents of Birjand.

IPW reported that in June the revolutionary court in Isfahan sentenced Negin Tadrisi, a Baha’i resident, to a five-year prison term on charges of “collusion and assembly against national security.” According to the report, authorities arrested Tadrisi in October 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day. HRANA and IPW reported that on March 6, judicial authorities sentenced Baha’i Ghazaleh Bagheri Tari to five years in prison for “acting against the security of the country through membership in and administration of Baha’i institutions.” Security forces arrested Bagheri Tari in 2017 during a celebration held in her home marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. According to the report, security forces required each of the participants in the celebration to sign a pledge not to attend Baha’i gatherings.

On June 25, HRANA reported the revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Baha’i resident Sofia Mobini to 10 years in prison for “establishing and organizing an illegal Baha’i group with intentions to threaten the national security.” Authorities arrested Mobini in October 2017 during the celebration of the 200th birthday of Baha’u’llah and transferred her to Evin Prison, from which she was later released on bail. According to the report, the maximum allowable penalty for such charges under the relevant article of the penal code is no more than five years imprisonment.

In August BIC and international media reported a wave of arrests of Baha’is in various cities. On August 10, MOIS agents arrested Monireh Bavil Saqlaei, Minou Zamanipour, and Gholamhossein Mazloumi in their homes in Tehran and transferred them to Evin Prison. Simultaneously, authorities arrested Sohaila Haqiqat, a Baha’i resident of Shiraz, in her home and took her to an unknown location, as well as Farid Moqaddam in Birjand. On August 3, according to the reports, authorities detained two Baha’is from Karaj: Abolfazl Ansari and Rouhollah Zibaei. Security agents reportedly ransacked the homes of all the detained Baha’is, confiscating their laptops, smartphones, identification cards, bank statements, and other personal effects. Authorities did not cite charges at the time of the arrests. While confirming these reports, the Geneva-based BIC said it was not yet clear which state-run entity was behind the arrests or what the charges were.

According to HRANA and IPW, on January 21, eight MOIS agents arrested and imprisoned a Baha’i woman living in Tehran, Atousa Ahamadayi, following a search of her house and the confiscation of some of her personal belongings, including books, laptops, and religious material. The agents accused Ahamadayi of committing acts against national security. On March 11, IranWire, HRANA, and IPW reported security agents arrested two Baha’i brothers and residents of Tehran, Hamid Nasseri, at his place of business, and Saeed Nasseri, who had gone to the Evin prosecutor’s office to inquire about on his wife’s detention. According to the report, security forces arrested Nasseri’s wife, Afsaneh Emami, on February 2; authorities transferred all three Baha’i family members to Evin Prison.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and arrests of teachers associated with the program. Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation. According to IPW, on October 9, authorities released BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh after she completed a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution. Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a fiveyear sentence. According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while he was visiting his wife, who was imprisoned at Evin Prison. The Tehran revolutionary court sentenced the two on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”

Since the government did not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces, Baha’i activists said this situation often left women facing irreconcilable differences with their partners, including in cases involving domestic violence, without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

On November 2, BIC reported authorities harassed Baha’is around the time of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Baha’u’llah. Authorities raided Baha’i homes and celebrations in Shiraz, arresting at least five Baha’is. In the days leading to the anniversary, perpetrators vandalized a Baha’i cemetery. Authorities sealed five shops belonging to Baha’is because owners had observed the Baha’i holy days.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the most generous rights among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

In May, according to Christian Post, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi stated authorities were “summoning” Christian converts from Islam to explain their conversions. In a speech to Shia clerics, Alavi cited “evangelical propaganda” as one of the government’s concerns about the spread of Christianity and local Muslims’ converting to it. According to the Post report, Alavi said the Ministry of Intelligence and the Qom Seminary had dispatched officials to counter “the advocates of Christianity” and to question converts.

According to al-Arabiya English news service, authorities began increasing their surveillance of evangelical Christians in the days preceding Christmas. Christmas celebrations made it easier for authorities to arrest a group of Christians at one time, according to Dabrina Tamraz, a religious rights activist. According to reports, at least 109 evangelical Christians were arrested during the year. On February 10, according to CSW, IRGC agents arrested Matthias Haghnejad, the pastor of an underground Christian church, in Rasht following a church service and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to church attendees. Agents also confiscated the pastor’s books and his wife’s phone from their home. On September 23, the Tehran revolutionary court sentenced Haghnejad and eight members of the church to five years in prison after a short trial. Media reported the supreme leader intervened in Pastor Haghnejad’s case to ensure the court upheld the charges against him; he was subsequently transferred to Evin Prison without trial and remained in detention at year’s end.

According to media reports and Article 18, an NGO promoting religious freedom and supporting Iranian Christians, MOIS agents raided the homes of eight converts to Christianity on July 1 in Bushehr, placing them in solitary confinement and denying them access to legal counsel. During the raids, agents reportedly confiscated Bibles, religious literature, wooden crosses, pictures of Christian symbols, laptops, phones, identity cards, bank cards, and other personal belongings.

On August 1, international media and Christian NGOs reported that in late July, the revolutionary court in Karaj sentenced 65-year-old Mahrokh Kanbari, a Christian convert, to one year in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and engaging in “propaganda against the system.” According to the reports, three MOIS agents initially arrested Kanbari at her home on Christmas Eve in 2018, after which she was released on 105 million rials ($2,500) bail. Authorities reportedly directed Kanbari, while released on bail, to be instructed by an Islamic religious leader on how to return to Islam.

According to a September report from Mohabat News, the Bukan Revolutionary Court sentenced Mustafa Rahimi to six months and one day in prison on charges related to selling the Bible at his bookstore. Intelligence agents arrested Rahimi in June and released him on bail, but authorities detained him a few days later and imprisoned him at Bukan Central Prison.

HRANA reported on December 20, Mohammad Moghisseh, Presiding Judge of Branch 28 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, sentenced nine converts to Christianity to five years in prison each for “acting against national security” on October 13. According to HRANA, the trial reportedly took place on September 23; the individuals appealed the sentences. All were reportedly arrested by IRGC intelligence agents.

According to Article 18 and Mohabat News, on October 26, authorities released Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert imprisoned in Rajai Shahr Prison since 2013. On November 12, he reported to Sarbaz to begin the two years of internal exile included in his 2013 sentence for “collusion against national security,” for converting to and practicing Christianity, and related missionary activities.

Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church; his wife, Shamiram Isavi; and their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, continued to appeal prison sentences handed down to them because of their religious activities. According to Article 18 and Christian religious freedom NGO Middle East Concern, the judge postponed a hearing for Victor Bet Tamraz and Isavi on November 13, stating the court was “too crowded” and there was not time to hear their cases.

According to a report by NGOs Article 18, Open Doors International, CSW, and Middle East Concern, at least 17 Christians were in prison on charges related to their religion at year’s end.

NGO reports said the Erfan-e Halgeh group, followers of the spiritual doctrine of Interuniversalism, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Taheri, continued to be subject to frequent arrests, detentions, harassment, and surveillance. According to HRANA, in February authorities arrested and sentenced an Interuniveralism believer and member of the Erfan-e Halgheh group to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security.” In April authorities released Taheri from prison after he served nearly eight years following his arrest in 2011, according to media and NGO reports. According to CHRI, a state media outlet reported authorities granted him a furlough for the Iranian new year, but he faced more time in prison because the appeals court in Tehran upheld a 2018 five-year prison sentence based on the charge of “corruption on earth.” According to social media reports, Taheri remained out of prison on furlough but was banned from leaving the country.

CHRI reported that on May 15, an appeals court upheld the 91-day prison sentences of 18 persons whom authorities arrested on charges of “disrupting public order” while they were peacefully protesting on behalf of Taheri outside Evin Prison in 2015. Sixteen of the defendants in the case are followers of Taheri and the Erfan-e Halgheh group.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.

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

On January 12, HRANA reported authorities sentenced Shia cleric Seyed Hassan Aghamiri to two years of suspended imprisonment and stripped him of his clerical office as a result of his interviews and speeches in government media. According to Radio Farda, Aghamiri was charged with “undermining clerics’ prestige and insulting sanctities”. NHK English News Service reported in February Aghamiri was very popular among youth because he called for younger generations to “think on their own” by telling them, “God gives you talent. Nothing will stop you. You don’t have any limits.”

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials. In January BIC, HRANA, and IPW reported authorities denied the renewal of a business license to Farshid Deimi, a Baha’i resident of Birjand, because of his Baha’i faith. According to the report, on January 5, officials sealed Deimi’s business of 20 years without providing any specific reason for doing so. HRANA also reported in May authorities raided the Kashan home of Heshmatollah Ehsani and confiscated his equipment for producing rosewater because he was a Baha’i business owner. BIC similarly reported in May the intelligence ministry office in Kermanshah summoned Baha’i resident Sasan Ghaghchi for eight hours of interrogation and intimidation related to an inventory of goods authorities had confiscated from his shop and warehouse.

In September IPW reported agents from the state agency The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) forcibly entered the residence of Sharareh Farrokhzadi and Sirous Irannejad, a Baha’i family in the Niavaran region of Tehran, and within seven hours, cleared the residence of all furniture and other belongings and transferred ownership of the house to EIKO. In 2017 a revolutionary court order stated, “Since it has been established that the above-named are…members of the perverse sect of Baha’ism, all their assets may be seized by EIKO.”

HRANA and Iran Wire reported that between June 9 and 15, security forces searched the homes and businesses of nine Baha’i families in Shahin Shahr – Arshad Afshar, Aziz Afshar, Peyman Imani, Mahboubeh Hosseini, Bahram Safaei, Mehran Yazdani, Mesbah Karambakhsh, Sirous Golzar, and Naieem Haghiri – and confiscated their belongings, including cell phones, laptops, tablets, satellite devices, books, photographs, carpets, identification documents, tools, and other business equipment. Judicial authorities summoned the Baha’is, along with three others, to the local intelligence ministry office. According to the report, a group of seven security agents confiscated belongings valued at approximately one billion rials ($23,800). According to HRANA, under pressure from intelligence agents, Haghiri’s employer fired him.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan Provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

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

International media and the Assyrian International News Agency reported authorities closed a 100-year-old Presbyterian church belonging to the Assyrian community in Tabriz on May 9. According to Article 18, agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader, stormed the church. The agents then changed all the locks, tore down a cross from the church tower, ordered the church warden to leave the premises while they installed closed circuit television and other monitoring systems, and barred the congregants from holding services in the building. According to Article 18, a cross was reinstalled on top of the church in July.

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

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. International media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence on August 27 of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to an August 27 report by HRANA, on June 1, security forces arrested Afshari on charges of “collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “promoting corruption and prostitution by appearing without a headscarf in public.”

In April authorities arrested three anti-forced-hijab activists, Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi, and her daughter Yasaman Ariyani, for their widely shared video via various social media networks on March 8, International Women’s Day, depicting the women handing out flowers in the Tehran metro while suggesting to passengers that the hijab should be a choice. According to HRW, on July 31, branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced each of them to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state,” and 10 years for “encouraging and enabling [moral] corruption and prostitution.” Keshavarz received an additional seven-and-a-half years for “insulting the sacred.” On August 16, six UN human rights experts issued a statement calling for the release of the women These included the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran; the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences; the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the chair of the working group on discrimination against women and girls; the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The experts stated, “We call upon the Iranian authorities to quash these convictions and immediately release all human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their work in advocating women’s rights, and to ensure full respect for the rights of women to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and nondiscrimination.”

International media and human rights organizations widely reported the March 11 sentencing of female human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. According to AI, Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing came as a result of her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s degrading forced-hijab laws.” In June 2018 authorities arrested Sotoudeh, who represented opposition activists, including women prosecuted for removing their mandatory headscarf, and she remained in Evin Prison at year’s end. UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed alarm at the news of Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing. “We are deeply concerned about Ms. Sotoudeh’s conviction and the prison sentence imposed. Her detention and the charges against her appear to relate to her work as a human rights lawyer, especially representing Iranian women human rights defenders arrested for peacefully protesting against laws making the wearing of veils compulsory for women,” the experts said. The Los Angeles Times reported Sahar Khodarayi, also known as “Blue Girl,” was arrested in March for violating the government ban on women entering soccer stadiums by donning a blue wig and an overcoat to watch her favorite soccer team Esteghlal, known for their blue jerseys, play against a team from the United Arab Emirates. She was released on bail and charged with “harming public decency” and “insulting law enforcement agents” for not wearing a hijab. In September, when informed she faced six months in prison, she doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire in front of a courthouse, dying from her burns a few days later. In October women flooded Azadi Stadium in Tehran to attend a FIFA soccer match chanting “Blue Girl” as they defied the longstanding de facto ban on women attending sporting events in stadiums, where they could mix openly with the opposite sex.

The government continued to suppress public displays it deemed counter to Shia Islamic laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public. In May international media reported the arrest of 30 persons in the city of Gorgan for taking part in a private, mixed-gender yoga class. A local justice department official said the participants wore “inappropriate clothing” and “behaved inappropriately.” According to CHRI, these types of arrests were common but rarely acknowledged publicly by government officials. In March international media reported police in Arak arrested a couple on charges of “undermining Islamic chastity” after an individual posted a video on social media of the young man proposing to the young woman. According to the reports, clerics accused the couple of promoting an illicit relationship and living together without being married. The reports, however, indicated that according to local police, the couple was already legally married.

According to a May 20 CHRI report, government agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of religious minority groups, with the aim of stealing private information in the individuals’ accounts. There were nearly 100 documented accounts that authorities hacked, according to CHRI. CHRI identified accounts of the Gonabadi Sufi community in particular as key targets of the government’s hacking efforts.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsan religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. In September Iran Wire, IHRDC, and international media reported that Minister of Education Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei described a new ministry initiative, Project Mehr, which allowed schools increased authority to deny education to religious minority students. The minister was quoted as saying, “If students say they follow a faith other than the country’s official religions and this is seen as proselytizing, they cannot continue attending school.” He further stated all of the ministry’s provincial and local offices were taking part in the initiative and the human resources necessary for its implementation had been organized.

In June HRANA and IHRDC reported a new directive issued by The Welfare Organization, the country’s social welfare ministry, banning the employment of religious minorities in preschools. The directive states, “Employment of personnel belonging to religious minorities in any capacity in kindergartens is prohibited, except in kindergartens specific to religious minorities.” Director of the Office of Children and Adolescents in the State Welfare Organization Seyed Montazer Shobbar issued the directive on May 27.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. In September HRANA reported at least 22 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs, even though they passed the entrance exam. Officials stated the students had “incomplete files” or their names were not in the registration list. Applicants received a short message stating, “…There is a flaw in your dossier. Please contact the Response Unit of the Appraisal Agency.”

On January 19, media and NGOs reported a wave of expulsions of Baha’is from universities because of their religion. HRANA reported authorities at Azad University in Sama expelled Shirin Bani Nejad, a fifthterm Baha’i studying applied computer science, one month before she was to complete her associate degree. According to the reports, Bani Nejad’s expulsion came after she had paid her full tuition and taken one of her exams. Similarly, according to BIC, authorities expelled Shadi Shogi, a Baha’i student at Najafabad University of Applied Science and Technology, after four terms of study. Officials also expelled Elmira Sayyar Mahdavi, an undergraduate student in photo advertising, from Karaj University of Applied Science and Technology during her third term for being Baha’i. HRANA reported the expulsion of Baha’i Sama Nazifi, a student of architecture at Azad University in Shahriar. According to the reports, Nazifi had received awards and recognition the prior year for her academic achievement. According to Radio Zamaneh, authorities expelled Badi Safajou, a Baha’i student in chemical engineering at Azad University of Sciences and Research in Tehran with a high gradepoint average, during his seventh term. According to the report, supporters of Safajou conducted a poll that showed 81 percent of respondents disapproved of his expulsion. After nine days, security agents ordered the removal of the poll from the university’s Instagram page.

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

According to Mazjooban Noor, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and to bar them from university studies because of their affiliation with the Sufi order.

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

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their faith. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

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

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

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. A July report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of government-sanctioned discrimination and human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests of community leaders. The report noted the continuing practice of firing Yarsanis from employment after it was discovered they were Yarsani, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the report noted the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, including during military service.

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

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

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

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representative Siamak Moreh-Sedegh, the sole Jewish Member of Parliament, stating there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but there was little interference with Jewish religious practices. He ran the Sapir Hospital in Tehran, which played a key role in treating revolutionaries throughout 1978-79 and which continued to have a Hebrew phrase from the Torah over its entrance. Speaking as a government official during a human rights meeting in Geneva on November 9, Morseh-Sedegh, according to government media, said, “Like other Iranians, we religious minorities are free to perform our religious ceremonies.” According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. In an October 2 speech, IRGC Chief General Hossein Salami said Israel would be “wiped off the world’s political geography.” Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “Death to Israel,” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel. Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region. For example, Jam-e Jam daily newspaper in September published an editorial cartoon that suggested Israel’s participation in international sports “was a Jewish plot to crush Palestine.”

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

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

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, although the law is generally not enforced. The law bans “takfiri” sects such as Wahhabism that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not enforce the federal ban on Baha’i practitioners and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion. Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 600 demonstrators were killed in protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. The protesters were mostly young Shia Muslims, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement, according to news reports. Sunni Muslims in Anbar were detained by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for expressing their support of the protests on social media, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting. According to human rights organizations, although the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and Ministry of Interior security forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law to detain individuals without due process. Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018. In June a Sunni parliamentarian (MP) from Diyala Province stated Sunnis in his province were being forcibly displaced by government-affiliated Shia militia groups, resulting in systematic demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Community leaders continued to state the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, including children born of rape, be listed as Muslim resulted in forced designation as Muslim. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.

According to security sources in Khanaqin, in May ISIS attacked a Kurdish village and killed four individuals in two attacks. According to the Directorate General of Yezidi Affairs in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, approximately 3,000 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced that during the year, 18 more mass graves had been discovered throughout the country; they contained victims of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, some remains dating back decades. In March the Directorate of Mass Graves, with the support of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims, discovered in 2017, in the village of Kocho, the first such exhumation in the majority-Yezidi district of Sinjar.

Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the youth-led reformist protests that began in October, many demonstrators were kidnapped, wounded, and killed by masked individuals and armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade (30th Brigade), reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.

U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On July 18, speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, the Vice President announced the U.S. government had provided $340 million for assistance in northern Iraq, focusing on helping minority religious communities previously targeted by ISIS. He said an additional $3 million would provide shelter and clean water to communities victimized by ISIS. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, such as Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Law 105 of 1970 prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 year’s imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. The KRG, however, does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion, while in other parts of the country the law generally is not enforced.

Law 32 of 2016 bans the Baath Party, and also prohibits “takfiri” organizations, such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. A 2001 resolution prohibits the practice of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

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

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

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government: Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups in the country, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.

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

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

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

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

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (25 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia. The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj. The council, attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, organizes a lottery to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas. Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel: 3.7 million dinars ($3,300) for Hajj travel by land and 4.8 million dinars ($4,200) for travel by air. In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 48 Syriac and 18 Turkoman language schools. The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

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

National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Immigration Service. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim. There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian. Without an official identity card, one may not register a marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.

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

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion. IKR law forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

More than 600 demonstrators were killed in mass protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. According to news reports, the protesters were mostly young Shia, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement. Human Rights Watch also documented examples of Sunnis in Anbar being detained by ISF for expressing their support of the protests on social media. The reports stated, however, that there was no evidence that members of minority religions taking part in the protests were specifically targeted by security forces suppressing the protests. According to human rights organizations, including HRW, although the PMC and Ministry of Interior forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. In October journalists reported that authorities issued arrest warrants for 130 activists and journalists for covering the demonstrations. The warrants were based on the terrorism law; however, reportedly the real reason for the arrest warrants was their coverage of the demonstrations taking place in Shia-dominant provinces of the country.

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were again implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced abuses by PMF and ISF that included violence and forced displacement by PMF and ISF.

In June MP Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala. Al-Dahlaki stated government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in a systematic demographic change along the border with Iran. There were reports that gunmen attacked the village of Abu Al-Khanzir in the province, killing three members of the same family and prompting a wave of displacement from the village.

Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, such as Bartalla Subdistrict, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, there were 14 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the KRG, compared with 11 in 2018: Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.

Representatives of minority religious communities continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities. Christians again reported abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the 30th Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in Bartalla said they felt threatened by the actions of the Shabak 30th Brigade, such as deploying forces in Christian areas, establishing its headquarters in the Christian sub-district of Bartalla, controlling the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain by establishing check points, forcing merchants to pay bribes, controlling real estate in Christian areas, and other forms of harassment of Christians and Sunni Arabs.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartalla said activities of the 30th Brigade threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias posted pictures of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani on shops in Bartalla, as well as Iraqi militia leaders such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. They also stated that the 30th Brigade refused to comply with government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak individuals threatened priests over social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the brigade from the area on social media. Local sources said six Shabak Sunni families left their home in Bashiqa District because the 30th Brigade verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their lands. Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported continued verbal harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.

Yezidi community leaders continued to report that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered Yezidi. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of the Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, there were no reported cases of discrimination against them in the IKR during the year. They continued to state, however, that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by non-Christian religious minorities.

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

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, some Shabak MPs, including Hunain Qado, with the support of some of some Shia elements in the central government, continued to direct the 30th Brigade to harass Christians, drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population, and allow Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers. Christians in Tal Kayf said the nominally Christian but majority Shia Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively continued to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town, but it no longer blocked Christians from returning to the area.

In Ninewa Province, some Shabak MPs in the COR continued to advocate for the provision of land grants in accordance with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF victims who fought ISIS. Throughout the year, according to media and local news reports, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya. In 2018 Behnam suspended the grants in a historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change. During the year, government construction of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla continued. Christian community leaders continued to express concern that all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

During the year, the Office of the Prime Minister created a committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders to return all Christian properties in Ninewa to their Christian owners. The committee returned tens of houses to their Christian owners and remained active as of the end of year. Reportedly, no similar committee was formed to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian MP Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders worked individually to help Christians return to their homes; he said he managed to return 180 homes during the year.

During the year, the PMF Imam Ali Brigade continued to block the return of the members of the Yezidi Sinjar District Council and the mayor to Sinjar City from their temporary location in Dohuk, notwithstanding an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister provided in 2018 that ordered their return.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report physical abuse and verbal harassment by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated more by territorial disputes rather than religious discrimination.

According to multiple sources, many alleged Sunni ISIS sympathizers or their families whom government forces and militia groups had expelled in 2018 from their homes in several provinces had not returned home by year’s end. Some of these IDPs said PMF groups, including Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib Hezballah, continued to block their return.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported between 2,900 and 3,000 Yezidis, mainly women and children, remained missing in and outside the country. Approximately 150 Christians also remained missing. According to the KRG MERA, as of October more than 3,500 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or were released from ISIS captivity since 2014.

As of August the KRG Yezidi Rescue Office, established by then-KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, had spent approximately $5 million since its inauguration in 2014 to rescue captive Yezidis from ISIS. Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs. According to Yezidis activists and officials, the Yezidis were afraid to return to Sinjar because of the continuing Turkish airstrikes targeting the PKK. In November a Turkish airstrike hit the local headquarters of Yezidi PKK fighters in Sinjar, called the People’s Protection Units (also known as YBS), killing or injuring 20 of them.

According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported the ISF returned to the Sunni Endowment the property of a Sunni mosque in Mosul, confiscated by PMF militia in 2018. The Shia Endowment’s seizure of property owned by the Sunni Endowment continued to create tension with Sunnis in Mosul. One unidentified group placed banners throughout Mosul with the hashtag #OurWaqf [religious endowment] is our Red Line.

At year’s end, the central government had not opened an investigation of the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharaf in 2017. According to Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Sharaf, the government had neglected to address the issue.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration. According to estimates, including those cited by several Christian MPs, the monthly number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22. A director of an Assyrian NGO reported four Syriac language schools remained closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.

Some Yezidis and Christians continued to maintain their own militias. According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some received support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they needed to have a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.

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

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

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula continued to include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660-$1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. The KRG subsidized tuition by approximately 25 percent. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end, some schools still did not utilize elements of the universally adopted 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Other than making small changes to the curriculum, observers stated that the Ministry of Education did not have a clear strategy to implement the rest of the religious tolerance curriculum.

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

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

There were again reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG MERA built four churches and one Christian center during the year.

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

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

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

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

During the year, the Kaka’i community reported it controlled all of its places of worship. In 2018 Kaka’i leaders had reported that the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad, converting them into mosques.

