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

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

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

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws on minors’ participation in religious activities. The government continued to assert 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 one of 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. According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,600 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. According to the annual report of The Church of the Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 7,000 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions. The CAG reported some individuals died in custody or as a result of police harassment. Bitter Winter, 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, where authorities beat them and forced them to take medication. Authorities detained and arrested religious leaders trying to hold services online. The government continued its 2019-2024 campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts, including, according to media, stories from the life of Jesus, to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the State. In September, United Front Work Department (UFWD) vice head and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) director general Wang Zuo’an announced foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, and maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong. From January to July, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID restrictions. There were reports the government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase the surveillance and arrest of religious practitioners, including members of state-sanctioned groups, and to curtail private worship among religious groups. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized publishing and copying businesses that handled religious materials. Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country. The government removed architectural features that identified churches and mosques as religious sites. It altered textbooks to delete references to religious holidays. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In October, the Holy See extended for another two years its 2018 provisional agreement with the government concerning the appointment of bishops. Critics stated the agreement did not alleviate government pressure on Catholic clergy to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture, while promoting ethnic Han individuals in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread.

In multiple public speeches, the U.S. Secretary of State criticized the government for curtailing religious freedom. In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for 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.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four Chinese leaders and additional PRC entities pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. During the year, the U.S. government added 20 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List that were implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing the visa restrictions, the Secretary of State said, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” The U.S. also prohibited import of merchandise believed to have been produced in Xinjiang with forced labor. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

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 2, 2020 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 I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country. An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than one percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020 report, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. The SCIO report states there are six million Catholics, although media and international NGO estimates suggest there are 10-12 million, approximately half of whom practice in churches not affiliated with the CCPA. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uyghur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 14.9 million residents, or 60 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents. Falun Gong sources estimate tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates there are seven to 20 million practitioners.

Some ethnic minorities follow traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as an expression of “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but it limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining 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 and oversees the UFWD, which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities. SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations and 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 practice. 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 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 organizations. The government continues to ban the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy) and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.” The government also considers several Christian groups to be “cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of the Almighty God (CAG, 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, 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; it 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 register, and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. The five associations, which operate under the direction of the CCP’s UFWD, are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (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 law does 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. Registration information is only required once, but religious organizations must reregister if changes are made to the required documentation.

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in June, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code. The revisions formalized the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions. Previously, bank accounts and real estate holdings were commonly held in the name of individual staff members, making it difficult in some cases for authorities to separate the financial matters of members from those of the religious institution.

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.

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 they are registered as official charities, 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 their 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.

Article 70 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.” Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100 and $30,600). Illegally obtained income connected to the travel may be seized and “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

The regulations specify that no religious structure, including clergy housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. SARA regulations 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 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 they state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,300) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

The regulations require that religious activity “must not harm national security” or support “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling the credentials of clergy.

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, may 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, in 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.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody. However, the PRC defines the right to religious faith differently than the right to religious activities, such as prayer facilities and access to clergy. Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states that no state unit, social organization, or individual may 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 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.”

Publication and distribution of literature containing religious content must follow guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. Online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups require 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 first 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 room or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for that specific 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 and is subject to criminal or administrative penalties.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or the 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 to 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 younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules varied widely across and within regions. 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 Regulations on Religious Affairs of the XUAR state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities. No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.” Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues. Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.” Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

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

On February 1, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect. 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 state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism. Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

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. Authorities reportedly 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.

Sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities had 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 that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,492 individuals imprisoned for “organizing or using a ‘cult’ to undermine implementation of the law.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that according to a government source, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a confidential document in September ordering a nationwide, three-year crackdown on the CAG. The campaign outlined three main goals: “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad.” Bitter Winter reported increased arrests of Church members following the issuance of this document, including 71 arrests in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province, in September and 160 arrests in Nanyang City, Henan Province, on November 10 alone.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 42,807 church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 32,815 in 2019. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 35,752 church members (at least 26,683 in 2019), arrested 7,055 (6,132 in 2019), detained 4,045 (4,161 in 2019), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 5,587 (3,824 in 2019), sentenced 1,098 (1,355 in 2019), and seized at least RMB 270 million ($41.3 million) in church and personal assets. At least 21 church members died as a result of abuse or persecution (19 in 2019). The 21 included four who died as a result of physical abuse or forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and four who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the CAG annual report, in August, a woman named Qin Shiqin died in custody in Shandong Province 10 days after her arrest. Facial swelling and blood in the corners of her mouth could be seen on her remains. A 71-year-old woman identified as “Xiang Chen” died in prison in Sichuan Province while serving a three-year sentence because of her faith. Her remains appeared emaciated, her face was swollen and bruised, and a scar was visible under her nose. A man named Zou Jihuang died in custody in Hubei Province of liver cirrhosis. Zou had been arrested in 2017. During his imprisonment, he had developed a liver condition for which he was denied medical treatment, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor. In Shaanxi Province, a 77-year-old woman named Yang Fengying committed suicide after police went to her home multiple times over the course of three years to intimidate and threaten her.

According to the CAG annual report, at least 847 CAG members were arrested between February and April, many of whom were apprehended as a result of the CCP’s antipandemic household checks or at identity card checkpoints. Police extracted information on the church from these individuals through physical abuse, such as administering electric shocks and handcuffing them painfully, with one arm over a shoulder and one twisted up from below.

Media reported authorities used measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups. The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic. According to media reports, the government conducted door-to-door household inspections, during which they identified and arrested members of banned religious groups. One CAG member said she hid under the bed every time officials came for an inspection. A government employee in Shandong Province said his superiors ordered him to search for nonlocal tenants, particularly members of banned groups, such as the CAG and Falun Gong.

In May, Bitter Winter reported the political and legal affairs commission of a locality in northeastern China released a document stating the CCP had established “a stability maintenance mechanism” targeting religious groups, among other individuals and groups, that the government determined posed “a danger to social stability” during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that between February and March, authorities used COVID-19-related mandatory identification checks and home inspections to arrest 325 CAG members. In February, authorities arrested two church members during an identification check, searched their home, and confiscated RMB 45,000 ($6,900) of church valuables. During interrogation, officers reportedly placed a plastic bag over the head of one of the Church members and beat him. They also strapped him to a “tiger bench” with his body tied in a stress position and shocked him with an electric baton. According to Bitter Winter, another church member was arrested when a pandemic inspection team that included community representatives, health personnel, and police officers came to his home. During his interrogation, officers reportedly covered his mouth with a plastic bag and hit him on the face with a desk calendar, stepped on his feet, beat his calves with an iron rod, and forced him to hold a live electric baton.

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,659 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed 8,576 practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith, compared with 6,109 arrested and 3,582 harassed in 2019. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted. Those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, authors, and dancers. Minghui stated individuals were tortured in custody. Minghui also reported that authorities sentenced 622 practitioners to prison throughout the country during the year. The sentences ranged from three months to 14 years, with the average sentence being three years and four months.

Minghui reported that during the year, 83 individuals from 20 provinces and centrally controlled municipalities died due to being persecuted for being Falun Gong practitioners. Some individuals died in custody as a result of physical abuse, including being deprived of sleep and food, forced into stress positions, and denied proper medical attention. Others died shortly after being released on medical parole. On May 13, authorities in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, arrested Zhang Zhiwen for distributing Falun Gong materials the previous August. Zheng’s husband attempted to bring her clothes and insulin for her diabetes, but authorities refused to accept the items, saying they would provide her medication. Zheng died in custody on May 17 and authorities sent the body directly to a funeral home without notifying her husband. Falun Gong practitioner Li Ling of Dazhangjia Village, Penglai City, Shandong Province, died on July 13 after reportedly being severely beaten following her arrest on June 28. Village authorities forced her family to cremate her remains on the same day. According to her family, her face was deformed, and she was covered in bruises. The village’s CCP secretary and a group of paramilitary soldiers took Li from her home on June 28 after a fellow villager reported seeing her with dozens of Falun Gong booklets.

According to Minghui, on September 22 and 23, authorities in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, arrested 27 Falun Gong practitioners and three family members who were not practitioners, and confiscated books, laptops, printers, money, photographs of Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi, and other personal items. Authorities harassed eight other practitioners within days of the arrests. One practitioner returned home to find police ransacking her home. They confiscated books on Falun Gong and arrested the woman along with her husband, who was not a practitioner. Following a group arrest of Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun City, Jilin Province, in July, police beat one practitioner, hit his head against the wall, and dragged him around on the concrete floor. He suffered severe injuries to his knees as a result.

According to Bitter Winter, on May 18, authorities assaulted several individuals who were protesting the demolition of a Buddhist temple in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, that authorities declared was “a dilapidated building.” Police beat one woman for filming the scene. A witness said, “Three officers pressed her to the ground, hitting her collarbones until she lost consciousness, and the phone was destroyed.” Police injured a monk in his 70s for waving his walking stick at authorities and accused him of “assaulting the police.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report, Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ-transplant market. A related series of articles published during the year examining the country’s organ transplantation system questioned the plausibility of official government statistics about the sourcing of transplant organs, stating there was an overlap between medical personnel performing organ transplants and individuals involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign.

On March 1, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal established by the Australia-based NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, released its Full Judgment on the conditions of organ harvesting in the country. The report was a fuller account with appendices of the evidence the nongovernmental group had drawn on and methodology it had used to reach conclusions contained in its Short Form Conclusions and Summary Judgment report issued in June 2019. In the Full Judgment report, the group included accounts by individuals, including medical personnel, who stated they were eyewitnesses to abuses, including from medical personnel, and other evidence that documented what the NGO determined to be a decades-long and ongoing state-run program of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, principally Falun Gong practitioners. The Full Judgment report also contained eyewitness accounts from Falun Gong and Uyghur individuals of involuntary medical examinations, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, and DNA tests.

According to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated news organization, on August 2, authorities broke into the home of a Falun Gong practitioner, pinned her down, and forcibly took a sample of her blood, telling her it was “required by the state.” One officer shouted, “The law does not apply to you. We’re going to wipe you all out.” The Epoch Times stated that dozens of other practitioners across the country reported similar incidents. On July 22, authorities in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, arrested and took blood samples from 46 practitioners. An attorney familiar with the cases said the blood sampling did not appear to be a routine physical checkup but rather was illegally “collecting people’s biological samples.”

According to the CAG annual report, harassment of members included the collection of biological data, such as blood samples and hair.

In April, Bitter Winter reported instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. According to a staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it was hospital practice to begin “treatment” of CAG members as soon as they were brought in, without any tests or examination. According to a member of the Church from Tianmen City, Hubei Province, who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital, “A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests.” Nurses threatened to tie her up if she refused to take medication. One former patient said two doctors pressed her down on a desk and shocked her on the back, hands, and feet with an electric baton to force her to take medication. During the month she was in the hospital, doctors administered six electroshock treatments, causing her to suffer memory loss and numbness in her limbs. She said doctors threatened that her son’s job would be negatively affected if she continued to practice her faith.

International religious media outlets and human rights groups reported that local authorities in several districts around the country continued to award compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners from certain groups or confiscating donation money. Conversely, local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, a government employee from Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter the municipal government issued arrest quotas for CAG members to subordinate localities, leading to the arrest of 211 individuals. In Jiangxi Province, the police arrested 116 CAG members and confiscated RMB 378,000 ($57,800) of church and personal assets. Minghui reported police received an unknown amount of bonus pay for each Falun Gong practitioner arrested.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities raided the homes of and arrested at least eight members of the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during an online worship service on April 12, Easter Sunday. A pastor and a deputy deacon were among those arrested. According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), authorities continued to harass members in the weeks following the raid. On April 24, authorities took Church member Ran Yunfei to a police station shortly before he was scheduled to speak in an online service. He returned home later that same day. The NGO ChinaAid reported police summoned Ran again in November in connection with his participation in another online religious seminar.

The ICC reported that on May 23, authorities arrested a pastor from the Nanjing Road Church in Wuhan, Hebei Province, during an online evangelism event in which he was taking part. They interrogated him for approximately five hours before releasing him.

According to Bitter Winter, in February, police arrested 13 members of the Born Again Movement, also called the All Sphere or All Range Church, in Huai’an City, Jiangsu Province. Five of the members arrested were elderly and suffered from various illnesses. Police released the five after protests from their relatives but forced them to sign statements promising to stop their church activities. Police also came to the home of another church member who hosted church gatherings at her home and threatened to arrest her if she did not stop doing so. They said three generations of her descendants would be unable to take college entrance examinations, enroll in the army, or become public servants if she did not stop. The officers took samples of her blood and prints of her fingers and palms.

According to AsiaNews.it, on April 2, authorities took Zhao Huaiguo, founder and pastor of the Bethel Church in Cili County, Hunan Province, from his home and arrested him on a charge of “inciting subversion against state power.” Police returned to his apartment on April 15 to confiscate books, Bibles, and photocopies of books as evidence of “illegal trade” in books. His wife said he was likely arrested because he spoke to foreign news agencies about COVID-19 and had not affiliated his church with the TSPM church. ChinaAid reported the Zhangjiajie Intermediate Court tried Zhao in October for “inciting subversion of state power,” and prosecutors recommended an 18-month sentence.

In May, the ICC reported that authorities transferred Pastor Wang Yi of the ERCC from Chengdu City Detention Center to a prison in an unknown location. In December 2019, Wang had been sentenced to nine years in prison. According to the ICC, since his arrest, authorities had denied Wang’s parents the ability to visit him, either in person or virtually, despite their having the legal right to do so, and Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location under surveillance.

At year’s end, 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 had detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups. In September, the NGO Jubilee Campaign submitted a written statement to the 45th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the government to “release unconditionally and with immediate effect all political and religious prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng.” Gao’s daughter, Geng Ge, submitted a video statement to the council, stating, “As of today, I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

In October, ChinaAid reported that since July, police in Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, had threatened and harassed Pastor Wang Hai of the Trinity Church and his wife and detained other church leaders and members of Wang’s extended family. Wang said authorities had targeted the Church because its members belonged to the ethnic Miao minority and were Christian. He said that due to the ongoing harassment, church attendance had dropped from 100 worshippers to only a handful who attended Sunday services.

AsiaNews.it reported that on September 1, authorities from the Religious Affairs Bureau in Fujian Province arrested Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of the Mindong Diocese, and held him incommunicado for 17 days to pressure him to join the CCPA. At least 20 underground priests in the region faced similar pressure from the religious affairs bureau, according to AsiaNews.it.

According to RFA, on April 19 and May 3, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Church pastor Yang Xibo told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM. According to multiple international press reports and mobile phone videos that Church members posted to Twitter, authorities forcibly entered a private residence in which Church members were holding a worship service, without a warrant or showing any form of identification. Authorities seized several congregants and tried to drag them out, injuring three; they detained at least nine members, releasing them approximately 12 hours later. According to RFA, authorities raided Xingguang Church again on June 11, taking away furniture and other church belongings, but did not arrest anyone. ChinaAid stated authorities broke into church members’ homes on July 22, destroying and removing property.

In January, RFA reported that authorities in Jinan City, Shandong Province, arrested Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country. He was held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” According to RFA, this charge was “frequently leveled at peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

The Falun Dafa Information Center, a Falun Gong rights advocacy group, reported authorities in Beijing detained at least 40 persons ahead of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on May 22. Sources said police also harassed practitioners and searched their homes and that police told the individuals they were taking the actions because of the upcoming political meetings. On April 21, police forcibly entered the home of Wang Yuling by prying open her window. They ransacked the house and confiscated books and printed materials related to Falun Gong, as well as a printer and computer. They took Wang and her daughter into custody. On April 27, authorities forcibly entered the home of Yang Yuliang, searched it, and confiscated Falun Gong books and photographs of Falun Gong’s founder. They held Yang and his daughter, Yang Dandan, in custody for three days.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities pressuring members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. Media reported the government threatened to withhold social welfare benefits and to retaliate against family members. The NGO CSW stated authorities instructed schools to report the religious beliefs of students and staff.

Bitter Winter reported that on November 1, the government began the seventh national population census, collecting a broad range of personal and household data, including individuals’ identification numbers. According to several census takers, although there were no questions about religion on the census questionnaire, they were instructed when visiting people’s homes to pay attention to religious materials and symbols and to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue. In one case, when five census takers entered a home in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, they saw a Bible and asked the residents if they were Christian. They determined the home was being used as a house church and ordered the residents to stop hosting gatherings. A census taker in Yantai City, Shandong Province, said local police told him and his colleagues to report any households with images associated with Falun Gong. A census taker in Heze City, Shandong Province, said he was ordered to report to police any person who did not allow him inside the home, because refusal might indicate the person held religious beliefs or hosted unauthorized religious gatherings.

According to the ICC, on October 11, police arrested Elder Li Yingqiang of the ERCC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, just before the church began an online service. During the arrest, police also threatened Li’s two young children. Police also arrested another church member, Jia Xuewei, and interrogated him for several hours about ERCC’s recent spiritual retreat and the worship that was about to take place. Both were released later that day. An ERCC member told the ICC that authorities likely detained Li and Jia to prevent the online service from taking place. According to the source, police told Li he would be taken from his home every week and that they would target his children if he posted about his experience online.

According to Bitter Winter, during the year, authorities in several provinces investigated the personal backgrounds of civil servants, hospital staff, teachers, students, and the family members of each to determine their religious status. In May, the Education Bureau of Jinan City, Shandong Province, required some primary and secondary schools to determine if any of their teachers, students, or their family members were religious.

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.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. The April 2018 white paper by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) stated there were approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 were 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 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.

The 2018 SCIO white paper stated that by 2017, there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA: 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic, and 21 Protestant. Students younger than 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 CCPA propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country: 222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered or, at 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. According to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, Article 34 of the new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups regulation, which governs money and finances, if enforced, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations, promulgated in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” According to Bitter Winter, on April 13, the UFWD in Zibo City, Shandong Province, issued an order calling on religious groups and clergy to write essays on their “love for the country and the Communist Party.” A Catholic dean in Zibo said that on April 16, a religious affairs bureau official told him to study Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Congress of the CCP for an examination he would have to take later. On February 18, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province issued a notice that the city’s religious groups should hold events to advance Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, the TSPM in Fujian Province issued a document stating, “Posters promoting the core socialist values shall be posted in prominent positions in all church venues. Clergy members should highlight the core socialist values in their sermons and use important festivals, major events, and other occasions to interpret and publicize the core socialist values, so that they are inserted into believers’ minds, their Sunday worship services, and daily lives.” Local government authorities reportedly threatened to close churches whose clergy refused to help spread government propaganda.

According to Bitter Winter, the government regularly pressured clergy to incorporate government messages into sermons. Following President Xi’s call in August to curb food waste in the country, two Chinese Christian Councils of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, demanded all TSPM churches integrate the president’s ideas into their sermons, so that “the policy reaches everyone in society.” In response, some clergy members reportedly integrated the president’s exhortation into the Biblical story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country. Many religious groups faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances. Following investigations, authorities shut down hundreds of churches that were reportedly unregistered or whose registration had not been updated under the new regulations. In late 2019, the Jilin Province Religious Affairs Bureau issued a document calling for investigations of churches related to or funded by overseas religious groups and blocking their activities online, and it began implementing these measures during the year. In Shandong Province, national security officers interrogated a house church pastor in February for evangelical activities abroad.

The government media outlet Xinhua reported that in September, UFWD vice head and SARA director general Wang announced that in the previous 70 years, through the development of the TSPM, foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in the country.

On May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association held a training session for Buddhist professionals and monks across the province. The training included advising monks on how to implement religious Sinicization, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National Religious Work Conference, and the religious affairs regulations.

The BAC-affiliated Buddhist website AmituofoCN.com reported that on April 16, approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized by the Hainan Province UFWD, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School. Participants studied the principles of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the Regulations on Religious Affairs. Hainan UFWD deputy director general Liu Geng in his opening remarks told the religious professionals to “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.” According to AmituofoCN.com, on May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association organized another training session for clergy, teachers, and religious workers from various temples in the province. Song Xinghe, an official in the Hainan UFWD Religious Affairs Bureau, gave a lecture entitled, “Insistence on the Sinicization of Religion.”

According to Gospel Times, a Chinese Christian news website, from July 15 to 17, the Guangdong TSPM held a training session for 98 clergy to study new regulations and promote Sinicization in Guangdong Province. An associate professor from Jinling Union Theological Seminary gave a lecture on TSPM and the Sinicization of Christianity. Government officials also gave a lecture on “anticult” measures.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders. The publication reported that on July 20, the Dandong City Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province required TSPM clergy to participate in a sermon competition on the Sinicization of religion. The clergy were told to prepare sermons by “looking for elements in the Bible that are relevant to the core socialist values and traditional Chinese culture,” in conformity with “the progress of the times.” One clergy member told Bitter Winter that only competition participants would pass the annual review to receive a clergy certificate.