In September the KRG announced the closure of a restaurant named the “Hitler Restaurant,” located outside Dohuk. The KRG stated that “Nazism and racism would not be tolerated in the autonomous Kurdish region and such actions are against the law.” The KRG’s Department of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs later released a statement calling for expanded laws to punish genocide denial in the KRG.

Macau

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Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. Falun Gong practitioners continued to hold rallies and protests against Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China. According to Asia News, from September 29 to October 1, the Government Tourism Office projected a slideshow of CCP symbols onto the Ruins of Saint Paul’s facade to mark the 70th anniversary of communist rule in China. In response, the Catholic Diocese of Macau stated concerns over the government’s use of historically religious sites for secular purposes.

In September the Catholic diocese opened the Redemptoris Mater College for Evangelization to train new seminary students from the region.

In meetings with religious leaders and civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax (profit tax), and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law guarantees religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and provide other social services.

Most public schools do not require religious education. Nonreligious public schools do not offer religious or world religion courses. A small number of religious organizations receive public funding for schools, and under the law, these schools may require religious education. Students may not opt out of taking a religious class if they attend a public institution that has it in the required curriculum.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

Falun Gong practitioners continued to hold rallies and set up informational sites at public venues without incident. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, in April outside the Ruins of St. Paul’s, Falun Gong practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group and used megaphones to play recorded messages about persecution of practitioners on the mainland. On July 19, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally and a candlelight vigil to mark the 20th anniversary of the CCP’s ban on Falun Gong.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

According to Asia News, from September 29 to October 1, the Government Tourism Office projected a slideshow of CCP symbols onto the Ruins of Saint Paul’s facade to mark the 70th anniversary of communist rule in China. In response, the diocese issued a declaration that “the use of historical monuments ought to correspond to its intended character.” According to the article, while the Catholic Church no longer owns the ruins, St. Paul’s remains a symbol of Catholic faith in the country for the Church and Catholic believers. In December, during the week prior to the 20th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty from Portugal to the PRC, the government projected a light show onto the facade, which drew no reaction from the diocese.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers. The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

North Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government which constituted crimes against humanity. Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the report was published. On September 20, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly, “There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.” The government reportedly continued to deal harshly with those engaged in almost any religious practice through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO), citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2018 and other sources, reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances. For the 18th consecutive year, the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA ranked the country number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of guilt by association in cases of detentions of Christians. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. Media reported in March that in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities publicly executed two women for fortune telling and sentenced a third to life in prison following a sham trial. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners. Sources said in April police issued a proclamation ordering citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners. Following the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for being Falun Gong practitioners. In September The Christian Post reported an NGO obtained a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies.” According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. Many foreign visitors said activities at the state-sanctioned churches in Pyongyang appeared to be staged, and an NGO stated the churches served “mere propaganda purposes.”

There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify. Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country. In his remarks at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the Vice President said, “[T]he United States will continue to stand for the freedom of religion of all people of all faiths on the Korean Peninsula.” Additionally, the United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights[.]”

Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states, “Citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.” It further states, however, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.” The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.” According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling. The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

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

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to deal severely with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify. The 2014 COI final report concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded in many instances the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable. On September 20, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Tomas Ojea Quintana, reported to the UN General Assembly that the human rights situation in the country “remains extremely serious. The political prison camps, in which a large number of political prisoners are detained in the worst conditions, remain in operation under complete secrecy. There is no freedom of expression and citizens are subject to a system of control, surveillance and punishment that violates their human rights.”

The NKDB, using reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,341 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to December 2018. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,341 cases, authorities reportedly killed 120 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 90 (6.7 percent), physically injured 48 (3.6 percent), deported or forcibly moved 51 (3.8 percent), detained 794 (59.2 percent), restricted movement of 133 (9.9 percent), and persecuted 105 (7.9 percent) using other methods of punishment.

A South Korean NGO estimated in 2013 that 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious activities, were held in prison camps in remote areas under harsh conditions. In February Open Doors UK estimated 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were imprisoned for being Christian. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs. According to one defector, some members of his extended family were in a political prison camp because one member was Christian and additional family members had been executed for being Christian.

In September CSW reported there was no religious freedom in the country. CSW also reported that according to witness testimonies, “many Christians are detained in prison camps, where they endure dire living conditions and brutal torture.” CSW stated there were instances where citizens caught in possession of a Bible were executed.

While shamanism has always been practiced to some degree in the country, NGOs noted an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. One source told RFA it was common for persons to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, or considering other important decisions. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. RFA reported a source said that in March in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province, authorities found three women guilty of fortune telling in a public trial. Two of the women were publicly executed by shooting, and the third was sentenced to life in prison. According to the source, the women had created a group called Chilsungyo (Seven Star Group) and said two children in the group were possessed by an oracle spirit. The women received money for telling fortunes. The source said thousands of persons from factories, colleges, and housing units were forced to attend the trial and executions, which were aimed at forcing officials to stop patronizing fortune tellers and engaging in other “superstitious” behavior.

In its annual report, Open Doors USA for the 18th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians. Open Doors USA stated arrests and abductions of foreign missionaries and punishments for Christians increased. According to the NGO, “If North Korean Christians are discovered…not only are they deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot, their families will share their fate as well. Christians do not have the slightest space in society; meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.” The government strengthened border controls, with harsher punishments for citizens being repatriated from China and increased efforts “to eliminate all channels for spreading the Christian faith.”

Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. According to Open Doors USA, one refugee said her family, upon being repatriated from China, was imprisoned for what authorities said were “problematic political beliefs,” and guards beat her parents for refusing to stop praying. Another woman who had been imprisoned after being repatriated from China told the NGO that prison authorities repeatedly asked her whether she went to church while in China, whether she owned a Bible, and if she was a Christian. The woman said she believed she would have been killed if she admitted being Christian.

According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities. International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps. According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2018 report, authorities punished both superstitious activities and religious activities, but the latter more severely. In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors were involved with the Bible or Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitious activity with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners during the year. Sources said the practice of Falun Gong entered the country through trade workers and spread rapidly, even among high-ranking government officials and their families. In April police issued a proclamation that ordered citizens to report their status as Falun Gong practitioners, the government’s first ever such action. According to RFA, the proclamation threatened harsh punishments for those refusing to turn themselves in. Following issuance of the proclamation, police arrested 100 persons in Pyongyang’s Songyo District for Falun Gong practices. According to sources, the crackdowns and negative publicity only increased Falun Gong’s popularity.

The government reportedly detained foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders. There was no further information on three South Korean missionaries detained in the country. In December 2018 The Korea Times reported the South Korean government tried to negotiate their release. One had been held since 2013 and two others since 2014.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment. Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country. In KINU’s 2016 white paper, one defector said, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The COI 2014 report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), a charitable organization that helps North Korean refugees, said on its website that organized religion was seen by the government as a potential threat to the regime. Defectors continued to report the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.

According to NGOs, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. As it had in years past, KINU stated in its annual white paper on human rights, “[I]t is practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” The white paper quoted one defector as saying, “[A]uthorities call religion, as a whole, superstition. And all superstitious behaviors are prohibited.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country. In its 2018 report, the NKDB stated less than 1 percent of 12,880 defectors said they had visited religious facilities.

The HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes. There were neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

The Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian nonprofit organization, reportedly obtained a government video in September that depicted Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” who attempt to undermine the government. The video was allegedly used to instruct state security agents on how to identify and silence Christians in the country.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2018 there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church. The 2015 KINU annual white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and reported most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities and did not regard Buddhist monks as religious figures. The temples were regarded as cultural heritage sites and tourist destinations. KINU’s 2019 annual white paper concluded no religious facilities existed outside of Pyongyang.

According to KINU’s 2018 report, the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations said they believed some members were genuinely religious, but others appeared to know little about religious doctrine. KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Chilgol Church, a state-controlled Protestant church, was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. One defector said when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches.

According to KINU, foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged. LiNK stated on its website “nothing apart from token churches built as a facade of religious freedom for foreign visitors are allowed.” In its 2018 report on religious persecution in North Korea, Open Doors USA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2018 KINU report, however, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.” According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report noted the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established Korean Catholic Council continued to provide basic services at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church. There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were citizens or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

The COI report concluded authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

In April United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday service at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral. According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended. The report quoted the clergyman making anti-U.S. and other political statements during the service.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items as well as other items the government deemed objectionable. Open Doors USA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

The government reportedly closely regulated certain forms of religious education, including programs at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il Sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries affiliated with Christian or Buddhist groups.

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies individuals on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime. The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. KINU continued to report that religious persons and their families were perceived to be “anti-revolutionary elements.”

According to KINU, the government continued to view Christianity as a means of foreign encroachment. KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s “Dictionary on Philosophy” as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.” KINU again reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year emphasizing ways to detect individuals who engage in spreading Christianity.

According to a 2018 Associated Press article, dozens of missionaries in areas of China near the border, most of whom were South Koreans or ethnic Koreans, provide assistance and religious education to North Koreans. According to the Rev. Kim Kyou-ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, in recent years, 10 such frontline missionaries and pastors died mysteriously, and he suspected the North Korean government was involved.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly continued tightening border controls in an effort to crack down on any such activities.

The government continued to allow some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance. Such organizations reported they were not allowed to proselytize; their contact with local citizens was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times. In October the Asia Times reported South Korean-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons, and in some cases the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

In November media reported South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s office invited Pope Francis to meet Chairman Kim at the demilitarized zone. At year’s end, however, there were no reports that the pope planned to do so.

In December the UN General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution, cosponsored by the United States, condemning “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” The UN General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.” The UN General Assembly also “strongly urge[d] the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms[.]” The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Russia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Throughout the year, authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that banned and criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” by raiding homes, seizing personal property, detaining hundreds of suspected members, and sentencing individuals to prison. There were reports that authorities physically abused Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious minority groups in detention. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media reports, on February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. The detainees said that during their interrogation, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied the men’s hands behind their backs, beat them, stripped them naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns. Authorities continued to fine, detain, and imprison members of other religious minority groups and organizations for alleged extremism, including individuals belonging to the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. As of the end of the year, the human rights NGO Memorial identified 245 persons who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs or affiliation, an increase from 177 in 2018. The majority were Muslim, including 157 detained as of October for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated between 5,000 to 10,000 members had fled the country since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including private homes, for religious services. On November 14, the Constitutional Court ruled providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” Critics said the court’s ruling, which included limitations based on the rights of neighbors and health and safety requirements, was vague and gave law enforcement too much discretion to stop home worship activities. Authorities continued to fine, arrest, and prosecute individuals under the Yarovaya Package, a set of legislative amendments passed in 2016 that prohibits, among other things, “unauthorized missionary activity.” Authorities fined a Buddhist man for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit, and a Baptist pastor for publicly baptizing a new congregant in a river. Officials continued to delay and/or prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and denied renovation or construction permits for houses of worship. They also continued to deny religious organizations ownership of property expropriated during the Soviet era, such as churches and church-affiliated schools. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions. The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals, including a Baptist pastor from Germany, for what authorities said was illegal religious activity.

A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center, however, found that approximately 10 percent of the population held negative views about Jews. According to the Levada Center poll, approximately 15 percent held negative views about Muslims. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they were harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. According to the NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), there were 19 reported cases of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 in 2018. These included individuals setting fire to Russia’s largest yeshiva, located in the Moscow Region, as well as unknown individuals knocking down a cross at the site of a tenth century Christian church near Stavropol, defacing the grave of a 19th century rabbi in Kaliningrad, and damaging 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the Astrakhan Region. According to the SOVA Center, national and local media, including state-run media, continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious minorities were dangerous.

During the year, the U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict their activities. The Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In June senior officials from the Department of State met with the chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country. Representatives from the embassy and consulates general in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss legislation impacting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases. The embassy organized speakers and programs designed to promote religious tolerance and used its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom concerns. On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on two members of the Investigative Committee in Surgut for their involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention there in February.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.” It provides the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and provides equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion. The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife. It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state. The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage. The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country. It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate religious freedom will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.” The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and fines of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,200) or 500,000 rubles ($8,000), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but the law does not precisely define extremism or require an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

In December 2018, the government amended anti-extremism legislation, stipulating speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” on the basis of group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative, rather than criminal, penalties for first-time offenses. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($320) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000) for legal entities. Individuals who commit multiple offenses within a one-year period are subject to criminal penalties, including fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to four years, or imprisonment of up to five years.

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers.” Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,800), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year. If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($12,800) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (without specifying what these might be) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years. These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country. For persons with official status, a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities, as well as to persons in management roles at commercial or nongovernment entities, the prescribed prison term is seven to twelve years, or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($11,200). First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes.

Local laws in several regions, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” in the territories of these republics but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative penalties for violating these laws.

A Supreme Court 2017 ruling declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, closed the organization on those grounds, and banned all Jehovah’s Witnesses activities, including the organization’s website and all regional branches. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious beliefs, but this right is limited by other rights, including “existing civil peace and harmony.”

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several Islamic organizations on the grounds of extremism, including Hizb ut-Tahrir in 2003; Nurdzhular (a russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”) in 2008; and Tablighi Jamaat in 2009. In 2015 the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) added the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to its Federal List of Extremist Organizations.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges: “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs). Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or public security.

The “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the state. When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional MOJ, of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members. A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with proper notification to authorities. It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces. A religious group may use property bought for the group’s use by its members, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members to hold services.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanent local residents. LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following: a list of the organization’s founders and governing body, with addresses and internal travel document (“internal passport”) data; the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad. Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations. Denial of registration may be appealed in court. By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding. Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports. LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities. LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, “and other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, established by the MOJ, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations. Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.” The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation. With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist. The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation. The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval. LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings, lands, and facilities owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters. Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption. In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed. Chaplains are not enlisted or commissioned, but are classified as assistants to the commander. Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget. The program allows for chaplains representing only the four traditional religions. Currently, there are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

The country’s 83 federal subjects (excluding Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) have varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Hijabs are banned in public schools in Stavropol and Mordovia, rulings that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. The law in Chechnya permits schoolgirls to wear hijabs.

Federal law, as amended by the Yarovaya Package, defines missionary activity as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association. According to the law, in order to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document authorizing him or her to share beliefs from a religious group or registered organization. The law explicitly bans any beliefs from being shared in residential buildings without such documentation (unless in the form of a religious service, rite, or ceremony), or on another organization’s property without permission from that organization. Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Engaging in missionary activity prohibited by law carries a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($80 to $800) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs. Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($480 to $800) and are subject to administrative deportation.

The law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “extremist.” Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism. Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations. If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but materials introduced in court during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases may also be declared extremist sua sponte, i.e., of the court’s own accord. By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials. Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials. There is no legal procedure for removal from the list, even if a court declares an item should no longer be classified as extremist, but lists are reviewed and reissued on a regular basis and publications may be dropped from lists. The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their original languages – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist. The law does not specify that foreign language translations of these texts cannot be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($16 to $48), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($32 to $80) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials. Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,600 to $16,100). Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property. The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely. The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose. The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church. If a structure (e.g., the warehouse) does not meet legal requirements and is not made legal by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be destroyed.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools. Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course. Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses, and according to the religious makeup of the given location. There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in home schools. Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom. The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or directly intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible. The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief. The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency. Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from an 80,000 rubles ($1,300) fine to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activity of political parties or movements, or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations and not to their individual members.

The ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis. No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, but individuals from both traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber, initially by the president. Subsequently, the selectees themselves choose additional members to serve in the group. The State Duma passed legislation in 2007 barring any member of an organization that had been accused of extremism from serving in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations. The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The law restricts any foreign citizen or person without citizenship from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism[.]”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require both a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa. Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work. There are no missionary visas.

Amendments to the law enacted in May and July grant religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities, both on a paid and free-of-charge basis.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.

As of December 31, Memorial identified 245 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a sentence to enter into force. This was an increase from 177 in 2018. In October Memorial’s list of persons it identified as political prisoners included 66 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 157 persons accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “non-violent international Islamic organization.” According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts. In October Memorial also identified an additional 140 Jehovah’s Witnesses as “victims of politically motivated prosecutions” whom it did not consider to be political prisoners because they had not been placed in custody.

Authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as extremist. Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs reported authorities raided homes, seized personal property, and detained hundreds of suspected members. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights NGOs, and media, authorities physically abused adherents while in detention. On February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut in west Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiysk Region detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the men, during their interrogation at the police station, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied their hands behind their backs, and beat them. Authorities stripped the men naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns for two hours. Authorities demanded to know where local Jehovah’s Witnesses met and who attended the meetings. Multiple domestic and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses called for an investigation into the accusations of abuse. In March the Khanty-Mansiysk Investigative Committee division said after an internal investigation it found no evidence its staff had used unlawful force. The Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a case with the ECHR.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on June 26, law enforcement officers in Kaluga raided the home of Roman Makhnev and took him and Dmitriy Kuzin into custody. At the station, officers handcuffed Makhnev to a pipe and left him there overnight. For the next three days, officers denied him food while they interrogated him. Authorities charged Makhnev and Kuzin with organizing extremist activity and held them in pretrial detention for six months. On December 25, a judge approved their release from the facility, but according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the case remained pending at year’s end.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 6, authorities in Uray conducted searches of eight Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes and took Andrey Sazonov into custody. The officers beat the man on the palms of his hands, forced him to kneel during his interrogation, and threatened him. According to Sazonov, when he would not answer questions about fellow believers, investigators turned off the recording machine, beat him more severely, and then resumed the interrogation. Two days after the search, Sazonov’s mother was expelled from the marketplace where she sold goods and her market stand was destroyed. On August 22, an appellate court banned Sazonov from participating in Jehovah’s Witnesses religious activities.

According to the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while exact numbers were unavailable, 5,000 to 10,000 adherents had fled the country in fear of persecution since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. The association estimated more than 150,000 adherents remained in the country. One source estimated there were at least 26,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Siberia continuing to worship clandestinely.

The SOVA Center reported criminal charges against Jehovah’s Witnesses were initiated in 21 new regions, meaning criminal prosecutions were ongoing in 52 regions at year’s end. The SOVA Center stated authorities accused 313 individuals of belonging to the group and filed charges against 213 of them during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported as of November, 287 members were subject to ongoing criminal prosecution. Of these, 46 adherents were in pretrial detention, 23 were under house arrest, and at least 135 were under travel restrictions.

According to the SOVA Center and Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of extremism for practicing their religion during the year in criminal cases; nine of them were sentenced to prison, including three who received six years in a penal colony. The remainder received suspended sentences, probation, fines, and/or community service. According to media and Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, on February 6, a judge in Oryol sentenced Danish citizen Dennis Christensen to six years in prison, making him the first Jehovah’s Witness to receive a prison term for “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Authorities had detained Christensen since May 2017. On May 23, the Oryol Regional Court denied his appeal and on June 6 authorities transferred him to a penal colony in Lgov, Kursk Region.

Media and Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that in September the Leninsky District Court in Saratov sentenced six Jehovah’s Witnesses to prison terms of between two and 3.5 years for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization. In November a judge in Tomsk sentenced local resident Sergei Klimov to a six-year prison sentence for the same offense. Klimov had been held in pretrial detention since June 2018. In December a court in Penza sentenced Vladimir Alushkin to six years in prison, also for organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.

According to the international human rights NGO Forum 18, a court in Khabarovsk sentenced Valery Moskalenko to two years’ forced labor followed by six months’ probation for “participating in the activity of a banned extremist organization.” Forum 18 reported the prosecution based its argument on a 10-minute recording of Moskalenko reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount at a Jehovah’s Witnesses gathering.

Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the Investigative Committee, Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police carried out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses in 44 regions between January 2018 and October 2019. Citing Jehovah’s Witness sources, Human Rights Watch reported 491 raids on homes and apartments during the year, compared to 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witness sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, and conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered the residences by forcing open the door. They held individuals, including children and the elderly, at gunpoint and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on April 19, agents from the Center for Countering Extremism and FSB agents disrupted a religious meeting in the home of an 81-year-old adherent and searched her home for five hours, during which the woman fell ill and required medical attention. On April 3 in Porkhov, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported masked FSB agents dressed in camouflage broke into the apartment of one Jehovah’s Witness couple. They struck the man several times on the head and legs and knocked him to the floor. Officers accessed his online accounts and seized electronic devices and money. They took the couple into custody and interrogated them. Authorities charged the man with participating in the activities of an extremist organization. The Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported that on October 10 in Sochi, groups of armed and masked security officers, some with dogs, conducted 36 home searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities took Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin into custody and charged them with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization.”

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, at year’s end the group had 49 applications pending with the ECHR and five complaints against the government pending with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including for detentions of practitioners, censorship of religious literature and the organization’s website, and raids on or other interference with religious meetings.

According to Memorial, during the year, the government detained, arrested, and/or sentenced at least 25 individuals it accused of belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir. This number excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula who were initially detained by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea before being transferred to Russia where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir was legal in Ukraine.

On September 12, media reported authorities completed a criminal investigation of Eduard Nizamov, whom the government alleged to be the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and, according to Memorial, beat and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention. As of year’s end, his trial was pending.

Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. According to the human rights monitoring and reporting outlet OVD-Info, on March 13, the Volga District Military Court sentenced five men from Tatarstan to between 14 and 22 years in a maximum-security prison. The judge found one of the men guilty of participating in the activities of a terrorist organization and the others guilty of organizing the activities of a terrorist organization.

The courts continued to sentence individuals for what authorities said was membership in other Islamic organizations. Local media reported that on September 25, a court in Tatarstan sentenced three persons to prison terms of between two and six years for their involvement in Tablighi Jamaat, which Memorial characterized as a peaceful international Islamic missionary movement. On October 4, the FSB detained a Kyrgyz preacher whom authorities said was linked to Tablighi Jamaat. A court in Smolensk subsequently ruled that the man, a Kyrgyz national, be deported to the Kyrgyz Republic.

Although the works of Turkish theologian Said Nursi continued to be banned, authorities did not pursue any new cases against his followers during the year. Experts from the SOVA Center continued to state that Nurdzhular, an organization purportedly based on Nursi’s teachings and banned as extremist by the authorities, did not actually exist in the country, and a number of individuals accused of belonging to the organization also denied its existence as part of their defense.

Several individuals continued to serve out prison sentences for what authorities said was their adherence to Nursi’s teachings. According to Forum 18, Ziyavdin Dapayev, Sukhrab Kaltuyev, Artur Kaltuyev, and Ilgar Vagif-ogly Aliyev continued to serve prison sentences ranging from three to eight years for organizing the activities of a banned religious organization. Imam Komil Odilov was released in March after serving nine months of a two-year sentence in a labor camp, but was ordered to spend the next eight years on probation and under curfew (not allowed to leave his home between 10 PM and 6 AM). According to Forum 18, Odilov remained on the government’s list of terrorists and extremists.

In May the SOVA Center reported authorities stripped Yevgeny Kim, a naturalized Russian citizen since 2005, of his citizenship due to what they said was his allegiance to Nursi. This decision rendered Kim, who was nearing the end of a four-year prison sentence, stateless, since he had previously given up his Uzbek citizenship. At year’s end it was unclear whether authorities deported him; experts believed he remained in a detention center in Russia.

On June 19, a district court in Kazan sentenced five members of the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community to five to seven years in prison. Although the Fayzrakhmani group was considered an extremist organization, the SOVA Center described it as a “typical closed religious community” that lives a secluded life and maintains religious practices different from traditional Islam.

Media reported in May that Sahib Aliyev, an accountant in the St. Petersburg branch of the Church of Scientology (COS), pled guilty to organizing an extremist community, illegal entrepreneurship, and “humiliation of human dignity.” Authorities arrested Aliyev and four other members of the COS in June 2017 as part of a probe into what police said was possible “illegal entrepreneurship,” incitement of hatred, and organizing an extremist conspiracy. According to Newsweek, in March police raided the offices of the COS in Moscow and St. Petersburg in connection with fraud investigations. Authorities accused the COS of raising approximately 2.8 billion rubles ($45 million) in seminars and other events around the country and sending the money to the United States. They also said the group stole money from investors. The state news agency TASS reported that in November authorities released from custody Ivan Masitsky, the head of the COS in St. Petersburg, after he spent more than two years in a pretrial detention facility. At year’s end, the case against Masitsky and COS officers Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva remained pending.

Media continued to report official harassment against Muslims. Moskovskaya Gazeta reported on March 27 that police detained 27 Muslims praying at a mall in Moscow and accused them of violating the rules for holding public events. According to the SOVA Center, the men received administrative fines.

Authorities continued to refuse to register the St. Petersburg and Moscow COS branches as religious organizations despite a 2014 ECHR ruling that the government’s refusal was a violation of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

According to the Ministry of Justice, at the end of 2018 (the latest year for which information was available) there were 30,896 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated. According to the SOVA Center, laws creating and regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs contained imprecise language that left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.

The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say the Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ about which groups should be permitted to register as religious organizations or to review an organization’s literature and activities to determine whether the organization was “extremist.”

Representatives of minority religious associations and NGOs continued to state the Yarovaya Package, enacted for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, was employed by authorities to limit religious freedom. They said officials often cited concerns about missionaries being sources of foreign influence. They said the broad definition of missionary activity in the legislation included not only proselytizing, but also disseminating religious materials, preaching, and engaging in interfaith discussions about religion, including in private residences, without prior authorization. In 2018, Forum 18 said the legal framework for an individual exercising his or her beliefs outside a designated place of worship was unclear and authorities applied the law inconsistently.

The SOVA Center stated in its annual report, “Persecution of religious organizations for ‘illegal’ missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments package continued, although, judging by the Supreme Court data for the first half of 2019 [the time period for which data was available], its intensity ha[d] slightly diminished.” The majority of the 174 cases initiated under “violation of the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations” during the first six months of the year were for missionary activity. Seventy-four individuals, two officials, and 26 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts in the first six months was 1,899,100 rubles ($30,500), compared with 2,471,000 rubles ($39,700) for the same period in 2018.

Forum 18 and the SOVA Center reported that on January 15, authorities in Yoshkar-Ola fined Sergei Roshchin and Valery Turkin, members of an unregistered Baptist group, 5,000 rubles ($80) each for passing out literature at a bus stop in Ryazan without a permit; on March 6, a district court ruled their actions constituted illegal missionary activity and upheld the fine. On February 7, authorities fined a Buddhist man in Sochi 5,000 rubles ($80) for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit.

According to the SOVA Center, in November a municipal court in Ryazan fined a man identified as Oleg Alekseyevich K. 5,000 rubles ($80) for illegal missionary activity for distributing Bibles at Ryazan State Radio Engineering University. The SOVA Center also reported that in August, the Mufti of Moscow, Ildar Alyautdinov, and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Moscow were fined 30,000 rubles ($480) each for distributing literature without proper markings. According to Komsomolskaya Pravda, in February authorities in Novosibirsk fined two Jewish lecturers, one from the United States and one from Israel, 2,000 rubles ($32) each for conducting missionary work while on tourist visas. The men spoke at a seminar for Jewish youth hosted by the Beit Menachem Jewish Community Cultural Center. The SOVA Center and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that on April 7, authorities, including police and FSB officers, firefighters, and representatives of the city administration, disrupted services in a house in Verkhnebakansky, a town near the Black Sea, at which Pastor Yuri Korniyenko and 50 Baptist congregants were celebrating the Annunciation. On April 9, the prosecutor charged Korniyenko with engaging in illegal missionary work. Authorities sealed the house and banned the pastor and congregants from using it for religious purposes.

RFE/RL also reported that in November authorities fined a Baptist pastor in Tatarstan 20,000 rubles ($320) for organizing an unsanctioned public gathering in June at which a group of adherents assembled to watch him baptize a new member in the Kama River. On December 11, Kommersant reported a judge in the city of Satka fined the New Generation Church of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) 50,000 rubles ($800) for holding weekly meetings in a cafe without proper documentation.

On October 10, the Constitutional Court overturned a lower court 2018 decision imposing a fine on the Reconciliation Church of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, registered in Yoshkar-Ola, for illegal missionary activities for distributing printed materials outside the borders of the municipality in which the group was registered. The Constitutional Court ruled the scope of missionary activities of religious associations was wider than the territorial scope of their main religious activities.

In December the Russian Union of Evangelical Christina-Baptist reported that a Baptist pastor from Germany who had lived in Sverdlovsk Region since 1994 was deported after the regional office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs revoked his residence permit. The group said that without evidence, the FSB alleged he “advocated a violent change of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation” and “urged citizens to refuse to fulfill their legal duties and to confront the Russian Orthodox Church.” According to media reports, in March two American volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ were detained in Novorossiysk, fined 30,000 rubles ($480), and deported for teaching English without a license and violating the terms of their visas.

Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books relating to religion, other than the four holy books recognized by law. The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,003 as of December, compared to 4,514 as of October 2018. There were reportedly no new Islamic or Jehovah’s Witnesses materials added to the list during the year but there were additions of anti-Semitic and anti-Orthodox Christian materials. During the first six months of the year, authorities imposed 1,964 sanctions for distribution of extremist materials, compared with 1,133 during the same period in 2018. According to Forum 18, in some cases, those in charge of places of worship and other public or semipublic spaces were held responsible for distribution of banned religious publications, which could have been left at the site by anyone at any time, including before the ban. The government’s ban on all Jehovah’s Witnesses websites, imposed in 2017, remained in effect.

As of year’s end, the government did not act on the 2018 ECHR finding that court decisions to prohibit Nursi’s books violated the guarantee of the right to freedom of expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ECHR ruled the country’s courts did not provide sufficient and relevant grounds for interfering with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression, and their intervention could not be considered necessary in a democratic society. The court further ruled the government should pay one of the plaintiffs 7,500 euros ($8,400) in compensation for non-pecuniary damages.

The SOVA Center reported that on September 11, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree requiring religious organizations to alter their places of worship to conform with specific counterterrorism measures in order to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities had to be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 had to have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 had to be guarded by private security guards or Rosgvardiya (National Guard) personnel. The SOVA Center stated, “It is obvious that few religious organizations have the financial ability to meet these requirements, and the penalty for noncompliance is high: fines of up to 100,000 rubles [$1,600].”

Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including their homes, “not for its intended purpose,” i.e., for religious services. Officials reportedly continued to prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and continued to deny construction permits for houses of worship. Forum 18 stated in September, “Since municipal authorities are usually unwilling to permit the construction of purpose-built churches and mosques, congregations can be obliged to meet in residential, agricultural, or commercial buildings. This leaves them vulnerable to the complexities and contradictions of the legislation which regulates the use of land.” Forum 18 reported that between January and October there were 21 known instances of individuals being fined for using homes as places of worship, compared with 10 in 2018. Forum 18 reported on November 14, however, that the Constitutional Court ruled that providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship and/or for use as a legal address “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” The court stated religious use of residential premises must take into account the rights and legitimate interests of residents and neighbors, as well as health, safety, and environmental requirements. The court further stated it would be “unacceptable” for a dwelling to lose the features of a residential premises and acquire those of a religious or administrative building. The case involved a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Rostov who allowed the congregation to use her home as its legal address and meet there for four hours per week for religious purposes. According to Forum 18, on November 20, human rights lawyer Vasily Nichik said in a blogpost, “Some words in the ruling do not have regulatory certainty, which leaves ample room for interpretation by law enforcement.”

Authorities continued to demolish houses of worship. According to Forum 18, on May 22, authorities demolished an Islamic prayer house located on private farmland in Chernyakhovsk District of Kaliningrad Region after several raids by FSB agents. Officials said the mosque violated planning regulations by being used for nonagricultural purposes.

Authorities continued to confiscate the property of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center. In February the Syktyvkar City Court seized a house of worship after ruling the real estate agreement concluded in 2007 transferring the property to the Jehovah’s Witnesses was void, and returned the building to the municipality.

Media in August reported Sverdlovsk regional authorities rejected proposals made by members of the Buddhist Shedrub Ling Monastery to preserve the stupas and outdoor Buddha statues around the monastery on Mount Kachkanar. A court ordered the religious buildings and statues to be demolished to allow for mining operations in the area. On October 18, the Sverdlovsk Region vice governor announced the mining company and the Buddhist community had signed an agreement whereby the community would relocate to a different area but would have periodic access to the religious structures on Mount Kachkanar until their demolition. A Buddhist leader interviewed by Novaya Gazeta stated the agreement was contrary to his community’s interests but there was no other way to avoid conflict with the company and the local population. Under the agreement, the Buddhists must leave the area permanently by November 2020, after which the company plans to demolish most of the religious structures.

Forum 18 reported that on January 25, a Moscow court ordered the Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists to suspend all activities for 60 days after the federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor found fault with the organization’s theological bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff. In February the seminary was prohibited from admitting new students. Representatives of the seminary told Forum 18 Rosobrnadzor inspectors said staff had not undergone required medical examinations and the seminary was not following approved curricula. The seminary stated it was allowed under the education law and the religion law to develop nonaccredited courses that were not subject to the same requirements as state-accredited equivalents. The court subsequently suspended the seminary’s license to engage in educational activities indefinitely. At year’s end, the case was pending.

In December media reported Rosobrnadzor posted on its website that it had prohibited the Theological Seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg from admitting new students for “failing to comply with requests in a timely manner.” Rosobrnadzor did not provide further details.

As in years past, according to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law recognizing the “special role” Orthodox Christianity plays in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture” as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution. The ROC continued to benefit from a number of formal and informal agreements with government ministries that gave it greater access than other religious organizations to public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons, the police, and the military. The government also continued to provide the ROC patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization. In its annual report, the SOVA Center stated the ROC was the most frequent recipient of properties the government granted to religious organizations. During the year, Saratov Region authorities transferred the former Old Believers Kazanskaya (Gorinskaya) Church to the Russian Orthodox Gymnasium after refusing to return it to the Old Believers community. Per a decision by the Property Relations Committee of St. Petersburg, authorities gave the building housing the School of Olympic Reserve Specializing in Nordic Combined to the Orthodox Spaso-Pargolovsky parish over the objection of school staff and parents. No archival documents confirming that the ROC had previously owned the building were presented to the parents or school staff.

Some government officials continued to make anti-Semitic statements publicly. According to media, during a visit to Jordan in August, Chechen Republic Head Ramzan Kadyrov told a group of expatriate ethnic Chechens that Jews were “the main enemies of Islam.” The meeting was broadcast on Chechen state television. The month prior, he told a group of Chechen police that Israel was a “terrorist organization.” In an op-ed published on the Zavtra news website on May 6, Sergey Glazyev, an advisor to President Vladimir Putin, wrote that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, together with American and “extreme right-wing forces in Israel,” could orchestrate a “massive relocation” to replace the ethnic Russian population of eastern Ukraine with “inhabitants of the Promised Land.” Glazyev denied the op-ed was anti-Semitic, saying it did not mention Jews. On April 24, the acting mayor of Lipetsk, Yevgeniya Uvarkina, responded to a question at a public hearing from a local resident seeking to halt local stadium construction by wondering aloud whether the resident had a “Jewish last name.” She apologized for the remark the next day.

Multiple officials supported the construction of Orthodox churches, stating the country was an Orthodox nation. According to the Moscow Times, Yekaterinburg City Deputy Alexander Kolesnikov expressed public support for a proposed plan to build a new cathedral in a popular central park. Kolesnikov said, “If there is no cathedral, there will be mosques, and you will get another Switzerland. The government will work better if church bells are ringing.” According to media, in May thousands demonstrated for several days to protest the municipal government’s unilateral decision to locate the cathedral in the park without consulting local residents. Following a referendum, municipal authorities made plans to construct the cathedral at an alternate location.

The government continued to withhold property expropriated during the Soviet Union from minority Christian groups. Media reported Father Grigory Zvolinsky, a Catholic priest in the city of Kirov, had lost five court appeals since 2011 for the return of the Alexander Church, a Catholic church built by the Polish community in 1903. For several years, the church has been used as a concert hall. The city administration allowed Zvolinsky to rent the church for Mass on certain days but informed his lawyer near the end of the year that he would be allowed to continue doing this only if he dropped his court case altogether. Zvolinsky refused and declared his intention to continue trying to reclaim the church, despite being subject to official harassment and surveillance.

The SOVA Center reported authorities returned some properties to religious communities during the year. In June in the Altai Region, following lengthy litigation with the Barnaul city administration, the Catholic community regained ownership rights to its church building that had for many years housed a pharmacy. Media reported that in August the municipality of Syzran in the Volga Region returned a synagogue to the local Jewish community approximately 90 years after Soviet authorities had closed it. The community of approximately 150 members requested the return of the synagogue in 1943. Its request was denied at the time and the synagogue became a cultural center. The reports stated the community planned to rededicate the synagogue within two years.

Among issues cited by the Jehovah’s Witnesses were government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($89 million), which remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained. In April the government executed 37 citizens for “terrorism crimes,” the largest mass execution since 2016. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following what they stated were unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses. In January rights groups reported Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and mistreatment, and in August, Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri died due to a heart condition while held in solitary confinement in Tarafia Prison. Authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, three Shia Muslims who have written in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia Muslims, in April with no official charges filed; they remained in detention at year’s end. On February 1, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. During the year, government leaders, including the crown prince and the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), took new steps to combat religious extremism and to encourage interreligious tolerance and dialogue, conducting prominent public outreach, particularly with Christian and Jewish leaders and groups.

According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother reportedly because he was Shia. In September an academic at Qassim University, Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out heretic Shia from the holy city of Medina. Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in legal and security matters and in private sector employment. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.

In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, Vice President Pence called on the Saudi government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating that Badawi, among others he highlighted, “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added that “the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” On January 25, authorities issued implementation regulations that criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.” The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.” There is no right to access government-held evidence.

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

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

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

Clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must be granted approval by the MOIA and operate under MOIA supervision. The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

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

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the king’s behalf. By decree, the CPVPV’s activities are limited to providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police. The CPVPV may not detain, arrest, pursue, or demand the identification documents of any person; those actions are explicitly reserved as the purview of the police and counternarcotics units. According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Mohammed.” CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges. The CPVPV’s religious purview includes the prohibited public practice of non-Islamic faiths or displaying emblems (such as crosses) thereof; failing to respect Islam, including Ramadan fasting; “immodest” dress; displaying or selling media “contrary to Islam;” and venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and the Sunna. All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects. In several areas, including commercial and financial matters, and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts. Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king. The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas. The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions. The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters. The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i). There are no Shia members. Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

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

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

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

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

Social media users who post or share satire attacking religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000). The country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter: “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

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

Government Practices

There were NGO and Shia activist reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including two cases of abuse that led to prisoners’ deaths. On November 13, human rights NGOs announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country said that authorities tortured al-Ribh while detained. In January another Shia activist, Naif al-Omran, died after eight years in detention, while serving a 20-year sentence for protest-related charges in Qatif dating back to 2011. According to al-Omran’s family, his body bore visible marks of abuse.

On April 23, the MOI announced the execution of 37 citizens in Riyadh, Mecca, Medina, the Eastern Province, Qassim, and Asir regions in connection with “terrorism crimes.” According to HRW, at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses, espionage, and terrorism. Shia Rights Watch (SRW) reported that Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Attiyah was among the executed. Amnesty International said those executed were convicted after sham trials that violated international fair trial standards and which relied on confessions extracted through torture. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet commented, “It is particularly abhorrent that at least three of those killed were minors at the time of their sentencing.” According to the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), at least six of the executed were minors at the time of their alleged offenses: Abdullah Salman al-Sarih and Abdulkarim Mohammed al-Hawaj, whose charges date back to age 16; and Said Mohammed al-Sakafi, Salman Amin al-Quraysh, Mujtaba Nadir al-Sweiket, and Abdulaziz Hassan al-Sahwi, whose charges date back to age 17. The government denied the individuals were minors and disputed the ages reported by HRW and ESOHR. The mass executions were the largest since January 2016.

On January 7, security forces raided the predominately Shia al-Jish village for suspected “links to cases of state security” in al-Qatif Governorate, killing six people and arresting others after an exchange of fire, according to Saudi Press Agency. Five officers were also wounded in the operation.

On May 11, security forces killed eight members of an alleged Shia terrorist cell in a security operation in Taroot in Qatif Governorate in the Eastern Province, according to the Presidency of State Security. The statement added the newly formed “terrorist cell” had plans to carry out terrorist operations targeting vital installations and security sites.

On January 8, security forces stormed the Shia village of Umm al-Hamam, killing five persons and injuring an unspecified number, according to SRW. SRW said authorities also used armored vehicles in a separate operation in Jaroudiya town. SRW also reported a number of arrests during these operations, including Qatif-based Shia rights activist Mohammemod Nabil al-Jowhar on January 11.

On January 20, the London-based human rights group ALQST (“Justice” in Arabic) reported that Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and possible torture. Authorities detained Al-Amari, the former dean of the School of Quran at the University of Medina, in 2018, and he suffered a brain hemorrhage on January 2. The Twitter account Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, and ALQST reported the 69-year-old’s death was caused by “intentional neglect” on the part of the prison authorities.

On August 3, rights groups reported the death of Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri due to health complications he had developed at Tarafia Prison. Authorities kept Al-Dhamiri, who suffered from a heart condition, in solitary confinement, according to the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account.

On November 13, family members of Islamic scholar Sheikh Fahd al-Qadi announced that al-Qadi had died in prison. The government detained Al-Qadi in 2016 and sentenced him in October to six years in prison. The circumstances surrounding his death remained unknown at year’s end. Prisoners of Conscience reported he was detained after he sent a letter of advice to the Royal Court.

As many as 39 individuals, most of them believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution, according to ESOHR. ESOHR also reported that up to seven minors faced possible execution, including Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, and Abdullah al-Zaher. The government disputed the claim that these individuals were minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted, and noted the courts use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations (which could differ from Western Gregorian calendar ages by a few months). Five Shia individuals, including al-Nimr, al-Marhoon and al-Zaher, faced a final death sentence and nine faced preliminary death sentences, which still needed to be upheld by an appellate court, the Supreme Court, and the king. The trials of 25 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing at year’s end, and one of those convicted was awaiting the ruling of the Court of Appeal after his second verdict. Some human rights NGOs reported that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.” International human rights NGOs reported that these individuals said authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation. Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On August 25, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence, to an additional five years in prison and a five-year ban on international travel after he was convicted of supporting demonstrations in Qatif and cybercrimes. According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

On February 1, human rights NGOs reported the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, who was detained in 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests. At year’s end, she was on trial at the SCC along with five other Shia individuals, including her husband.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet. Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes. Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes and authorities suggested informally that there were no current plans to do so. According to international human rights contacts, Badawi declared a hunger strike in September to protest his poor treatment and lack of medical attention while in prison. In December he reportedly went on a second hunger strike to protest his placement in solitary confinement.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery. In January local media reported authorities arrested an Arab expatriate of unspecified nationality for sorcery.

In April, authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, who wrote in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia in the country. By year’s end, authorities had not filed official charges against them and they remained in detention. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, al-Sadiq and al-Ibrahim write regularly for Al-Arabi al-Jadeed, a Qatari funded news website based in London, while al-Marzouqi published articles on his own blog as well as contributing to Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and to the Okaz newspaper.

During the year, the SCC continued trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in 2017. According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and the Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents. In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.” The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.” The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization. Amnesty International reported al-Odah was ill-treated while in prison, including solitary confinement.

On May 18, authorities released Shia cleric Tawfiq al-Amer from prison after he completed his eight-year jail term. Officers arrested al-Amer in 2011 and the SCC convicted him in August 2014 of slander against the state and abuse of the faith, stirring up sectarian strife, and calling for change in a series of sermons delivered in 2011.

In March authorities detained Shia cleric Majed al-Sadah for three days over comments criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) in his hometown of Saihat, Qatif Governorate. According to online activists, al-Sadah had to sign a written pledge to refrain from interfering in internal affairs. According to Al-Jazeera, authorities arrested cleric Omar al-Muqbil in September after he criticized music concerts sponsored by GEA, calling them a threat to the kingdom’s culture, according to the Prisoners of Conscience rights group. Al-Muqbil described in a video the GEA’s actions as “erasing the original identity of society.”

A court sentenced an Indian national to 10 years for “misusing social media,” “blasphemy,” and “hurting the religious and national sentiment of the Kingdom.”

During the year, social media reported the SCC held many hearings in the trial of influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali. The government detained al-Hawali along with three of his sons in 2018. Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa (Awakening) movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.

During the year, the SCC held at least five hearings on the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017. In 2018, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labeling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS.

In February Deputy Governor of Makkah Province Badr bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz ordered the arrest of comedian Yasir Bakr for allegedly mocking the CPVPV at an entertainment event in Jeddah. Bakr, founder of Al-Comedy Club in Jeddah, later appeared in a video on Twitter apologizing for his comments.

On April 20, local media reported that the public prosecutor summoned a man for investigation regarding a tweet that “disturbed public order” under the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. According to press reports, the man tweeted a call for all women in the country wearing a niqab to come together at Riyadh Boulevard in order to burn them, according to media reports.

On June 23, authorities arrested Dammam-based Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullatif Hussain al-Nasser when he attempted to travel to Bahrain. The government provided no reason for his arrest. Security officials interrogated Abdullatif and then transferred him to the State Security Prison in Dammam, according to activists.

On June 27, the SCC held the first hearing for three Shia men, Ramzi al-Jamal, Ali Hasan al-Zayyed, and Mohammed Issa al-Labbad, who turned themselves in to security authorities in 2017 after their names appeared on a list of 23 individuals wanted by the authorities. The public prosecutor sought the death penalty for the three on protest-related charges, according to ESOHR and activists.

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

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion. According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation. According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons; it restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy. Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship. The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence. The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques. MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas. In 2018 the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable. A May article in a government-linked newspaper described the hotline as a 24/7 service to report “undisciplined imams and mosques that need maintenance.” In 2018 the MOIA launched a mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) which monitors sermons and allows mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

In March the Council of Ministers approved a new regulation for imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina stipulating that the clerics be “moderate,” among other requirements.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden. Some Shia community members reported that Shia pilgrims were permitted to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj. Sources also stated that Shia pilgrims were permitted to approach, but not touch, the graves of the four Shia imams buried in the al-Baqi Cemetery in Medina for a period of two hours after morning prayers and two hours after noon prayers.

Since 2016, authorities have permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the largest Shia population in the country. These commemorations included significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September. According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

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

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer. In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer. In smaller Shia villages, community members stated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunni practice), or in some instances not to close at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government prohibited eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan. According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction for employment credit, while the government generally recognized graduates of Sunni religious training institutions for government positions and religious jobs.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam. The Institute for Gulf Studies found that Saudi textbooks in 2019 were still teaching students that “Christians, Jews, and other Muslims are ‘enemies’ of the true believer, and to befriend and show respect only to other true believers, specifically the Wahhabis.” According to the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education, Saudi textbooks in 2019 taught students “to consider Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘assassins’ bent on harming Muslim holy places, and to punish gays by death.” Shia community representatives in the Eastern Province reported throughout 2018-19 that textbooks no longer disparaged Shia beliefs. The Anti-Defamation League reported the newest edition of textbooks for the fall of 2019 continued to contain problematic passages.

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations. The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management. There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live. Community sources reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

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

Representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI. The 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, a Shia Ismaili, who has held the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs since 2014. There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders. There were seven Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council. A small number of Shia Muslims occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Muslims were concentrated, had significant proportions of Shia members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia Muslims held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils. Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts. Shia Muslims were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools. According to HRW, the Saudi government systematically discriminated against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

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

There were continued media reports that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic and religiously intolerant language in their sermons. Reports of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, reportedly were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities. During the year, the MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons. Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

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

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

The government hosted many Jewish and Christian religious leaders, but did not officially permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services. Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis, continued to hold low-profile services without government harassment, although they reportedly found restrictions on clergy travel particularly problematic. Authorities also allowed regular visits by the Catholic bishop, resident in Bahrain, who has responsibility for Catholics in the country, and by evangelical Protestant leaders.

In November the Presidency of State Security released a video on Twitter that categorized feminism, homosexuality, and atheism as extremist ideas. The animated clip said “all forms of extremism and perversion are unacceptable.” It also included takfir, the practice by some Muslims of labeling followers of other schools of Islam unbelievers, among the categories of unacceptable behavior. The security agency later deleted the post and said the video contained “many mistakes” while suggesting that those behind it would face a formal investigation, according to a statement posted by the official press agency.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts: “The Torah, The Talmud, [and] The Protocols of [the Elders of] Zion.” In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

On April 5, August 23, October 11, and December 27, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered Friday sermons in the Holy Mosque in Makkah in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping occupying Zionist Jews.”

In May the Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa called for the protection of followers of religions and places of worship after the terrorist attack on a Jewish temple in California and previous terrorist crimes. Al-Issa offered condolences to a number of Jewish religious leaders in New York.

During the May MWL International Conference on Moderation in Islam in Mecca, King Salman called for encouraging “concepts of tolerance and moderation, while strengthening the culture of consensus and reconciliation.” He added that the country was founded on values of moderation. The conference adopted the “Mecca Charter,” which calls for laws “to deter the promotion of hatred, the instigation of violence and terrorism, or a clash of civilizations, which foster religious and ethnic disputes.”