In August, a conference to study the new civil code and volume three of Xi Jinping on Governance was held at the Guangxiao Buddhist Temple, organized by the Guangdong Buddhist Association. Approximately 800 leaders of all religious groups in Guangdong Province attended in-person and virtually.

The state-owned China News Service reported that on December 1, SARA director general Wang delivered remarks at the 10th National Congress of the BAC. Wang called on the BAC to “pursue political progress toward the adherence of Sinicization of Buddhism” to ensure Buddhist content was suitable for “contemporary social development.”

From August 10 to16, the Gansu provincial UFWD held what it described as the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of temple management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. A UFWD press release stated the training was intended to direct the Sinicization of Islam, promote the statement of CCP principles, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and “increase political literacy, all while highlighting policies and regulations, history and culture, and national and provincial conditions through the lens of patriotic education.”

In November, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an Islamic scholar in the northwestern part of the country said of Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out. You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out – but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

On October 13, the state-owned China National Daily News reported the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association released an outline for implementing the “five-year plan for Hubei Province to adhere to the Sinicization of Islam in China (2018-2022).” According to the article, measures to implement the plan included “strengthening political identity,” studying the works of Xi Jinping, studying the Regulations on Religious Affairs, and guiding imams to interpret the scriptures in accordance with “Chinese traditional culture and the core values of socialism.”

China News Service reported that on November 28, the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Taoist Association was held in Jurong, Jiangsu Province. In addition to passing a code of conduct for Taoist teachers, the congress elected Li Guangfu as the new Taoist Association chairman. Li stated that Taoism should “adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “adhere to the Sinicization of Taoism.”

Media reported in September that Catholics in the country protested the distorted retelling of a Bible story in a textbook the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology Press published to teach “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools. In the original biblical story from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who committed adultery and prevented a crowd from stoning her to death. In the textbook, Jesus disperses the crowd, but he says to the woman, “I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” and he then proceeds to stone her to death himself. According to UCA News, Catholic critics said the authors of the textbook “want to prove that the rule of law is supreme in China and such respect for law is essential for a smooth transfer to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Sources told media that authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians wearing skull caps or veils.

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 loyalty to the CCP over the church. In a press release on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Pastor Wang Qingwen, senior pastor of Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches in the city to “unswervingly adhere to the three-self patriotic principle of teaching and strive to promote the theological construction of the Sinicization of Christianity.” In the press release, Wang urged churches to continue to adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to “hold high the banner of patriotism.”

In December, the Jerusalem Post reported there were approximately 100 practicing Jews among the 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Lacking access to the Torah, they used Christian Bibles containing the Old Testament. Members of the community said they worried about government crackdowns on religion and had to celebrate Hanukkah and hold other gatherings in secret. One community member said, “Every time we celebrate, we are scared.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities placed pastors of house churches and dissident Catholic priests under arrest to make sure they would not lead Christmas celebrations in churches or private homes. According to the publication, in Xiamen, Fujian Province, police stopped a group of Christians from singing Christmas songs at a mall, even though they had been invited to perform there. Authorities fined a Christian in Lushan County, Henan Province, RMB 160,000 ($24,500) for gathering people to pray and sing Christmas songs. The NGO Human Rights Defenders reported there was pressure on schools across the country to teach children that Christmas should not be celebrated and that gifts should not be exchanged. According to the NGO, the government gave permission for “spontaneous” street demonstrations by people carrying banners reading “Christmas, Get out of China.”

The government labeled several religious groups as “cults” (xie jiao – literally “heterodox teachings”), including the CAG, the Shouters, the Association of Disciples, and the All Sphere Church. The government also continued to ban certain groups, such as Falun Gong, which it classified as an illegal organization. In July, Bitter Winter reported that several provinces had introduced measures that encouraged individuals to report on members of what it called “cults,” which carried a penalty of between three and seven years’ imprisonment. According to the CAG’s annual report, authorities harassed and threatened with imprisonment more than 8,400 Church members across the country who refused to sign statements renouncing their faith. In Shandong Province, those who reported on suspected “cult” members could receive up to a RMB 2,500 ($380) award, while Hainan Province offered awards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300). Guangdong Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Nanjing City introduced similar measures. Actions by cults to be reported included using the internet to produce or disseminate religious materials; producing or disseminating religious leaflets, pictures, slogans, newspapers, and other publications; and hanging religious banners and posters in public places. Sources told Bitter Winter the campaign against xie jiao was ubiquitous throughout the country. Bitter Winter posted photographs of a park in Yuchen County, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, that contained multiple large red banners with anti-xie jiao messages.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it labeled as cults and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities. Faluninfo.net reported that in June, a police supervisor in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, fired Falun Gong practitioner Zha Zhuolin from the force for refusing to write a statement denouncing the group. According to Zha, the supervisor, Xu Wang, said, “The first rule for a police officer is to be loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Media reported that in Guangzhou, pandemic-control volunteers delivered anti-xie jiao brochures, along with facemasks and hand sanitizer, to residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then broadcast anticult propaganda when an industrial park reopened in April.

According to media, police and local religious affairs bureau officials raided the Dongguan Branch of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church on the evening of August 21 when more than 10 adherents were holding a Bible study session. Police accused the attendees of “spreading heterodox teachings” and detained three individuals. Two were released shortly, but the minister, Yang Jun, was detained until the next day on a fraud charge.

According to Bitter Winter, the government responded to protests against school reform in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region by blaming the unrest on banned religious groups, such as Falun Gong, or groups it labeled cults, such as the CAG. On August 28, the region’s Anticult Association launched “Prevention of Xie Jiao Propaganda Month.” Activities during the month included holding events, distributing brochures, and teaching “all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia to guard against xie jiao.”

In October, CSW reported that some ethnic minority villages had established “village rules” to allow villagers to isolate and target Christians. According to CSW, in September, village authorities in Huang Fei Village, Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, issued a notice stating that the traditional faith of the Dai community was Buddhism and that Christianity was an “evil cult.” The notice announced that anyone who violated the rules of the village “by believing in Jesus Christ and other sects” would have to pay a financial penalty to the community. CSW stated that individuals on social media reported the Li community in Hainan Province had also imposed a financial penalty on persons believing in Christianity.

From January to June or July, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bitter Winter reported, however, that authorities allowed Taoist temples displaying Mao Zedong images to stay open throughout the lockdown. Sources told Bitter Winter that people worshiped at the Arhat Temple in Zhumadian City, Henan Province, throughout the lockdown because it had a Mao Zedong wall painting. The director of the Chinese National Ancestors’ Temple in Shanqui City, Henan Province, said authorities allowed his temple to remain open during the pandemic because it had a Mao Zedong statue.

Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown. On February 23, Shandong Province’s two state-run Christian organizations, the TSPM and the Chinese Christian Council, issued a notice prohibiting live streaming of religious services. A former TSPM pastor from Jiangxi Province told Bitter Winter that in early February, police shut down a chatroom he was using for a religious gathering. The ICC reported that on August 11, the local religious affairs bureau in Yunnan Province fined Zhang Wenli of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for conducting unauthorized online Bible study. A TSPM pastor in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, told Bitter Winter in April that the government blocked the link he shared with his congregation on WeChat, a Chinese social media application. A house church director in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, live-streamed a church service on YY, a video-based social network, but the service was suspended less than half an hour into the broadcast. An imam in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, reported that shortly after he discussed Islamic festivals on a social media platform, police blocked his account. A local government official in Liaoning Province was summoned by his superiors in March for attending an online service of a South Korean church. They forced him to uninstall the app that allowed him to join the service.

In June, AsiaNews.it reported that although the government had begun allowing churches to reopen, the bureaucratic process and conditions for reopening made doing so difficult. A priest in central China said these conditions included getting permission to reopen from the village, city, and provincial governments and meeting strict sanitation requirements. The priest said, “Religion does not seem to belong to us; it belongs to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” The Catholic News Service reported authorities in Zhejiang Province issued a notice on May 29 stating that priests were required to “preach on patriotism” as a condition for resuming in-person services. Bitter Winter reported in June that authorities in Zhejiang Province required churches to praise the government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to pray for “national economic and social development,” “attainment of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and “promotion and realization of human destiny community,” all of which were President Xi Jinping’s political slogans.

According to Bitter Winter, in July, before the government had begun to lift lockdown restrictions and reopen religious venues in Nanyang City, Henan Province, the city’s religious affairs bureau ordered several folk religion temples to remove religious books and incense burners. Government authorities inspected the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple three times in August. As a condition for reopening the venue, officials ordered the temple to burn scriptures and expel a nun who lived on the premises. The temple remained closed, however, even after meeting these conditions.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although it allowed some musical, cultural, and political events to take place. On Christmas Day, riot police blocked the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral of the Savior in Beijing (also known as the Xishiku Church), saying religious gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic. A large Christmas tree was used to block the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing, and signs were also posted there saying gatherings were cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to Bitter Winter, officials placed arbitrary restrictions on Catholic churches affiliated with the CCPA, closed facilities, and merged others without the congregations’ consent. Government officials in Linyi used a point system to determine whether a congregation should be merged, considering such factors as whether the congregation had more than 10 members or the facility was equipped with a blackboard, audio system, desks, and chairs.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 10, the local religious affairs bureau and the security bureau ordered Father Liu Jiangdong, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, to leave the Zhengshou Diocese, which was affiliated with the CCPA. A source told Bitter Winter that government authorities had previously accused Liu of financial improprieties, suspended his priesthood certificate, and imprisoned him from October 2018 to December 2019. The source said Liu had in fact been imprisoned because he opposed removal of the cross from atop his church, formed a Catholic youth group, and allowed minors to attend religious services. A member of his congregation said that since Liu’s release, authorities had surveilled him, monitored his telephone calls, and locked him out of his residence. A churchgoer said authorities threatened to fine members of Liu’s former congregation up to RMB 200,000 ($30,600) if they sheltered him or invited him to hold Mass in their homes.

Media and human rights organizations reported that SARA issued a new requirement in October that only the IAC was permitted to organize Muslims’ pilgrimage trips. The new regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health. They also had to be able to completely pay the costs associated with going on the Hajj and must oppose religious extremism. The new administrative measure was reportedly intended to “preserve religious freedom and the continued Sinicization of religion in the PRC.”

According to Bitter Winter, the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang Province issued a document in April that required authorities to increase “counterterrorism and stability maintenance measures” during Ramadan. The document instructed police to intensify surveillance of local Hui and other Muslims, especially during Friday prayers, the daily breaking of the fast, and other important Ramadan activities. It also instructed police to surveil ethnic minority visitors from Xinjiang by checking their documents and luggage, determining their whereabouts while in the city, and acquiring other information.

NPR reported in November that in the spring, police detained 14 men in Yiwu City, Central Zhejiang Province, because they had purchased Islamic books. They were subjected to weeks of questioning about their political views and online correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and Chinese Muslims overseas. According to a friend of one of the men detained, “The police had printed out the text records everyone had on WeChat with writers and publishers…Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to [the police] beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

Sources reported 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.

Bitter Winter reported that in April, authorities placed surveillance equipment, including facial recognition cameras, in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Authorities also installed surveillance cameras in all Protestant and Catholic churches in Jinxiang County, Jinin City, Shandong Province. A deacon at one TSPM Church in Henan Province, where authorities had installed a surveillance camera in December 2019, said, “[Government officials] always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” In March and April, authorities in a city in Zhejiang Province placed surveillance cameras outside the entrances of homes of seven members of the CAG. One church member reported she was told this was done for “theft prevention.”

In October, Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Jiangxi Province’s Poyang County, which has a large population of Christians, issued orders to install RMB one million ($153,000) in facial recognition cameras in all state-approved places of worship. According to the report, authorities installed approximately 200 cameras in more than 50 TSPM churches from July to September, and nearly 50 in 16 Buddhist and Taoist temples. A police officer stated the cameras were installed to monitor church members and sermons.

A Catholic source in the northeast part of the country told AsiaNews.it in July that government staff attended Sunday services to monitor activities and ensure children who were 18 or younger did not attend. The Grand Mosque in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, displayed signs prohibiting children who were 18 and younger from participating in religious activity. According to one worshipper at the mosque, authorities said this was to allow young people to focus on their secular education.

Minghui reported that police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, intensely surveilled Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zhenyu, who had been released from Suzhou Prison on September 19 after completing his three-year sentence. While monitoring Ma, authorities intimidated his mother and other practitioners.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in September that authorities in Sanya City, in the island province of Hainan, took measures against the predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, which comprised approximately 10,000 members. They banned girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school. An Utsul community worker said the ban prompted fierce protests by students and their families and that it was temporarily lifted after hundreds of students wore hijabs in public and boycotted classes. Photographs and videos circulated on social media showed girls wearing hijabs and reading from textbooks outside their primary school while surrounded by police officers. According to the SCMP, Utsuls working in government or CCP bodies were told the hijab was “disorderly.” The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued document, Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui Neighborhoods, which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods on the island. The document called for the demolition of mosques displaying “Arabic” features, the removal of shop signs saying in Chinese characters the words “Islamic” or “Halal,” and increased surveillance over the Utsul population.

According to Bitter Winter, from March to May, Islamic symbols and writings in Arabic were painted over or covered on signboards of 70 Hui-run businesses in Chuxiong, the capital of the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. According to some shop owners, officials from various state institutions, among them the public security bureau, urban management, and religious affairs bureaus, ordered them to remove the symbols from their signboards or replace them entirely. Otherwise, their business licenses would be revoked. A baker from the prefecture’s Lufeng County said that from December to May, Islamic symbols were removed from the signboards of 62 halal shops in the county. “The state is out of control, like during the Cultural Revolution…Hui men are not allowed to wear white caps and women, headscarves. Hui Muslims will disappear in two or three generations.” Local officials told shop owners that the order came from the central government and that the signboard-removal campaign was nationwide. According to one local resident in Songming County, Kunming Province, signboards on 176 Hui businesses were “Sinicized” between December 2019 and May. A restaurant owner said, “If we Hui people tried to argue with officials, they would call us rioters and arrest us on any trumped-up charge.”

The SCMP reported in September that new foreign teachers coming to the country had to attend a mandatory 20-hour training course of what the news source characterized as “political indoctrination covering China’s development, laws, professional ethics, and education policies.” According to the newspaper, the Hainan provincial public security bureau offered rewards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for tips on foreigners who “engaged in religious activities without permission,” including teaching religion and evangelizing. One teacher said authorities installed a surveillance camera in his classroom to monitor his lessons.

The SCMP reported in September that many foreign missionaries were not allowed to return to the country after it partially lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreign national residents. According to the Voice of America (VOA), in November, the Ministry of Justice published draft regulations requiring foreign worshippers wanting to host religious activities to apply for a permit and to demonstrate their groups were “friendly to China” in their country of origin. The regulations would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners and would require those organizing religious activities to provide the names, nationalities, and visa status of those who would attend as well as a detailed program of the service, including which texts would be read, before authorities would grant permission. According to VOA, authorities said the new regulations were intended to stop foreigners from spreading “religious extremism” or using religion “to undermine China’s national and ethnic unity.” The draft regulation specified it would also apply to individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

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. During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” from unofficial distribution channels. The government-affiliated news outlet Meipian.com reported that in January, law enforcement officers inspected publication wholesale and retail locations, farmer’s markets, and “urban-rural junctions within their jurisdictions” looking for “illegal religious publications and illegal training courses of a religious nature.” The ICC reported that on March 24, the Zhongshan No. 1 District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong Province charged Christians Liang Rurui and Zhu Guoqing with conducting illegal business operations that “seriously disrupted market order.” According to the ICC, authorities in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, had arrested them in November and December 2019, respectively, for printing 7,000 children’s Bibles. According to the human rights blog Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network), on July 2, authorities arrested four Christians from the Life Tree Culture Communications Co., Ltd. – Fu Xuanjuan, Deng Tianyong, Han Li, and Feng Qunhao – on charges of “illegal business operations” for selling electronic audio Bible players, small handheld devices that allow the user to listen to (as opposed to read) Biblical text. According to Weiquanwang, the company had been legally established in 2011 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on September 14, the education and environmental protection bureaus in Luoyang City, Henan Province, inspected a local printing house to determine whether it was publishing banned religious materials. The printing house manager said, “They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content. If any such content is found, I’ll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed.” According to Bitter Winter, similar bans applied to photocopying businesses. One photocopy employee said, “I was told to report anyone who comes to copy religious materials.” Another said, “If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities.”

The ICC reported in September that the People’s Court of Linhai City in Zhejiang Province sentenced online Christian bookseller Chen Yu to seven years in prison and fined him for “illegal business operations,” allegedly for selling unapproved religious publications. Authorities first detained him in September 2019.

In July, Bitter Winter reported government restrictions on printing, copying, and mailing nonapproved Buddhist literature increased throughout the country. A source in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said authorities confiscated thousands of Buddhist books and compact discs from at least 20 stores in the region. One store owner said authorities confiscated more than 2,000 Buddhist books and materials from the store. Another shop owner said, “In the past, people would send me books and materials they printed themselves to distribute them for free, but nobody dares to do this now.” In March, police in Zhejiang Province forbade printing houses from fulfilling orders from venues not approved by the government. In June, authorities in Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia, banned copy centers from printing Buddhist and Christian materials. One copy shop owner said, “Government officials come every day to inspect computers and copy machines. If they discover that religious materials have been copied, I could be held legally accountable.”

Bitter Winter reported that in early September, police arrested a person in Jinan City, Shandong Province, who attempted to mail compact discs of sermons by Shenpo Sodargye, a Tibetan Buddhist master, to the more than 100 individuals in Weihai City, Shangdong Province, who had ordered them online. The names of the buyers were forwarded to local Weihai police, who summoned them for questioning.

According to Bitter Winter, during a meeting on Buddhism organized on July 31 by the Fuzhou City Religious Affairs Bureau in Jiangxi Province, authorities banned all temples in the city from keeping religious books from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the name of “preventing foreign infiltration.” The director of a Buddhist temple said, “The government controls all books on Buddhism; nothing that does not comply with the CCP ideology is allowed and is considered illegal. Only religious materials promoting the Party are permitted to be circulated.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Chinese New Year. Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them. One merchant in Luhe County, Guangdong Province, said, “We don’t carry religious couplets. Even if we had them, we wouldn’t dare sell them.” On January 19, three officials from Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, entered a TSPM church, took photos, and registered the personal information of those in the church. The officials distributed couplets praising the CCP and demanded they be posted. A government employee in Xinmi City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter that in early March, municipal authorities ordered all town and township governments to conduct door-to-door inspections of households and shops looking for religious couplets. Inspectors were instructed to remove the couplets and cooperate with the public security bureau to ascertain where they had been produced. One shopkeeper said authorities threatened to close his business if he posted Christian couplets again.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. According to VOA, in October, ChinaAid stated that online censors removed the words “Christ” (jidu), “Jesus” (Yesu), and “Bible” (shengjing) from social media posts and replaced them with the initials “JD,” “YS,” and “SJ.” The word Christianity was replaced with “JD religion.” According to some scholars, Christians were replacing the words in texts themselves to avoid online censors who might block the posts.

In May, Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to dismantle Islamic architectural features and remove Islamic symbols from mosques throughout the country, and it published photographs from multiple locations showing construction workers taking down domes and minarets as well as before-and-after pictures. In Weizhou City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, many of the more than 4,000 mosques in the city were remodeled or destroyed between 2018 and February 2020 as part of the government’s “de-Arabization and de-Saudization” campaign. Before-and-after photographs of the Weizhou Grand Mosque and other mosques showed that Chinese-style pagodas had replaced minarets and crescent moon symbols had been removed.

In late March, authorities removed the domes and star-and-crescent symbols from 17 mosques in Pingliang City, Gansu Province. A local imam said that before the removals, authorities forced imams to study “de-Arabization and de-Saudization policies as well as the promotion of religion ‘Sinicization.’” The imam said authorities threatened to revoke the credentials of imams who did not cooperate with removal of the symbols. Many mosques visible from major highways in Qinghai Province in September had replaced traditional Islamic minarets with more Chinese-looking structures or appeared to be in the process of doing so. Mosques with more traditional Han Chinese architecture, such as the Grand Mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, remained unchanged and were highlighted in public tours by imams and other mosque representatives.

According to Bitter Winter, in January, authorities removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from at least 10 mosques in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. On March 18, amid the coronavirus lockdown, government-hired workers remodeled the roof of the Gongmazhuang Mosque in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, to make it look “more Chinese.” Authorities had removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from the mosque in November 2019. In late March, the government ordered the removal of domes and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Xiaoma Village, Henan Province. In mid-November, authorities removed the dome and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Qinghua Town, Henan Province, and hung banners reading, “Resolutely resist religious infiltration and combat religious extremism” at the mosque’s entrance. In Maying Village, Henan Province, after the government ordered the removal of symbols from the local mosque, one resident said, “We have to listen to what Xi Jinping says and what state policies indicate. No one dares to challenge the state.”

In December, Bitter Winter published before-and-after photographs of numerous churches in multiple provinces, including churches affiliated with the TSPM, that showed that exterior crosses had been removed and facades altered to eliminate Western-style features that identified them as Christian worship venues. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM churches in Anhui Province between January and July. In April, UCA News reported the removal of crosses from several Catholic churches, including from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Anhui Diocese on April 18. A priest said dioceses normally cooperated with authorities on the removal of crosses in the hopes that they would not demolish the entire building. On June 6, all crosses, other religious symbols, and pews were removed from the Wangdangjia village church in Linyi County. The “Catholic Church” signboard above its entrance was covered with wooden boards.

According to Bitter Winter, between March 2019 and January 2020, authorities removed crosses from approximately 70 Christian churches, including TSPM churches, in Linyi City, Shandong Province. Authorities said the crosses were “too close to the national highway,” “too tall,” or might seem “unpleasant” to visiting provincial government superiors. They threatened to demolish the buildings if the crosses remained. On January 8, the provincial government ordered a TSPM Church near the high-speed rail line in Lanshan District, Shandong Province, to remove its exterior cross because it was “too eye-catching.” The Chinese characters for “love” and “Christian Church” were also removed. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM Churches in Anhui Province between January and July.

According to Bitter Winter, officials in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, pressured the abbot of the Buddhist Yuantong Temple to remove an 11-meter (36-foot)-high statue of Guanyin for being “too tall.” According to sources, authorities threatened to close the temple if the abbot did not comply. On March 9, workers dismantled the statue, and photographs accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed it lying in pieces on the ground.

Media reported authorities continued to destroy religious sites, including those affiliated with the TSPM and CCPA. Throughout the year, Bitter Winter published numerous before-and-after photographs showing churches, temples, and other religious structures that had been reduced in whole or in part to rubble. Bitter Winter reported that on March 10, authorities demolished a TSPM Church in Shangqiu, Henan Province. A source told Bitter Winter that on March 10 at 4:00 a.m., more than 200 government personnel and police came to demolish a TSPM Church in Xiazhuang Village, Shangqiu City, Henan Province. According to the source, police kicked in the door and forcibly removed a member of the congregation who was guarding the church, fracturing two of his ribs. The contents of the church were buried under the rubble.

On April 20, the government of Shangrao County in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Prefecture, demolished a TSPM Church, saying the structure was “unlicensed and dilapidated.” Sources said local officials told the congregation higher-level officials had ordered the demolition because “the government doesn’t allow belief in Jesus.” A church member told Bitter Winter the structure was in fact sound and was also registered with the local religious affairs bureau. The church member said that, contrary to law, authorities did not compensate the congregation for destroying the building. Accompanying the article were photographs showing the church before demolition and a pile of rubble following the demolition. According to another church member, following the demolition, congregants began practicing separately at home but had to be cautious. “The government arrests anyone in unauthorized religious gatherings. When they find two or three of us meeting, they can charge us with any crime at will, saying we are against the CCP.”

The ICC reported that on September 12, authorities in the town of Xiezhou in Yanhu District, Yucheng City, Shangxi Province, demolished the tombstones of more than 20 Swedish missionaries who had performed missionary work in the country in the early 1900s. They threatened to arrest anyone who photographed or videotaped the incident. Authorities planted vegetation over the gravesites.

Local sources reported authorities continued to close Christian venues or repurpose them into secular spaces. According to Bitter Winter, in April, the government of Qingshui Township in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, closed a TSPM Church for being “unlicensed and too eye-catching.” Officials destroyed religious symbols inside the church and posted a closure notice at the entrance. In May, officials converted the church into an activity center for the elderly, placing a ping-pong table, Chinese chess boards, and secular books inside.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 1, six local government officials and police officers raided a Catholic nursing home in Fuzhou City, Jiangxi Province. They confiscated 30 religious publications, a cross, and other religious symbols, sculptures, and paintings. A photograph accompanying the article showed that a mural of Jesus that had been displayed behind the alter was replaced with a landscape painting and an outdoor sculpture of Jesus was covered with a shed. Authorities pressured the church’s priest to sign an application to join the CCPA, but he refused. According to Bitter Winter, authorities also targeted the Benevolence Home, a nursing home operated by nuns in Saiqi Village, Fujian Province. On January 12, nearly 50 local government officials and police officers raided the nursing home where more than 30 persons lived, some of whom were from impoverished households or disabled. Authorities forced the elderly residents out and cut off the building’s electricity and water supply.

In July, a Catholic source in southeast China told AsiaNews.it that the local government denied permits to construct new Catholic churches and halted construction that was already underway. In January, AsiaNews.it reported that in at least five parishes in Mindong Diocese, Fujian Province, including Fuan, Saiqi, and Suanfeng, authorities cut off power and water to prevent churches from being used, citing “fire safety” measures.

Bitter Winter reported that government and law enforcement personnel destroyed the Great Hall of Strength, a Buddhist temple in Handan City, Hubei Province, on March 6. A local Buddhist said authorities demolished it because it “lacked a religious-activity venue-registration certificate.” The temple director said he was never approached about obtaining such a certificate. The local Buddhist said, “The government just wanted to demolish the temple…People cannot argue with authorities; they will accuse us of breaking the law as they please.”

According to Bitter Winter, authorities demolished the Buddhist Phoenix Temple in Qitang Town, Chongqing Municipality, on January 3. In March, authorities ordered eight Buddhist temples in Yongchuan District, Chongqing Municipality, to close and brick up their entrances, rendering the buildings unusable. Authorities demolished the Longhua Temple in Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, on April 1.

Sources told Bitter Winter that on May 18, more than 20 officials and police in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, destroyed a Buddhist temple that authorities had declared “a dilapidated building.” When a protester attempted to film the scene, police officers pressed her to the ground and hit her in the collarbone until she lost consciousness. Police then destroyed her mobile phone.

Bitter Winter reported several cases of authorities destroying folk religion sites throughout the country. From April 14 to 19, authorities demolished three buildings in the Yangfu Temple in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. On April 22, authorities demolished 18 statues in two folk religion temples in Linzhou, Henan Province. From April to June, authorities demolished 85 small folk religion temples in Handan, Hebei Province. On May 1, authorities demolished an ancestral hall in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 2 in Dangtu County, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Prefecture, more than 100 police officers destroyed a village folk temple. One villager said police first cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching. The witness said, “They then smashed the lock to get inside and demolished the temple after dragging out the eight elderly believers protecting it.” The online magazine posted a video on social media that showed a large number of police standing guard while a bulldozer knocked down the structure.

Bitter Winter reported in July that authorities had not yet reopened the Cao’an Manichean temple in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police were seen periodically patrolling the temple. Before its closure, authorities ordered the construction of a flagpole for the national flag and placed government propaganda slogans inside the temple.

Religious education for minors remained banned, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.

AsiaNews.it reported authorities sent a directive to Xilinhaote Middle School Number 6 in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia dated March 25 forbidding students from taking part in religious activities in or outside of school. The directive reportedly prohibited parents from teaching their children about religion and religious organizations from operating in schools. Students and teachers found disobeying the restrictions faced expulsion and dismissal.

In November, Bitter Winter reported that a fifth-grade teacher in a Liaoning Province primary school told the online magazine any mention of religious holidays had been purged from English-language textbooks. The teacher said a text originally entitled “Easter Party” had been replaced with “English Party” and descriptive passages such as “You will meet the Easter Bunny” with “You will meet Robin the Robot.”

In January, AsiaNews.it, reported the government had closed down several Tibetan Buddhist centers in Sichuan Province because, authorities said, “Illegal activities” were carried out in the centers. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet said the government’s actual purpose was to limit the influence of Khenpo Sodargye, a Buddhist monk who founded these centers. The centers were associated with the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, from which authorities had expelled more than 15,000 Buddhist monks and nuns since 2016 and destroyed significant portions of the property.

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. The associations also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “Uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22-years-old.” According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge to renew their license each year.

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations and the Holy See had no official representative to the country. On October 22, the Holy See and the PRC announced they had agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. The two parties signed the original agreement in 2018. The precise terms of the agreement were not made public, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA) and Vatican News, it was a “pastoral” effort to help unify members of the underground Catholic Church in China – which had remained in communion with the Holy See – with Catholics belonging to the CCPA. Vatican News stated the agreement “does not directly concern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between the clergy and the authorities of the country. The Provisional Agreement concerns exclusively the process of nomination of bishops…” Following the signing of the agreement, seven CCPA-affiliated bishops appointed without papal mandate were brought into full communion with the Holy See; an eighth bishop was posthumously recognized. AsiaNews.it reported that on November 23, Reverend Thomas Chen Tianhao became the third new bishop without a prior affiliation with the CCPA to be ordained under the agreement, assuming the position of Bishop of Qingdao in Qingdao City, Shandong Province. UCA News reported that on December 22, a fourth bishop, Peter Liu Genzhu, was ordained bishop of Hongdong in Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Commentators, human rights groups, and some Catholic leaders criticized the agreement as doing little to protect freedom of religion or belief for Catholics in China. On November 17, the America Jesuit Review published an article discussing 30 bishops who belonged to the underground Catholic Church and refused to join the CCPA. “The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong in his online blog of October 7 said the agreement was lopsided, with the CCP nominating bishops for the Pope to approve, and that persecution of the underground Catholic Church had increased since 2018.

Catholic clergy and laypersons told media the situation of both registered and unregistered Catholic communities worsened during the year. A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the Pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. According to Bitter Winter, the Catholic Diocese of Mindong in Fujian Province suffered severe persecution from the CCP after most of its priests refused to join the CCPA. Authorities closed five parishes in January. Bitter Winter reported multiple instances of authorities pressuring Catholic leaders to join the CCPA and, in some cases, arresting and physically abusing Catholic leaders who refused. According to Bitter Winter, during the first half of the year, the CCPA attempted to force 57 unregistered Catholic priests from the Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 had complied, three had resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. Local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests to join.

According to Bitter Winter, on April 2, officials detained Father Huang Jintong, a priest from the Mindong Diocese’s parish in Saiqi Village in Fuan City, Fujian Province. Police deprived the priest of sleep for four days before he signed a document saying he would join the CCPA. According to AsiaNews.it, on September 1, the local religious affairs bureau detained another priest of the Mindong Diocese, Father Liu Maochun, for at least 17 days for refusing to join the CCPA.

Sources told Reuters News Agency that in May, two Catholic nuns serving at the Holy See’s Study Mission to China in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were arrested by mainland authorities when they traveled to Hebei Province to visit their families. The nuns were detained in Hebei for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They remained under house arrest as of year’s end, and their families’ homes were under surveillance. The nuns were reportedly allowed to attend Mass but were not permitted to leave mainland China.

In July, AsiaNews.it reported that a priest said authorities often gathered priests in order to “brainwash” them, congregation members were no longer able to host Mass in their homes, and bishops of underground dioceses were increasingly arrested since the 2018 signing of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China. One lay member said there were more restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to attend religious gatherings, children younger than 18 were forbidden from entering the church, and government authorities often sat in on church meetings to surveil the church.

CNA reported that on October 4, Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the auxiliary bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province, announced he would no longer preside over public masses or receive any tithes and said that all administrative matters associated with the diocese should be referred to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. In 2006, the Holy See 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 while Guo stepped into the subordinate position. Zhan was one of seven individuals appointed without papal mandate whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. The government did not recognize Guo, who was not a member of the CCPA, in his role as auxiliary bishop. In an open letter announcing his withdrawal from public religious duties, Guo stated, “The sacraments celebrated by those who sign [a document joining the CCPA] and those who do not sign are legitimate.”

In June, CNA reported that authorities detained underground Catholic bishop Cui Tai in Zhangjiakou Municipality, Hebei Province. According to AsiaNews.it, authorities in the past had repeatedly placed Cui under house arrest or sent him to forced-labor camps for engaging in evangelization activities without official government permission and for criticizing the CCPA. As of year’s end, it was unclear whether he had been released from detention.

Sources told Bitter Winter the government threatened to retaliate against family members if clergy in the Mindong Diocese did not join the CCPA. Authorities forced Father Feng from Xiyin Village, Fuan City, to sign an application to join the CCPA by threatening to dismiss his younger brother and sister-in-law from public employment. After another priest refused to join, authorities confiscated the vehicle his brother used for business and shut down his nephew’s travel agency.

The ICC reported in July that a member of the ERCC said authorities threatened to send the children of church members to “reeducation camps” and take adopted children away from their parents. The source said authorities had already taken four adopted children from one church family and returned them to their biological parents or found them other homes.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On September 30, at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy in Rome, Italy, the Secretary gave a speech on the restrictions of religious freedom in China. The Secretary said the CCP “has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.” In an October speech on tolerance while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.”

Embassy and consulate officials regularly sought meetings with a range of government officials managing religious affairs to obtain more information on government policies and to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials, including the Ambassador and Consuls General, urged government officials at the central, provincial, and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and to release prisoners of conscience. The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in meetings with senior officials. The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience and advocated on behalf of individual cases of persons imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu (prior to its closure by the Chinese government in retaliation for the closure of PRC Consulate Houston), Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The Consul General in Chengdu (prior to its closure) met with Tibetan and Muslim leaders in Sichuan Province to emphasize support for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities. Embassy officials met with visiting members of U.S. religious groups to discuss how these groups were engaging with local communities.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to its Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 120 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 250,000 social media users engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy staff and with each other. The embassy also highlighted the Secretary’s visit to the Vatican to emphasize U.S. support on religious freedom.

The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments, such as “Countries that respect religious freedom will be respected,” “Freedom of religion is a prerequisite for building a civil society,” and “The essence of religion is to lead people to the good. As a democratic power, the United States has guaranteed religious freedom.” For International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy published the Secretary’s message supporting respect for religious freedom as well as information describing the Chinese government’s continuing control over religion and restrictions on the activities of religious adherents. These posts on Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter social media platforms garnered more than 750,000 views and approximately 10,000 engagements.

In January, the Consulate General in Guangzhou submitted comments to the Guangdong People’s Congress and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission regarding the new draft of Guangdong Religious Affairs Regulations. The government stated the new regulations would “protect citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious harmony and social harmony, standardize the management of religious affairs, and improve the level of legalization of religious work.” In December, the embassy submitted comments and recommendations on the central government’s draft Rules for the Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Foreign Religious Activities, which proposed burdensome preapproval procedures for almost all religious activities. The draft rules also limited activities of unregistered religious groups and conflated peaceful religious practice with “terrorism.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons, bring the total number of entities added to the Entity List during the year to 20. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 1, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee; and Wang Mingshan, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB). They and their immediate family members became ineligible for entry into the United States. In making the announcement, the Secretary said the United States “will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB organization, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed a second round of sanctions pursuant to the Executive Order on one government entity and two current or former government officials, in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC.

On December 10, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on Huang Yuanxiong, chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau Wucun police station “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xiamen, China.” In his statement, the Secretary said, “Huang is associated with particularly severe violations of religious freedom of Falun Gong practitioners, namely his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.” The action also applied to Mr. Huang’s spouse.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities.

PRC authorities consistently harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend. Authorities routinely declined to approve or postponed U.S. officials’ requests to visit religious sites and meet with religious leaders.

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

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 2, 2020 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.

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Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Hong Kong

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.

Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.

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

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

The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.

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

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

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

Government Practices

Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.

Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.

Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”

In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”

Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.

Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.

In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.

Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.

In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

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 or Islam”). 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.” According to the online news service Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court, for the third time, upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni Muslim prisoners who were charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.” On October 4, according to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish nongovernment organization (NGO), security forces arrested a prominent Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in his home in the city of Piranshahr. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. On October 8, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, stating, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities in the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’is across the country in “simultaneous operations.” On May 28, Radio Farda reported that police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri (an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals) and separatist groups.” The opposition website Iran Focus stated human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several religious Sunni teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan (which began in late April). NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them were placed there during the year. In July, a court sentenced seven of eight Christian converts who were arrested in Bushehr in 2019 for spreading “propaganda against the regime.” After sentencing a married couple among the group, the court ruled that, as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their adopted daughter, who has heart and other health conditions, whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In May, the parliament passed amendments to the Islamic Penal Code, including language that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. On November 9, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her prison sentence for protesting the compulsory hijab. On November 1, Iran International and the international human rights news agency HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. In January, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would only allow citizens to register as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism; previously application forms for the identity card had an option for “other religions.” According to a December 4 report by the news website IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to provincial judiciary heads establishing a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, including women lawyers not wearing the mandatory hijab at work or on social media or doubts about a lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader.

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. According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University in Qom had infected the country with the COVID-19 virus. According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. In June, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on research on Iran, conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that found dramatic changes in Iranian society’s religiosity, especially an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. 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. On September 24, the United States sanctioned several officials and entities for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking only to practice their religion, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad prisons. The statement read, in part, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.”

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 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

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

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers greater than 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

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

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

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 may be considered apostasy under sharia, 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. The law considers these activities 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. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“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 [Islam]”). 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 schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school 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. The government considers 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, to be 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 Ahl-e-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 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. The law does not recognize individuals who convert to Christianity as Christian. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), 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 constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”

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

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

The Ministry of Education 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. To pass the university entrance examination, applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education 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 regulations state 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 the Baha’i Faith (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).

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. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).

The constitution bans 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 that 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 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.

The criminal code provides for hadud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes.

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

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

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. According to Amnesty International and Voice of America (VOA), on June 10, an official told the family of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a Sunni Kurdish activist, they executed him on or about May 21 in the town of Oshnavieh. Authorities subsequently gave the family a death certificate stating he died on May 11 as a result of “being hit by hard or sharp objects,” a phrase Amnesty International had previously documented was used on certificates of deaths from gunshot wounds. Authorities had arrested Abdollahpour in 2016 in connection with an armed fight between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and the IRGC. The government charged him with “taking up arms [against the government]” and “supporting a dissident group,” charges he denied. The NGO Justice4Iran reported that authorities did not notify Abdollahpour’s family members at the time of his execution, and for many months before his death, his whereabouts were unknown, which led international observers to press authorities for information on his case. At year’s end, the government still refused to disclose what it did with Abdollahpour’s remains. According to Kurdistan Human Rights-Geneva, out of the nine political prisoners executed in 2020 in addition to Abdollahpour, there were three other Sunni Kurd political prisoners charged with “enmity against God” and other vague national security charges – Mustafa Salimi, Saber Shehkh Abdullah, and Diako Rasulzadeh – and two Sunni Baluchis – Abdulbaset Dehani and Abdulhameed Baluchzahi.

According to Radio Farda and IranWire, on July 9, authorities executed in Central Mashad Prison a man social media users helped identify as Morteza Jamali, who was arrested and charged with “consumption of alcohol.” IranWire reported that Jamali’s lawyer said that he was arrested in 2017 or 2018 and had been charged with consuming alcohol on several occasions. Under the country’s Islamic penal code, consuming alcohol is a “crime against God” and the initial punishment is usually flogging. Article 179 of the code states, however, that the accused may face the death penalty after being arrested three times.

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace and multiple media reports, on February 22, a Revolutionary Court sentenced to death three young men who had participated in November 2019 antigovernment protests, which began in reaction to a government increase in fuel prices. The government charged the men with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” The reports identified the three men as Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi. Amnesty International said their trial was unfair and that security forces “tortured [them] with beatings, electric shocks, and being hung upside down.” Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary, confirmed the three protesters’ death sentences on July 14 and accused them of “having links with certain groups abroad.” Citizens posted items on social media using the hashtag “DoNotExecute.” On July 19, the country’s judiciary said it would suspend the executions.

CHRI reported that the government announced the execution of two Sunni Baluch prisoners, Behnam Rigi and Shoaib Rigi, in the central prison in Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, on December 19. On December 20, the government executed a third Baluch prisoner, Abdolbaset Khesht, who was arrested in 2012, in the central prison of Dozap, in the same province. Authorities accused the men of membership in militant Sunni Muslim groups. NGOs and press reported that three other Sunni prisoners held in Zahedan were in imminent danger of execution.

According to Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni prisoners for the third time. Authorities imprisoned the inmates, Farhad Salimi, Qassem Absteh, Davood Abdollahi, Ayub Karimi, Anwar Khezri, Khosrow Besharat, and Kamran Sheikha, in the Urmia, Evin, and Rajai Shahr prisons for 11 years after arresting them in 2009. The government charged the men with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.”

According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested a Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in the city of Piranshahr on October 4. Authorities arrested Hamzehpour in his home, which they searched. The news report’s source stated that the government arrested Hamzehpur, whom the source said was regarded as one of the prominent clerics in the province, several times in the past. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown.