During the year, some Qatari nationals again reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017. The Saudi Press Agency announced that Qataris and foreign residents of Qatar would be allowed to land at Jeddah or Medina airports to perform the Hajj. The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah and Medina. In May, however, the government of Qatar stated that the Saudi government continued to deny Qatar-based religious tour operators’ access to Saudi Arabia to make Hajj and Umrah arrangements for pilgrims. Deputy Minister of Hajj and Umrah Abdul Fattah Mashat said that the government rejected the politicization of the holy rituals, adding that it has never barred any nationalities from performing them.

On September 10, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Jeddah. Following the meeting, the group met with MWL Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level. The delegation and the MWL agreed in a joint statement to promote respect for religions and mutual trust and to encourage religious harmony.

On April 28, al-Issa visited a New York synagogue, the first such trip by an MWL leader to a Jewish house of worship in the United States, and signed an agreement with the NGO Appeal of Conscience Foundation supporting the protection of religious sites around the world. On April 30, al-Issa signed a memorandum of understanding with American Jewish Committee (AJC) in which the MWL and AJC agreed “to further Muslim-Jewish understanding and cooperate against racism and extremism in all its forms.” In May the MWL invited a Jewish delegation to visit the country in January 2020. Al-Issa said discussions during the visit, the first ever by a Jewish group, would address the issue of Holocaust denial.

In November the Saudi Press Agency reported that al-Issa visited Utah and met with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to discuss “ways of supporting bridging relations between followers of religions and cultures to promote peace and positive harmony.”

At the annual Jeddah International Book Fair, several vendors sold anti-Semitic material, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf. Additional titles were observed that linked Jews to conspiracies.

Tibet

Read A Section: Tibet

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Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” Central government regulations control all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools. They stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security.” Regulations prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities said included Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, including sexual abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices. Former detainees reported being beaten until they lost consciousness and being shocked with electric batons. There were reports that monks and nuns were forced to wear military clothing and undergo political indoctrination in detention centers. The nongovernment organization (NGO) Free Tibet and local sources reported that on November 26, a 24-year-old former monk from the Kirti Monastery set himself on fire in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), Sichuan Province, and died of his injuries on the same day. Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform on anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” The government continued to restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries and prohibit them from practicing elsewhere. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain, according to multiple sources, since 2016 authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Satellite imagery showed thousands of dwellings at these locations had been destroyed since 2018. Authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, including by appointing government and CCP personnel and government-approved monks to manage religious institutions. “Sinicization” policies, which aimed to interpret religious ideas in accordance with CCP ideology and to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state, were pursued more intensely. Media reported that on January 7, the government announced a formal five-year plan to Sinicize all religions in the country, including Tibetan Buddhism. Despite a decree by President Xi Jinping, chairman of the CCP, that all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must be “unyielding Marxist atheists,” the government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervised their religious and political education. Authorities forced monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag, and in some cases went door to door insisting laypersons replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas in their home shrines with those of CCP leaders, including Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao Zedong. Travel restrictions hindered monastics and laypersons from engaging in traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression, including arbitrary surveillance, increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Sources reported local authorities increased scrutiny of social media postings regarding religious belief. Authorities restricted children from participating in many traditional religious festivals and from receiving religious education. The government continued to force monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Religious leaders and government employees were often required to denounce the Dalai Lama and express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. Authorities continued in state media to justify interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In a July interview, Wang Neng Shang, vice minister of the TAR and director general of the People’s Government Information Office, said the selection of the next Dalai Lama was not the current Dalai Lama’s decision to make, and instead must be recognized by the central government in Beijing, adding, “The centrality of the central government must be recognized.”

Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources.

While diplomatic access to the TAR remained tightly controlled, officials from the U.S. embassy and consulate general in Chengdu made five visits there during the year, during which they met with both government and religious leaders and emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in Tibet. The Ambassador visited the TAR in May, the first U.S. ambassador to do so since 2015. While there, he visited several religious sites and met with local leaders, religious figures, and students. In July the Vice President told attendees at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., “China’s oppression of Tibetan Buddhists goes back decades… [T]he American people will always stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People’s Republic of China.” At the U.S. government’s invitation, Tibetan exile and survivor of religious persecution Nyima Lhamo met with the President and addressed the ministerial, describing how the harsh treatment by government authorities of her uncle, Lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, led to his 2015 death in captivity. The U.S. government repeatedly urged the Chinese government to end policies that threaten Tibet’s distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including the continuing demolition campaigns at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the succession of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and also raised concerns about the continued disappearance of the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The embassy and consulates used social media to deliver direct messaging about religious freedom in Tibet to millions of citizens.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The United States recognizes the TAR, TAPs, and counties in other provinces to be part of the PRC. The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” The constitution bans the state, public organizations, and individuals from compelling citizens to believe in, or not believe in, any religion. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution states religious bodies and affairs are not to be “subject to any foreign control.” The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services or other religious ceremonies and activities.

Central government regulations regarding religion are issued by the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD). The UFWD’s Bureau of Ethnic and Religious Work manages religious affairs through the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA). While technically a state agency, SARA was subsumed into the UFWD under the State Council’s 2018 revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs.

The UFWD controls the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including lamas. Regulations stipulate that, depending on the perceived geographic area of influence of the lama, relevant administrative entities may deny permission for a lama to be recognized as reincarnated and these administrative entities must approve reincarnations. The State Council has the right to deny the recognition of reincarnations of high lamas of “especially great influence.” The regulations also state no foreign organization or individual may interfere in the selection of reincarnate lamas, and all reincarnate lamas must be reborn within China. The government maintains a registry of officially recognized reincarnate lamas.

Regulations issued by the UFWD assert state control over all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools. Through local regulations issued under the framework of the national-level Management Regulation of Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, governments of the TAR and other autonomous Tibetan areas control the registration of monasteries, nunneries, and other Tibetan Buddhist religious centers. The regulations also give the government formal control over building and managing religious structures, and require monasteries to obtain official permission to hold large-scale religious events or gatherings.

The central government’s Regulations on Religious Affairs require religious groups to register with the government, impose fines on landlords for providing facilities for unauthorized religious activities, and restrict contact with overseas religious institutions, including requirements for religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.” The regulations submit religious schools to the same oversight as places of worship and impose restrictions on religious groups conducting business or investments, including placing limits on the amount of donations they may receive, thereby constraining property ownership and development. Publication of religious material must conform to guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration.

The regulations also require that religious activity “must not harm national security.” While the regulations stipulate the obligations of religious groups to abide by the law, safeguard national unity, and respond to “religious extremism,” the term “extremism” is undefined. Measures to safeguard unity and respond to “religious extremism” include monitoring groups, individuals, and institutions, and recommending penalties such as suspending groups and canceling clergy credentials. The regulations stipulate that the online activities of religious groups be approved by the provincial Religious Affairs Bureau.

A government policy introduced in 2018 requires Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Monks and nuns must demonstrate – in addition to competence in religious studies – “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and a willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.”

Self-immolation is considered homicide, and family members, teachers, and religious leaders may be charged as accessories to homicide if a relative, pupil, or follower chooses to self-immolate.

To establish formal places of worship, religious organizations must receive approval from the religious affairs department of the relevant local government both when the facility is proposed and again prior to the first time any services are held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents in order to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have an established facility or worship meeting space; they must seek a separate approval from government authorities each time they want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel or an apartment. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity that may be criminally or administratively punished.

Individuals must apply to take up religious orders and the TAR CCP Committee may deny any application. Regulations also require monks and nuns to obtain permission from officials in both the originating and receiving counties before traveling to other prefectures or “county-level cities” within the TAR to “practice their religion,” engage in religious activities, study, or teach. TAPs outside the TAR have similar regulations.

At the central government level, the CCP Central Committee’s Central Tibet Work Coordination Group and the UFWD are responsible for developing and implementing religious management policies, which are carried out with support from the five state-sanctioned patriotic religious associations – Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, and the Buddhist Association of China (BAC). At local levels, party leaders and branches of the UFWD, SARA, and the BAC are required to coordinate implementation of religious policies in monasteries.

CCP members, including Tibetans and retired officials, are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. CCP members who belong to religious organizations are subject to various types of punishment, including termination of their employment and expulsion from the CCP.

Government Practices

There was one reported case of a Tibetan self-immolating as a means of protesting against government policies, compared to four individuals in 2018. According to the NGO International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), from 2009 to December, 156 Tibetans had set themselves on fire in protest against what they said was the occupation of Tibet and abuses of Tibetans’ religion and culture under PRC rule. The NGO Free Tibet and media reported that on November 26, a 24-year-old man identified as Yonten set himself on fire in Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province. He died of his injuries on the same day. According to Free Tibet, Yonten had previously been a monk in the Kirti Monastery and left the monastery sometime prior to his self-immolation. Radio Free Asia reported that shortly after his death, authorities detained family members for questioning and kept them isolated from outside contact for a period of time. Some experts and local sources attributed the decrease in the number of self-immolations to tighter control measures by authorities and the fear that family members and associates of self-immolators might be punished, including by being charged as accessories to homicide.

The whereabouts of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama and most Tibetan Buddhists, remained unknown since his 1995 forced disappearance by Chinese authorities. Nyima was six years old at the time he and his parents were reportedly abducted. Authorities did not provide information on his whereabouts, and stated previously that he was “living a normal life” and did “not wish to be disturbed.” The Panchen Lama is considered by the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism to be the second-most-prominent leader after the Dalai Lama. On April 25, Tibetans in exile marked the occasion of Nyima’s 30th birthday. Advocacy groups called on the government to release him and allow him to resume his religious duties.

In August the ICT reported that in late July authorities sentenced Buddhist monk Lobsang Thapke, from Kirti Monastery, Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province, to four years in prison. As of year’s end, the location of his incarceration and the details of his charges remained unknown. According to the ICT, on September 3, authorities sentenced Lobsang Dorje, also a monk from Kirti Monastery, to three years in prison on unknown charges. Fellow monks said he may have been arrested for having contact with persons outside Tibet. Prior to the sentencing, Dorje had been held incommunicado for more than a year.

The whereabouts and condition of Sangay (also spelled Sanggye) Gyatso remained unknown throughout the year. Sources said police beat and arrested Sangay, a monk at the Kirti Monastery, in December 2018 after he demonstrated for Tibetan freedom on the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

The location and condition of many other Tibetans detained in 2018 remained unknown, including Karma, a village leader in the TAR who refused to allow local authorities to conduct mining activities near the sacred Sebra Zagyen mountain, and Gangye, a man from Sog (Suoxian) County, Nagchu (Nagqu) Prefecture, TAR, detained in May 2018 for possessing religious books written by the Dalai Lama and CDs featuring the religious leader’s teachings. Sources reported the whereabouts of several monks also remained unknown, including Dorje Rabten, who in September 2018 protested against government policies restricting young people from becoming monks; Tenzin Gelek, who protested Dorje’s detention; Lobsant Thamke, who was arrested in 2018 and sentenced on July 30 to four years in prison on unknown charges; Lobsang Dorje, who was arrested sometime in August 2018; and Thubpa, whom police took from the Trotsik Monastery in Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province, sometime toward the end of 2017.

Human rights groups stated individuals arrested in the 2008 protests reportedly experienced ongoing physical and mental health problems related to abusive treatment in prison. Free Tibet reported that on May 1, activist Yeshi Gyatso died. According to the NGO Tibet Watch, he suffered frequent and severe beatings, torture, and interrogation during his time in prison from 2008 to 2018 that led to persistent mental and physical ailments after his release. According to Free Tibet, Buddhist monk Thapkay Gyatso was arrested in 2008, reportedly for taking a leading role in 2008 protests in Sangchu (Xiahe) County, Gansu Province, and became partially paralyzed as a result of being beaten during an interrogation soon after his arrest. His condition subsequently deteriorated and during the year he was being held at a prison medical facility in a condition of “half paralysis” and with damage in both eyes. Sources told Free Tibet that Buddhist monk Tsultrim Gyatso, arrested in 2008, suffered permanent eye damage and trauma after being beaten severely during prison interrogations, and that he was transferred to a hospital for emergency surgery.

In May the Voice of America Tibetan Service reported on a journal it obtained from a former inmate of the Sog County “reform through re-education center” in Nagchu Prefecture, TAR. The former inmate wrote, “Those whom officials didn’t like would be captured and tortured with electric devices. When they became unconscious, [the torturers] would splash water on their faces until their victims regained consciousness. After doing that for a long time, they would use a black rubber tube as well as an electric baton to torture people.”

In July Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan Service reported that between May and July authorities removed approximately 3,500 monks and nuns from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute in Sichuan Province to undergo political indoctrination at detention centers in their home counties in the TAR. A Tibetan exile told the news service some nuns were being held in Jomda (Jiangda) County, Chamdo (Changdu) Prefecture, TAR, where they learned and performed patriotic songs and dances praising the CCP and watched propaganda films each day. Authorities forced the nuns to wear military clothing. If the nuns wept, authorities considered it evidence of disloyalty to the state and subjected them to severe punishments, including beatings, extending their confinement in the detention centers, and refusing permission for the nuns to receive gifts of food or clothing from visiting family members.

According to Radio Free Asia, Ngawang Gyaltsen, a monk from Sog County, Nagchu Prefecture, TAR, was released from prison in March. Local sources reported Ngawang, arrested in 2015, was repeatedly beaten and deprived of sleep and food while incarcerated on unknown charges. Following his release, he was forbidden to return to his monastery.

Nuns who had been released from detention told the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy there were instances in which authorities subjected nuns who had been forcibly removed from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute to sexual assault and sexual violence. Voice of America reported that in a journal it obtained from a former inmate of the Sog County detention center in Nagchu Prefecture, TAR, the writer wrote that officers fondled the breasts of nuns who had fainted during military training and lay in the nuns’ cells “pressing unconscious nuns underneath.”

Limited access to information made it difficult to ascertain the exact number of individuals imprisoned because of their religious beliefs or affiliation, or to determine the charges brought against them or assess the extent and severity of abuses they suffered. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China examined publicly available information and, as of November 7, its Political Prisoner Database (PPD) contained 273 records of Tibetans known or believed to be currently detained or imprisoned by authorities in violation of international human rights standards. Of those, 122 were reported to be current or former monks, nuns, or lamas. Of the 115 cases for which there was information on sentencing, punishments ranged from one year and three months to life imprisonment. Observers, including commission staff, stated they believed the actual number of Tibetan political prisoners and detainees to be much higher, but the lack of access to prisoners and prisons, as well as the lack of reliable official statistics, made a precise determination difficult. Authorities continued to hold an unknown number of persons in pretrial detention facilities and in “reeducation centers” rather than prisons. Human rights groups reported extensions of pretrial detention periods were common for Tibetans accused of engaging in prohibited political activities and on national security grounds, resulting in suspects spending long periods of time in jail without being formally charged or brought to trial. Security officials could confine citizens to reeducation centers without formal legal procedures. Local sources said stays in reeducation centers could last more than one year.

Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program, and that Tibetans were told to inform on anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” In September a Tibetan living in exile told Radio Free Asia that authorities in Qinghai Province had expanded the government’s “anti-gang” campaign to include wider suppression of political activities by Tibetans.

According to the ICT, Choekyi, a monk from Phugu Monastery in Kardze (Ganzi) TAP, Sichuan Province, was released on January 18, five months before the end of his four-year sentence, due to poor health. During his imprisonment, authorities reportedly subjected Choekyi to hard labor and solitary confinement and denied him healthcare. Choekyi was arrested in 2015 for wearing a t-shirt with Tibetan writing celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday and posting birthday wishes on social media, and charged with conducting “separatist activities.” According to local sources, following his release, authorities allowed him to receive medical treatment but kept him under surveillance and barred him from returning to his monastery.

The Indian news outlet The Print reported on February 12 that satellite imagery from September, October, and November 2018 showed what it said were three large-scale reeducation centers under construction in the TAR. The report said that the imagery showed that these centers included high walls, double-wire fencing, guard posts, and large barracks-style buildings.

According to Radio Free Asia, authorities detained a Tibetan man identified as Wangchen on April 29 after he recited prayers and shouted slogans calling for the release of the 11th Panchen Lama. Wangchen was accused of making “a conspicuous protest in public” and sentenced to four years and six months in prison. In addition, Wangchen’s aunt, Acha Dolkar, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for helping to share news of Wangchen’s protest with contacts outside the region, while two other Tibetans identified as Lobsang and Yonten were each fined renminbi (RMB) 15,000 ($2,200) and ordered to attend political reeducation classes on “issues of national security” for six months.

According to Free Tibet, authorities sentenced Lodoe Gyatso (also spelled Gyamtso) to 18 years in prison in March for praising the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach during a protest in Lhasa in 2018. The Middle Way Approach is the Dalai Lama’s proposal that Tibet remain part of the PRC while giving Tibetans what the Dalai Lama described as “a means to achieve a genuine autonomy for all Tibetans living in the three traditional provinces of Tibet within the framework of the People’s Republic of China.” Free Tibet reported that Lodoe, who was sentenced in a secret trial after being held in pretrial detention for 15 months, had previously served a total of 23 years in prison for two previous convictions related to dissident activities. His wife, who filmed the protest, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

In July sources told Radio Free Asia that approximately 70 monks and nuns who had been evicted from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute during the year were being held in a detention center in Jomda County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, where they were “undergoing thorough political reeducation.” The sources said, “As soon as they are brought to the detention centers, their cellphones are confiscated, rendering them incommunicado with the outside world…The monks and nuns are forced to wear the clothes of laypersons at the detention center and the Chinese authorities make them denounce the Dalai Lama on a daily basis, as well as memorize political propaganda, which they are later tested on.”

The government continued to place restrictions on the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain, human rights groups and local sources said that since 2016 authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes, both in Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province. Monastics expelled from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes were specifically prohibited from transferring to other monasteries to continue their religious education.

According to the NGO Human Rights Watch and local sources, since 2016, the government evicted approximately three-quarters of the 20,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns who lived at Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist institute. Radio Free Asia reported that since 2001, authorities have demolished an estimated 7,000 residences in what the government reportedly stated were efforts to prevent fires and promote crowd control. According to the online media source Buddhistdoor Global, in June 2017, a senior abbot at Larung Gar said 4,725 monastic dwellings had been torn down over the course of one year. Local sources stated the destruction was to clear the way for tourist infrastructure and to prevent nuns, monks, and laypersons, particularly ethnic Han Chinese, from studying at the institute. Reportedly, in hopes of saving the institute, Larung Gar’s monastic leadership continued to advise residents not to protest the demolitions and urged them to “behave appropriately in their actions and their speech.”

The government continued its program of evicting residents and destroying dwellings at Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. In July Radio Free Asia reported that according to one source, “The Chinese authorities have ordered that the number of monks and nuns staying at Yachen Gar not exceed more than 4,700, and because of that many monks and nuns have been evicted from the institute.” Local sources estimated that 3,500 monastics were removed in May and an additional 3,600 removed by July. Another source said, “Those monks and nuns who were forcefully returned to their birthplaces have now been rounded up by local Chinese police and made to attend political re-education classes [at detention centers] in their hometowns.” Local sources reported authorities prohibited monks and nuns expelled from Yachen Gar from joining any other monastery or nunnery in the area or participating in any public religious practices.

Exact figures of the extent of destruction could not be obtained because authorities denied visitors, including foreign diplomats, access to the Yachen Gar complex. Satellite images taken August 24 obtained by Free Tibet and photos from local sources obtained by Radio Free Asia both showed nearly half the residences of Yachen Gar destroyed since previous images were taken in April 2018. A local source told Radio Free Asia that starting on July 19, within a few days authorities demolished at least 100 dwellings that had previously housed nuns.

The government continued its policy of resettling previously nomadic Tibetans in government-subsidized housing units. In many areas, these were located near township and county government seats or along major roads, and had no nearby monasteries where resettled villagers could worship. The government prohibited construction of new temples in these areas without prior approval. Traditionally, Tibetan villages were clustered around monasteries, which provided religious and other services to members of the community. Many Tibetans reportedly continued to view such measures as CCP and government efforts to dilute religious belief and weaken the ties between monasteries and communities. According to Tibetan author Tsering Woeser, the absence of “temples, stupas, or resident monks in these ‘modern’ settlements prevents Tibetans from overcoming their feelings of emptiness and dislocation following resettlement.”

Media and human rights groups reported that on January 7, the government announced a formal five-year plan to continue to “Sinicize” all religious groups in China by emphasizing loyalty to the CCP and the state. This plan includes Tibetan Buddhism, with the involvement of the state-run BAC. ICT president Matteo Mecacci said in July, “The five-year campaign to ‘Sinicize’ Buddhism is a much more systematic imposition of Communist Party priorities than we have seen before, striking at the very core of a religious philosophy based on moral, compassionate values. Sinicization not only targets the trappings of religious practice, such as large teachings, but also represents a far-reaching intrusion into people’s inner lives by a repressive government, contracting the space for genuine religious practice and freedom.”

The government continued a policy introduced in 2018 requiring Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Monks and nuns were required to demonstrate – in addition to competence in religious studies – “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.” Since the policy’s inception, many major monasteries and religious institutes implemented political training programs.

Local authorities invoked regulations concerning safeguarding national unity and responding to “religious extremism” to monitor individuals, groups, and institutions, and to punish adherents of religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama.

One local source told the ICT the Sinicization campaign had intensified in recent years and was “unbearable” for monks and nuns. The source said, “It is now much stronger and penetrates religious life more deeply, bring[ing] immense difficulties for the religious community, for instance the legal education exams that involve thousands of monks and nuns, and which involve study and questions, and a whole process.”

The government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervision of their religious and political education. According to media and NGO reports, the CCP maintained a list of state-approved “living buddhas.” Such individuals reportedly continued to undergo training on patriotism and the CCP’s socialist political system. In 2018 the BAC announced its database contained 1,311 “living buddhas” that it deemed “authentic.” In September a Tibetan academic told The Irish Times that to be included in the database, monks were required to go through an indoctrination process in which they were trained to promote love of the CCP and social harmony, and fight against the Dalai Lama and other “splittists.” In 2018 the BAC announced its database of 1,311 “living buddhas” that it deemed “authentic” was nearly complete. The Dalai Lama was reportedly not on the list.

According to one Tibetan source, “every single individual now on the official reincarnation database has to go through an entire political procedure, entirely separate to a religious training, in which they are advised about the need for their career and role in the religious community to motivate religious believers to love the party, love the country and social stability maintenance work, as well as fight against ‘separatism’ and the Dalai Lama…. This means that now the Tibetan reincarnations are becoming Communist-trained talents rather than religious leaders.” Religious leaders continued to report that authorities were incentivizing lamas and monks to leave monastic life voluntarily by emphasizing the attributes of secular life as compared to the more disciplined and austere religious life. Monastery leaders cited continued revisions to education policies, religion regulations, and government control of monastery management as reasons for declining numbers of young monks. Religious leaders and scholars said these and other means of interference continued to cause them concern about the ability of religious traditions to survive for successive generations.

Multiple sources reported open veneration of the Dalai Lama, including the display of his photograph, remained prohibited in almost all areas. The government continued also to ban pictures of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama and nearly all Tibetan Buddhists recognized as the 11th Panchen Lama. In certain counties of the TAR, punishments for displaying images of the Dalai Lama included expulsion from monasteries. In October the India-based Tibetan magazine Contact reported authorities routinely detained individuals for possessing a photo of the Dalai Lama.

The TAR CCP committee and the government required all monasteries to display prominently the Chinese flag and the portraits of five CCP chairmen, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. Local sources told Radio Free Asia that officials from government bureaus monitoring religious practice visited Tibetan schools and warned teachers and students not to keep or display photos of the Dalai Lama.

According to Free Tibet, following a January 9-13 meeting of the People’s Congress of the TAR, officials ordered citizens to place shrines to Chairman Xi and other CCP leaders in their homes, replacing altars venerating religious figures, and also required them to prostrate themselves in front of those portraits. Authorities reportedly told Tibetans government subsidies and aid – including money for school fees and groceries – would cease if they failed to comply.

According to Tibet Watch and local sources, while households in more remote areas had previously generally been able to circumvent the prohibition against displaying the Dalai Lama’s portrait, authorities were increasingly demanding they replace it with portraits of Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao as part of the Sinicization drive. According to Tibet Watch, “In certain areas, officials go house to house to check that [the CCP portraits] are on the altar.” In January Free Tibet reproduced photographs originally posted on state media of home shrines displaying portraits of CCP leaders. One photograph showed a Tibetan family smiling in their home in front of a shrine to CCP leaders. Another showed a Tibetan man holding up a khata (prayer scarf) before a home shrine displaying CCP leaders, including Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao.