The ABC said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. Commenting on the report, Amnesty International stated, “The real number of victims is likely to be higher as many cases are believed to go unreported.” During this period, the ABC said the government flogged at least 2,134 individuals, including at least 17 children. According to the ABC, these numbers meant that, on average, for the past 20 years authorities have amputated the fingers of at least one person every two months and flogged at least two persons every week.

According to Amnesty International, members of the intelligence unit of the IRGC arrested Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi at her home in Noshahr, Mazandran Province, primarily in connection to her writings on social media about the November 2019 protests. IGRC intelligence officers held Kavousi in a Mazandran detention center, where she was kept in prolonged solitary confinement. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison. Starting in May, she was serving her sentence in Evin Prison along with 35 other women prisoners of conscience as of year’s end.

According to Amnesty International, in March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces containing Sunni Ahwazi Arab, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani Turkish ethnic minorities, staged protests over fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Prison authorities and security forces reportedly responded by using live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 inmates in two prisons and injuring hundreds of others. According to reports from families of prisoners, journalists, and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists and organizations, on March 30 and 31, security forces used excessive force to quell protests, causing up to 15 deaths in Sepidar Prison and 20 in Sheiban Prison, both located in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International reported that numerous videos taken from outside both prisons and shared on social media sites showed smoke rising from the buildings, while gunfire can be heard. Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.

On October 8, ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, saying it was “an indelible stain on the country’s human rights record.” According to the report’s language, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the FIDH report, “These ethnic and religious groups have been subjected to extensive and protracted discrimination with regard to their political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights, which has led to resentment towards the central government. Various groups have engaged in opposition activities and occasionally taken up arms in ethnic-populated regions in the past four decades. Rather than addressing their grievances, the Iranian authorities have responded with heavy-handed measures, including the implementation of the death penalty on a large scale.…Members of religious minorities [who have been targeted by executions] include some groups of Sunni Muslims in West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan Provinces; followers of the Shia Ahl-e-Haq sect [Yarsan] in West Azerbaijan Province; and Baha’is.”

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 6, IranWire and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) reported security forces shot and killed two Sunni Baluchi brothers, 18-year-old Mohammad and 20-year-old Mehdi Pourian, in their home in Iranshahr, the capital city of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Security forces also reportedly killed a 17-year-old, Daniel Brahovi, in the incident. The Iranshahr prosecutor told local media that the three were “famous and well-known miscreants” and that “weapons and ammunition were seized from them.” The families of the three deceased filed charges against the security forces involved but did not receive a response. According to one report, the local police and prosecutor threatened to kill the Pourian family if they continued to press the case.

According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities of the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. Authorities released Omidi from Evin Prison in August after he served two years on charges of “establishing home churches” and “promoting Zionist Christianity.” In September, he moved to Borazjan in Bushehr Province to serve a two-year term of internal exile. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Omidi and fellow members of the Church of Iran denomination Yussef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadai, and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mosayebzadeh to 10 years in prison each in 2017. At a retrial in June, a court reduced Nadarkhani and Fadai’s sentences to six years each and Omidi’s sentence to two years. On November 15, according to UK-based Article 18, an NGO focused on religious freedom in Iran, authorities summoned Fadai to the Shahid Moghadas Revolutionary Court, where he received 80 lashes for drinking communion wine.

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 requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.

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. Article 18 reported that on January 12, authorities arrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi during protests in central Tehran and took her to Vozara detention center, where male and female prison guards beat her so badly that she carried visible bruises for three weeks. Detention center staff forced her to sit outside in extremely cold temperatures, withheld food until 24 hours after her arrest, and strip-searched her. They transferred Mohammadi to Qarchak Prison, where her bail was set at approximately 95 million rials ($2,300), equivalent to more than the annual salary of the average Iranian. Mohammadi had already served six months in prison for her Christian activities on charges of “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” According to VOA, on April 21, Mohammadi told her Instagram followers that she spent 46 days in “terrible conditions” during her detention. She said authorities sentenced her to three months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in the January protests but suspended punishment for one year, allowing her to remain free.

In a July report, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed concern at the reported high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azerbaijani-Turk, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.

On May 6, Amnesty International reported that Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for a spinal-cord disorder. CHRI had reported in 2019 that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities had transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” of Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

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 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Amnesty International called on authorities to suspend the execution of a Baluchi man, Javid Dehghan, who had been forced to confess under torture that he was a member of a Salafi terrorist group called Jaish ul-Adl and fatally shot two IRGC agents in an ambush in 2015. According to OHCHR, there was a series of “at least 28” executions in December in the country. An OHCHR spokesperson said, “This has included a series of executions of members of ethnic and religious minority groups – in particular, Kurdish, Ahwazi Arabi, and Baluchi communities.”

According to IranWire, on December 15, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence.

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 60 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 25 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 43 persons to prison for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” and at least 13 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.”

On May 28, Radio Farda reported police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri and separatist groups.” The report said that authorities used takfiri as an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals. Police accused those arrested of shooting at government buildings and raising the flag of dissident groups around the city.

On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’i’s across the country in “simultaneous operations.” Security agents possessing vaguely worded search warrants confiscated personal effects, mobile telephones, computers, laptops, and religious books and pictures. In some cases, agents also reportedly confiscated cash and national identity cards. Some of the Baha’is whose homes were searched had previously served prison sentences, including Afif Naeimi, a member of the former leadership body of the country’s Baha’i community, who was freed in 2018 after serving a 10-year sentence, and Riaz Sobhani and Shahrokh Taef, who each had served four-year sentences in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. On September 26, VOA reported that since August, authorities denied a Gonabadi Sufi dervish, Benham Mahjoubi, medical treatment, including medication provided by his family, for a panic disorder, and forcibly transferred him from Evin Prison to the Razi Aminabad psychiatric hospital in Tehran. Amnesty International stated that authorities subjected Mahjoubi to torture and gave him injections of an unknown substance on multiple occasions against his will. Mahjoubi’s wife posted on social media that authorities transferred him to the facility after he was paralyzed in a fall. According to VOA, the government had arrested Mahjoubi for taking part in street protests in Tehran in 2018, along with 300 other Gonabadi Sufi dervishes who had been demanding the release from house arrest of their leader, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh (who subsequently died on December 24, 2019).

In May, Gonabadi dervish Reza Yavari told VOA that authorities forced him to relocate to the northeastern town of Taybad, in Razavi Khorasan Province, to start a two-year sentence of internal exile following his April 1 pardon and release from a prison in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan Province. Yavari, a native of Khuzestan who was studying at a Tehran university prior to his 2018 detention, accused authorities of acting illegally by forcing him into internal exile after granting him a pardon. Yavari told VOA that 38 other dervishes had also been forced into internal exile and expressed concern about the government’s ongoing imprisonment of eight other dervish activists who were among more than 300 dervish community members arrested for involvement in antigovernment protests in Tehran in 2018. In August, four dervishes whom the government sentenced to internal exile told VOA that they rejected the claim made by a government representative in a press briefing that the government did not maintain a predetermined list of destinations for internal banishment. The four men said that the government sends released prisoners to live in poor towns, with harsh climates, far from the country’s population centers and their homes.

According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late September, government security services arrested three Kurdish religious activists, Syawash (Forat), Behzad Talayi, and Farshad Fatahi in Urmia, West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on October 14. According to the NGO, the government arrested the three individuals because of religious activities and “propaganda” on behalf of “Islamic extremist groups.”

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a June report by the online news source Balochwarna News, Sunni cleric Molavi Fazl al-Rahman Kouhi remained in prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad on the orders of a special clerical court that summoned and jailed him in November 2019 following nationwide antigovernment protests after a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Kouhi served as the Friday prayer leader for the town of Pashamagh, inhabited mostly by Baluchi Sunnis. The court summoned and jailed him days after he gave a sermon criticizing the country’s Shia-dominated government for violently suppressing the protests. According to the report, Kouhi’s sermon described the crackdown as un-Iranian, un-Islamic, and inhumane. Abdol Sattar Doshoki, an exiled Sunni rights activist, said that the government’s apparent arbitrary detention of an outspoken Sunni cleric was the latest sign of a bleak future for the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

Balochwarna News reported that security forces arrested Molawi Mohammad Qalandarzai, a Sunni imam, on February 27 at his home in Zahedan.

Iran Focus stated that during the year, the government increased its persecution of Sunnis in the parts of the country that have large Sunni populations. The website stated that human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several Sunni religious teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan, which began in late April. Authorities detained at least 10 Sunnis in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. According to other reports, the Sanandaj Intelligence Agency summoned Ali Moradi, a Sunni cleric, and his son Mohammad at the beginning of Ramadan. On April 22, the IRGC summoned and interrogated Maktoom Askani, a Sunni activist in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. The Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and arrested Abdul Rauf Dashti, another Sunni activist. In late April, the Human Rights News Agency reported that MOIS summoned and interrogated Shahdad Zehi, a Sunni cleric in Sarbaz in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. On May 21, the Baluch Activists Campaign said that the Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and interrogated Akram Kuhi, the temporary head of Friday prayers in Peshamag village. The reports said that after the IRGC officials asked Kuhi about the employees, teachers, and students at a local religious school, they summoned and interrogated four other Sunnis from the school in September.

NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them – 19 women and seven men – were placed there in 2020. NGOs reported that it was not clear whether holding twice as many women as men was accidental or whether it marked the beginning of a trend designed to apply additional pressure on the Baha’i community. In Shiraz, authorities summoned 26 Baha’is for a criminal hearing on October 5.

According to Iran Press Watch (IPW), on December 24, Branch 2 of the Bandar Abbas Revolutionary Court sentenced eight Baha’is for “gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt the security of the country.” Six Baha’is received two-year prison sentences and two received one-year prison sentences. The court banned them from membership in political and social parties and groups, including Baha’i banquets and gatherings, for a period of two years and sentenced them to five sessions of “counseling on sectarian issues.”

According to press reporting, on September 7, a court in southern Khorasan Province sentenced eight Baha’is – six women and two men – to prison for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization, which is a threat to national security.” Authorities arrested the eight during a celebration of a Baha’i holiday. The court gave the defendants – Ataollah Melaki, Attiyeh Salehi, Saeed Melaki, Roya Melaki, Nasrin Ghadiri, Arezou Mohammadi, Farzaneh Dimi, and Banafshe Mokhatari – sentences ranging from 15 months to two years’ imprisonment. Some of these individuals wrote letters to Birjand judicial authorities requesting a delay in starting their sentences due to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Authorities denied their requests, however, and the group began serving their sentences on October 20.

On June 8, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that in the weeks leading up to that date, authorities summoned 55 Baha’is to court in Shiraz, Birjand, Karaj, and Kermanshah, trying and sentencing 26 of them; summoned 11 Baha’is to prison in Shiraz, Ghaemshahr, and Birjand; arrested three Baha’is in Yazd; and arrested two Baha’is in Isfahan, releasing them shortly thereafter. In a court hearing in Shiraz, a court official threatened to “uproot” the Baha’is in the city.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that on September 17, security forces arrested brothers Salar Ghazali and Saman Ghazali, holding them in a MOIS detention center for 75 days before transferring them to Mahabad Prison. In mid-December, Branch 1 of the Mahabad Revolutionary Court tried them for “acting against national security through membership in a Kurdish opposition party” and “propaganda against the state.”

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

IPW and IranWire reported that on May 2, IRGC agents raided the Isfahan homes of three Baha’is, Shahzad Hosseini, his son Shayan Hosseini, and Shahzad’s mother. Security personnel then arrested Shayan Hosseini and transferred him to an unknown location. According to a close relative of Shayan, during the raids, agents searched for small wooden boxes that the families used to store prayer books.

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.

On May 28, authorities summoned Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammed Vafadar to begin serving five-year prison sentences. The government arrested the men in early 2019 before releasing them on bail. The four men were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran denomination arrested over a four-week period, accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism. The government transferred the other five converts, who were unable to afford bail, to Evin Prison shortly after their 2019 arrests. In late 2019, a court convicted all nine of “acting against national security” and sentenced them to five years’ imprisonment. A court upheld the sentences on appeal in February.

In July, a court convicted seven of eight Christian converts arrested in Bushehr in 2019 of “propaganda against the regime.” One of the Christians, Sam Khosravi, received a one-year prison term followed by two years of internal exile. The court fined Maryam Falahi, his wife, who worked as a nurse, 80 million rials ($1,900) and banned her from working in a public institution. After their sentencing, a court ruled that as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their daughter, whom they adopted as an infant in early 2019 and whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In September, an appeals court upheld that decision, despite the daughter’s physical disabilities, which, according to the judge, made her chances at another family adopting her “zero.”

On January 11, a court sentenced Anglican convert Ismaeli Maghrebinejad to three years’ imprisonment for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs” after he responded with a smiley emoji to a joke seen as critical of ruling clerics that had been texted to him on his cell phone. On February 27, a court sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment on a separate charge of “membership in a group hostile to the regime” (“evangelical Zionism,” according to court documents) for receiving a Bible verse sent over a cell phone app. In May, a court upheld the February verdict and added a one-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime.” In July, a court overturned on appeal his three-year sentence for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs,” but upheld the other two sentences. Authorities arrested Maghrebinejad in early 2019 in Shiraz. In late 2019, authorities dropped a charge of apostasy that they brought against Maghrebinejad at the time of his arrest.

In February, authorities in Rasht arrested four Christian converts, Ramin Hassanpour, his wife Saeede (Kathrin) Sajadpour, Hadi (Moslem) Rahimi, and Sakine (Mehri) Behjati, for being members of a house church belonging to the Church of Iran. On May 14, the Revolutionary Court in Rasht initially set bail at five billion rials each ($119,000). The government transferred the four to Lakan Prison, near Rasht, when they were unable to post bail. A week later, the court reduced the bail to two billion rials each ($47,600) and released Sajadpour, Rahimi, and Behjati on May 20 and Hassanpour on May 21. On August 1, a court handed down prison sentences to the four for “acting against national security” by belonging to a house church and “spreading Zionist Christianity.” Hassanpour received a five-year sentence, Rahimi four years, and Behjati and Sajadpour two years each.

After the cancellation of several court sessions connected with appeals of their 2017 and 2018 convictions and respective 10- and five-year sentences relating to “illegal church activity,” Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, learned in early August that their appeals had been denied and that authorities would schedule no further hearings. On August 11, Isavi received a summons to report to Evin Prison to begin her prison sentence. On August 15, the couple fled the country. In September, Article 18 reported that Christian converts Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari, and Amin Afshar-Naderi, who had received prison sentences in 2017 alongside Bet Tamraz, also fled the country after their appeals were rejected. In January, authorities summoned Ramiel Bet Tamraz, the son of Victor Bet Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi, to Evin Prison to serve his four-month sentence from 2018 for “propaganda against the system” through membership in a house church. Authorities released him from prison on February 26.

According to Article 18, authorities extended the two-year internal exile of Ebrahim Firouzi by 11 months. The government released Firouzi, a Christian convert, from Rajai Shahr Prison in 2019 after he served six years in prison for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After he reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence, authorities extended his exile, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. After Firouzi’s exile was extended, a local prosecutor summoned him on new charges of “insulting the sacred,” which carries a maximum five-year sentence, and “propaganda against the state through promoting the Christian faith,” which may be punished with up to a year in prison. After meeting Firouzi, the prosecutor dismissed the case.

On November 18, at a virtual conference hosted by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights regarding the “attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the different religious groups,” an Article 18 representative said that 17 Christian prisoners of conscience, all converts, were incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

In April, authorities arrested Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), following the posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Police released Heydari on bail while detaining Haghjoo pending an investigation into the case. There were no updates as of year’s end.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the greatest leeway 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.

According to the BBC Persian service, on October 29, the Qom Seminary Teachers Association labeled Grand Ayatollah Kamal Heidari a “liar,” “sinner,” and “foreign agent,” and decreed that any dealings with him would be considered a “sin.” The association excommunicated Heidari and labeled him a “seditionist” for his modernist and rationalist views.

In a January 28 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran said he was “deeply concerned” about a bill adopted by the Committee for Judicial and Legal Affairs of parliament in 2019 on “misguided sects” that would criminalize membership in religious groups that the government considered to be “misguided.” The special rapporteur stated, “According to a member of the Committee, the bill was proposed because of concerns about sects that have no jurisprudential or religious status but attribute their belief to Islam and about the cults that have emerged recently. Members of nonrecognized religious minorities have expressed concern that passage of the bill would make it a criminal offence to follow certain religions and could be used to increase discrimination against them.”

In May, parliament passed the legislation on “misguided sects” in the form of amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code. The legislation stated that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. A human rights lawyer living in Europe stated, “The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government, but in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognized minorities.” The NGO Article 18 reported that the Guardian Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills, returned the bill to parliament in July, seeking eight clarifications, the majority of which related to “ambiguous” language. An Article 18 official cautioned that the legislation would still likely to return in a “different, perhaps more minimal, form.” ARTICLE 19, another human rights NGO based in the UK, reported that in November, it was believed that parliament addressed issues raised by the Guardian Council, but the specific changes were not publicly released. The NGO said the proposed amendments, regardless of any changes, would “further erode the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief.”

According to the U.S. 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. On September 5, IranWire reported that in late 2019, authorities arrested Einollah Rezazadeh Juibari, a Shia cleric, at his home as preparations began for the 40th day commemorations of the deaths of protestors killed by government forces in the November 2019 protests. Authorities first detained Juibari, a critic of the government who was repeatedly arrested in the past, at a detention center in Urmia before taking him to a prison in Miandoab, where he undertook a 13-day hunger strike before being released. IranWire reported that Juibari, whose case remained open at year’s end, had written a letter stating that he would remove his clerical garments and clerical turban for good, because such clerical attire needed to be “excised from politics.” His letter also said that the government had “used Islamic jurisprudence as a pretext for a power grab” and that it had “sacrificed the truth and authority of the Shia faith with [its] greed.”

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.

The BBC Persian service and the Times of Israel reported authorities confirmed to local media that a California-based Zoroastrian priest, Arash Kasravi, was killed on July 25 while attending his father’s funeral in Kerman. BBC Persian reported on August 2 that the Kerman Province prosecutor told local media that the killer’s body was one of two others found with Kasravi and that he had committed suicide after the killings. The prosecutor said the judiciary believed the killings were financially motivated, since $10,000 was found in one of the victims’ vehicles. A social media post said that, following the 1979 revolution, many Zoroastrians have been targeted in these types of “mysterious homicides.”

Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

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.

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 performing 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, 100 miles away, 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.

BIC reported that it learned in July that the Baha’i cemetery in Taft, Yazd Province, which the government had confiscated shortly after the 1979 revolution, was being divided and sold. According to BIC, the judiciary endorsed the confiscation of all property owned by Baha’i residents in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, on the grounds that Baha’is have “a perverse ideology” and therefore have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.

According to BIC, the government’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.

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 that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs report that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. In 2019, Radio Farda reported, “Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognized minority who are usually able to freely practice their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.” Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

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 all women 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.

On November 9, Branch 28 of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her 24-year prison sentence, which she received in August 2019, on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab. As a result, she faced a minimum of 15 years in prison, the sentence associated with the most serious charge against her, “spreading corruption.” In July, Amnesty International said authorities forced Kord-Afshari to wait a year following her 2019 arrest before allowing her to make her first hospital visit on June 29 for pre-existing gastrointestinal problems that were exacerbated in prison. Amnesty International also said the doctor failed to conduct a comprehensive examination of Kord-Afshari and referred her for future colonoscopy, endoscopy, and ultrasound procedures. VOA reported that Kord-Afshari was told that she could not have the procedures because of her late hospital arrival and her lack of funds for payment. As a result, Kord-Afshari’s health problems worsened since the government transferred her to Evin Prison in August 2019, the source added.

In December, authorities summoned Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, back to prison one month after her release due to health complications she manifested in prison. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. Most recently, authorities arrested her in 2018 as a result of what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights works, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. At year’s end, she remained confined to Qarchak Prison.

The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani 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.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. On November 1, Iran International and HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. A November 2 Radio Farda report stated, “The real number of Baha’i students unable to access… degrees is likely much higher,” noting that officials rejected 70 Baha’i students in 2017. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980 and that this was the 40th consecutive year the government denied its own citizens access to higher education because of their religious beliefs.

In January, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”

On September 11, Radio Farda reported that new Minister of Education Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, apparently in response to an account published two days earlier by a human rights organization, said, “It is forbidden for them [Baha’is] to study in schools.” Mirzaei was referring to the organization’s claim that authorities had ordered Saadet High School in the city of Semnan to refuse enrollment to student Borna Pirasteh in the third year of high school because of her Baha’i faith.

A Sabean-Mandaean resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr, Khuzestan Province told IranWire in October that law enforcement personnel regularly harassed his community. The man said that authorities regularly demanded bribes from Sabean-Mandaean goldsmiths. Another Sabean-Mandaean goldsmith stated that police worked with known thieves to victimize Sabean-Mandaean-owned jewelry shops.

In January, NGOs and press reported that the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions would henceforward only allow citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. According to CHRI, “anyone applying for the card who is not of the official Muslim faith or one of three religious minorities recognized in the…constitution (Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism) will have to either lie and check the required box on the application for one of those religions, or not receive the card.” Previously, application forms for the ID card had an option for “other religions.” The card is used for all government services, banking activities, and the vast majority of other transactions. CHRI stated the policy “will blatantly discriminate against Baha’is as well as members of the Mandaean, Yarsani, and other unrecognized minority faiths in the country.” A report by Deutsche Welle stated that since Baha’is were forbidden by their faith to lie about their religion, they were unable to apply for new identity cards and obtain official identification.

In a July 21 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur stated that he “remains deeply concerned at the continued discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Changes to the national identity card application process reportedly hinder minority religious groups from gaining access to several essential services. The application form had previously listed ‘other’ as a religious option. In January, the National Organization for Civil Registration reported that this option had been removed, meaning individuals could only choose from the four officially recognized religions. The removal of ‘other’ raised fears that nonrecognized religious groups, such as Baha’is, Christian converts, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans and nonbelievers, would be unable to obtain a national identity card, which is necessary to gain access to government and banking services.”

According to a December 4 report by IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to the country’s provincial judiciary heads regarding the supervision of lawyers. Describing the expansion of a “security umbrella” over practicing attorneys, the government letter said it had established a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, in addition to the work already carried out by the Bar Association. Possible issues cited in the memorandum included non-observation of the mandatory hijab by female lawyers at work or on social media, or doubts about a given lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader. According to IranWire, this new office “will intimidate, silence, and push some lawyers out of the profession, while forcing others to align with the state’s principles, leading to an atrophy of justice.”

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 Baha’is “unclean.”

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. Three news sources opposed to the government stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.

On May 25, the Deutsche Welle Persian service reported that Mohammad Baqer Tabatabai, an advisor to the Razavi Khorasan Guidance Office, referred to the Maki Mosque in Zahedan, the country’s largest and most culturally significant Sunni mosque, as a “house of corruption” on his Twitter account and called for its destruction. He deleted his tweet after public protest. Maki Mosque was built in 1353 in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. It is religiously and culturally significant to the Sunni Baluch minority, which reportedly contributed to the upkeep of the building independently from the central government.

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 religion. 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 propaganda aimed at deterring 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. A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz, whom IranWire identified as “Selim,” said, “The Mandaeans of Ahvaz are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery.” On December 31, Radio Farda reported, “destroying graves and tombstones of minorities and dissidents, including Baha’is and Yarsanis, [has] formed a part of the daily life of the supporters of the Islamic Republic.” According to the report, security forces warned Baha’is that they no longer had the right to bury their dead in many cities, including Gilavand, Tabriz, Kerman, and Ahvaz.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a February article in U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”

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.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, 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 Yarsani 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, but only 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.

Baluch sources reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 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. According to the Anti-Defamation League, following a March speech by the Supreme Leader on the COVID-19 pandemic, his office’s website posted remarks by a cleric who said “there is no doubt that the Jews and especially the Zionists previously have a long history of supernatural affairs and matters such as a relationship with the devil and genies.” The Anti-Defamation League report stated that most of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread by the government imagined the United States as leading “a biological attack, either with the help of Jewish capitalists or Israel, or to benefit Israel or at the behest of Jewish puppet masters.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.

In September, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the head of a government arts agency, announced a plan to organize another exhibition of Holocaust-denial cartoons, which the government also held in 2006 and 2016. Following the beheading in France of a teacher who had shown students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, Shojaei-Tabatabai told the Tehran Times, that “our [exhibition] program [will] publish serious artworks challenging the Holocaust; for one insulting cartoon, we will publish 10 cartoons in social media and other virtual spaces.” After French President Macron defended the slain teacher’s presentation of secularism and individual freedom, the Supreme Leader asked on Twitter, “Why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh [Peace be upon him]) is allowed?”

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

On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 82 states in favor, 30 against, and 64 abstentions. The resolution, which was cosponsored by 45 member states, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences.” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ….”

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.

According to Radio Farda, religious leaders in Qom warned shops not to sell gifts associated with Valentine’s Day because of its roots in Christian tradition. Radio Farda stated that the country’s law enforcement agencies issue warnings to stores every year against selling such items, threatening to close the businesses from one to six months for noncompliance. The report also stated that some secular citizens have tried to promote the February 19 celebration of the day of Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility from the country’s pre-Islamic past. The country’s religious leaders opposed Sepandarmaz because of its roots in Zoroastrianism, which was replaced by Islam as the country’s predominant religion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

In a speech to the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, the President expressed concern about the arrest of Mary Mohammadi, a Christian convert, at an antigovernment protest in January, which the President said was due to her conversion to Christianity. The Secretary of State later told an interviewer that he was deeply disturbed by the arrest.

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

On January 15, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom tweeted, “Following the tragic death of Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh [on December 24, 2019], we are closely watching how the Iranian government treats Gonabadi Sufis. Authorities should release those unjustly detained and allow the community to select their religious leaders without government interference.”

On October 16, the Department of State spokesperson tweeted, “Deeply disturbed by reports Iran lashed Mohammad Reza Omidi 80 times for drinking communion wine. He already served two years in prison for belonging to a house church. We condemn these unjust punishments and urge Iran to allow all Iranians the freedom to practice their beliefs.”

On September 24, the United States sanctioned several Iranian officials and entities, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons, for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking to practice their religion. The statement read, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.” The statement added, “The actions taken today by the United States expose Iran’s revolutionary courts and their judges for what they really are: tools designed to enforce the Iranian regime’s brutal ideology and suppress dissent. They do not fairly administer justice, but rather seek to deprive the Iranian people of due process as well as their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The United States will continue to stand with the Iranian people and demand the regime treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Following the attempted arson in May at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism called on the government in a tweet “to stop incitement and protect its Jewish and other minorities.” He said that the United States strongly condemned the attack and that the Iranian government is “the world’s chief state sponsor of anti-Semitism.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” 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. Restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces (ISF) remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018 and 2019. In September, a Sunni Muslim parliamentarian from Diyala Province said government-affiliated Shia militia continued to forcibly displace Sunnis in his province, leading to widespread demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS. Christians said the PMF continued to control territory in Christian areas and trade routes in the Ninewa Plain, and militias reportedly coerced Christians to pay bribes to pass through PMF checkpoints. In August, former parliamentarian Kamil al-Ghurawi, a Sunni from Baghdad, accused government-affiliated Shia militia groups of forcibly displacing Sunni residents in al-Madain District on the outskirts of Baghdad and attempting to alter the district’s demography. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, 2,874 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. Representatives of minority religious communities said that despite occasional harassment from local authorities, the central government generally did not interfere with religious observances by members of minority groups.

According to multiple sources in Khanaqin, ISIS attacks in May and June on several Kaka’i villages wounded and killed a total of 13 persons. In June, the director of the Kaka’i-affiliated Chraw Organization for Documentation reported that attacks of this kind were not isolated and were increasing. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced in March that 18 additional mass graves had been discovered throughout the country, marking more than 200 such graves discovered since 2017; they contained victims of al-Qa’ida, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, with some remains dating back decades. Two additional mass graves were discovered in Sinjar District during the year. In October, forensic teams, with support from the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began the exhumation of the last of 17 mass graves in Kocho and began work at a site at Solagh, known as the “Grave of Mothers,” where ISIS killed dozens of Yezidi women considered too old to be sold into sexual slavery. The Yezidi community in Sinjar District reported in August that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) had kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children with the aim of recruiting them in the years since ISIS was defeated in Sinjar in 2015 and that 70 children were still missing.

In July, the Roman Catholic Church-affiliated organization Aid to the Church in Need released a report stating that the country’s Christian community faced “extinction” and that 87 percent of Christians living in the Ninewa Plain reported feeling a lack of security “remarkably” or “very much.” According to media and human rights organizations, societal violence perpetrated by sectarian armed groups, mainly pro-Iran Shia militias, continued, although there were no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. Members of non-Muslim minority groups reported abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, including Father Yaqoub al-Saedy of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Father Bihnam Banoqa of the Syriac Catholic Church, both located in Bartella, and said they received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade. Interreligious entities, including the Masarat Foundation and the Iraqi Institute for Diversity, continued their work to promote respect for the country’s religious diversity, including through contributions of information on religious minority groups to school textbooks.

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 bilateral strategic dialogue held in Washington, D.C. in August provided additional opportunities to highlight the need for outreach to the country’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met 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 members of religious minority groups. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for these communities and to assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics – the most recent available – 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

According to Christian leaders as well as NGO and media reports, fewer than 250,000 Christians remain in the country, down from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Anglican, and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice secretly.

Yezidi leaders continue to report that most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, with approximately 200,000 to 230,000 remaining displaced as of October 2020. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk as well as in Diyala and Erbil. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary, but according to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 to 15,000 members remain in Iraq, mainly in the south, with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians, both Armenian Apostolic Church (Armenian Orthodox) and Armenian Catholic. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.

There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are approximately 80 Jewish families, according to the KRG international advocacy coordinator, although some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) and NGO sources, and the number could be higher. According to the KRG MERA, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR. Zoroastrian sources report there are approximately 20,000 to 25,000 Zoroastrians in the country.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), approximately 1.2 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Ninewa, Dohuk, Erbil, Sulaymaniyah, and Kirkuk Governorates, compared with 1.5 million persons at the end of 2019. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center, there are approximately 700,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the IKR. Forty percent of IDPs throughout the country are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurds (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.

According to the IOM, there were more than 205,000 IDPs in camps and approximately 104,000 in critical shelters throughout the country at year’s end.

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, specifying Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans; it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 years’ 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.

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 are registered with the government: Muslims, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Assyrian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholics, Roman Catholics, National Protestants, Anglicans, Evangelical Protestant Assyrians, Seventh-day Adventists, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidis, Sabean-Mandeans, and Jews. 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 (OPM) to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

The law does not specify penalties for the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Yarsanism; 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.

According to the KRG MERA’s Directorate of Christian Affairs, there are 11 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the IKR, several with multiple branches: Nahda al-Qadassa, Nasari Evangelical, Kurd-Zaman, Ashti Evangelical, Evangelical Free, Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd, al-Tasbih International Evangelical, Rasolia, the United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist groups.

In the IKR, to register with the KRG MERA, private schools need to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance and to undergo an inspection.

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 (26 cents) for such crimes.

Government regulations require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students are not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christians, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

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 49 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. 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 Muslims, 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.

By law, children with one parent who converts to Islam must be listed as Muslim on the application for the national identity card, even if the other parent is of another religion.

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

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

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 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 may be sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of having ISIS links. In July, parliamentarian and member of the Security and Defense Committee Mohammed al-Karbuli criticized the “random arrests of Sunnis in areas north of Baghdad.” Al-Karbuli said, “The security forces returned to committing past’s mistakes by arresting innocent people and terrorizing them.” According to al-Karbuli, more than 50 young Sunni men were arrested in those areas “in a humiliating manner and with false accusations.”

Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse from members of the PMF, a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 50 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS. According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some operating under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. In October, Salah al-Din Province Police Commander Major General Qandil al-Jabouri said police had found eight bodies belonging to residents of al-Farhatiyeh Subdistrict of Balad District in Salah al-Din Province, out of 12 civilians who were kidnapped by an unidentified armed force; the whereabouts of the other four was unknown. According to the families of the victims, the 42nd Brigade of the PMF, tied to U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), was responsible for the killings and kidnappings.

In December, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein stated that the country’s security situation had improved compared with previous years and that the government was making great efforts to return IDPs to their places of origin and to create a safe environment for them.

In September, parliamentarian Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of continued forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala by PMF forces or associated militias. Al-Dahlaki stated that government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in widespread demographic change along the border with Iran. Sunni parliamentarian Nahida al-Daini, also of Diyala Province, reported similar acts of intimidation.

Sources said some government officials continued 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 Bartella Subdistrict, and Sunni areas in Diyala Province and Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District. According to parliamentarian Rihan Hanna, a Christian from Kirkuk, the Iran-aligned Shabak PMF and the 50th (Babylon) PMF Brigades were making demographic changes by facilitating and giving permission to Arab and Shabak Shia to move into Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, while Christians refused to return to the area because they feared these forces. In August, former parliamentarian Kamil al-Ghurawi, a Sunni from Baghdad, accused government-affiliated Shia militia groups of forcibly displacing Sunni residents in the al-Madain District on the outskirts of Baghdad in order to make the district majority Shia.

In October, the administrator of the minorities’ portfolio of the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, Ammar Polos, said the forcible return of displaced Christians in Baghdad’s Virgin Mary camp to the old city of Mosul, where their homes remain demolished and uninhabitable, amounted to a second displacement for Christians, adding, “We will not tolerate this measure.” Also in October, Christian parliamentarian Yonadum Kanna said he rejected the forced return of IDPs, considering it another displacement, especially in the absence of the government’s capabilities to reconstruct the IDPs’ destroyed homes and the state’s inability to provide employment opportunities and a decent standard of living for the IDPs.

Representatives of minority religious groups 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 continued to report abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the Shabak Shia-backed 30th Brigade in Bartella, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. The AAH reportedly was building an office in Bartella, while the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf reportedly controlled the local real estate market, selling land to non-Christians from outside the district, granting questionable security approvals, and taking bribes. The 30th Brigade also reportedly controlled trade routes in the Ninewa Plain through checkpoints, forcing Christian merchants to pay bribes to gain access. According to Father Behnam Benoka of the Syriac Catholic Church in the Bartella Subdistrict, on February 14, gunshots were heard near the construction site of the AAH office, after which the AAH closed the road in the area, inhabited mostly by Christians, and started investigating Christian families in the area. According to some of the families, AAH members were behind the shooting and sought to frighten Christians and convince them to leave the area.

According to Father Benoka, in July, four Christian women reported that Bartella’s police commander, Ghazwan Ali Qasim (Arab Sunni), attempted to coerce them into prostitution based on their difficult economic situations. Benoka added that although the community had raised complaints about Qasim’s conduct many times, the commander had been “promoted instead of being punished.” According to Father Yaqob Saedy of the Syriac Orthodox Church, 30th PMF Brigade members assaulted two Christians in July when the pair tried to pass through Bartella’s main checkpoint. Following an argument, Shabak PMF members forced the two Christians out of their car and beat them.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartella and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartella said the brigade’s actions threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias continued to post pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani, as well as of Iraqi militia leaders, such as AAH Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) Chief of Staff Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on shops in Bartella. They also stated that the 30th Brigade continued to disregard 2019 government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak members threatened priests, including Father Banoqa and Father al-Saedy, both in Bartella, on social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the 30th Brigade. According to al-Saedy, “some parties” in the Ninewa Plain were trying to change the demography of the traditionally Christian city. Although al-Saedy did not specify which group, his statement drew condemnation from members of the Shabak community.

In August, Shia Shabaks raised Shia ritual banners in front of a historic church in Karmles Town, which Christians said was an act of provocation. Local sources said that as of year’s end, two of six Shabak Sunni families had returned home after having left their homes in Bashiqa District in 2019 because the 30th Brigade had verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their land.

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. According to Yezidi journalist Khudar Domli, “What ISIS did to them by force, this [National Card] Act does by law.” The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered a member of the community. 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 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. Some of the women preferred to stay in the camps’ harsh environment with their children rather than leave them behind.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, after the Zoroastrian NGO Yasna opened a branch in Duhokin, Salafist Islamist groups criticized the Zoroastrian religion’s practices and beliefs. According to one Zoroastrian representative, Zoroastrians in the IKR received death threats on social media from Salafists, who accused the Zoroastrian community of infidelity and incest. Zoroastrian leaders also reported that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by members of unrecognized religious minority groups due to the country’s constitution and its personal status law.

During the year, the NGOs CAPNI for Humanitarian Aids in Iraq (CAPNI) and Hammurabi Human Rights Organization sought amendments to the national identification card law that requires minor children to be listed as Muslim on the identification application form if one parent converted to Islam. The NGOs said the law was a “flagrant violation” of the rights on non-Muslims in the country. During a conference in December, CAPNI representatives said non-Muslim religious groups requested the government amend the national identity card law so that minor children would continue to follow the original religion of their parents before one parent converted to Islam until they became adults and could decide for themselves.

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 children as Muslims or to have the children remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented affected 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 received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Throughout the year, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam said he continued to resist political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue land grants in Hamdaniya, Ninewa Province, to the families (mostly Shia Muslim) of PMF victims who fought ISIS.

The committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders created in 2019 by the OPM to return all Christian properties in Ninewa Province to their Christian owners continued to operate. During the year, the committee returned dozens of houses to their Christian owners. According to Christian parliamentarians, there was no similar committee to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian parliamentarian Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders continued to work individually to help Christians return to their homes. During the year, he managed to return fewer than 10 homes to their original occupants, compared with 180 homes returned in 2019. According to Kanna, during the year, he received fewer complaints from Christians because the security situation had significantly improved following the defeat of ISIS. He also said there were also fewer complaints of confiscated homes being occupied by someone other than the original occupant. Kanna said he had worked with the Higher Judicial Council to place restrictions on selling or buying real estate owned by Christians, making it more difficult for militias or others to use falsified documents to assume ownership of Christian properties. In November, unknown gunmen attacked a lawyer working with the Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad working to return houses to members of the Christian community.

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 2,874 Yezidis, mainly women and children, were still missing both inside and outside the country, compared with up to 3,000 reported missing in 2019. According to the Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office, during the 2014-2020 period, approximately 100,000 Yezidis left the country, mostly moving to Germany and others to Turkey, Greece, Georgia, Armenia, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, the United States, Australia, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Approximately 62 Christians also remained missing, compared with 150 in 2019. According to the KRG MERA, as of September 5, more than 3,543 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or released from ISIS captivity since 2014, compared with 2,500 through 2019. According to Shabak parliamentarian Qusay Abass (Ninewa, Shia) via a media statement in August, 233 Shabak individuals kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 were still missing. According to Ninewa Governorate’s Advisor for Women’s Affairs Sukina Ali (Shia Turkoman of Ninewa), 900 Shia and Sunni Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS were still missing at year’s end.

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 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 that Shia militias and the Shia Endowment confiscated properties owned by the Sunni Endowments in Diyala and Ninewa Provinces, leading to sectarian tensions in those provinces. According to Sunni Endowment representatives, the Shia Endowment confiscated a shrine and cemetery in Baquba District in Diyala, while Shia militias, including AAH, Badr, and Khurasani, turned Sunni mosques into PMF headquarters in other Sunni areas in the province. In Ninewa, the Sunni Endowment reported that the Shia Endowment worked secretly to confiscate properties owned by the Sunni Endowment in Mosul by using false documents or claiming Shia Endowment jurisdiction over the properties based on some of the shrines and mosques bearing Shia religious names.

Some militias in Ninewa drew their ranks from local Yezidis and Christians but were subordinate to larger organizations – the PKK in the case of the YBS (Sinjar Resistance Units), for example, and larger Iran-aligned militias in the cases of the 30th and 50th Brigades. 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. Representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean parliamentarians, 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, but by year’s end, none had because the government had not implemented a recruitment process.

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. During the year, however, there were again no court challenges filed 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 recognized religious groups, including Baha’is (recognized only in the KRG) and Yezidis (recognized by both the central government and the KRG), reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation. Provincial governments also continued to designate festivals as religious holidays in their localities.

According to the Syriac Orthodox Parish of Mosul, in October, following a Ninewa court decision, Bishop Necodemos Dawod Sharf received 23 Syriac-language manuscripts that ISIS had stolen from the Tahera Church in the old city of Mosul. The manuscripts were part of a larger group of ancient manuscripts stolen in 2014.

In October, Yezidi NGOs in Sinjar reported that the PKK had seized control of local schools, transforming them into military camps and PKK indoctrination centers. In October, the Kurdish Directorate Deputy Manager in Sinjar, Shahab Ahmed, told media that the PKK had taken over a primary school in Sinjar City and transformed it into a military camp. Shahab said the PKK refused to leave the school and that his directorate had asked authorities in Ninewa to intercede. Despite the requests, the PKK refused to vacate these schools through year’s end.

The KRG Council of Ministers issued an executive order establishing a high committee with representatives from the IKP, IKR Presidency, KRG Judicial Council, KRG Ministries of Justice, Agriculture, Municipality, and Finance, and the head of IKR’s Independent Human Rights Commission to resolve outstanding land disputes affecting Christian communities. According to committee members, by year’s end, the committee had not taken any concrete steps.

In November, Christian sources reported the ISF had seized Christians’ houses in Talkayf District, Ninewa Province, and repurposed them as military barracks. The sources also reported that the ISF continued to use a youth center as a jail for ISIS prisoners in Talkayf, intimidating Christians in the district. In November, Mayor of Talkayf District Bassim Balo said civilians were concerned about the possibility that ISIS forces might attempt to break into the jail and free the ISIS detainees. He said some Christians had decided to leave the area because of ISF searches and restrictions of movement on residents in the area. According to Balo, the ISF used many houses belonging to Christians without compensating the residents.