A Tibetan living in exile told Radio Free Asia in June that in Arte village in Tsolho (Hainan) TAP, Qinghai Province, authorities promised RMB 6,000 ($860) to more than 30 families to hang Chairman Xi’s portrait in a prominent place in their homes. According to the source, Xi’s portrait must be placed as high as any picture of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the traditional winter home of the Dalai Lama. The source said, “The families are choosing to do this because they need the money to survive, but they regret this immensely.”

NGO groups and other sources reported that in August TAR government officials hung a banner outside Shalu Temple in Shigatse (Xigaze) Prefecture, TAR, prohibiting CCP members and all persons under age 18 from entering. Officials also required the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa to hang a banner wishing the CCP to last 10,000 years. A Tibetan exile living in Great Britain posted a photograph of the banner on Twitter on September 16. Monasteries and schools throughout the region were required to display additional Chinese flags and patriotic banners throughout the year.

Chinese official state media released a video on September 22 showing monks at Jambaling Monastery in Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, participating in a choreographed ceremony celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. In the video, the monks and worshipers waived Chinese flags and sang patriotic songs praising the CCP. The video showed monks hoisting a Chinese flag on the rooftop of the monastery and hanging thangkas (devotional wall hangings) with images of five Chinese leaders on the monastery wall. According to Free Tibet, at an event marking the release of the video, Tsering Norbu, Secretary of the Party Committee of Jambaling Monastery’s Management Committee, said all monks “should be grateful, feel the party, listen to the party, and go with the party,” in addition to adhering to the socialist system and the party’s vision for Tibetan Buddhism. Free Tibet reported that at the same event, Tsunglo-Shamba Khedu, Vice Chairman of the TAR and abbot of the Jambaling Monastery, told the monks present “they should bravely stand up and expose the 14th Dalai Lama’s reactionary thoughts,” and that monks should be a model of patriotism and love for the party. Students and monks across Tibetan areas were instructed to participate in national day events praising the CCP. NGOs reported at least five Tibetans were arrested for refusing to take part in official National Day events.

The CCP continued to forbid its members from participating in religious activities of any kind, despite reports that many local government officials and CCP members held religious beliefs. The TAR regional government punished CCP members who followed the Dalai Lama, secretly harbored religious beliefs, made pilgrimages to India, or sent their children to study with exiled Tibetans.

In accordance with official guidelines for monastery management, the leadership of and membership in committees and working groups remained restricted to individuals the guidelines described as “politically reliable, patriotic, and devoted monks, nuns, and party and government officials.” General administrative affairs in TAR monasteries, which monks traditionally managed, were instead overseen by monastery management committees and monastic government working groups, both of which were composed primarily of government officials and CCP members, in addition to a few government-approved monks. Since 2011, the government has established such groups in all monasteries in the TAR and in many major monasteries in other Tibetan areas.

The traditional monastic system reportedly continued to decline as many senior Buddhist teachers remained in exile or died in India or elsewhere. The heads of most major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – including the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, Sakya Trizin, and Khatok Getse Rinpoche, as well as Bon leader Kyabje Menr Trizin – all continued to reside in exile. The government also banned India-trained Tibetan monks, most of whom received their education from the Dalai Lama or those with ties to him, from teaching in Tibetan monasteries in China, although there were reportedly rare exceptions made for pro-government monks.

As in previous years, senior monks at some monasteries continued to report informal agreements with local officials whereby resident monks would not stage protests or commit self-immolations as long as the government adopted a hands-off approach to the management of their monasteries.

Sources said authorities monitored all financial transactions involving monasteries inside Tibet and entities abroad.

The government continued to insist that Gyaltsen Norbu, whom it selected in 1995, was the Panchen Lama’s true reincarnation, and not Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom authorities had disappeared that same year. Norbu remained the vice president of, and highest ranking Tibetan in, the government-affiliated BAC. The state media outlet Xinhua News Agency reported that on June 22, Norbu was elected president of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Branch of the BAC. According to numerous Tibetan Buddhist monks and scholars, SARA and provincial religious affairs bureau officials frequently pressured monks and laypersons, including government officials, to attend religious study sessions presided over by Gyaltsen Norbu.

The pro-government media outlet Global Times reported that in August in Lhasa approximately 100 monks from 73 monasteries attended a training session on reincarnation of a living Buddha, presided over by Norbu and organized by the government-sponsored TAR branch of the BAC, the Institute of Socialism, and regional authorities in charge of religious affairs. According to Global Times, at the session, Suolang Renzeng, deputy chief of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Tibet Autonomous Regional Committee, told trainees the reincarnation system “is never a religious-only issue or a living Buddha’s personal right,” but an important representation of the CCP’s strategies and policies in the region. Bianba Lamu (Tibetan: Pempa Lhamo), head of the South Asia Institute of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences, told Global Times the training could educate key figures in Tibetan Buddhism to lead the religion in the direction of better compatibility with socialist society. The ICT said the training was part of the government’s efforts to control the succession of the Dalai Lama.

Reuters reported that in March foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “[R]eincarnations, including that of the Dalai Lama, should observe the country’s laws and regulations and follow the rituals and history of religion.” In a July interview with the India-based media outlet Daily News and Analysis, Wang Neng Shang, vice minister of the TAR and director general of the People’s Government Information Office, said the selection of the next Dalai Lama was not the current Dalai Lama’s to make, but must be recognized by the central government in Beijing, adding, “The centrality of the central government must be recognized.” Human rights groups said these comments reflected the CCP’s continued efforts to interfere with the succession of the Dalai Lama.

Sources continued to report that while authorities permitted some traditional religious ceremonies and practices, they continued to exercise control over the activities of religious leaders and religious gatherings of laypersons, confining many such activities to officially designated places of worship, restricting or canceling religious festivals, and preventing monks from traveling to villages for politically sensitive events and religious ceremonies. Sources said clergy could not travel freely between monasteries or go on pilgrimages.

Local sources said the government continued to suppress religious activities it viewed as vehicles for political dissent. There were reports that local authorities again ordered many monasteries and laypersons not to celebrate or organize any public gatherings to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 84th birthday on July 6, or to commemorate the anniversary of the March 10, 1959, Tibetan uprising or the March 14, 2008, outbreak of unrest across the Tibetan Plateau. TAR authorities banned monks and nuns from leaving their monasteries and nunneries during such times, and pilgrimage sites were heavily policed. According to local sources, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu provincial authorities warned major monasteries in Tibetan areas, including Labrang, Amchok, and Bora Monasteries, that those holding special events or celebrations would face unspecified “severe consequences.” Local sources reported that in July religious affairs officials instructed senior monks at Kirti, Karzdze, Draggo, and Tawu Monasteries in Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, not to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. As a result, the monks did not organize any public celebrations. One source told Radio Free Asia that authorities forced students to attend classes on March 10, a Sunday, and on July 6, a Saturday, as part of efforts to keep them from marking these anniversaries. The source said, “Preventing Tibetan students from visiting places of worship and from taking part in religious festivals is a deliberate attempt by the Chinese government to separate them from the influence of Tibetan religion and culture[.] This is an effort to Sinicize young Tibetans at an early age.”

According to local sources, authorities deployed the military to monitor pilgrims and worshipers at prayer festivals in the TAR and other Tibetan areas. A man told Radio Free Asia the presence of armed, uniformed police and plain-clothes officers during sensitive political and religious anniversaries was so pervasive that Tibetans considered it “a part of their daily lives.” During Lunar New Year celebrations in February, multiple local sources reported authorities again deployed military forces at prayer ceremonies at Drephung, Sera, and Gandan Monasteries in the TAR, and at Draggo, Kirti, and Tawu Monasteries in Sichuan Province. In August the government again banned the annual Dechen Shedrub prayer festival from occurring at Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. As they did in 2018, authorities cited overcrowding, unfinished reconstruction of the partially demolished site, and fire safety concerns as reasons for the ban. The ban marked the fourth consecutive year the government prohibited the 22-year-old festival from taking place.

Radio Free Asia reported that authorities in Lhasa banned students, schools officials, and government employees from taking part in the Ganden Ngachoe festival on December 20-21. The festival commemorated the 600th anniversary of the death of Tsongkhapa, the 14th century founder of the Gelugpa school of Buddhism, of which the Dalai Lama is now the leader. One source told Radio Free Asia parents were being held responsible for their children’s compliance with the ban.

The TAR government reportedly maintained tight control over the use of Tibetan Buddhist religious relics and declared them, religious buildings, and religious institutions to be state property.

According to Human Rights Watch, the department under the TAR party committee in charge of overseeing retired government employees issued an official notice requiring TAR party and government officials, including nonparty members, to submit a list by August 18 of any retired personnel performing the kora, a Tibetan practice of circumambulating a sacred site or temple while reciting prayers or mantras. The practice is a standard form of religious devotion among Tibetan Buddhists, particularly the elderly, for whom it is often a daily religious practice as well as a form of exercise. Those named faced potential loss of pensions and social benefits.

According to sources, security forces continued to block access to and from important monasteries during politically sensitive events and religious anniversaries. Radio Free Asia reported police maintained heavy security during the Shoton festival held from August 30 through September 5 in Lhasa. There were large numbers of uniformed and plain-clothes police monitoring crowds of worshippers. Officials delivered speeches at the festival denouncing the Dalai Lama and urging attendees to be loyal to the CCP.

On February 15, Tibet Watch reported authorities in Serthar County, Sichuan Province, and Markham County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, as well as in Lhasa, denied government employees time off to celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year festival typically celebrated with visits to temples and pilgrimages, and prohibited them from visiting monasteries during the event. Some major temples were closed for much of the 15-day Losar holiday, while other religious sites had a marked increase in military presence. Tibet Watch said in Markham County and Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, police and military personnel were stationed in the streets. The NGO posted a photo on its website showing police blocking the gate of the Lhasa Tsuklakhang Shrine, also known as the Jokhang Shrine, Tibet’s holiest shrine, during Losar.

There were reports that party leaders and branches of the UFWD, SARA, and the state-controlled BAC continued to station party and government officials, including security agents, in monasteries in Tibetan areas. Provincial, prefectural, county, and local governments continued to establish police stations or security offices adjacent to or on the premises of many monasteries and nunneries. While no updated statistics were available, sources estimated that in 2018 more than 15,000 government employees were working in approximately 3,000 Tibetan monasteries. One source told Radio Free Asia approximately 600 Chinese officials were permanently stationed at Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute to “maintain a tight watch” over the monks and nuns who remained and check all outside visitors. The source said authorities strictly monitored and restricted travel to and from the institute.

According to human rights groups and local sources, authorities continued to install overt camera surveillance systems at monasteries. On July 12, the ICT posted on its website an image of surveillance cameras in a control room in Kirti Monastery in Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province. The image showed 35 separate monitors displaying different areas of the compound and the roads surrounding it.

A local source told Radio Free Asia that during the year, authorities built walls around large sections of Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute and put in place three checkpoints to prevent unauthorized entry. According to the source, “The arrivals and departures of monks and nuns are closely monitored, and they are kept under strict surveillance around the clock.” The source told Radio Free Asia that in a speech to monks and nuns at the institute on April 16, senior teacher Khenpo Tsultrim Lodroe said, “Almost any kind of problem may be encountered if we don’t exercise necessary caution and care.”

According to many sources in Ngaba TAP, Sichuan Province, officials continued to maintain a security watch list of family members, relatives, and close friends of self-immolators to prevent them from meeting and communicating with international visitors and, in some cases, deprived them of public benefits.

Sources stated that during the year, local authorities increased scrutiny of social media postings. A local source told Radio Free Asia, “Chinese authorities are closely monitoring discussions on WeChat, and are quick to intervene.” The source told Radio Free Asia that in July authorities detained Rinso, a Tibetan from Thangkor Township, Sichuan, after he posted a photo of the Dalai Lama on WeChat.

Multiple Tibetan rights advocacy NGOs reported that in February, TAR officials issued guidance to monks entitled “The 20 Prohibitions” forbidding monks from using social media to “incite subversion, defame or insult others, assist extremist religious groups, provide undisclosed information of the state to domestic or foreign individuals or organizations, or receive or release illegal information.” TAR government offices also announced that those who misused social media could be imprisoned for up to eight years. In August Tsering Tsomo, director of the India-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, told Radio Free Asia the TAR government also increased its cash awards from RMB 1,000 ($140) in 2018 to RMB 300,000 ($43,100) for information about social media users “advocating extremism,” including those who expressed support for the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way policy.

Free Tibet reported that on March 13, during a press conference, Tsetan Dorjee, abbot of Sera Monastery, told an audience of 320 monks, monastic party members, and public security officials connected to the monastery to comply with the “20 Prohibitions.” According to Free Tibet, members of the monastery’s management committee emphasized the need for all monks to show gratitude to the CCP and reject separatism.

Free Tibet reported the government continued to interfere in the religious education of laypersons. Authorities in Nangchen (Nangqen) County, Yushu (Yuxu) TAP, Qinghai Province, required monks to stop all classes with children, warning that monks and parents would be punished if classes continued. Authorities stated such classes were harmful, saying the government must oversee “ideological education for children and youth, firmly upholding the leading role of the party and government in education.” According to Contact, “For many Tibetan students, Buddhism can only be studied in a language that is not Tibetan.” According to Tibet Watch and Global Times, during the summer, schools in Gyantse (Gyangze) County, Shigatse Prefecture, TAR, began using a new textbook which characterized life under the Dalai Lama’s pre-1959 leadership as oppressive. Tibet Watch criticized the textbook as a tool of “greater suppression in Tibet.”

Media reported that during the year, provincial officials in the TAR and in Qinghai Province again banned all underage students from participating in religious activities during school holidays. School officials required students to sign an agreement stating they would not participate in any form of religious activity during the summer.

According to the ICT, on December 31, at the start of the two-month winter break, the Lhasa Chengguan Haicheng Elementary School sent a directive to parents stating, “Students are not allowed to participate in any form of religious activity during the break, and in principle long-distance travel with students is not allowed.” Tibetan rights advocates interpreted the prohibition on travel as an effort by authorities to stop parents from taking their children to visit temples outside the capital during the break. The directive stated, “In the event of an accident, all consequences are the responsibility of the parents.” According to ICT, this was the third year in a row Lhasa school authorities had imposed the ban. There were reports that similar directives were issued elsewhere in Tibet.

According to NGO reports, authorities continued “patriotic reeducation” campaigns at many monasteries and nunneries across the Tibetan Plateau. All monks and nuns were required to participate in several sessions of “legal education” per year, during which they were required to denounce the Dalai Lama, express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, study Xi Jinping’s speeches, learn Mandarin, and hear lectures praising the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system.

In April, as part of a five-year training program initiated in 2018, 179 religious figures from the TAR attended a training session at the Regional Socialist College. According to the TAR office of the UFWD, during the session, participants were called upon to improve their political awareness and show loyalty to the CCP. The training program used specially developed curricula to reinforce government religious policies. On May 6, government officials conducted an eight-day training session for 100 monks and nuns in Driru (Biru) County, Nagchu Prefecture, TAR. The training’s stated purpose was to strengthen participants’ “recognition of the party and understanding of socialist values.”

Free Tibet reported in May that approximately 30,000 Tibetan monks and nuns at Sera, Ganden, and Drepung Monasteries in Lhasa, as well as at other locations in the TAR, were required to take tests on Chinese law that included questions on religious affairs, national security, and anti-terrorism laws. The program, run by the UFWD, also included training on how to resist the Dalai Lama and Tibetan separatism. According to Free Tibet, individuals were threatened with detention and other penalties if they did not participate. Senior officials, including Deputy Director of the District People’s Congress Xu Xueguang, conducted inspections of the monasteries while exams were underway.

Authorities banned minors under age 18 from participating in any monastic training. Multiple sources reported authorities forced underage monks and nuns to leave their monasteries and Buddhist schools to receive “patriotic education.” Journalists reported that some underage monks who refused to cooperate were arrested and, in some cases, beaten by police, and that parents and other family members were also threatened with loss of social benefits if underage monks did not comply. In May Sichuan provincial law enforcement officials announced police would forcibly remove all underage monks and nuns from all monasteries in the province.

According to Radio Free Asia, a local source said that in April authorities notified senior monks at Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute that no new enrollments would be allowed and ordered no new residents be admitted to live and study there. The source said, “If the institute learns that any new residents have been admitted, those enrollees are to be turned away immediately.” The source said authorities warned that failure to comply with government orders would lead to harsh policies being imposed.

Radio Free Asia reported that authorities forced Tibetan college graduates seeking government jobs to denounce the Dalai Lama and display loyalty to the CCP in order to be considered for government positions.

Government officials regularly denigrated the Dalai Lama publicly and accused the “Dalai clique” and other “outside forces” of instigating Tibetan protests, stating such acts were attempts to “split” China. In May Zhu Weiqun, the former head of the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, said government took the position that it was impossible to talk to the Dalai Lama without preconditions. Zhu criticized the Dalai Lama for being a “loyal instrument of international anti-China forces.” In official statements, government officials often likened supporters of the Dalai Lama to terrorists and gang members. In March the TAR Communist Party Committee published a series of articles criticizing the Dalai Lama and accusing him of being a “loyal instrument of anti-Chinese forces” who was instigating violence within Tibet.

The state media outlet Xinhua News Agency reported that from May 25 to 27, Wang Yang, the fourth-highest ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee and head of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, visited Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, where he told a symposium it was necessary to comprehensively implement the CCP’s basic guidelines for religious work and to guide the religious community to consciously support the CCP and patriotism. Wang also said it was necessary to defend against “the infiltration of foreign hostile forces,” which the ICT said was a reference to the Dalai Lama and Tibetans outside Tibet.

In April TAR CCP Secretary Wu Yingjie instructed party members to “eliminate the negative impact from the Dalai Lama on religion and effectively guide the monks, nuns, and religious followers to rally around the party.”

Authorities continued in state media to justify interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities. During an inspection tour of the TAR in June, former director of the UFWD Zhu Weiqun stated the government would “strongly oppose and resolutely crack down on any separatist force in the name of ethnicity or religion, which are mainly organized by the Dalai clique.”

According to local sources, authorities continued to hinder Tibetan Buddhist monasteries from carrying out environmental protection activities, an important part of traditional Tibetan Buddhist practices, due to fear such activities could create a sense of pride among Tibetans, particularly children, and an awareness of their distinctness from Chinese culture.

In October the PRC and the government of Nepal signed the Boundary Management System Agreement, which contained a provision that would require both countries to hand over citizens who have illegally crossed the Nepal-China border. Tibetan advocacy groups said they were concerned this provision could be used to return long-staying Tibetan refugees to the PRC from Nepal, and the groups also stated that the provision was potentially in conflict with Nepal’s international commitments under the Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and India.

Religious figures and laypersons frequently reported continued difficulty traveling to monasteries outside their home region, both within the TAR and in other parts of China. Travelers said they encountered an increased number of roadblocks and police checkpoints surrounding major monasteries, with security personnel often checking their identity cards and refusing entry to nonresidents. Tibetans wishing to visit family members residing in monasteries noted frequent refusals or limits on their ability to visit. A senior monk visiting relatives in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, was forced to remain in his hotel room for the entirety of his trip. Other local sources reported similar restrictions on their movements and said checkpoints and fear of detention prevented them from visiting monasteries and participating in religious events. Many monks expelled from their TAR monasteries after the 2008 Lhasa riots and from Kirti Monastery after a series of self-immolations from 2009 to 2015 had not returned, some because of government prohibitions.

Many Tibetans, including monks, nuns, and laypersons, reported difficulties traveling to India for religious training, meetings with religious leaders, or to visit family members living within monasteries. In many cases, Public Security Bureau officials refused to approve their passport applications. In other cases, prospective travelers were able to obtain passports only after paying bribes to local officials. Some individuals seeking to travel elsewhere said they could only obtain passports after promising not to travel to India or to criticize government policies in Tibetan areas while overseas. In some cases family members were required to sign a guarantee that passport applicants would return from their overseas travel. Sichuan Province and TAR officials continued to require religious travelers returning from India to attend political training sessions. According to sources, these restrictions had prevented thousands of Tibetans from attending religious training in India. One senior Tibetan leader in India estimating “only a handful” of Chinese Tibetans visited India during the year, down from over 10,000 per year prior to 2014. According to local sources, numerous Tibetans in Gansu, Qinghai, and Sichuan Provinces waited up to 10 years to receive a passport, often without any explanation for the delay. There were also instances of authorities confiscating and canceling previously issued passports, reportedly as a way of preventing Tibetans from participating in religious events involving the Dalai Lama in India.

Restrictions remained in place for monks and nuns living in exile, particularly those in India, which made it difficult or impossible for them to travel into Tibetan areas. Tibetans who returned from India reported facing difficulties finding employment or receiving religious or secular education. Returning Tibetans were not allowed to study at Chinese monasteries and most were denied admission to secular schools because they did not have education certificates recognized by the government. Local sources said they were subject to additional government scrutiny as a result of having relatives at religious institutions in India.

According to sources, authorities in some areas continued to enforce special restrictions on Tibetans staying at hotels inside and outside the TAR. Police regulations forbade some hotels and guesthouses in the TAR from accepting Tibetan guests, particularly monks and nuns, and required other hotels to notify police departments when Tibetan guests checked in.

On March 7, Time Magazine published a profile of the Dalai Lama and world leaders in which it said the government was attempting to exert political and economic pressure on foreign governments to avoid meeting with him. Media reported government officials canceled several exchange programs and criticized the mayor of Prague, Zdenek Hrib, after he flew a Tibetan flag above city hall and hosted Central Tibetan Administration President Lobsang Sangay in March.

Uzbekistan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. A religious freedom “roadmap” approved by parliament in 2018 to implement all 12 of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements, but the underlying law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register, according to religious groups. The government announced it released or reduced the sentences of 575 prisoners charged with religious extremism or related crimes during the year; however, some nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or of participating in underground Islamic activity. The government did not provide the number of individuals arrested during the year and how many were in custody at year’s end. The government registered eight churches; according to religious groups, there were 20 known churches that still wished to register. According to religious groups, there were no police raids of unregistered religious group meetings during the year, compared with 114 in 2018 and 240 in 2017. Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. According to media reports, public controversy over government policies on beards and the wearing of hijabs continued, including reports of police forcibly shaving the beards of men in Tashkent. The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs in schools. In reaction to social media outcry following the expulsion of two female university students wearing hijabs, in April the government agreed to allow female students to wear headscarves in the traditional Uzbek ikat style with a knot tied behind their heads. Police detained two bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques, although reportedly other bloggers who criticized the government faced no backlash. According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education continued to instruct educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers. According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government allowed the Church to hold a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley, and Church leaders noted that surveillance of Catholic masses had stopped. Media reported the government continued to block access to some websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news. The government published a list of illegal websites it stated were linked to Islamic extremist activity. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, it remained difficult for some individuals to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts or bribery, and religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons older than age 45. Other sources, including religious activists, reported no difficulties in going on the Hajj and said there were no age limits. The government maintained a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 16 recognized religious groups. In an October report for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated, “After many years of religious freedom violations and outright persecution, the Government of Uzbekistan has recently made significant progress in improving its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The report cited the cessation of police raids, permission granted to a Jehovah’s Witnesses delegation to travel from the United States to Uzbekistan, and permission to conduct a “memorial service of the death of Jesus Christ” in rented premises in Fergana, Karshi, and Urgench.

NGOs and private persons continued to report social pressure – but not government harassment – on individuals, particularly among the members of the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion. Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including family pressure to repudiate their new faith. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination. Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials, forcing them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to conduct funerals with Islamic religious rites.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials to raise concerns about imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and allowing children to participate in religious activities. Embassy officials continued to urge the government to ensure that changes to the draft law on religion should follow the recommendations of international experts as well as take into account public views. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of engagements with senior government officials, raising the status of the country’s draft religion law and the registration of religious organizations and places of worship, as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. In July he met with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and again on the margins of the UN General Assembly High-Levels Week in September. Embassy officials and visiting U.S. government officials met frequently with representatives of both registered and unregistered religious groups, including with religious minorities. Embassy officials also routinely met with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included problems associated with the registration of minority religious groups, the issue of religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.

On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State renewed Uzbekistan’s place on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone shall have the right to profess or not to profess any religion. According to the constitution, these rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society. The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality. The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.

The law on religion details the scope of and limitations on the exercise of the freedom of religion or belief. The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.

Various provisions of the law on countering violent extremism deal with individuals’ security, protection of society and the state, preservation of constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the country, keeping peace, and multiethnic and multireligious harmony. The law provides a framework of basic concepts, principles, and directions for countering extremism as well as extremist activities. By law, extremism is defined as the “expression of extreme forms of actions, focused on destabilizing social and political situations, a violent change in the constitutional order in Uzbekistan, a violent seizure of power and usurping its authority, inciting national, ethnic or religious hatred.”

According to regulations, a website or blog may be blocked for: calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order and territorial integrity of the country; spreading ideas of war, violence, and terrorism, as well as religious extremism, separatism, and fundamentalism; disclosing information that is a state secret or protected by law; or disseminating information that could lead to national, ethnic, or religious enmity or involves pornography or promoting narcotic usage. According to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the government may block websites or blogs without a court order.

Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal. The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are unregistered groups, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.” It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups. It is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four to eight million som ($420-$840) to organize or participate in an illegal religious group. The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups, with penalties of up to three years in prison. The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups. Charges against alleged members of religious extremist groups may include the stated offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.

By law, all religious groups must register with the MOJ. The law states a religious group may carry out its activities only after the MOJ registers it. The law lists a series of requirements, including having a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration; presenting a membership list of at least 100 citizens ages 18 years or older belonging to the group; and providing a charter with a legal, physical address to the local MOJ branch.

Religious groups applying to register in a specific locality require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA), which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers, and the neighborhood (mahalla) committee. They must submit “letters of guarantee” from the regional branches of the Ministry of Construction, the State Sanitary and Epidemiological Service, and the Department of the State Fire Safety Service under the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

The law requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to register. The law also requires that local governments (khokimiyats) concur with the registration of groups in their areas and that the group presents notification from khokimiyat authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements, including obtaining authorization certificates from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and locally selected mahalla committees. After checking the submitted certificates, khokimiyats grant registration permission and then send the documents to the CRA for review. By law, the MOJ may take one to three months to review a registration application. The MOJ may approve or deny the registration or cease review without issuing a decision.

The law states registered religious groups may expand throughout the country and have appropriate buildings, organize religious teaching, and possess religious literature.

The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered. The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy. Individual clergy members receive accreditation from the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan.

The CRA oversees registered religious activity. The Council for Confessions, under the CRA, includes ex-officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups. It discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.

The government must approve religious activities outside of formal worship, as well as religious activities intended for children younger than age 16 without parental permission.

The law requires registered religious organizations to inform authorities 30 days in advance of holding religious meetings and other religious ceremonies at the group’s registered address(es). The administrative code requires all registered religious organizations to seek permission from local authorities and then inform the CRA and MOJ representative 30 days before holding religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies to occur outside of a group’s registered building(s), including those activities involving foreign individuals or worshippers from another region. Unregistered groups are prohibited from organizing any religious activity.

The law punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of religious groups without state permission. The law also criminalizes unauthorized facilitation of children’s and youth meetings, as well as literary and other study groups related to worship. The administrative penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 9,215,000 to 18,430,000 som ($970-$1,900) or up to 15 days’ imprisonment.

Under the law, state bodies, including mahalla committees, as well as nonstate and noncommercial public organizations, have wide ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police. These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring observance of rights of citizens to religious freedom, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.

The law prohibits all individuals, except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations, from wearing religious attire in public places. The government does not generally enforce this section of law; individuals may appear in public places in religious attire, with the exception of schools at all levels, both public and private.

The law prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities. The criminal code punishes proselytism with up to three years in prison and proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission.

The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute religious materials. The law requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution and storage of religious publications. Such materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world.

The administrative code punishes “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20-100 times the minimum monthly wage (3,686,000 to 18,430,000 som – $390-$1,900) for individuals. The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage (9,215,000 som to 27,645,000 som – $970-$2,900). The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.” Courts issue fines under the administrative code. In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages. The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage (18,430,000 to 36,860,000 som – $1,900-$3,900) or “corrective labor” of up to three years for individuals who commit these acts subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code. In practice, criminal code violations for religious literature are rarely applied.

The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publications. Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks are subject to criminal prosecution and face prison terms ranging from five to 20 years. According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist, or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution.

The law provides for a commission, entitled The Special Commission for Preparation of Materials on Clemency, to review the prison profiles of convicts sentenced on charges of religious extremism. Another commission, The Commission on Clemency, reviews the petitions of persons who “mistakenly became members of banned organizations.” This commission may exonerate citizens from all criminal liability. Citizens are exempted from criminal liability if they had not undergone military training, did not participate in terrorism financing, or did not distribute information promoting terrorism.

The law prohibits private teaching of religion. It limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors. Children may not receive optional religious education in public schools, except for some classes providing basic information on world religions or “lessons of enlightenment” (the study of national culture) in the curriculum.

Religious education establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the MOJ and receiving the appropriate license. Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education recognized by the state and authorization to teach. These provisions make it illegal for laypersons to teach others any form of religion, or for government-approved religious instructors to teach others outside the confines of an approved educational institution.

The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction. Nine madrassahs, including one for women, and a Russian Orthodox and a Protestant seminary have official approval to train religious personnel and provide secondary education. The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education.

The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and registered for a license with the government. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he may subsequently become an imam. According to government officials, clerics from various religious groups who obtained their qualifications abroad may officiate within licensed premises.

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

Government Practices

Some NGO representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or of participating in underground Islamic activity. According to Forum 18, on April 17, authorities tortured Khayrullo Tursunov, a Muslim prisoner at a labor camp in Bukhara Region. The government extradited Tursunov from Kazakhstan in 2013 and sentenced him to 16 years for meeting with other Muslims and engaging in religious activities without state permission. A relative told Forum 18 that authorities beat Tursunov and pressured him to sign statements against his distant relative, Kadyr Yusupov, in exile since 2006 after the government charged him with attending a Turkish-run school and being active in mosques. A relative also told Forum 18 that officials threatened to extend Tursunov’s sentence unless he signed the prepared statements, but Tursunov did not sign. According to Forum 18, authorities refused to grant Tursunov’s relatives’ permission to visit during the year.

Civil society groups continued to express concern that the law’s definition of extremism remained too broad and failed to distinguish between nonviolent religious beliefs and ideologies supporting violence.

The government did not provide information regarding the number of persons convicted of engaging in terrorist and extremist activities, or those belonging to what the government called religious fundamentalist organizations, who were serving sentences in the country’s detention facilities. In 2018, the most recent year for which the government provided information, 1,503 prisoners remained in detention for these crimes. NGO representatives said they could not independently verify these numbers.

In June President Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced he had granted amnesty or reduced the sentences of 575 prisoners charged with religious extremism or related crimes. The release was timed to coincide with the end of Ramadan. Of the 575 prisoners, 361 were released outright and 214 had their sentences shortened. Government representatives said those released had signed a document admitting they had been “misled” by false teachings of Islam. A presidential directive instructed local administrations to refurbish the housing of released prisoners and assist with other material needs in order to begin their reintegration into society.

On October 24, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced it had arrested several members of the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir in the Andijon, Namangan, and Fergana Regions. The ministry did not say how many persons were arrested but stated many of them had been previously convicted of participating in the group’s activities and were continuing to spread “extremist” ideas. The ministry said it seized literature containing extremist language and initiated a criminal investigation. In its statement, the ministry urged citizens, especially young persons, “to avoid breaking the law, not to be exposed to destructive ideas, and not to store or distribute materials that pose a threat to public order.”

Early in the year, police detained two bloggers who had discussed a range of religious and other themes, including calls to allow women to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to pray in mosques. According to Forum 18, on April 8, a Tashkent court sentenced one of them, Muslim activist Tulkun Astanov, to 15 days in prison for criticizing the country’s lack of religious freedom at a meeting with the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan. Human rights defender Rukhiddin Komilov told Forum 18 that this was “usual procedure – the state puts defendants in custody to keep them under pressure to cooperate and it is easier to fabricate criminal cases this way.” The July 25 indictment stated, “Extremist materials belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist organization were found on the mobile phone seized from Astanov during questioning.” Astanov told Forum 18 on October 4 that “the only allegedly extremist thing the investigators could find” in his materials was the “miniscule flag of Hizb ut-Tahrir” in a Facebook video he shared. On October 9, according to Forum 18, the state prosecutor requested that Astanov receive a five-year suspended sentence. The case continued at year’s end.

Other Islamic bloggers operated websites and social media platforms without hindrance. Popular blogger Adham Atajanov (who goes by the pen name “Abu Muslim”) operates the website “Islamonline.uz” and has a Facebook page with almost 24,000 followers. Atajanov said he frequently criticized government policies on religious issues and faced no repercussions or backlash. Other Islamic media platforms that remained active without government interference included a private, well-known Muslim streaming channel on YouTube called “Azon.tv.” which has 162,000 subscribers, the private Azon Facebook page (with almost 54,000 followers), and the privately owned radio channel “Azon.fm.”

In March the MOJ published a list for the first time of prohibited organizations and online resources judged by the country’s Supreme Court as promoting “religious extremism.” The MOJ stated it found dozens of internet sites, online information profiles, channels, and pages on social networks, including Facebook, YouTube, and Telegram, to include extremist or terrorist materials. The list contained 40 names of internet sources and social network sites, such as “Lovers of Paradise,” “Information of Freedom,” “Excerpts from the Lesson,” and “Turkiston.”

The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which include 22 religious organizations. The government did not provide a list of the religious organizations it deemed extremist. The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and the incitement of interreligious instability and hatred.

According to some Muslims, the ban on private religious instruction continued to result in the government detaining and fining members of religious communities for “illegally teaching one’s religion to another.” They said the ban included meetings of persons gathered to discuss their faith or to exchange religious ideas. Some Muslims said religious discussions continued to be considered taboo because no one wanted to risk punishment for “proselytism” or teaching religious principles in private.

The government continued to restrict access to some websites. In September the Jehovah’s Witnesses said their website was blocked from time to time.

According to local media, on August 23, police detained more than 100 men near one of the biggest mosques in Tashkent and transported them to a local police station, where they forced them to shave their beards. Following criticism on social media, the Ministry of Internal Affairs confirmed that beard shaving took place but denied it was forced. According to media accounts, the authorities stated it was “clearly a security issue, not a religious one. Some men were just asked to ensure that they look like the photograph page of their passports, as the passport pictures are included into the databases of smart surveillance city cameras.”

In September residents of Urgench reported worship services of an unregistered Baptist church to local police. According to the pastor, a police officer arrived, apologized for the intrusion, and told the pastor that he was required to investigate all complaints. After five minutes speaking with the pastor, the officer left. The pastor said he was later required to go to the police station to fill out paperwork closing the case. He also spoke with the local mahalla committee about his church but noted that the mahalla officials were polite and the interaction was nonconfrontational. According to the pastor, and contrary to a report by a religious freedom group stating raids occurred on the church in question, there were no raids and no other visits by police to his church through the rest of the year.

Many religious group representatives continued to report they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, especially the need for a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration and the need for application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality. They said their inability to register made them subject to harassment by local authorities and criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.

As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities. Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance the government would approve their registration application. Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members. In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.

According to religious groups, many churches again attempted to register but remained unregistered at year’s end. In Tashkent, these included the Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall, Ahli Kitob Church (formerly known as Uyushma), “Agape” Church, Pentecostal Salt of the Earth Church, Pentecostal Life Water Church, and Pentecostal Source of Life Church, and Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Halls in Urgench, Fergana, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kungrad, Nukus, and Karshi. The Pentecostal Full Gospel churches in the cities of Kungrad and Chimbay remained unregistered. In the Sirdarya Region, the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church remained unregistered.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses also stated that because the government considered illegal any religious activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses outside of the one registered religious building in Chirchiq, the group remained potential targets for harassment and mistreatment, although they stated no raids occurred during the year. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said the group had repeatedly attempted to register in seven districts of the country, but the government had rejected their application at the mahalla level, the first step in the registration process. In addition to attempting registration in the seven regions, Jehovah’s Witnesses members filed an application to register a branch of the U.S.-based Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses yearly report, however, the MOJ denied the application for registration on March 4 and again on March 18, after the Jehovah’s Witnesses resubmitted their application. Subsequently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed a complaint before the Administrative Court of Tashkent, and on July 4, the court dismissed the complaint, stating the case was out of its jurisdiction. The Jehovah’s Witnesses subsequently filed a cessation appeal, which was pending consideration at year’s end. On March 11, the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an appeal regarding the same case before the National Human Rights Center. On July 22, the center responded, stating the issue was not within its purview and recommending the Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal to the Constitutional Court.

The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code regulating the length of hair and dress, the color of uniforms, and the type of shoes for all pupils in both public and private schools. The government continued to forbid any religious symbols, including skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs. Reportedly, one private school for girls, however, allowed students to wear hijabs.

In September news media released an audio recording of a Tashkent district education department meeting in which officials ordered school administrators to stop female students from wearing hijabs on school premises. An official also demanded photographic evidence of the teachers standing on duty every morning, ready to remove hijabs, and the department urged school directors to assign female teachers to this task. These practices angered some parents and family members and led to at least one case of violence. Media reported the husband of a teacher in Andijon physically assaulted an acting school director and a staff member with a baseball bat after they advised his wife not to wear a headscarf at work.

In March a Tashkent appeals court upheld a lower court decision allowing the Tashkent-based and government-funded International Islamic Academy to maintain a ban on religious attire in its dress code. Former student Nazimakhon Abdukakharova had filed a lawsuit in February against the school, stating her rights were violated after she was dismissed for wearing a hijab to class. After the court ruled against Abdukakharova in the first instance, the appeals court said the academy was within its constitutional rights to bar religious clothing in secular public institutions. In May the Supreme Court heard the case but in June dismissed Abdukakharova’s claims, stating that the school had the right to choose a policy regarding school uniforms. Activists said that while many local Muslims expected this court decision, they considered it further proof that state policy continued to restrict the rights of Muslims. Other Muslims, however, supported the policies, especially the ban on wearing hijabs in schools and universities. According to one media report, a student of Tashkent State University stated she “cannot understand why people need to show external signs of their faith,” adding “we must remember that we live in a secular state with its rules and regulations.”

In April the Supreme Court heard the appeal of Luiza Muminjanova regarding her expulsion from the International Islamic Academy for wearing a hijab to classes. On May 22, the Supreme Court dismissed Muminjanova’s claims. Human rights activists said the intense public outcry surrounding the court cases – in the form of social media debate – likely prompted the state advisor to the president to issue oral guidance to the International Islamic Academy in April, in which he instructed that female students were permitted to wear headscarves in the traditional Uzbek ikat style with a knot tied behind their heads. He stated that the ikat style headscarf was more representative of national traditions than denoting religious observance. The instruction followed a meeting between President Mirziyoyev and religious leaders and clergy in Bukhara, focusing on the need to resolve disputes between practicing and nonpracticing Muslims and to reach consensus on the issue of Islamic female dress in educational institutions. The ban on hijabs remained in effect through year’s end.

According to media, women and girls in hijabs were subject to strict checks at airports. On October 24, a source told media that “passport control officers photographed only women and girls in a Muslim shawl, the remaining passengers passed without problems.” Employees of the Tashkent International Airport and Bukhara International Airport confirmed these checks occurred. An employee of the Bukhara International Airport stated the officers “check not only arriving, but also departing passengers in a scarf.” According to media, the father of a young woman who had undergone a thorough check and was forced to take a picture without a headscarf called this process “baseless paranoia.” The father said his daughter had a biometric passport containing all data “necessary for these examiners.” An airport official told media that only local citizens were subjected to these checks, stating, “No one says anything to Turkish women or Arab women in a Muslim shawl.”

Media reported that in September Shukhrat Ganiev, the governor of Fergana Region, was recorded while giving a speech to colleagues about the wearing of hijabs and growing long beards. Media obtained the recording and quoted the governor stating, “Remember this, dear governors: if I see a woman in such clothing in your official meetings – I don’t care if she’s a neighborhood chief, a teacher, a businesswoman, an activist, a lawmaker – I’ll remove her headscarf and shove it in your mouth!” Ganiev was also heard on the recording speaking about men with “ugly beards” in public places, repeatedly raising his voice, and cursing. During its September 30 session, the national senate issued a letter of reprimand to the governor, who is also a member of the senate, for these remarks.

Muslim activists reported that the Muftiat dismissed Imam Murod Kabirov of the Minor Mosque in Tashkent (also known as the White Mosque) for teaching the Quran in an “underground madrassah” in Tashkent. They said that as part of a sting operation to shut down illegal private religious schools (popularly known as hujras), police discovered Kabirov teaching recitations from the Quran to 10 students. Subsequently, the Tashkent Islamic Institute, where Kabirov had worked for two years, did not renew his teaching contract for the 2019-20 academic year. According to human rights activists, during the summer months, Muslim parents tried to immerse their children in Islamic study, sending them to mosques and/or private religious schools. They said the country, however, had only 12 accredited Islamic learning institutions in which to legally study Islam; these schools typically received 20-30 applications for every available seat. Activists believed parents sought out Kabirov to teach the Quran to their children because of his role as an official cleric and religious educator.

At the end of the school year in May, media reported the administrative offices of some schools required parents to sign a letter stating their children would not go to mosques during summer vacation – such a letter was a common practice during the time of former president Karimov. On May 22, the Ministry of Public Education released an official statement that it did not require any such letters to be signed by parents, but rather, this was an initiative of the administrations of some schools. The ministry asked the public to report such cases via the ministry’s helpline.

A religious freedom “roadmap” approved by parliament in 2018 to implement all 12 of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements, but the underlying law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register, according to religious freedom activists. The government began drafting an update to the law on religion and allowed for comment by international experts and organizations. In June the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University released an analysis of the draft law, stating that while the draft provided some protections, it also allowed the government to maintain strict and excessive control over religion and religious freedom. The analysis highlighted areas of concern including the mandatory registration of religious activity and religious organizations; unnecessary requirements for registration; establishment of forms of censorship on religious materials and bans on religious expression; excessive discretion by government officials that would allow for discrimination; and, interference with a religious organization’s right to autonomy.

According to the CRA and Muslim religious leaders, the government continued to review the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muftiate. Religious leaders said the government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA by selecting the Muftiate’s staff and circulating approved sermons for prayer services. The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques voluntarily did so, according to media sources.

In July Foreign Minister Kamilov announced that since 2016, more than 20,000 prisoners convicted on religious grounds were removed from a watch list containing the names of those convicted for religious crimes or crimes against the government. Previously, authorities compelled individuals on the watch list to submit to police for regular interrogation, denied issuance of passports and travel visas, and, in some cases, prohibited the purchase and use of smartphones. Religious freedom activists confirmed the government was no longer using the watch list.

The national government stated it did not review mahalla committee decisions and activities related to regulation or status of religion, including local registration decisions.

According to the CRA, by year’s end the country had 2,280 registered religious organizations representing 16 different faiths compared with 2,260 registered religious organizations and 16 faiths in 2018. Muslim religious groups operated 2,065 Sunni mosques, compared with 2,052 in 2018; four Shia mosques, 15 muftiates, and 12 educational institutes. The 184 non-Muslim groups registered included 38 Orthodox churches (up from 36 in 2018), five Catholic churches, 56 Pentecostal churches (50 in 2018), 24 Baptist churches (22 in 2018), nine Seventh-day Adventist churches, three New Apostol churches, two Lutheran churches, one Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, one Voice of God church, 27 Korean Protestant churches, two Armenian churches, eight Jewish communities, six Baha’i centers, one Hari Krishna temple, and one Buddhist temple. There was also a registered Bible Society of Uzbekistan.

During the year, the government registered eight churches: the Sun Bogim Pentecostal Church in Bekabad, Tashkent Region, on January 9; a Baptist church in Khorezm Region, on January 9; Vozrojdenie Pentecostal Church in Kokand on July 12; Logos Pentecostal Church in Tashkent on August 20; Vozrojdenie Pentecostal Church in Navoi on September 27; a Baptist church in Gulistan, Sirdarya Region, on September 27; the Vera Pentecostal Church in Samarkand on September 30; and the Pentecostal “House of Bread” Church in Jizzakh Region, on December 30.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, despite continued efforts to engage with the government, they had no success in registering new congregations, even though their numbers were growing. At year’s end, they had only one registered site in Chirchik, which they stated did not adequately meet their needs.

According to anecdotal reports, a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques. The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions and were not assigned registered imams.

Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to experience particular difficulties conducting religious activities in the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status in the region. There was only one registered church, a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the entire region, which has a population of approximately two million.

Representatives of both the Bukharian and the Ashkenazi Jewish communities said they had not requested accreditation of additional rabbis since 2014, when the last rabbi was accredited. Jewish leaders from both groups cited the community’s small size and limited resources as the reason for not seeking additional rabbis.

According to Christian religious leaders, many Christians, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them potentially vulnerable to police harassment and abuse since such gatherings remained illegal.

During the year, according to numerous religious leader and activists, both Christian and Muslim, authorities stopped filming participants of religious services.

According to Catholic Church leaders, the government allowed the Church to hold a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley. Catholic Church leaders noted that surveillance on Catholic masses had stopped during the year.

The government stated that prisoners had the right to practice any religion or no religion; however, according to former religious prisoner and current human rights defender Akhmadjon Madmarov, some prisoners told family members they were not able to observe religious rituals conflicting with the prison’s schedule of activities. Such observances included traditional Islamic morning prayers. While some activists reported this situation had improved, others said it had not. According to human rights activists, authorities forbade all prisoners to observe religious holidays, such as Ramadan, including fasting. Although some prison libraries provided copies of the Quran and the Bible, family members continued to state that authorities did not allow some religiously observant prisoners access to religious materials.

The government continued to limit access to Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports the government entered the homes of members of any religious group in search of illegal religious material.

The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority. According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in secondhand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.

The CRA continued to block the importation of some Christian and Islamic literature.

According to Forum 18, in January a court fined Shukhrat Safarov for giving a woman a copy of the New Testament in Uzbek. The court ordered the destruction of the book. In December 2018 police had searched the woman’s apartment and seized the book in question.

The government continued to allow the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA: the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Catholic Churches.

The Bible Society reported that during the year, Christians could easily request a Bible from them in three languages, English, Russian, and Uzbek, and that Christians were no longer required to fill out paperwork to obtain a Bible.

The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites. The government prohibited Islamic religious institutions in the country from receiving private funding. A 2018 presidential decree established the International Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan. The academy’s stated goals were to provide the country’s religious educational institutions (universities and madrassahs) with highly trained teachers and mentors; improve the research and professional skills of scholars; educate graduate students in the fields of Quranic studies, Islamic law, the science of hadith, and kalam (Islamic doctrine); and engage in research, teaching, and public outreach.

The government continued to prohibit separate training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.

In an October report prepared for the OSCE, the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated, “After many years of religious freedom violations and outright persecution, the Government of Uzbekistan has recently made significant progress in improving its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The report cited examples to include the cessation of police raids, permission that was granted to a Jehovah’s Witnesses delegation to travel from the United States to Uzbekistan, and permission granted to Jehovah’s Witnesses to conduct a “memorial service of the death of Jesus Christ” in rented premises in Fergana, Karshi, and Urgench.

At year’s end, there were three public Islamic universities in the country: the Tashkent Islamic Institute, Samarkand Higher School of Hadith Studies, and Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara. There were nine madrassahs for secondary education. Additionally, there were two Christian seminaries. According to official figures, 1,984 persons were studying at the Islamic universities and madrassahs, 41 at the Orthodox seminary, and 20 at the Protestant seminary.

The government required individuals wishing to participate in the Hajj to apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats, using the lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah. The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for Muslims to participate in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses. As in previous years, the government allowed 7,200 Hajj pilgrims, approximately a third of the country’s allotment allowed by Saudi Arabia. Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the State Security Services (SSS), and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly participated in vetting potential pilgrims. According to some sources, religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons older than age 45. Several other Muslim sources, including activist and blogger Abu Muslim, said the government no longer placed age restrictions on Hajj participants. According to Forum 18, the Hajj Committee removed from the list young women from Fergana Region scheduled to participate in the 2019 Hajj because they were below the state’s “unwritten age limit.” According to other activists, however, no such age limit existed (unwritten or otherwise), but rather, local authorities would sometimes prefer to choose older pilgrims who may not get the chance again to make the journey.

Some media reported it remained difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery. One individual told Forum 18 that due to the “obstacles at so many levels,” individuals feared not being placed on the waiting lists or being “removed from the lists arbitrarily.” They added that many “are willing to pay up to the officials.” Some examples of what they characterized as local corruption included a requirement to perform charitable works at both the district authority and local mahalla committee level where officials asked pilgrims to make donations for the repair or upgrading of roads, to lay electricity lines, to help poor families, or for the unspecified welfare of the mahalla.”

Forum 18 stated, “Even successful completion of the hajj application process does not guarantee a hajj pilgrimage, as the SSS maintains an exit blacklist of people – for example human rights defenders – who are not allowed to travel abroad.” One Muslim told Forum 18 on November he was blacklisted for being “devout.”