Some non-Muslim students reported pressure from instructors and classmates to participate in Islamic education classes, even though they were not required to take part. 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.

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 the lack of religious minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.

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 were intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum in these schools did not contain religious or Quranic studies. During the year, minority NGOs along with the NGO Minority Alliance Network held numerous seminars and workshops to discuss education curriculum reform in IKR schools, recommending amendments to the current curriculum to emphasize religious minority rights.

In July, KRG State Minister for Component (Minority) Affairs Ayden Maroof announced the KRG Education Ministry was working on new curricula covering the history of religious and ethnic minority groups to be included in IKR history textbooks. According to Maroof, the adoption of the new curricula followed the KRG Prime Minister’s decision in July to embrace diversity and to challenge false stereotypes in IKR society.

In June, the head of the interreligious Masarat Foundation for Cultural and Media Development, Saad Salloum, announced the launch of a special curriculum for understanding different religions in the country, to be taught through the Iraqi Institute for Diversity. Religions included in the curriculum are Christianity, Yazidism, Sabean-Mandeanism, Judaism, the Baha’i Faith, Zoroastrianism, and Kaka’ism. According to the foundation, which includes both governmental and nongovernmental representatives, the curriculum would be used to instruct religious leaders, clerics, journalists, and university professors on the country’s diverse religions and the need to respect all faith traditions.

In September, the Ministry of Education allocated five billion dinars ($3.4 million) to build new schools in majority-Yezidi Sinjar District and to develop the district’s education sector.

According to a representative of the Yezidi NGO Yazda, KRG authorities continued to discriminate 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. In October, Yazda representative Jameel Shumar said Yezidi faced difficulties if they self-identified as Yezidis rather than Kurdish Yezidis, especially at IKR checkpoints. He said Yezidi politicians known for considering Yezidis a separate group from the Kurds were not allowed to enter the IKR.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and the renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities. The KRG MERA finished building the St. Peter and Paul Chaldean Church in Ankawa near Erbil and handed it over to the Chaldean Archdiocese in 2017. Restoration of the Syriac Orthodox Um al-Nour Church in Erbil continued through year’s end.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minority groups, 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 three 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 – among them Minister of Displacement and Migration Evan Faiq Jabro, a Christian from Basra Province, and KRG Minister of Transportation Communication Ano Abdoka, a Syriac Orthodox Christian from Ankawa. Several KRG district and subdistrict mayoral positions were reserved for members of religious minority groups, in particular for Yezidis and Christians. Minority leaders, however, said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, and that the overall underrepresentation limited members of minority groups’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. In December, Christian parliamentarian Yonadam Kanna said Christians in the country were marginalized and not given high-ranking positions. In May, parliamentarian Nawfal al-Nashi said Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi had marginalized minority groups when he formed his cabinet. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.

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 members of minority groups in government, while others opposed restricting who could vote in quota seat races. Christian parliamentarians Rehan Hana and Yonadam Kanna supported restricting quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity, while Christian parliamentarians affiliated with Shia political coalition parties drawing votes from Shia-majority provinces opposed imposing restrictions.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as PMF “taxation” on goods transported from Erbil or Mosul into the Ninewa Plain. Sabean-Mandeans, Yezidis, and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits, despite receiving permits. The 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.

In October, unknown individuals bombed a Christian-owned liquor store in Baghdad. According to local residents, the attackers were PMF-associated militia members who may have attacked the store after its owners refused to pay bribes.

Kaka’i community members said the central government’s Shia Endowment continued to occupy places of Kaka’i worship in Diyala and Baghdad, converting them into Shia mosques. In 2019, the Shia Endowment seized the Kaka’i House of Worship Baba Mahmud in Khanaqin District, Dyala Province, stating that Baba Mahmud was one of the Shia Imam Ali’s sons and therefore, the place of worship should be under the Shia Endowment’s control. According to Kaka’i representatives, the government did not respond to their request for the return of the Baba Mahmud House of Worship and because there was no endowment for the Kaka’i, the group had no legal recourse. Kaka’i representatives also reported that the Sunni Endowment continued to occupy Kaka’i houses of worship in Kirkuk.

In October, the central government and KRG reached an agreement on cooperation with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) on a framework for the security and political administration of Sinjar District as well as a pledge of future reconstruction and development efforts. According to Yezidi parliamentarian Saeb Khudur, the agreement, although criticized by members of the Yezidi community for not having involved Yezidis in the negotiations, included many longstanding Yezidi requests, including providing a framework for appointing a mayor, the removal of the PKK from the district, and the recruitment of 2,500 Yezidi local police. The United Nations and several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Egypt, and Jordan, among others, stressed that for implementation to succeed, diverse sections of the Yezidi community, as well as others in Sinjar, needed be included in discussions on implementation. Yezidi leaders said they were particularly apprehensive about what removal of the PKK would entail, given the membership of several thousand Yezidis in the PKK-affiliated YBS.

Based on local media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide that ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place on August 3 for the third consecutive year. On August 3, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani issued a statement on the sixth anniversary of the genocide against the Yezidis, calling on “all parties to reconstruct Sinjar, normalize the conditions in the city, and to ensure that they are free of any foreign armed forces or militias,” adding, “The security and stability of the region should be protected in coordination between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the federal government.” Barzani stated, “The efforts of the Kurdistan Regional Government are still ongoing in order to liberate the remaining kidnapped Yezidis,” and he called on “the federal government to work to compensate and assist the displaced Yezidis.”

In October, Yezidi parliamentarian Khaleda Khalel of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) submitted a bill to the Iraqi COR presidency to recognize the 2014 Yezidi genocide, stating that the law would compel the government to take responsibility for the victims, strengthen accountability for those who committed crimes against humanity, and provide psychological and medical care as well as reparations to the victims and survivors of ISIS crimes.

According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

In September, the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs announced the first Zoroastrian temple would soon open in Erbil. According to a community source, the temple, supported by Yasna and located in a Yasna-run facility, was opened in December with the participation of Zoroastrian worshipers and a representative from KRG MERA in attendance.

In August, as part of an initiative to encourage minority religious groups to remain in the country, Prime Minister Kadhimi called on Christian emigres to return to the country. Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.

On November 14, Ammar Hakim, a politician and cleric as well as the head of the National Wisdom Movement, a coalition of political parties, said Christians were an important part of the country and emphasized the need to support Christians and others who suffered because of ISIS, including IDPs in the Ninewa Plain. On December 19, Hakim called for justice for Yezidis and the reconstruction of their cities.

The Central Post Office, under the authority of the Ministry of Communications, issued a set of postage stamps in October celebrating churches in Baghdad and their history. The stamps were designed by the Christian Endowment and printed at the Central Post Office. The issuance was part of an initiative by the Ministry of Communication to document the religious diversity of Iraqi society.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy addressed at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including then Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance. The bilateral Strategic Dialogue held in Washington, D.C. in August provided additional opportunities to highlight the need for outreach to the country’s vulnerable religious and ethnic minority communities.

Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of members of religious minority groups – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist in addressing these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of members of minority groups into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and the embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, the central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, medical supplies, psychosocial support, and other interventions, including for education and livelihoods.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional ministries of education, justice (which includes the functions of the former national Ministry of Human Rights), labor, and social affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of members of religious minority groups and the protection of their rights.

The U.S. government awarded $9 million in small grants directly to seven local faith-based and community organizations in the north of the country for programs that were in progress during the year. In the Ninewa Plain, U.S. government officials or staff worked with an additional 83 local organizations and 17 faith-based organizations to provide assistance with recovery, including livelihoods, health, legal, and social cohesion services to minority communities in the northern part of the country. The U.S. government continued to rebuild critical infrastructure with the aim of restoring essential services, while also rebuilding heavily damaged and destroyed shelters in religious and ethnic minority communities.

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

The Ambassador and the Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address the groups’ concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: Israel

West Bank and Gaza

Executive Summary

The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation. The 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state.” The 2018 Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People law determines, according to the government, that “the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” In June, authorities charged Zion Cohen for carrying out attacks on May 17 on religious institutions in Petah Tikva, Ashdod, Tel Aviv, and Kfar Saba. According to his indictment, Cohen sought to stop religious institutions from providing services to secular individuals, thereby furthering his goal of separating religion and the state. He was awaiting trial at year’s end. In July, the Haifa District Court upheld the 2019 conviction and sentencing for incitement of Raed Salah, head of the prohibited Islamic Movement, for speaking publicly in favor an attack by the group in 2017 that killed two police officers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In his defense, Salah stated that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran and that they did not include a direct call to violence. He was in prison at year’s end. The government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign” after dawn prayers. Starting in January at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, Islamic organizations, including Hamas, called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers to defend the sites against Israeli “violations.” On July 2, the Jerusalem Police informed the Jordanian government’s Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) that they had petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court requesting the closure of the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, on the grounds that the move was necessary because of evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. On January 1, the Department for Investigations of Police Officers (DIPO) indicted a detective from the Beit Shemesh police for assault and obstruction of justice after he detained an ultra-Orthodox protester and pulled him by his earlock. Following the announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person or vilified on social media by Muslim and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem for visiting the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site in coordination with the government. The Palestinian Authority-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who has no authority over the site) issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Waqf (which administers the site) rejected it, stating that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government continued to implement some policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Some minority religious groups complained about what they said was a lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups but stated that members of unrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.

In June, a Catholic friar reported being assaulted in public by three men wearing kippot (yarmulkes) who spit at and verbally attacked him before assaulting him physically. Yuri Logvanenko, a chef formerly employed by the Rehovot branch of the Yochanof supermarket chain, filed suit against the store after the chain demoted and then fired him after his Jewish identity was questioned by a kashrut (the body of Jewish religious laws concerning the suitability of food, the fitness for use of ritual objects, etc.) supervisor. According to press reports, on August 5, former member of the Knesset (MK) Moshe Feiglin posted a comment on Facebook calling the massive August 4 explosion in the port of Beirut “a gift from God” in time for the celebration of the Jewish feast of Tu B’av. Press and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said that the COVID-19 outbreak intensified tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, some of whom shared viral videos showing large gatherings at ultra-Orthodox weddings and funerals to reinforce a stereotype that the ultra-Orthodox disregarded state authority and the public good. Many ultra-Orthodox stated they disagreed with COVID-19 restrictions that limited religious gatherings but permitted months of large demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In its 2020 Israel Religion and State Index poll (of 800 adult Jews) published in September, the NGO Hiddush found that 65 percent of respondents identified as either secular (47 percent) or “traditional not religious” (18 percent), whose positions regarding public policy on religion and state were close to the positions of secular Israelis.

Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.

This section of the report covers Israel within the 1949 Armistice Agreement line as well as Golan Heights and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war and where it later extended its domestic law, jurisdiction, and administration. The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights in 2019. Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other.” This includes those who identify as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures, such as many immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There are also relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes approximately 77 percent of the country’s 180,000 Christians, according to the CBS as of December. Non-Arab Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members and their descendants.

According to the annual religion and state poll conducted by religious freedom NGO Hiddush, 60 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious group, 17 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 4 percent “Conservative.”

Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located throughout the country. For example, in the Galilee region, some communities are homogenous, while others feature a mix of these groups. There are also dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev. In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.

The CBS estimates 563,200 Jews, 345,800 Muslims, and 12,850 Christians live in the current municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 936,400 as of 2019.

According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 330,000 foreign workers in the country, including 97,000 documented Palestinian workers; 31,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 98,000 migrant workers with permits, 77,000 non-Palestinian undocumented workers (either migrant workers without a permit or tourists who overstayed their visa); and 31,000 asylum seekers, of whom an unknown number work. Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 30,000 Filipinos, 15,000 Indians, 5,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from South American countries.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Although the country has no constitution, a series of “Basic Laws” enumerate fundamental rights, which serve as the country’s constitutional foundation. The 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law, which applies to citizens and Palestinian residents.

The 2018 “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People” (Nation State Law) recognizes only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” in “the Land of Israel.” The law recommends – but does not require – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedent.

The Chief Rabbinate retains the sole authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.

The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.

The law recognizes only Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze faith, and the Baha’i Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: by petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office, according to the Order in Council, or the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.

Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status laws. Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as schools, monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.

Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils that oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs annually convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities. The council did not meet in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions that “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” regarding their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.

The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations. Government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups. The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism. The infliction of “injury to religious sentiments” constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by one year’s imprisonment. Such injury includes publishing or saying something that is liable to offend the religious sentiment or faith of others.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police can restrict this right in the name of public order and safety. The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.” The court upheld this position again in a decision on May 19.

The “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the Prime Minister for travel to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Hajj travel to Saudi Arabia; the government issues these permits in the vast majority of cases. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.

It is illegal to proselytize to a person younger than 18 without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.

The government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children, with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Minor children have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semiprivate) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Palestinian residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Some Israeli-funded public schools in Jerusalem use the Palestinian Authority curriculum. Religious education is part of the Palestinian Authority curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students in these schools could choose which class to take but could not opt out of religion courses.

The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration. Under this law, those who completed an Orthodox Jewish conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. The Population and Immigration Authority of the MOI recognizes Conservative and Reform conversions in the country for the purpose of being registered as Jewish in the population registry; however, those who convert through a non-Orthodox denomination, whether inside or outside Israel, are not able to obtain such religious services as marriage, divorce, or burial in a Jewish cemetery. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under this law regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised. The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and those who converted as adults to another religion, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.

The Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, explicitly prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.

Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.

The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Marriages performed outside of the country may be registered with the MOI. Members of some nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, only through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agree.

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct or are married in a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.

Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.

Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under the parallel jurisdiction of religious and civil courts. The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it. The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

In accordance with halacha (Jewish religious law), a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. The law permits rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for example, if the couple lives abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).

Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters. A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the observant Jewish community.

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late nineteenth century).

Religious Jewish women and ultra-Orthodox men may request an exemption from military service. For most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption. A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Arab Muslims and Christians as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service. Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for civil-national service.

Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion. Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.

All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion). Approximately 450,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.

There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. The Equal Employment Opportunities Law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment.

The law includes hostility based on the victim’s religion as an aggravating circumstance in a murder charge, making the offense punishable by life imprisonment.

The law states that public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant or factory’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. On August 31, in response to a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, the Chief Rabbinate released guidelines formally permitting restaurants and other food businesses to display a declaration regarding the kashrut standards they observe and the organization that supervises those standards. A business may not use the words “kosher” or “certificate” and must clearly state that it does not have a kashrut license from the rabbinate.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the covenant.

Government Practices

Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

On June 7, authorities charged Zion Cohen in the Central District Court for arson and attempted arson, producing and holding weapons, breaking and entering, and attempting to destroy property with explosive materials. The Ministry of Justice said Cohen, a resident of the Golan Heights, carried out attacks on May 17 on the Rabbinical Court in Petah Tikva, the Ashdod Religious Council, the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court, the Kfar Saba Religious Council, and the Kfar Saba Rabbinical Court. According to his indictment, Cohen sought to stop religious institutions’ provision of services to secular individuals, thereby furthering his goal of separating religion and state. According to authorities, Cohen began visiting religious institutions around the country, posing as a homeless person, to collect information. He set off 12 devices simultaneously, causing thousands of shekels worth of damage. According to the newspaper Haaretz, the government also suspected Cohen of carrying out a 2005 attack on a Tel Aviv rabbinical court that caused 2.7 million shekels ($840,000) in damage. As of the year’s end, Cohen was awaiting trial.

In July, the Haifa District Court upheld the 2019 conviction and sentencing of Raed Salah for incitement after he spoke at the 2017 funeral of three terrorists in favor of an attack that they had carried out earlier in the year that killed two police officers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. In the sermon, Salah, head of the prohibited Islamic Movement, described the men as “martyrs of al-Aqsa.” In his 2019 defense, Salah stated that his views were religious opinions rooted in the Quran and that they did not include a direct call to violence. The three-judge appellate panel said that Salah’s arguments were “outrageous.” On August 15, Salah briefly addressed hundreds of supporters gathered outside Kishon Prison, where he was about to begin his 28-month sentence (including 11 months credited for time served), stating, “Every Muslim and Arab in the world is proud of you. I do not respect the court’s decision.”

On January 1, DIPO indicted a detective from the Beit Shemesh police for assault and obstruction of justice after detaining an ultra-Orthodox protester in 2019 and pull him by his earlock. The police suspended the officer, and authorities continued to investigate the case as of November.

On December 4, police arrested an Orthodox Jewish man for trying to set fire to the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The suspect poured flammable liquid inside the Catholic church and set it on fire before a church guard detained him and police took him into custody. On December 31, a judge found the assailant mentally incompetent and remanded him to a psychiatric institution for up to 20 years.

On December 22, press outlets reported that hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators blocked several main roads in Jerusalem to protest the arrest of 20-year-old yeshiva student Shechna Rotenberg, who failed to report for induction into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after being conscripted. The protestors threw bottles at police who responded to the demonstration, injuring three. Protestors also surrounded the car of a senior IDF officer, Major General Yoel Strick, whom they identified as he passed by the area, threatening to physically harm him. A special police unit rescued Strick after he drew his handgun in self-defense. Police arrested three demonstrators.

Press reports stated that, on December 7, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protested in Jerusalem against light rail construction on Bar Ilan Street, which borders neighborhoods inhabited by ultra-Orthodox Jews, arguing that it would harm the ultra-Orthodox character of the area. Police said 25 protesters were arrested, saying that one of them had been in possession of a pocketknife, a baton, and pepper spray. Organizers of the protest posted signs that said “Ultra-Orthodox Judaism will in no way accept the destruction of its neighborhoods, and the ultra-Orthodox of Jerusalem will all stand firmly…and will not rest until the complete abolition of the horrific decree.”

The government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with only Muslims permitted to engage in religious worship there. The government stated it understood the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship on the compound, while Israel respects Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Muslim representatives stated that they generally have a different understanding of the status quo and that the Waqf should have full autonomy in administering the site (reflecting wide Palestinian and Muslim rejection of Israeli authority or sovereignty at the site) and that only Muslim worshippers are entitled to unrestricted access to the site.

In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign,” after daily dawn prayers. Hamas and other Islamic organizations called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank to defend them against “violations” by Israeli Jews. Media reports on January 17 stated that police dispersed protestors at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after Friday dawn prayers. Press reports said that Palestinian demonstrators chanted slogans recalling the Muslim massacre of Jews at the Battle of Khaybar, near Medina, in the seventh century. Police broke up the impromptu demonstration without incident. Clashes between police and demonstrators occurred at other times near the site in January and February. Press reports stated that at least 10 Palestinian Muslims were injured by rubber bullets fired by police on January 31 and that police turned away “hundreds” of worshippers from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on February 7.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administers the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The issue of the use of the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount that was reopened by the Waqf in 2019 after it had been closed since 2003, remained unresolved. The government stated it regarded the reopening as a violation of the status quo. On July 2, Israeli police asked the Jerusalem Magistrate Court to reimpose the court-ordered closure of the building, stating, according to the media, that it would be used again by Hamas, based on evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. Police asked the Waqf to close the building permanently. On July 12, the court asked the Waqf to provide its views within 60 days regarding the closure of the Bab al-Rahma. The Waqf stated that it did not recognize the authority of Israeli courts over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Throughout the year, Muslim worshippers could generally enter the site, although Israeli police regularly conducted security searches there.

Israeli media reported that security forces arrested six Muslim worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on January 7 for “shouting nationalist rhetoric.” Video of the incident showed police kicking one of those arrested. Police and the Waqf reached agreement to close the site from March 22 to May 31 to both Muslim and non-Muslim visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Waqf said it sought to close the site on one other occasion but kept it open because Israeli authorities did not agree to simultaneously close it to non-Muslim visitors. The Israeli government stated that the public regulations in place at that time did not mandate closure of the site. Government authorities closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, other houses of worship, and holy sites for Passover, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter holidays as well as for the Ramadan and Lenten seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Christian leaders stated that they were frustrated when Israel restricted indoor gatherings, including religious services, to 10 persons, saying that the cap was based on the number of men required for a minyan (a Jewish prayer quorum) and did not allow for greater numbers by taking into account the size of religious buildings and ability to socially distance safely. Israeli authorities made exceptions to health restrictions for Easter and Christmas services, allowing greater but still limited public attendance. Authorities also restricted the size of synagogue congregations during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Government restrictions on gathering for prayer varied from March through December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During a nationwide lockdown in the spring, no gatherings were allowed, including for prayer; at other times, prayer gatherings of 10 to 20 persons were allowed, including in roped-off groups at the Western Wall. Guidelines at other periods were more lenient.