Umrah regulations also required pilgrims to apply to local mahalla committees, which submit a list to the khokimiyats. The CRA used the khokimiyats lists to coordinate national air carrier flights to Jeddah. During the year, the government allowed 21,419 pilgrims to travel for the Umrah, compared with 18,000 in 2018. There were restrictions on the number of Muslim pilgrims who wished to travel for Umrah. During Umrah high season, there were daily direct flights to Jeddah on Uzbekistan Airways.

Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Baha’i community stated children were able to attend community-sponsored activities, including Sunday school, and services with the permission of their parents.

Large, government-operated hotels continued to furnish a limited number of rooms with Qurans and Bibles. The government did not report how many Qurans were made available for hotels. Upon advance request, hotels also provided other holy books, prayer mats, and Qiblas, which indicate the direction of Mecca. Many airports and train stations had small prayer rooms on their premises.

Civil society observers and religious freedom activists reported that authorities continued to allow Muslims to celebrate Ramadan openly and that the number of public iftars was greater than in 2018.

Xinjiang

Read A Section: Xinjiang

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Executive Summary

This separate section on the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is included given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to the region this year.

The U.S. government estimated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as some Uighur Christians, in specially built internment camps or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, psychological and physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimated the number being interred was higher. The whereabouts of hundreds of prominent Uighur intellectuals, doctors, journalists, artists, academics, and other professionals, in addition to many other citizens, who were arrested or detained remained unknown. There were reports of individuals dying as a result of injuries sustained during interrogations. In November the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The New York Times reported on leaked internal PRC documents that describing the government’s mass internment and surveillance programs, including a manual for operating internment camps with instructions on how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, and methods of forced indoctrination. A third document, the “Karakax List,” originally leaked in November and later made public, presented evidence the government initially interned or extended the internment of individuals on religious grounds in four reeducation centers in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture. Media reported that in 2018 courts sentenced 143,000 individuals to prison or other punishments, compared with 87,000 in 2017. During the year, the government continued to restrict access to and destroyed or desecrated mosques and other religious sites. Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. This surveillance included behavioral profiling, and forcing Uighurs to accept government officials and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members living in their homes and to install mandatory mobile spyware applications on their phones. The government continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims and non-Muslim religious minorities. The government intensified use of detentions in furtherance of implementing a Xinjiang counterextremism regulation that identifies “extremist” behaviors (including growing beards, wearing headscarves, and abstaining from alcohol) and the National Counterterrorism Law, which addresses “religious extremism.” Authorities in Xinjiang punished individuals, including imams, for praying or studying the Quran, and donating to mosques; authorities demanded individuals remove religious symbols from their homes, and barred youths from participating in religious activities. Authorities barred many categories of persons from fasting, during Ramadan, including students, and considered observing the Ramadan fast and participating in the Hajj to be suspicious behavior. Satellite imagery and other sources indicated the government destroyed numerous mosques and other religious sites, and surveilled others. The New York Times reported that according to a 2017 policy document posted on the Ministry of Education’s website, nearly 40 percent of all elementary and middle school students – approximately half a million children – were separated from their families and placed in boarding schools where they studied ethnic Han culture, the Mandarin language, and CCP ideology. The government sought the forcible repatriation from foreign countries of Uighur and other Muslim citizens and detained some of those who returned. The government harassed, interrogated, and detained the family members of Uighur and other Muslim activists who criticized its treatment of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

Uighur Muslims reported severe societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uighur language, culture, and religious practices while promoting the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life.

At the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. in July, the United States and other governments issued a statement on China that included the following: “We call for an end to China’s mass detentions and its repressive controls on the cultural and religious practices and identities of members of religious and ethnic minority groups.” In November the Secretary of State said, “We call on the Chinese government to immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.” Embassy officials met with national government officials regarding the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The embassy and consulates general delivered direct messaging about religious freedom in Xinjiang through social media posts, and promoted online engagement on the issue of religious freedom for Muslims, and, in particular, for Xinjiang’s ethnic minority Muslim populations. The embassy continued in its engagement with the PRC government to draw attention to specific cases of repression in Xinjiang.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The national constitution states citizens enjoy “freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” The constitution also stipulates the right of citizens to believe in or not believe in any religion. The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association) representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services or other religious ceremonies and activities.

Xinjiang has its own counterterrorism law containing similar provisions to the national law regarding “religious extremism.” The law bans the wearing of long beards, full-face coverings, expanding halal practice beyond food, and “interfering” with family planning, weddings, funerals, or inheritance, among other provisions.

Regional regulations passed in 2018 to implement the national counterterrorism law permit the establishment of “vocational skill education training centers” (which the government also calls “education centers” and “education and transformation establishments”) to “carry out anti-extremist ideological education.” The regulations stipulate, “Institutions such as vocational skill education training centers should carry out training sessions on the common national language, laws and regulations, and vocational skills, and carry out anti-extremist ideological education, and psychological and behavioral correction to promote thought transformation of trainees, and help them return to the society and family.”

Regulations in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi prohibit veils that cover the face, homeschooling children, and “abnormal beards.” A separate regulation bans the practice of religion in government buildings and the wearing of clothes associated with “religious extremism.” Similar regulations are in effect in other parts of Xinjiang.

Authorities in Xinjiang have defined 26 religious activities, including some practices of Islam, Christianity, and Tibetan Buddhism, as illegal without government authorization. Regional regulations stipulate no classes, scripture study groups, or religious studies courses may be offered by any group or institution without prior government approval. No religious group is permitted to carry out any religious activities, including preaching, missionary work, proselytizing, and ordaining clergy, without government approval. Regional regulations also ban editing, translation, publication, printing, reproduction, production, distribution, sale, and dissemination of religious publications and audiovisual products without authorization.

Xinjiang officials require minors to complete nine years of compulsory education before they may receive religious education outside of school. Xinjiang regulations also forbid minors from participating in religious activities and impose penalties on organizations and individuals who “organize, entice, or force” minors to participate in religious activities. According to press reports, a regulation in effect since 2016 further bans any form of religious activity in Xinjiang schools and stipulates parents or guardians who “organize, lure, or force minors into religious activities” may be stopped by anyone and reported to police. Xinjiang’s regional version of the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency Law states children affected by ethnic separatism, extremism and terrorism, and/or committing offenses that seriously endanger the society but do not warrant a criminal punishment may be sent to “specialized schools for correction” at the request of their parents, guardians, or school.

Government Practices

According to media and NGO reports, the central government and regional authorities in Xinjiang continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups. Police raids and the government’s restrictions on Islamic practices as part of “strike hard” campaigns, the latest iteration of which began in 2014, continued throughout the year. Local observers said many incidents related to abuses or pressure on Uighurs and other Muslims went unreported to international media or NGOs due to government restrictions.

There were several reports of individuals dying as a result of abuse suffered during interrogation and detentions.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported in July that Uighur Alimjan Emet from Kashgar (Chinese: Kashi) Prefecture was beaten to death in an internment camp in Kashgar’s Yengixahar (Shule) County because he denied praying in secret. Emet had previously been fired from his job at a loan office in his home township of Ermudan for allegedly praying in secret. An official familiar with Emet’s death said he did not appear to suffer from any medical problems before authorities detained him at the internment camp.

RFA reported in June that in November 2018 Uighur Qaharjan Qawul, a chauffeur, became unconscious during an interrogation while detained in an internment camp in Aksu (Akesu) City and subsequently died, according to local officials and a Uighur exile group. Authorities arrested Qawul in 2017 and accused him of making phone calls to “blacklisted” families.

In June RFA reported that in June 2018 a Uighur woman, Aytursun Eli, died while being questioned in custody, according to an interview her mother gave to the official Xinjiang Women’s Federation that was obtained by the Washington-based International Uyghur Human Rights and Democracy Foundation. According to Eli’s mother, Patigul Yasin, authorities took Eli, a tour director at Hua An Tourism Company in Kashgar Prefecture, into custody after she returned from a work trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a country to which the government does not allow Uighurs to travel. Following her daughter’s death, authorities insisted Eli had a heart condition which rendered her “unable to cope with being questioned.” Yasin denied that her daughter had a heart condition.

The New York Times, RFA, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) reported on the continued disappearance of hundreds of Uighur intellectuals, doctors, journalists, artists, academics, and university administrators. In May the UHRP issued a list of 435 “Uyghur and other Turkic intellectuals detained, imprisoned, or disappeared,” including students, university and secondary school instructors, media professionals such as journalists, medical professionals, and entertainers and performers. In January The New York Times reported, “The mass detention of some of China’s most accomplished Uighurs has become an alarming symbol of the Communist Party’s most intense social-engineering drive in decades, according to scholars, human rights advocates and exiled Uighurs…The Chinese government has described the detentions as a job training program aimed at providing employment opportunities for some of the country’s poorest people. But a list of more than 100 detained Uighur scholars compiled by exiles includes many prominent poets and writers, university heads and professors of everything from anthropology to Uighur history.”

In October Yusup Sulayman, a Uighur musician living in exile, told the PBS Newshour, “[The authorities] are disappearing our famous artists, composers, and songwriters before anyone else. They’re disappearing our intellectuals.” Sulayman said his extended family were being held in camps and he had not heard from any of them for more than two years. Sulayman said, “The absolute worst thing is that I don’t know if they are dead or alive. Our communication is completely cut off.”

In January RFA reported authorities sentenced Dina Eganbayurt, a prominent ethnic Kazakh artist and graduate of the Xinjiang Arts Institute, in a secret trial in April 2018 to three years’ imprisonment in an internment camp. Authorities did not notify her family of the charges against her, sources in the region said.

According to media reports and other sources, prominent Uighurs who remained in detention or whose whereabouts were unknown as of year’s end included: Rahile Dawut, an anthropologist at Xinjiang University who studied Islamic shrines, traditional songs, and folklore; Uighur literature professors Abdukerim Rahman, Azat Sultan, and Gheyretjan Osman; language professor Arslan Abdulla; poet Abdulqadir Jalaleddin; Kashgar University administrators Erkin Omer and Muhter Abdughopur; Kashgar University professors Qurban Osman and Gulnar Obul; and Qurban Mamut, former editor in chief of Xinjiang Civilization, a CCP-controlled Uighur journal.

At year’s end the whereabouts and welfare of Tashpolat Tiyip, former president of Xinjiang University, remained unknown, following his disappearance in 2017. International media reported in 2018 that Tiyip had been sentenced to death, with the sentence suspended for two years. On September 10, Amnesty International wrote on its website, “Fears are mounting that the Chinese authorities will imminently carry out the execution of Tashpolat Tiyip, a prominent Uyghur academic who was convicted in a secret and grossly unfair trial.” On December 26, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement stating that human rights experts “expressed alarm” about Tiyip’s situation. The statement quoted human rights experts as saying, “The experts reiterate their recommendation that information about his current place of detention be made public and that his family should be allowed to visit him.” It continued, “Incommunicado detention, enforced disappearances, and secret trials have no place in a country governed by the rule of law. The rule by law is not the rule of law. Such practices go against the spirit of the ICCPR, which China has signed in 1998[.]”

Authorities continued to disappear less high-profile individuals. In April RFA reported a relative of Ilyas Memet, a successful Uighur property developer and father of five, said Memet was arrested at his office in Ghulja (Yining) City in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture in March 2018. The relative said it was unclear why authorities arrested him or whether he had been tried. Sources close to his family suggested Memet may have been arrested because he had visited several countries to which authorities banned Uighurs from traveling due to the perceived threat of religious extremism, including Turkey.

In November RFA reported that Ibrahim Kurban, a Uighur trader from Terim Township, Yopurgha (Yuepuhu) County, Kashgar Prefecture, disappeared in May 2016, just prior to taking a business trip to Turkey. Three years later, a friend learned he had died in custody. An officer in the Yopurgha County Police Department told RFA that sometime during that period Kurban was detained and interrogated, and that he had become sick and was taken to the hospital, where he died under police supervision.” The officer did not say why Kurban was taken into custody.

There were numerous reports of authorities subjecting detained individuals to severe physical abuse, including sexual abuse.

In October The Independent reported Sayragul Sauytbay, whom authorities detained in an internment camp in November 2017, said inmates were subjected to torture and medical experiments, and forced to eat pork. She said women in the camp were systematically raped by guards and that other women were forced to watch. Sauytbay said, “People who turned their head or closed their eyes, and those who looked angry or shocked, were taken away and we never saw them again.” Sauytbay said, “There were almost 20 people in a room of 16 square meters [172 square feet]…There were cameras in their rooms, too, and also in the corridor.”

In March The Globe and Mail reported Gulzira Auelhan, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang who had been living in Kazakhstan, was arrested in 2017 while visiting her ill father. Auelhan said she was detained for 437 days, either under house arrest with relatives or in one of five different facilities, including a factory and a middle school converted into a center for political indoctrination and technical instruction. Auelhan said an official told her at the time of her arrest that she would be detained for 15 days and attend training classes, but she was held for more than 14 months and attended classes for only one week during that time. During her detention, Auelhan was forced to work in a garment factory. She said during her detention authorities shocked her with a stun gun to the head for spending more than the allotted two minutes in the toilet, and handcuffed her for 24 hours because guards accused her of letting another woman participate in religious ablutions.

In October RFA reported women in detention camps were involuntarily sterilized. Female detainees reportedly were routinely forced to take medication affecting their reproductive cycles. During separate incidents of internment totaling nine months between April 2017 and December 2018, Tursunay Ziyawudun, a Uighur woman from Kunes (Xinyuan) County, in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, said camp authorities regularly “took women to the hospital and operated on them so that they no longer could have children” or “forced them to take medicine.” Many women stopped menstruating. She said she was spared the procedure because she already had health complications. Ziyawudun also described torture: tying inmates to a metal chair during interrogations, cutting hair by first pulling it through the cell bars, shackling inmates, and denying food. She reported that guards denied inmates treatment for health problems.

In August The Independent reported Uighur Muslim women were being sterilized in internment camps, according to former detainees. “They injected us from time to time,” said Gulbahar Jalilova, a Uighur living in exile, who was held for more than a year in an internment camp. Jalilova said as of result of the injections women stopped menstruating. She said she spent most of her time with up to 50 persons in a cell measuring 10 feet by 20 feet (3 meters by 6 meters), adding “It’s like we were just piece[s] of meat.” The Independent also reported Mihrigul Tursun, a Uighur living in exile, told an audience at an Amnesty International event that she had been given unknown drugs and injections while being held in an internment camp in 2017. According to Tursun, doctors in the United States later told her she had been sterilized.

The U.S. government estimated the PRC government detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups in detention camps. Many NGOs estimated the number being interred was higher. The Globe and Mail reported in September that some Uighur Christians were also being held. In 2018 the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyzed 28 camps detaining Xinjiang residents. ASPI reported, “Estimates of the total number vary, but recent media reports have identified roughly 180 facilities and some estimates range as high as 1,200 across the region. Since early 2016 there has been a 465 percent growth in the size of the 28 camps identified in this report.” In November RFA reported that Adrian Zenz, a German researcher, estimated the number of camps may exceed 1,000. In October PBS Newshour broadcast a segment on Xinjiang that showed video of a camp under construction. The entrance to the building had an iron gate, the rooms looked like prison cells, and there were bars on the windows.

In April The New York Times reported an internment camp on the outskirts of Kashgar City occupied 639,764 square feet (195,000 square meters) with a capacity to hold approximately 20,000 individuals.

In October RFA reported that according to official sources in the Kuchar County Police Department, between June and December 2018 at least 150 persons died in No. 1 Internment Camp in the Yengisher District of the county seat, approximately 10 kilometers (six miles) from Kuchar City in Aksu (Akesu) Prefecture.

On November 16 and November 24, The New York Times reported on the leak of 403 pages of internal government and CCP documents describing the government’s mass internment program in Xinjiang; these leaked documents were later called “The Xinjiang Papers.” The documents included nearly 200 pages of speeches by Chairman Xi and other government officials, and more than 150 pages of directives and reports on the surveillance and control of the Uighur population in the region. The documents revealed that authorities set numeric targets for Uighur detentions in the region. There were also references to plans to extend restrictions on Muslims to other parts of the country. The New York Times was one of 17 media outlets to partner with the ICIJ regarding release of the leaked documents.

The leaked documents included speeches by Chairman Xi in which he called for strong action to eradicate what he called “radical Islam” in the region. In one speech he compared Islamic extremism to a virus and a dangerously addictive drug and said, referring to what he called Islamic extremists, “We must be as harsh as them and show absolutely no mercy.” The New York Times reported that before Xi’s presidency, the CCP often described attacks in Xinjiang as the work of a few fanatics inspired by foreign groups, but that Chairman Xi argued extremism had become commonplace in the region.

The leaked documents also included talking points for officials to use to respond to questions from students who had been sent to study in other parts of the country and returned home for summer break only to find that their families had been sent to internment camps. One prescribed response was to say their family members were in “a training school set up by the government,” and also, “I’m sure that you will support them, because this is for their own good, and also for your own good.” In response to requests for contact with their relatives, authorities were to tell the students, “If you want to see them, we can arrange for you to have a video meeting.” The talking points included increasingly firm responses if questions continued, including that the person’s relatives had been “infected” by the “virus” of Islamic radicalism and needed to be cured. If asked whether their relatives had committed a crime, the authorities were to respond, “It is just that their thinking has been infected by unhealthy thought.”

According to The New York Times, the documents revealed that authorities punished thousands of officials in Xinjiang for “resisting or failing to carry out the crackdown with sufficient zeal.” Ethnic Han official Wang Yongzhi, leader of the Yarkand County area, had built two large detention facilities, one as big as 50 basketball courts, and interned 20,000 persons in them. He sharply increased funding for security forces in 2017, doubling outlays for checkpoints and surveillance to renminbi (RMB) 1.37 billion ($196 million); however, Wang also ordered the release of more than 7,000 camp inmates. According to one academic, Wang released the individuals not due to his conscience but because he was concerned about achieving economic development goals with so much of the labor force locked up. Later in 2017 authorities removed Wang from his position, prosecuted him “for gravely disobeying the party central leadership’s strategy for governing Xinjiang,” and forced him to sign a 15-page confession in which he admitted he believed “rounding up so many people would knowingly fan conflict and deep resentment.” Wang wrote in his confession, “Without approval and on my own initiative I broke the rules.” According to The New York Times, the documents showed Uighur officials were also accused of protecting fellow Uighurs, and were removed from their positions.

Days after The New York Times published its two reports, the ICIJ reported on an additional 24 leaked government and CCP documents. Later referred to as the “China Cables,” the leaked documents included details from a 2018 court case in which authorities in Xinjiang arrested a man in September 2017 and sentenced him to a prison term of 10 years for “inciting extreme thoughts” after he reportedly encouraged his coworkers to pray.

The leaked documents obtained by the ICIJ included a CCP manual, called a “telegram,” for operating internment camps, which it referred to as “vocational skill education training centers.” According to the ICIJ, this manual “instructs camp personnel on such matters as how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, methods of forced indoctrination, how to control disease outbreaks, and when to let detainees see relatives or even use the toilet.” The ICIJ continued, “The document, dated to 2017, lays bare a behavior-modification ‘points’ system to mete out punishments and rewards to inmates” and to determine when to release them. Authorities were instructed to tell those asking about their relatives that their behavior could hurt their relatives’ scores. The ICIJ stated, “The manual reveals the minimum duration of detention: one year – though accounts from ex-detainees suggest that some are released sooner.” A third document, the “Karakax List,” originally leaked in November and later made public, presented evidence the government initially interned or extended the internment of individuals on religious grounds in four reeducation centers in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture. It showed that “religion-related reasons,” including behaviors considered “untrustworthy” such as men wearing beards, women wearing veils, and attending the Hajj were the third most common reason for internment, and violations of “birth control policies,” was the most common reason.

In June German researcher Adrian Zenz published a paper in the Journal of Political Risk that described how in July 2017 authorities in Karakax (Qaraqash) County, Hotan (Hetian) Prefecture, commissioned a large internment camp with multiple buildings, including a “transformation for education center” and a 2,074 square meter (22,324 square foot) armed police forces facility. According to Zenz, a district in Urumqi published a construction bid for a 36,000 square meter (387,500 square foot) vocational training compound with a surrounding wall, fences, a 500 square meter (5,400 square foot) police station, a surveillance and monitoring system, and “equipment for visiting family members.”

In October 2018 ChinaAid reported first-hand accounts of a three-phased system to which Uighurs were subjected in several detention facilities. According to local residents, each camp consisted of areas A, B, and C. Guards first placed “newcomers and Muslims” in area C, the worst area, where guards deprived them of food or water for 24 hours. Guards shackled their hands and feet, beat them, and screamed insults at them until they repeatedly expressed gratitude to the CCP and Chairman Xi. Then the guards transferred them to area B, where they ate poor quality food and were permitted to use the bathroom. They went outside for 15 minutes every day to sing the national anthem. Guards then moved those considered successfully re-educated in CCP beliefs to area A, where the conditions were better.

In October CNN released a video taken via drone showing hundreds of men being led from a train by dozens of police in riot gear. Most of the men were wearing vests with the words “Kashgar Detention Center.” The men were all wearing blindfolds, had shaved heads, and had their hands tied behind their backs. In a statement responding to the video, Xinjiang authorities said cracking down on crime and transporting prisoners was lawful, adding, “Xinjiang’s crackdown on crimes has never been linked to ethnicities or religions.”

RFA reported in April that as many as 1,200 Uighurs were being detained in a prison in Gansu Province after being secretly transferred under the cover of night from internment camps in Xinjiang, according to prison officials. Those officials said in the months prior, detainees had been sent to prisons in Shandong, Shaanxi, and Gansu Provinces, although they were unable to provide specific numbers or dates for when they had been transferred. In July Bitter Winter reported several sources confirmed some Xinjiang detainees were transferred to two prisons in Henan Province. The detainees were isolated from other prisoners, with many held in solitary confinement and beaten.

The September 2018 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report titled Eradicating Ideological Viruses contained accounts from former Xinjiang detainees of interrogations and physical abuse, including beatings, being hanged from ceilings and walls, and prolonged shackling. Detainees also reported being kept in spaces so overcrowded there was no room for all to sleep. In October Uighur exile Gulbahar Jalilova told PBS Newhour that guards handcuffed and shackled inmates, placed hoods over their heads, and beat them during interrogations. Abdusalam Muhammad, another Uighur living in exile, told PBS Newshour, “There is unimaginable oppression inside [the detention centers]. Every day they’d toss us a little bread and water so that we didn’t die. And every day they would interrogate 15 or 20 of us with unbearable brutality.” Muhammad said lecturers would teach propaganda for 10 hours each day. “The goal was to change our minds, our faith, our beliefs. It was a plot to force us to renounce our religion.”

In a March interview with Hong Kong Free Press, Omir Bekali, an ethnic Kazakh living in exile, described conditions in an internment camp in Karamay in which he spent several weeks. Bekali said detainees of all ages were obliged to sing patriotic songs, participate in sessions of self-criticism, and eat pork on Fridays. He said “students” – as officials called them – were forbidden to speak a language other than Mandarin and to pray or grow a beard, which authorities interpreted as signs of religious radicalization. Bekali said the camps had only one objective – to strip detainees of their religious belief.

In June RFA reported that the granddaughter of Uighur author Nurmuhemmet Tohti posted on Facebook that he died on May 31, shortly after being released from an internment camp. His granddaughter, living in exile in Canada, wrote that during his internment, authorities denied Tohti, aged 70, treatment for diabetes and heart disease, and only released him to his family after he became incapacitated due to his medical condition.

A source told RFA that in March a Uighur man who regularly traveled for business to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Yaqup Rozi, died after suffering a heart attack while detained in a political “re-education camp” in Xinjiang. Authorities ordered Rozi to return to his home near Atush, (Atushi) City in Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture in early 2017 and then confiscated his passport. A month later, local police summoned Rozi for interrogation, but then released him. A month after that, police raided his home in the middle of the night and took him away with a black hood over his head, according to the source. After Rozi died, authorities refused to release his remains to his family members, who were only allowed to observe as a state-appointed religious cleric washed his body and prepared it for burial according to Islamic tradition.

NGOs and international media reported arrests and detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang for “untrustworthy behavior” such as attending religious education courses, possessing books about religion and Uighur culture, wearing clothing with Islamic symbols, and traveling to certain counties.

The Economist reported in 2018 that authorities in Xinjiang used detailed information to rank citizens’ “trustworthiness” using various criteria. Officials deemed individuals as trustworthy, average, or untrustworthy depending on how they fit into the following categories: were 15 to 55 years old (i.e., of military age); were Uighur; were unemployed; had religious knowledge; prayed five times a day; had a passport; had visited one of 26 “sensitive countries”; had ever overstayed a visa; had family members living abroad; and homeschooled their children (which was prohibited throughout the country). The Economist said “…the catalogue is explicitly racist: people are suspected merely on account of their ethnicity.” Being labelled “untrustworthy” could lead to being detained by authorities. HRW reported the 26 “sensitive countries” were Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, and Yemen.

In July 2018 the NGO China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) published a report saying that based on Chinese government data, criminal arrests in Xinjiang accounted for 21 percent of all arrests in China in 2017, while the population of Xinjiang comprised less than 2 percent of China’s overall population. CHRD reported that “…criminal punishment would disproportionately target the Uyghur Muslim group based on their percentage of the population.” The New York Times reported in August that in 2018 courts in Xinjiang sentenced 143,000 individuals to prison or other punishment, compared with 87,000 in 2017, which was itself 10 times more than in 2016.

National Public Radio reported in October that Nurzhada Zhumakhan, a 65-year-old Uighur woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June for “illegally using superstition to break the rule of law” and “gathering chaos to disrupt the social order.”

The Diplomat reported Zulhumar Isaac, a Uighur living in exile in Sweden whose family had attempted to assimilate into Han Chinese culture, said she learned in November 2018 that her mother had been sent to a detention camp. Shortly thereafter, her father also disappeared. Isaac said, “All our lives we have lived as ‘model Chinese citizens.’ We studied Mandarin, my mother was a civil servant for decades, and I’d married a Han Chinese man. And yet it has happened to us. Why?”

In April The New York Times reported one Uighur living in exile identified as Dilnur said, “In the kindergarten, they would ask little children, ‘Do your parents read the Quran?’ My daughter had a classmate who said, ‘My mom teaches me the Quran.’ The next day, they are gone.”

According to an SCIO white paper issued in March entitled, “The Fight Against Terrorism and Extremism and Human Rights Protection in Xinjiang,” authorities continued to prevent any “illegal” religious activities in Xinjiang and to prioritize Chinese language and culture over Uighur language and culture, which the government said was necessary to promote “ethnic unity.” Authorities promoted loyalty to the CCP as the most important value. Reportedly, authorities forced thousands of Uighurs to participate in ceremonies where they wore traditional Han Chinese clothing, performed tai chi, and sang the national anthem. In November on the PBS Newshour, Yasin Zunun, a Uighur living in exile, showed a video he found online of his wife, who lived in Xinjiang, and other Uighur women dressed in traditional Han Chinese makeup and clothing performing a Han Chinese dance.

On May 10, in an interview with CBC/Radio Canada, Alim Seytoff, the director of RFA’s Uyghur Services, said, “At the moment, it has become impossible for the Uighur people to even say ‘as-salamu alaykum,’ even [to] give their babies names such as Mohamed [or] Fatima.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs continued to deny international media reports that authorities banned Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang from Ramadan fasting, and said the constitution provided for religious freedom for Uighurs. Reports published in 2018 on the official websites of local governments in Xinjiang, however, indicated authorities restricted or banned certain groups of Uighur Muslims from observing Ramadan, including CCP members, their relatives, students, and employees of state-owned enterprises and state-run organizations. In May Dolkun Isa, a Uighur living in exile and the head of the Germany-based international NGO World Uyghur Congress, told Voice of America Uighurs who worked in the public sector and students had to appear daily at canteens during lunch or they would be accused of secretly fasting and hiding “extremist” tendencies. Isa said, “The restrictions on Ramadan have been in place every year since 2016, but they are especially hard this year.” According to World Uyghur Congress spokesperson Dilshat Rishit, Uighur households were told to keep an eye on one another and threatened with collective punishment if any of them was found to be fasting.

There were independent reports of authorities continuing to prohibit students from the middle school level through to the university level from fasting during Ramadan. In his interview with CBC/Radio Canada on May 10, RFA Uyghur Services director Seytoff said teachers gave elementary and middle school students snacks and water to make sure they were not fasting, and asked them to report if their parents were fasting or praying at home.

In October NPR reported that according to family members, courts handed down prison sentences of up to 20 years to religious students, imams, or people who prayed regularly.

The government continued to administer mosques and restrict access to houses of worship, requiring worshipers to apply for mosque entry permits. In April The New York Times reported that at the Idh Kha Mosque, the largest mosque in Kashgar and a pilgrimage destination, worshipers had to register and go through a security check. Inside the mosque there were surveillance cameras. The Economist reported in May 2018 that in Hotan City authorities closed neighborhood mosques, leaving a handful of large mosques open. According to the article, at the entrance to the Idh Kha Mosque in Kashgar two policemen sat underneath a banner reading “Love the party, love the country.” Inside, a member of the mosque’s staff held classes for local traders on how to be good Communists. The article stated in Urumqi authorities knocked down minarets and Islamic crescents on the mosques that were permitted to remain open.

HRW reported in May that making donations to local mosques was considered suspicious behavior.

Local CCP propaganda in Kashgar said the state was protecting adherents from extremism by improving mosque facilities over recent years, ensuring telecommunications and computer access, and installing other amenities such as flushing toilets and electricity.

RFA also reported rapid construction of crematoria in Xinjiang, and said that Uighur religious and cultural funeral traditions did not traditionally include cremation. According to the report, a Han Chinese staff member at a crematorium stated that ethnic minority corpses brought there were those who had died in “political re-education camps.” CCP officials also reportedly forbade Uighurs from performing traditional burial rites.

The government facilitated participation in the Hajj, and Muslims applied online or through local official Islamic associations. However, according to allegedly leaked government documents from Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture, authorities considered individuals to be suspicious or potentially dangerous if they had participated in the Hajj, regardless of whether the individual participated as part of a government-approved tour group or otherwise. In August the pro-CCP media outlet Global Times stated 11,000 Uighur and other Muslims were expected to make take part in the Hajj during the year, compared with 11,500 in 2018, although official statistics confirming this number was accurate were unavailable at year’s end.

Witnesses and former prisoners stated authorities forced Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and others to renounce Islam, criticize their own Islamic beliefs and those of fellow inmates, and recite Communist Party propaganda in the internment camps.

International media reported the government continued to instruct officials to look out for 75 “signs” or behaviors that signified religious extremism. These signs and behaviors included growing a beard, praying in public outside of mosques, wearing veils and headscarves, and abstaining from smoking or drinking alcohol.

According to human rights groups and international media, authorities in Xinjiang continued to maintain extensive and invasive security and surveillance, reportedly in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. Human rights groups said surveillance was more severe in parts of the country where religious minorities predominated, including Xinjiang, compared to other parts of the country with ethnic Han Chinese majorities, due in part to the connection between religion and the ethnic and cultural identities of these groups.

In April The New York Times reported one Uighur living in exile identified as Dilnur said authorities often searched private homes. “They don’t care if it’s morning or night, they would come in every time they want.”

As reported in media, according to leaked documents obtained by the ICIJ in November, authorities used tools including closed circuit television cameras, mobile phone spyware apps, and “Wi-Fi sniffers” (akin to wiretaps on internet traffic) which monitored all network devices in range. Authorities used artificial intelligence to create predictive models of behavior to flag individuals whom the government deemed suspicious. The New York Times stated in May that these measures targeted ethnic minorities while largely ignoring ethnic Han Chinese in the region. There were reports authorities used facial recognition technology to target Uighurs and members of other citizens who did not have typical Han Chinese features.

In May HRW reported the government continued to require all individuals in Xinjiang to have a spyware app on their mobile phone because the government considered “web cleansing” necessary to prevent access to “terrorist” information. Failing to install the app, which could identify whom people called, track online activity, and record social media use, was deemed a punishable offense. The report stated Wi-Fi sniffers in public places monitored all networked devices in range.

The police used the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), the Xinjiang policing program to aggregate data about people and flag those deemed potentially threatening. According to an HRW report published in May, “Analysis of the IJOP app reveals that authorities are collecting massive amounts of personal information – from the color of a person’s car to their height down to the precise centimeter – and feeding it into the IJOP central system, linking that data to the person’s national identification card number.” The IJOP also flagged what authorities considered suspicious behavior such as using “excessive” electricity, using a cell phone that was not registered to that person, or entering and exiting the home via the back door instead of the front door. According to HRW’s analysis, based on the kinds of information collected, the IJOP app “demonstrates that Chinese authorities consider certain peaceful religious activities as suspicious, such as donating to mosques or preaching the Quran without authorization.”

In February a security researcher at the Dutch NGO GDI Foundation discovered a publicly accessible database containing personal information such as ethnicity and GPS tracking data of 2.6 million people in Xinjiang. Other publications reported on DNA collection, voice collection, and facial recognition collection to track individuals living in Xinjiang.

A former Xinjiang resident told HRW that a week after he was released from arbitrary detention he entered a mall and an orange alarm went off. Police took him to a police station but released him with the warning, “Just don’t go to any public places.”

The People’s High Court, Public Security Bureau, Bureau of Culture, and Bureau of Industry and Commerce in Xinjiang continued to implement restrictions on video and audio recordings the government defined as promoting terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism. Authorities prohibited dissemination of such materials on the internet, social media, and in online marketplaces. Multiple media outlets reported that tourists at the border were required to install spyware on their mobile devices prior to entering Xinjiang.

In July National Public Radio, Vox News, and other sources reported on authorities’ efforts to collect DNA and other biometrics such as blood types, as well as fingerprints, which appeared to be done in an effort to distinguish ethnic groups. Sources believed authorities in Xinjiang collected this medical information, at least in part, to forcibly harvest Uighurs’ organs. According to research by Australian academic Matthew P. Robertson and others about the PRC government’s falsification of organ donation data, blood typing is part of the organ procurement process. Some Xinjiang internment camp survivors reported healthy young men would be spared the physical abuse that other detainees suffered and underwent health screenings, including DNA sampling, before disappearing, raising these survivors’ concerns that organ harvesting from detainees was taking place in the camps.

In December The Hill reported the surveillance system in Xinjiang included more than 10,000 “convenient police stations” and government task teams stationed in 8,921 villages. In a May report, HRW stated these police stations were the “hallmark of Xinjiang’s mass surveillance infrastructure.” Witnesses told The Hill in every town “each traffic light junction is guarded by two SWAT team members. Every 50 yards or so along the streets, there is a convenient police station, guarded 24/7 by either SWAT, regular police or assistant police, who constantly check passers-by, including searching their smartphones for banned apps and ‘sensitive’ information.” In 2017 The Jamestown Foundation examined civil service, public service, and other public job announcements and found the number of job announcements for police officers in Xinjiang increased from 30,000 in 2016 to 60,000 from January to August 2017.

In April The New York Times reported that in Kashgar City, Kashgar Prefecture, surveillance cameras were prevalent in streets, shops, doorways, and mosques. “Every 100 yards or so, the police stand at checkpoints with guns, shields and clubs. Many are Uighurs. The surveillance couldn’t work without them. Uighurs line up, stone-faced, to swipe their official identity cards. At big checkpoints, they lift their chins while a machine takes their photos, and wait to be notified if they can go on. The police sometimes take Uighurs’ phones and check to make sure they have installed compulsory software that monitors calls and messages.”

In April Bitter Winter published an account of a Han Chinese man who traveled to Hotan City in 2018. The man said, “Checkpoints were at every intersection, each guarded by at least five officers and soldiers, some heavily armed, and, at larger intersections, heavier weapons were placed. At a checkpoint, every ethnic minority person was forced to undergo a body search, and those carrying a cellphone required to turn it on for inspection…In contrast, Han Chinese were allowed to pass through after simply flashing their ID card.”

There were numerous reports of government travel restrictions within the region. According to a September 2018 HRW report, individuals had to apply to the police for permission and proceed through numerous checkpoints to go from one town to the next. HRW also reported authorities recalled passports from persons in the region and prohibited communication with individuals outside the country, including relatives. In November NBC – one of ICIJ’s media partners in the release of the China Cables – reported that in March 2018 authorities confiscated Zumrat Dawut’s passport after she was instructed to report to a police station. She was interrogated, shackled, and sent to an internment camp. Ethnoreligious minorities also reported increased screening at airport, train station, and roadside security checkpoints. In 2018 The Economist described police activities at a large checkpoint on the edge of Hotan City, where a police officer ordered all the passengers off a bus. The passengers (all Uighurs) took turns in a booth, where officials scanned identity cards, took photographs and fingerprints, used iris-recognition technology, and forced women to take off their headscarves. The officials also forced young Uighurs to give authorities access to their phones in order to download their smart phone contents for later analysis.

According to media, authorities continued to have more than one million CCP officials from other parts of the country live part-time with local families in Xinjiang. The government instituted these home stays (the “Pair Up and Become a Family” program) to target farmer households in southern Xinjiang. The government said the program was part of efforts to combat “terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.” The government required families to provide detailed information on their personal lives and political views during to the officials’ visits to their homes. Authorities also subjected families to political indoctrination from the live-in officials. The program started in 2014, according to a CNN report from 2018. RFA reported in October that according to HRW, the government extended the “Pair Up and Become a Family” home stay program in early 2018 and CCP members spent at least five days every two months in the families’ homes. According to Bitter Winter, authorities in some locations mandated Han Chinese “relatives” stay at least one week per month. In November on PBS Newshour, Uighur exile Abliz Ablikim showed a photo taken in his uncle’s home in Xinjiang with a Han Chinese man posing with members of the family, Ablikim’s infant cousin on his lap.

RFA’s Uyghur Service reported one CCP official in Yengisar (Yingjisha) County, Kashgar Prefecture, said many Han Chinese “relatives” stayed in homes where no male relatives were present because they were in detention. The official said he had never heard of any situations in which male officials had attempted to take sexual advantage of women in the household, but said it was “normal for females to sleep on the same platform with their paired male ‘relatives’.” Other sources said those who protested hosting CCP officials were subject to additional restrictions and possible detention in an internment camp. Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said the campaign has “turned Uyghurs’ homes into prisons from which there is no escape.”

RFA reported in October that a village secretary in Hotan Prefecture said Han Chinese who stayed in Uighur households as part of the “Pair Up and Become a Family” program brought alcohol and meat, including pork, into the home and expected those they stayed with to consume them, in violation of halal principles. According to the village secretary, “We are not so insane as to tell them that we are Muslim, so we cannot eat the things they eat.” NGOs and media reported that officials forced Uighur women to marry Han men under threat of arrest or imprisonment of the women and their families.

The leaked documents obtained by the ICIJ in November included explicit directives to arrest Uighurs with foreign citizenship.

ChinaAid reported that in June authorities indicted 17 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Korla Municipal People’s Court on charges of using an “evil religious organization” to incite the obstruction of law enforcement, and indicted an additional 18th individual for “obstructing law enforcement by organizing and using an evil religious organization.” The indictment stated the group violated religion management laws “by establishing the Korla congregation, recruiting 63 people, fraudulently using Christianity, deifying ‘Jehovah,’ spreading superstition and heresy, agitating and inciting people not to join the Chinese Communist Party or the Communist Youth League, serve the military, raise the national flag, salute the national flag, sing the national anthem, and participate in elections, and they connected with overseas people, controlled believers by taking the most of regular meetings, and took advantage of each opportunity to accumulate wealth, so they have affected peoples’ normal religious faith, severely disturbed social order, and obstructed law enforcement.”

Xinjiang authorities had discretion to label giving children any name with an Islamic connotation as a manifestation of “extremist thought” or “illegal religious behavior.”

A Xinjiang government statement online in 2018 indicated officials had to inspect the homes in which they were staying for any religious elements or symbols and instructed the officials to confiscate such items if found.

In July RFA reported Xinjiang authorities removed traditional ethnic Uighur and Islamic architectural features used for prayers at home as part of a bid to root out “religious extremism.” The report said villagers in Ghulja (Yining) City in Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture were forced to remove Islamic ornamentation from buildings in the area. Officials in Kashgar and Hotan Prefectures said authorities forced Muslims to carve away mihrabs (ornate domed niches that indicate the direction of Mecca), or to fill them in completely. If they refused, they could face punishment that could include detention in an internment camp. The director of a neighborhood women’s committee in Kashgar told RFA the government and CCP conducted training courses on the correct aesthetics for households. A village party secretary in Hotan Prefecture said teams of five or six persons that included police officers, party members, and government officials “walked around inspecting neighborhood homes” to ensure they met “requirements.” In cases where homeowners were unable to reshape the mihrabs in their walls, or where mihrabs were carved into a home’s supporting beams, workers demolished the building. One official said, “In Hotan city, all of the buildings had been cleared of these items completely…At present, no buildings considered to exemplify classic ethnic characteristics have been left untouched.”

A preacher from Manas County, Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Xinjiang, said his sermons were written in advance by the local Ethnic and Religious Affairs Committee and sent to him via WeChat messaging app. He said police officers on guard at the church’s entrance were familiar with the sermon and supervised the preacher. One preacher told Bitter Winter the goal of the state was to get rid of “the pure truth from the source,” i.e., the Bible. “In the future, preachers will be unable to tell whether what they are preaching is right or wrong,” he said. “On the surface, the government allows you to have belief and hold gatherings, but what you believe in might not be Christianity at all, but rather the Party religion.”

Media sources reported authorities did not comply with national regulations that stipulate if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or construction of key projects, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or provide compensation equal to its appraised market value. On June 7, RFA reported that authorities bulldozed a church in Tang County, Henan Province, and forced the church members to pay for the demolition. Local Christians said two weeks prior, the government told the congregation to “donate” the church building to the government but they refused.

Satellite imagery analysis released by Bellingcat and The Guardian in May revealed large-scale destruction of Islamic holy sites and mosques in Xinjiang. Among 91 sites analyzed, 31 mosques and two major shrines, including the Imam Asim complex, a major pilgrimage site, suffered significant structural damage between 2016 and 2018. In June Agency France Presse (AFP) reported satellite images reviewed by that media outlet and visual analysis by the NGO Earthrise Alliance showed 36 mosques and religious sites had been torn down or had their domes and corner spires removed since 2017. NGOs and other media also reported widespread destruction of Uighur mosques and shrines during the year. In October the UHRP estimated at least 100 mosques in the region were fully or partially destroyed or had an architectural element removed as part of the government campaign of mosque demolition, which accelerated in 2016. According to Bellingcat, satellite imagery appeared to show that in 2018 authorities destroyed the gatehouse of the 800-year-old Keriya Aitiki Mosque in Hotan Prefecture and replaced it with a parking lot. Also in 2018, authorities demolished structures around the Kargilik Mosque in Kargilik County, Kashgar Prefecture.

According to AFP and Earthwise Alliance analysis of satellite imagery, the government exhumed and flattened at least 30 Uighur cemeteries since 2017, in some cases reinterring remains in standardized secular graves and in others repurposing the sites. In October The Guardian published satellite imagery that appeared to show authorities had demolished several Islamic cemeteries. The graveyard in Aksu Prefecture, where Uighur poet Lutpulla Mutellip was buried, was replaced with an area called Happiness Park. The Sultanim Cemetery in Hotan City was replaced with a parking lot.

According to The New York Times, the curriculum in Xinjiang schools emphasized “Chinese language, patriotism, and loyalty to the CCP.” The New York Times reported a sign outside a kindergarten in Hotan City invited parents to report teachers who made “irresponsible remarks” or participated in unauthorized religious worship.

In December The New York Times reported that according to a 2017 policy document posted on the Ministry of Education’s website, nearly 40 percent of all elementary and middle school students – approximately half a million children – had been separated from their families and placed in boarding schools in Xinjiang. According to the document, the children were to be immersed in Han culture and only allowed to visit their families once every week or two, in order to “break the impact of the religious atmosphere on children at home.” Without specifying Islam by name, the document characterized religion as a pernicious influence on children and stated having students live at boarding schools would “reduce the shock of going back and forth between learning science in the classroom and listening to scripture at home.”

In July German researcher Adrian Zenz published a paper in The Journal of Political Risk examining government documents that indicated there were large numbers of children with one or both parents in some form of internment. The documents indicated this was a major social issue. Zenz wrote, “From early 2018, the state began to issue urgent directives on how to deal with the virtually orphaned children of single or ‘double-detained’ parents, be it through special care institutions or the regular education system. Local governments began to require schools to provide one-on-one ‘psychological counseling’ and to proactively scan the state of mind of students with parents in detention in order to preempt trouble.” There were also reports of authorities holding children in orphanages or centers for special needs children after their parents were taken to internment camps. According to a BBC report, Xinjiang authorities’ increased efforts to care full-time for large numbers of children occurred at the same time as the building of the internment camps.

 

In the paper he published in The Journal of Political Risk in July, Zenz quoted the Xinjiang government and educational websites as stating, “Vocational Skills Training Centers wash clean the brains of people who became bewitched by the extreme religious ideologies of the ‘three forces’[.]” In 2018 Xinjiang regional governor Shohrat Zakir told Xinhua news agency the three forces, also called the “three evil forces” or the “three evils,” were terrorism, separatism, and extremism.

In December at a press conference in Canberra, PRC Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye said reports that one million Uighurs were being held in detention were “utterly fake news” and said the mass detentions in Xinjiang had “nothing to do with human rights, nothing to do with religion” and was “no different” from other countries’ counter-terrorism measures.”

In August the CCP responded to a statement issued by 22 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council urging the CCP to release members of the Muslim population from internment camps. Foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said the statement “disregarded the facts, slandered and attacked China with unwarranted accusations, flagrantly politicized human rights issues, and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.” The CCP also stated its actions in Xinjiang were necessary for national security.

At a press conference in August, Xinjiang regional governor Zakir stated authorities released the majority of persons held in internment camps in the region, and that those still in facilities were able to go home regularly and practice their faith. The World Uyghur Congress urged the international community to be “deeply skeptical” of the governor’s statements.

In April the SCIO published a white paper on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organization that administers prisons and engages in commercial activity in the region, stating the focus of XPCC’s work in border security was the threat posed by “separatist, religious extremist, and terrorist forces and their sabotage activities.”

In July the government published a white paper that defined “external separatist forces for…the creation of ‘East Turkestan’” as an acute threat to national security and stated the People’s Armed Police, a national paramilitary organization, had assisted the Xinjiang regional government in “taking out 1,588 violent terrorist gangs and capturing 12,995 terrorists” since 2014.

In July the SCIO released a white paper on religion and culture in Xinjiang that stated Islam was “neither an indigenous nor the sole belief system” of the Uighurs, that Uighurs were forcibly converted to Islam, and that the government in Xinjiang “fully respects and protects” religious freedom according to the national constitution.

In March, July, and August the SCIO published white papers on counterterrorism and human rights that stated the government’s political re-education camps were intended to combat “violent extremism” and “religious extremism.” The white papers also stated individuals held in camps could not organize or participate in any religious activities.

In May Voice of America reported that Zhao Lijian, deputy chief of mission of the Chinese embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, said Beijing had put partial restrictions on Ramadan activities, but fasting was not totally banned. Zhao said Xinjiang residents were free to fast during Ramadan and restrictions were limited to those with official responsibilities to ensure their religious practices did not interfere with their public duties. He also said, “Restrictions are with the Communist Party members, who are atheists; government officials, who shall discharge their duties; and students who are with compulsory education and hard learning tasks.”

The leaked documents revealed by the ICIJ in November included explicit directives to track Xinjiang Uighurs living abroad. China’s embassies and consulates took part in these efforts. The documents described the government’s policy of urging foreign governments to repatriate Uighurs. The ICIJ stated, “Bulletin No. 2” (dated June 16, 2017) “categorizes Chinese Uighurs living abroad by their home regions within Xinjiang and instructs officials to collect personal information about them. The purpose of this effort, the bulletin says, is to identify ‘those still outside the country for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out.’ It declares that such people ‘should be placed into concentrated education and training’ immediately upon their return to China.”

The government also reportedly sought to intimidate or forcibly repatriate Uighur and other Muslims abroad. In August The Atlantic reported, “Conversations with Uighurs in Belgium, Finland, and the Netherlands reveal a systematic effort by China to silence Uighurs overseas with brazen tactics of surveillance, blackmail, and intimidation.” The article described Chinese authorities monitoring Uighurs abroad by surveilling their contacts and family members in Xinjiang via phone or social media, and pressuring them to cease advocacy efforts on behalf of Uighur rights. In April BuzzFeed News reported Uighur-American Ferkat Jawdat’s aunt and her husband were transferred from an internment camp in Xinjiang to a prison elsewhere in the region after Jawdat met with the U.S. Secretary of State on March 27.

Many Uighurs abroad reported the government denied their passport renewals and instead offered a one-way travel document back to China. Some of these individuals also reported authorities threatened to put family members of Uighurs living abroad into detention centers if they did not return. The Wall Street Journal reported in August 2018 that Chinese security officials told Uighurs living abroad to collect information on other Uighurs.