On January 29, Israeli authorities briefly closed the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount after two Palestinians were arrested for attempting to carry out a stabbing attack against police.

On September 6, an association of Islamic leaders in Jerusalem issued a statement accusing police and authorities of violating the sanctity of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by erecting ladders and installing loudspeakers at the entrance to the Lions Gate. The Waqf posted photos showing the police and other staff mounting the roof and installing the equipment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the speakers were installed outside the compound and were for the safety of individuals visiting the site.

Authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site. The Wadi Hilweh Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 46 Waqf staff during the year. The government stated the police banned individuals from accessing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. The government said that these bans were authorized according to procedures approved by police officials and courts, and that they targeted both Jews and Muslims who “called for violence and disrupted the peace” at the site. According to the government, 225 individuals, including Jews and Muslims, were banned from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for different time periods. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported Israeli authorities banned 315 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, as well as Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Palestinian civil society organizations said that starting in November, police checked the identify cards of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry those with West Bank identity cards and return them to the West Bank.

Media outlets reported Israeli authorities barred prominent Muslims from the site for periods of time. Radwan Amr, director of the manuscripts department at al-Aqsa Mosque was barred for six months. Sheikh Issam Amireh, a senior leader of the Hizb al-Tahrir political party, was also barred for six months after he called the beheading of a teacher by a Muslim terrorist in France a “great honor for all Muslims” during a sermon at the site. On January 18, the Israeli police barred Ekrima Sabri, the imam of the al-Aqsa Mosque, head of the private Islamic Higher Committee in Jerusalem, and the former Palestinian Grand Mufti, from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for a period of four months after accusing him of incitement in a January 17 sermon. On May 29, authorities detained Sabri again and later informed him that he would not be allowed to visit the site for an additional four months. On October 28, police raided the office of the deputy director of the Waqf, Najeh Bkirat, in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and told him to report to the intelligence services in seven days, when he was told that he would be banned from entering the site for six months. According to media, Bkirat was banned for “incitement” against the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries, and against the visitors from those countries to the site, as well as for his possible linkages to Hamas. On November 26, authorities presented him with an order that he would not be allowed in the site for three months. Bkirat told the International Middle East Media Center in November that since 2003, police had banned him from the site 21 times for a period of more than seven years, adding: “In 2019, I was admitted into the mosque only for one week.”

In addition, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted some Muslims based on gender and age from entering the site. Israeli authorities have not issued permits for Gazans to visit the site during Muslim holidays since 2017, when it issued a few hundred permits during Ramadan, according to UN reports. Muslims who are Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or foreigners already present in Israel do not need permits to visit the site.

The Waqf also said that Israeli authorities interfered in the administration of the site by the Waqf, including maintenance and restoration work. Israeli officials and activists stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities. For example, pictures on the Waqf’s Facebook page showed their personnel digging at the site on March 31, while the site was closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the police banning individual Waqf staff members from visiting the site, the Waqf said that it had a greatly reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff.

In January, the Attorney General allowed the Chief Rabbinate, for the first time, to issue indictments against business owners who presented their products as kosher without having a kashrut certificate. During the year, the rabbinate filed 21 such indictments.

In July, the Chief Rabbinate council exempted, for the first time, importers of foods from presenting a local kashrut certificate prior to receiving a kosher stamp when the imported product already had been certified as kosher by a local kosher certification agency or rabbi.

Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir, which tracks hate crimes, and from media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.

According to the most recent data from the MRS, 30,260 individuals applied for Jewish marriage during the year, although no figures were available regarding the number of those who were asked by rabbinical courts to prove their Jewish identity. In 2019, 34,083 individuals registered a Jewish marriage and rabbinical courts instructed 3,064 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. One-and-a-half percent of the 4,449 cases of proving Jewish lineage closed in 2019 were unsuccessful, some of which carried over from previous years. Jewish couples who could not marry through the rabbinate or travel abroad to marry due to government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions generally were left without an opportunity to marry. Similarly, those who otherwise wanted to marry outside the rabbinate were left without an alternative due to the pandemic. According to the CBS, 9,021 weddings took place abroad and were later registered in the country during 2018, the most recent data available.

In late December, according to the press and NGOs, several couples married online in the state of Utah in order to circumvent the law’s requirement that marriages must be performed according to the religious statutes of a recognized religious community in order to be registered. The Population Immigration and Border Authority accepted four couples’ marriage certificates and registered the marriages, including of a lesbian couple. Upon learning of the loophole, Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri ordered the registration process for the couples to be stopped to allow further review by senior officials. According to the NGO Hiddush, this action contradicted previous Supreme Court verdicts.

On August 17, the Jerusalem Administrative Court ruled that an initiative of the Jerusalem municipality to hold small ceremonies in public venues during the COVID-19 pandemic must not discriminate against couples who could not or were not interested in an Orthodox ceremony, although such marriages could not be officially registered.

On June 21, the Tel Aviv Municipality announced that it would allow couples who could not or chose not to marry under current laws to register and enjoy all the rights and financial benefits provided to married couples by the municipality. According to the announcement, LGBTI couples, interfaith couples, couples who could not marry under current laws, and secular couples who did not want to marry in the rabbinate were among those allowed to register. Registration as a couple provided discounts on such items as property taxes and preschool registration for children. Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai stated the city was taking the step to celebrate gay pride week, and the municipal government had decided to “challenge the [central] government [on the issue of civil marriage] and enable partnership based on a declaration.” The Ramat Gan and Rishon LeTzion municipalities adopted similar policies in November and December.

Local authorities circumvented the ban on public transportation on Shabbat by funding privately operated bus lines. On March 26, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a petition filed by the NGO Chotam against the operation of transportation services on Shabbat by the Ramat Gan municipality, arguing that the services were planned to balance the different needs of Ramat residents, and an effort was made to minimize passage through religious areas. According to a September Hiddush poll, 71 percent of Jewish citizens were in favor of transportation on weekends, including 96 percent of citizens who described themselves as secular.

Women’s rights organizations, including the Israel Women’s Action Network, expressed concern about gender segregation in publicly funded or sponsored events and in academia, to accommodate ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Jews.

The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage to the satisfaction of the Chief Rabbinate. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. The government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.

On August 4, following a 2019 order by the Supreme Court, an additional closed hearing was held by an expanded panel of the Supreme Court on a 2018 Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling which found that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship had no rights to her and her husband’s home. In 2019, the petitioners argued that the rabbinical court put a heavy weight on the adultery in its decision, which they said should not be a consideration in decisions regarding property. The case was pending as of year’s end.

According to the NGO Mavoi Satum, not wanting to be married is not one of the specific causes for divorce allowed based on halacha, and over the years, some rabbinical courts have ruled against this argument as a cause for divorce. According to Mavoi Satum, in two cases during the year, rabbinical courts overreached their authority by allowing recalcitrant husbands to reopen negotiations over divorce agreements signed between partners and validated by another rabbinical court.

On September 21, the Supreme Court ordered the Minister of Justice to hold a disciplinary hearing for the chief rabbi of the city of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, for making racist and offensive statements against Arabs and for defaming state institutions following a 2016 petition against his comments filed by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs. The court stated, however, that comments the rabbi made against Arab, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community based on his religious perspective were protected within his freedom of speech as a city rabbi.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed inside the site and at entrances. Police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance through which non-Muslims entered the site and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access, citing security concerns.

Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer there. The government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the site; Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated this view in a campaign event in March. However, NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that in practice, police generally allowed discreet non-Muslim prayer on the site. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter with police escort.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, unless they were participating in a Waqf-sponsored visit. The Waqf also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. The Waqf objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals whom they perceived to be dressed immodestly or who caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials exercised only a limited oversight. The government extended visiting hours in the afternoon by 30 minutes to prevent large groups forming at the entrance for non-Muslims in accordance with COVID-19 health restrictions.

Following the announcement of normalized relations with several Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person and vilified on social media by Palestinian Muslims for visiting the site. The Palestinian Authority Mufti of Jerusalem, who has no authority over holy sites, issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian Waqf rejected the fatwa. The Waqf stated that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government welcomed these visits as a positive outcome of normalization and as a demonstration of freedom of religion.

The NGO Returning to the Mount filed a petition to the Supreme Court May 4 demanding the government allow Jewish visitors to enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The NGO argued that the arrangement at that time – in which only Muslim Waqf staff were allowed to enter the site due to the COVID-19 pandemic – discriminated against Jews who wished to visit. The court rejected the petition on May 19, stating it did not find grounds to interfere with the government’s discretion. On June 23, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond by November 21 to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing as of the years’ end. The Waqf and others criticized non-Muslim visitors who entered the site escorted by police as “settlers” and said they “stormed” the site.

Many Jewish religious leaders, including the government-appointed rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for reasons of ritual purity. Some Jewish religious leaders, MKs, and activists called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.

The government continued to allow MKs and ministers to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. MKs were required to inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with police.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to prohibit the performance of any “religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services, to the objection of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements. The organization Women of the Wall, whose goal is to secure the official right for women to pray at the Western Wall, argued that their monthly presence at the wall for more than 30 years had established them as part of the “customs of the place.”

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.

Within COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in a barricaded portion of the women’s area of the main Western Wall, or as a pod at the rear of the main plaza along with other separated prayer pods. However, when the Western Wall was open for prayers by groups of only 10 people at a time, Women of the Wall reported that rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz rejected their April 19 request for a group of 10 women from Jerusalem to pray there, despite approving such requests for ultra-Orthodox visitors from outside of Jerusalem.

Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall main plaza, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. A 2017 petition to the Supreme Court by Women of the Wall asking that ushers and police prevent disruption of their services was under review at year’s end.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. The Supreme Court criticized the government on November 4 for its lack of progress since 2018 on upgrading the area to a permanent egalitarian prayer space. The government blamed the delay on multiple rounds of national elections, the COVID-19 pandemic, and an obstacle posed by a Jerusalem municipality planning committee, but also stated that it was not under a legal obligation to implement the construction plan. The court ordered the government to make progress by April 4, 2021. This case was a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall. In 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that would have offered them symbolic recognition, in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year. In addition, observers stated that scaffolding prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018. Over the same period, the Western Wall Heritage Foundation managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

The government continued to promote the establishment of a cable car route from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City that would pass over a Karaite cemetery. In September, the Jerusalem Municipality published a tender for the construction of the cable car, and on September 9, a Jerusalem local planning committee approved the expropriation of more than 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of private lands, mostly in Silwan, for construction of the project. According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem and to reinforce Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the area. The plan was pending final approval from the government at year’s end. Three petitions against the cable car, filed by the Karaite community, the NGO Emek Shaveh, and the NGO Israel Union for Environmental Defense were pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end.

After workers sent by the Jerusalem municipality demolished a wall and stairs in the Islamic al-Yusufiye Cemetery to make way for a park in November, local Palestinians gathered in protest and the work stopped. On December 24, the Jerusalem District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the municipality, forcing the city to suspend its work. The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Islamic Waqf and adjacent to the Old City.

The barrier that divided the majority of the occupied West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals, as well as the conduct of journalism and humanitarian and NGO activities. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

On November 30, a court cited the country’s Nation State Law in dismissing a lawsuit brought by two Arab schoolchildren against their northern town of Carmiel, ruling that the town’s “Jewish character” must be preserved. The children’s family asked to be reimbursed for expenses incurred for traveling to an Arabic-speaking school outside the city, because there are no such schools in Carmiel which has a population that is only 6 percent Arab. Although the court provided seven reasons for dismissing the suit, Haaretz reported that the ruling drew “criticism for citing the controversial nation-state law passed in 2018, which officially defines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and asserts that ‘the realization of the right to national self-determination in Israel is unique to the Jewish people’” and for stipulating that the Jewish people alone, as a people, have the right to self-determination in Israel. According to the magistrate court judge’s ruling, “Carmiel is a Jewish city which is intended to strengthen Jewish settlement in the Galilee.” The court ruling also said “The development of Jewish settlement is therefore a national value, one anchored in basic law. It ought to be an appropriate and dominant consideration in the array of municipal considerations, including for the issue of establishment schools and funding transportation.” A Justice Ministry attorney told a Knesset panel that the Nation State Law should not impinge on the individual civil rights of non-Jews. In a separate court proceeding, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit stated that he believed the dismissal of the case expressed a misinterpretation of that law. The children’s family said they would appeal the court’s decision. Bills to cancel or amend the Nation State Law have been submitted in the Knesset but have not been approved.

Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the Nation State Law. On December 22, the Supreme Court heard 15 petitions filed by human rights groups and Arab and Druze citizens asking the court to strike down the law and declare as unconstitutional several specific articles the plaintiffs said were discriminatory. As the court was hearing arguments in the case, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that the Supreme Court “has no authority to debate the validity of Basic Laws,” adding that the court “is not an absolute ruler.”

In 2019, six Orthodox women halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court to permit women to take halacha examinations used to ordain rabbis. While Orthodox women cannot become rabbis, passing the examinations is equal to receiving a bachelor’s degree and grants an advantage when applying for certain public sector positions. On June 29, in its response to the petition, the government proposed to establish a parallel examination operated by the Ministry of Education rather than the rabbinate. On June 30, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef threatened that the rabbinate would not conduct any exams to ordain state-authorized rabbis, including for men, if the court ruled that women could be ordained, in contradiction to halacha. On July 27, the Supreme Court issued an injunction ordering the government to explain why the rejection of registration of women for halacha examinations does not constitute discrimination and why the court should not rule that the Chief Rabbinate must allow women to register for such examinations. At year’s end, the case was still pending.

Separate public and semipublic school systems varied widely in educational quality, according to NGOs and international organizations. Muslim, Christian, Druze, and ultra-Orthodox students passed the matriculation exam at lower rates than their non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish counterparts.

The government continued operating educational and scholarship programs to benefit Arab students. Between the academic years 2009/10 and 2020/21, the percentage of Arab students rose significantly in all university degree programs, increasing from 13 percent to 19 percent in undergraduate programs, from 7 percent to 15 percent in master’s programs, and from 5 percent to 7 percent in doctoral programs, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

According to the press, in June, a kosher supervisor from the Chief Rabbinate revoked the kashrut certificate of Kalo Cafe, a Jerusalem restaurant, for allegedly allowing a Palestinian cook to operate kitchen equipment in contravention of Kashrut rules that only allow Jews to do so. The cafe’s owner decided to renounce the kashrut certification, which the restaurant had maintained for 25 years, and said he regarded the rabbinate’s suggestion that he fire his employee as “racist.” Social media users protested the certificate decision on the Chief Rabbinate’s Facebook page, which, according to the Times of Israel, evoked “insulting” responses from the rabbinate’s account, for which the Chief Rabbinate apologized; the responses were also deleted.

In June, Falafel HaTeomim, a restaurant in Givataim, stopped paying the rabbinate for supervision of its kitchen after 42 years due to a downturn in business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rabbinate subsequently withdrew its kosher certificate for the restaurant and according to media reports, placed notices in the nearby city of Bnei Brak that the rabbinate could no longer certify the restaurant as kosher and that the public should “know and beware.” Strong public reactions supporting the restaurant and its owners and against the rabbinate followed the press reports, including from the chair of the Reform movement, who said the rabbinate was “rotten from its base, filled with corruption and inconsiderate of business owners.”

In June, city officials in Lod stated that the Islamic call to prayer, particularly at high volume and in the early hours of the morning, was a violation of city ordinances. According to the website Al-Monitor, for several months municipal authorities measured the volume of the call to prayer and issued warnings to the imams of local mosques. The authorities asked police to enforce the law, stating the mosques were disturbing the peace. They also asked the MOI to summon one of the mosques’ imams to a hearing, stating that since his salary was paid by the ministry, he should follow their instructions. In April, Arab members of the city council, local imams, and the People’s Committee of Lod sent a letter demanding that the municipality refrain from intervening in the calls to prayer. The letter was distributed in mosques and stated that the muezzin and the call to prayer represented “our Islamic presence, identity, and roots.” The letter said the city’s efforts regarding the calls to prayer were a declaration of a “religious war” and that the clerics and the Arab leadership in the city would not be responsible if the situation worsened.

The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs, whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion.

A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. The Chief Rabbinate and MOI continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country. In June, the press reported that Interior Minister Aryeh Deri asked the Prime Minister to support a bill that was aimed at giving the rabbinate sole control over conversions, precluding private Orthodox conversions and those recognized by the Conservative and Reform movements.

A series of Supreme Court cases on conversion rights, including a petition demanding immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country, continued through year’s end. On December 7, the Supreme Court, noting that the case had been pending since 2005 and that the government had filed numerous requests for delays while it sought a legislative solution, said that there was no reason to further delay a ruling. It asked the petitioners to update their legal briefs by December 21. The petition was pending at year’s end.

The rabbinate asked some individuals from the former Soviet Union to take DNA tests in order to prove their Jewish heritage. On January 22, the Supreme Court “erased” a petition against such DNA tests and gave the Chief Rabbinate a year to regulate the procedure, including setting clear criteria for when a test should be conducted and clarifying the meaning of refusal to be tested. If after one year the issue is not regulated, the court said the petitioners would be legally able to submit a new petition.

In February, Hiddush filed suit in the Jerusalem District Court challenging the Jerusalem municipality’s exclusion of synagogues representing Reform, Conservative, egalitarian Orthodox, and other independent Jewish communities as well as non-Jewish religious institutions (primarily Muslim and Christian) from the “Religion and Tradition” section of the municipal website, which only includes information about Orthodox synagogues and institutions. In July, after the city deleted the list of synagogues in the city from the municipal website, Hiddush stated the municipality took the step to avoid publicizing non-Orthodox synagogues and non-Jewish houses of worship.

According to a November 9 Times of Israel report, Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion and his administration proposed a plan to designate seats on Jerusalem community councils as either ultra-Orthodox or not. Jerusalem is the country’s only municipality to use community councils, which were established to provide greater communication between the city’s diverse populations and the municipal government. Each council has 15 members, nine elected and six appointed. Lion said the proposal was designed to reduce conflicts on the councils and to ensure that the views of minority communities were represented. Members of both the ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox communities expressed concerns about the proposal, with one describing it as “undemocratic.” There are eight community councils serving Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as well, but none of them has elected members.

On January 7, Ynet posted a video of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yosef speaking at a conference in which he referred to immigrants from the former Soviet Union as “not Jews at all,” “communists,” “hostile to religion,” and “haters of religion,” who “vote for parties that incite against the ultra-Orthodox and against religion.” The video also depicted Yosef saying the immigrants were brought to Israel to “act as a political weight against the ultra-Orthodox.” On February 16, the predominantly secular Yisrael Beitenu party filed a Supreme Court petition against the chief rabbi that demanded the court issue an injunction to force the Minister of Justice to explain why the religious court judges’ committee had not convened to discuss the termination of the chief rabbi and why a complaint had not been filed against him in the disciplinary tribunal. Reacting to the chief rabbi’s comments, the Prime Minister said that immigration from the former Soviet Union had been a “boon” for the country. The head of the Blue and White Party said that the chief rabbi needed to apologize and that the country had a “debt” to those who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

On July 9, media published a speech of Chief Rabbi Yosef in which he stated that Reform Judaism is “falsified Judaism.” On October 25 the ombudsman of the Israeli judiciary recommended the committee appointing rabbinic judges convene to discuss whether Chief Rabbi Yosef, who also acts as the president of the rabbinical court, should continue in this role, following a complaint by the NGO Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) regarding his negative statements against the Reform movement, women, and the High Court of Justice. The chief rabbi stated that he stood behind his words.

Members of some minorities said that the government did not provide the same service and benefits to them as to the country’s majority Jewish population. In May, the Druze and Circassian communities called a general strike in their villages and protested in front of the Prime Minister’s office, complaining that budgetary funding for their communities at large and for their towns and villages was insufficient to meet their needs and that the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated their challenges. In May, Arab citizens’ local councils also led protests against what they described as the failure to offer Arab municipalities sufficient COVID-19 relief for tax shortfalls in those localities. Arab leaders also stated that there was insufficient information or COVID-19 testing provided to their community after the pandemic’s outbreak.

On April 30, a national labor court ordered an examination of retroactive salary compensation to 16 Ethiopian Israeli keisim (Jewish religious leaders) and rabbis as a result of wage gaps between them and other religious council employees from 1992 onward.

The MRS listed 28 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for civil burial and burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only three were available for use to the general public regardless of residence, and one had been full for several years. The other cemeteries, located in agricultural localities, were permitted to bury only “residents of the area.” This, according to Hiddush, left the majority of the country’s population deprived of the ability to exercise its right, as mandated by law, to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views. The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. On December 12, the Supreme Court, as a part of a petition by Hiddush, issued an order instructing the state to explain why it would not allow civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local residents and who do not have another alternative. The case was pending as of the end of the year.

According to Hiddush, an absolute majority of the MRS licenses for civil burial are held by Jewish Orthodox NGOs and religious councils. Some of these organizations, according to Hiddush, conducted a “less religious burial” rather than a secular one, did not allow burial in a coffin, and stated on their websites that their services were only for non-Jews. In an October letter, Hiddush called upon the Minister of Religious Services to cease issuing licenses to these groups and to set clear rules regarding the obligations of the organizations providing civil burial services.

The government again did not propose new draft legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews, despite its commitment to the Supreme Court following the 2017 Supreme Court verdict which struck down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service. On November 3, after approving several postponements over the years, the Supreme Court rejected a government request to postpone the implementation of the verdict again, ruling that the amendment providing for the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service would be canceled on February 1, 2021. According to press reporting, the court determined that no additional deferrals would be granted to the government on the issue.

While some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of religious beliefs, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument. The IDF reported increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox recruits since at least 2011, mainly into dedicated ultra-Orthodox units such as the Netzah Yehuda Battalion. A scandal arose in December 2019, however, when media reported that the IDF inflated the number of ultra-Orthodox men in its ranks over several years to meet its quotas. For example, 1,300 ultra-Orthodox men enlisted in 2017, but the IDF reported 3,070, according to KAN Radio. In 2018, the IDF established the Ultra-Orthodox Draft Administration. The commander of the administration, Lt. Col. Telem Hazan, opened an inquiry after an unnamed official asked him to file a falsified report with inflated numbers, according to press reports.

Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit community did not receive an exemption from military service based on its members’ conscientious objection on religious grounds because its yeshivas were not recognized by the state and young men studying in those yeshivas did not submit draft exemption applications. As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, according to representatives of the community.

On August 9, the Supreme Court rejected a petition by members of the ultra-Orthodox Satmer community demanding an exemption from military service based on conscientious objection on religious grounds because they do not recognize the state. The court ruled it would not intervene in the state’s rejection of a blanket exemption for a specific community.

According to the Karaite community’s NGO, during the year the IDF requested religious Karaite women who sought to be exempted from military service to declare their status as religious women at a rabbinical court, which would be contrary to their beliefs. Up until 2020, Karaite women were able to submit a letter from a Jewish Karaite court to the IDF to prove their status.

On June 28, the government’s Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council announced that it had ordered a U.S.-based evangelical broadcaster, GOD TV, off the air, saying the company’s Hebrew-language Shelanu channel hid its missionary agenda when it applied for a license. The chairman of the council, in explaining the decision, said, “The channel appeals to Jews with Christian content.” Its original request was for a “station targeting the Christian population.” In a statement, the broadcaster said that the license unambiguously states that the channel will broadcast Christian content in Hebrew to the general Israeli public and accused the council chairman of revoking the license because he was close to former Communications Minister David Ansalem, who had condemned the license granted to the Shelanu channel before he left the ministry. A spokesman said the Shelanu channel would reapply for a license. According to Haaretz, several government ministers and the Chief Rabbinate were among those who complained to the council about the station’s proselytizing of Israeli Jews. During the council’s review of the station’s license following public criticism of its programming, Shelanu said that the threat to suspend its license was unprecedented and that such a suspension “could constitute blatant discrimination on the basis of religion.” On June 30, the cable provider that had carried the station said it would not act on Shelanu’s behalf to reapply for the license.

According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, as a condition of its lease of land for its campus on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported that the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.

The Center of Scientology Israel reported that it was targeted by the NGO Israeli Center for Victims of Cults (ICVC) and falsely categorized as a “domestic violence and familial sexual abuse” organization. ICVC was partially funded by the government and paid for a campaign to target Scientology online.

The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated, along with the leaders of recognized religions, in official events and ceremonies.

A Supreme Court petition by Jehovah’s Witnesses that requested official recognition as a religious community was pending as of the year’s end. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite repeated requests, the government had not taken action on the group’s original 2017 application for recognition. The court had not reached a decision by year’s end.

The Knesset’s finance committee rejected applications for tax-deductible status by Jehovah’s Witnesses NGO Watchtower Association of Israel and the Messianic Jewish NGO Yachad Ramat Hasharon, despite objections from legal advisors in the Ministry of Justice and the Tax Authority. A petition by the Jehovah’s Witness to the Supreme Court regarding the matter was pending at the year’s end.

According to the Secular Forum, growing “religionization” (hadata) of the education system continued, including in textbooks and through programs in schools taught by Orthodox NGOs. On February 6, the Supreme Court issued an injunction ordering the Ministry of Education to explain why it should not expand its criteria to fund religious NGOs conducting Jewish education in secular schools to include pluralistic organizations conducting religious education in secular schools. According to Molad – The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, the hadata in schools was politically motivated with the goal of increasing support for settlers.

Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, mathematics, and science curriculum. The government, however, included that basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools. Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools had autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials. The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fully fund Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but churches rejected this option, stating that, unlike in Orthodox schools, they would lose autonomy over hiring, admitting students, and use of property. Church leaders criticized the disparity between government funding for their schools and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.

Seventh-day Adventists and others who worshipped on Saturday stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not. The government said local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religious groups in accordance with the law. The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship was not granted a property tax exemption, although representatives of religious groups stated that tax collection by local authorities remained a concern.

Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays for, and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world and that any visa delays or denials were due to security reviews. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted that the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who had served in the country for more than 30 years.

The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual members of Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with the religious community without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not legally exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.

The government employed an “appropriate representation” policy for non-Jewish minorities in the civil service. The percentage of Arab employees in the public sector was 12.2 percent (61.5 percent of them entry-level), according to the Civil Service Commission. The percentage of Arab employees in the 62 government-owned companies was approximately 2.5 percent; however, during the year Arab citizens held 12 percent of director positions in government-owned companies, up from 1 percent in 2000, and Arab workers held 11 percent of government positions, up from 5 percent in 2000, according to Sikkuy, an NGO that supports full equality between Jewish and Arab citizens.

The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country and continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. Muslim leaders criticized the MOI for appointing non-Muslims – mostly Druze former military officers – to head the Muslim Affairs Department at the ministry. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. The government said it did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were not state employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budgetary resources. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.

No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders continued to reject this assertion and stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.

The government continued to promote measures to encourage increased Israeli residence and economic development in the thinly populated Negev Desert in the south of the country, including development plans for military industries, railways, the expansion of Road 6, and a phosphate mine. Civil society organizations criticized government plans, stating they could lead to the displacement of 36,000 Bedouins. The government made more funding available for government-approved Bedouin cities and towns to relocate Bedouins displaced by the economic expansion.

In reports on its website, the NGO Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, stated that the government discriminated against the Bedouin residents of the Negev in several ways, including charging those in unrecognized villages the highest water prices in the country; refusing to classify camels as “farm animals”; preventing Bedouin herders from using the grazing land in the region; not addressing overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in local schools; and displacing residents to allow for the expansion of primarily Jewish towns and the relocation or expansion of government military facilities.

In March, the NGOs Adalah and the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) filed a petition with the Supreme Court asking that it order the investigation of the death of teacher Yaqub Musa Abu al-Qian be reopened. Police shot and killed Abu al-Qian, a teacher in his fifties, in 2017 during an operation to demolish homes in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran, which was scheduled to be replaced by the Orthodox-only Jewish town of Hiran. After he was shot, Abu al-Qian’s car struck and killed a police officer. The government accused Abu al-Qian of intentionally killing the officer. The then-Minister of Public Security said Abu al-Qian was a “terrorist.” The NGOs’ petition disputed the details of the government’s account of the incident and presented a review of the police investigation by outside experts to support their argument that Abu al-Qian was driving at a speed of 10 kilometers (six miles) per hour when police opened fire, that the officer who shot Abu al-Qian did not believe his life was in danger, and that police and medical personnel had not provided medical care that may have saved Abu al-Qian’s life, but allowed him to bleed to death. Similar accounts appeared in the media, including in television news reports featuring internal police communications about the incident and the newspaper Haaretz. On September 13, Adalah and PCATI submitted an urgent motion to the Supreme Court for an immediate hearing on their March petition and asked for a reopening of the investigation. No hearing had been held by year’s end.

Bedouin residents in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran continued to not fulfill their 2018 agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. The agreement followed years of legal battles and negotiations on replacing Umm al-Hiran with a new community called Hiran. Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Israeli population of the Negev and Galilee regions) to move to Hiran remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.

Some former mosques and Islamic cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonged to a defunct prestate Waqf (distinct from the Jordanian-administered Waqf in Jerusalem) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. According to the Turkish press agency Anadolu, a study prepared by Kamal Khatib of the High Follow Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel found that since the War of Independence, 15 mosques had been converted into synagogues by the government, 40 mosques were either destroyed, closed, or abandoned, while 17 others had been turned into barns, bars, restaurants, or museums.

On June 8, the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality decided to resume construction of a homeless shelter on the remains of the Ottoman-era al-Issaf Islamic cemetery, sparking protests from Jaffa’s Arab citizen residents. While the protests remained mostly peaceful, some residents were arrested for violently confronting the police and destroying municipal property. Several Arab and ultra-Orthodox political parties publicly showed support for the demonstrators, calling on authorities to respect the sensitivity of burial sites. Two city council members from Jaffa resigned from the city’s ruling coalition to protest the municipality’s decision. The Tel Aviv District Court initially ordered all construction to cease due to lack of up-to-date construction permits, but later approved the construction. The Islamic Council of Jaffa petitioned the High Court of Justice to stop construction but asked the court to delete the petition on August 27. Construction resumed soon after, and the Tel Aviv Municipality committed to excavate the site using manual methods acceptable for burial sites and avoid harming the remains of the cemetery.

Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities.

On June 6, the Karaite community submitted a second petition to the Supreme Court to block the expropriation of land previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramla for the construction of a highway interchange. The Karaites stated that the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. The petition remained pending at year’s end.

The Government Press Office requested journalists to refrain from reporting from ultra-Orthodox areas in April due to the occasion of Passover.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains. The government employed civilian clergy of different faiths, including Muslim imams, as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The Supreme Court ordered the Beit Shemesh municipality to remove such signs in 2018 or face fines. While the municipality took down some signs, it did not fully implement the ruling, and some that were removed were replaced by new ones. The court extended the deadline for the removal of the signs to September 30 to allow the municipality to discuss the matter with the residents.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.

On April 30, the Supreme Court ruled on a petition by NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum against a ban on bringing nonkosher foods (known as hametz) into public hospitals during Passover. According to the verdict, hospitals must allow nonkosher food for Passover, while finding appropriate arrangements within 10 months that would allow keeping the hospital food kosher. The alternatives offered include establishing hametz areas or using disposable plates and utensils for hametz. On June 16, the Chief Rabbinate requested an additional hearing on the case; the court had not ruled on the request as of year’s end.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including in Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively affected the long-term viability of their communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; the limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; the difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community itself.

The law continued to prevent the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administered the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners. In practice, however, foreigners were allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land included approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes strictly prohibited sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions continued to limit the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who were not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. Arab citizens were allowed to place bids on JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA granted the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel won a bid. Despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that the ILA Executive Council must include an Arab, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews, there were no members from these groups on the council at year’s end.

On June 24, the Jerusalem District Court denied a request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of three properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish prosettlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004. The District Court’s decision followed similar rulings by the Supreme Court in 2019 and a lower court in 2017. The Church had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. The Church filed the district court lawsuit after the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. Following the district court decision, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate released a statement saying it received the ruling with “surprise” and that “We believe the court erred in its decision and intend to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court.”

On July 7, 13 heads of churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement that the court’s ruling on the three properties threatened Christian presence in the city. The heads of the churches said that they stood united in their “commitment to safeguarding the historical status quo of the Holy Sites and rights of the churches which are universally recognized.” According to the statement, the case represented a “systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the holy city, to obstruct the Christian pilgrim route, and to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.” The heads of the churches called on the Israeli government “to act in order to safeguard the integrity of the Christian heritage and patrimony in the Old City as well as the holy sites and the rights of the residents of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.”

Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the Ministers of Culture, Justice, and Religious Affairs. The government stated that Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.” Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Muslim leaders continued to protest archaeological excavations and construction work done at the City of David National Park in the Silwan neighborhood outside the Old City, and in the Old City near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, including an elevator being installed at the rear of the Western Wall plaza. Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. Archeologists from Emek Shaveh continued to dispute the government’s representation of the “Pilgrim’s Road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan in 2019, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple; Emek Shaveh said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road. NGOs such as the City of David Foundation (El-Ad) and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies continued to support the government’s position.

The Secular Forum and Hiddush continued to demand regular family visits to army bases on Shabbat, although the IDF committee established in 2019 following a petition by the Secular Forum and Hiddush concluded its work, according to a July 7 letter to Hiddush. In the letter, the IDF stated that the committee created unified procedures for visits on Shabbat but had not yet published them. Secular Forum and Hiddush originally petitioned the IDF because family visits on Shabbat were regularly cancelled.

The NGO Secular Forum reported that in response to complaints it had filed about IDF members being punished for using private refrigerators to store personal food items, the IDF issued an order allowing soldiers to bring outside food, including nonkosher food, into IDF facilities and to store nonkosher food in private or communal refrigerators.

The Israel Women’s Action Network and other women’s rights NGOs continued to cite a trend of gender segregation in government institutions, including the IDF. The NGOs said this increased accommodation of Jewish religious observance was intended to attract more personnel from groups that strictly interpreted Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. In 2019, following a wave of protests by “national religious” rabbis, the IDF stopped allowing women to serve in combat positions in the armored corps despite a successful pilot program. The IDF chief of staff, in a response to Supreme Court petitions on the matter, announced he would extend the pilot program and make a final decision on the matter in 2022. Many observers, however, stated that the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.

According to a November report in the Jerusalem Post, the Beersheba Magistrate’s Court convicted an unnamed Bedouin man of polygamy and sentenced him to seven months in prison, the second such conviction in two years. According to a 2019 Associated Press report, the government was trying to end the custom of polygamy among Bedouins in the Negev and, for the first time, prosecuted suspected polygamists. Many Bedouins stated they saw this new policy as a means to curb their population growth and criminalize community members. On August 14, Haaretz reported that the government said it would change its method for selling building lots in Bedouin communities in order to prevent them from being purchased by women in polygamous marriages. Although the country outlawed polygamy decades ago, approximately 20 to 30 percent of Bedouin men practiced polygamy, according to government figures, with the rate as high as 60 percent in some villages.

On August 19, Minister of Education Yoav Galant intervened in Bible studies curriculum by cutting out Jewish history satirical sketches from the television show HaYehudim Baim (The Jews are Coming), posted on a Ministry of Education’s website including supplementary content for Bible studies teachers, following a protest from Orthodox rabbis. On August 21, the NGO Association for Civil Rights in Israel demanded that the Attorney General instruct the Minister that he has no authority to intervene in the school curriculum.

At year’s end, the Knesset had 17 members from religious minorities (11 Muslims, four Druze, and two Christians). There were no Druze, Muslim, or Christian members of the cabinet.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with Israeli government officials, embassy officials stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups. The Ambassador spoke at the Christian Media Summit‎ hosted by the government in October to promote religious freedom in the region, and the Charge d’Affaires hosted a virtual interfaith reception for representatives of the country’s diverse religious groups. In January, the Vice President represented the United States at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, at Yad Vashem, which press called the largest-ever event focused on combating anti-Semitism.

Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The embassy awarded grants to the Jerusalem Intercultural Center for an interreligious community economic development program in the Old City. Additionally, the embassy presented a grant to the Interfaith Encounter Association to bring together three interfaith groups in Jerusalem’s Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods to meet with U.S. experts, coordinators, and fellow interfaith groups. The embassy also issued public statements condemning attacks on places of worship, including an attempted arson attack on the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane.

On April 20 and 23, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government and civil society representatives to discuss increasing COVID-19-themed manifestations of anti-Semitic tropes against Israel and Jews, especially online. The Special Envoy and his counterparts agreed that increasing education, monitoring, legislation, and law enforcement could help combat this trend.

Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations. Embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.

Throughout the year, embassy officials used social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.

Embassy-hosted events included a virtual interfaith iftar and a virtual interfaith Thanksgiving roundtable discussion. The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience. Embassy programs supported mixed Jewish-Arab educational and community initiatives to reduce societal tensions and violence through sports, the arts, environmental projects, and entrepreneurship. Initiatives included a project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together Bedouins and Jews of Ethiopian descent to address violence and build strong relationships between their communities. Another project continued to support joint training sessions for Muslim and Jewish teachers to promote interreligious tolerance in classrooms.

The embassy worked to mitigate interreligious and intercommunal tensions between the country’s non-Jewish and Jewish citizens through the greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy, especially the high-tech sector.

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West Bank and Gaza

Macau

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

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. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau 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 I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

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 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. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

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 states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

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

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

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.

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Mexico

Executive Summary

The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. The constitution declares the country a secular state. Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure, allowing them some measure of self-governance and to practice their own particular “uses and customs.” The General Directorate for Religious Affairs (DGAR) within the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups. During the year, DGAR investigated four cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with seven in 2019. The cases were in the states of Morelos, Chiapas, and Guerrero and mostly involved religious minorities. Government officials and leaders within the Catholic Church continued to state the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not attacks based on religion. According to media reports, in May, an indigenous community in the state of Chiapas expelled six evangelical Protestant families. Local community authorities arrested and jailed the families for not practicing Catholicism, according to the families. In October, media reported that local community leaders drove out 33 evangelical Protestants from a neighborhood of San Cristobal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, because they did not adhere to the community’s traditional faith. In July, the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) issued a ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, Jalisco. According to DGAR, it did not register any new religious associations during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism and are thus more vulnerable to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were two reported killings of evangelical Protestant pastors, and attacks and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported unidentified individuals killed two religious leaders and kidnapped three others. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified the country as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 12th year in a row, stating more than two dozen priests were killed over the past decade and emphasizing the ranking reflected the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups singled out Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to media, in March, demonstrators in several marches organized for International Women’s Day vandalized church buildings, public structures, and businesses.

Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised religious freedom and freedom of expression issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to highlight the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to these issues. In January, the Ambassador visited Colegio Israelita and gave brief remarks at its Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The Ambassador stressed the United States would continue to defend human rights as well as combat anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers focusing on humanitarian issues and expressed support for religious tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 128.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the Mexican government’s 2020 census, the total population is approximately 126 million. According to the 2020 census, approximately 78 percent of the population identifies as Catholic (compared with 83 percent in 2010); 11 percent as Protestant/Christian Evangelical; and 0.2 percent as other religions, including Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Islam. More than 2.5 percent of the population report practicing a religion not otherwise specified (compared with more than 2 percent in 2010) and nearly 8.1 percent report not practicing any religion (compared with 5 percent in 2010). Some indigenous persons adhere to syncretic religions drawing from indigenous beliefs.

Official statistics based on self-identification during the 2010 census, the most recent available for detailed estimates on religious affiliations, sometimes differ from the membership figures stated by religious groups. Approximately 315,000 individuals identify themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Church of Jesus Christ officials, however, state their membership is approximately 1.5 million. There are large Protestant communities in the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco. In Chiapas, evangelical Protestant leaders state nearly half of the state’s 2.4 million inhabitants are members of evangelical groups and other Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists; however, fewer than 5 percent of 2010 census respondents in Chiapas self-identify as evangelical Protestant. There are also small numbers of followers of Luz del Mundo (LLDM), the Old Catholic Church (Veterocatolica), and the Church of Scientology, as well as Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baha’is, and Buddhists. The 2010 census lists 5,346 Buddhists. According to media reports, there are 1.5 million followers of LLDM. According to a 2015 Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez report, there are 50,000 Methodists and 30,000 Anglicans in the country. According to the Baha’i Faith Facebook page, there are 12,000 Baha’is, with hundreds coming from small indigenous communities.

An estimated half of the country’s approximately 100,000 Mennonites are concentrated in the state of Chihuahua. According to the 2020 census, the Jewish community totals approximately 58,800 persons, with the vast majority living in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. According to the 2020 census, the Muslim community numbers 7,982 persons. According to SEGOB, nearly half of the country’s Muslims are concentrated in Mexico City and the state of Mexico. There is also an Ahmadi Muslim population of several hundred living in the state of Chiapas, most of whom are converts of ethnic Tzotzil Maya origin.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all persons have the right to follow or adopt the religion of their choosing, or not to follow a religion. This freedom includes the right to participate individually or collectively, both in public and in private, in ceremonies, devotions, and acts of worship if they do not constitute an offense otherwise prohibited by law. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Secularism is mentioned in three other articles, including one dedicated to education. Philosophical freedoms of conscience and religion receive equal treatment by the state. Congress may not dictate laws that establish or prohibit any religion. Religious acts of public worship should be held in places of worship. Individuals who conduct religious ceremonies outside of places of worship, which requires a permit, are subject to regulatory law. Active clergy may not hold public office, advocate partisan political views, support political candidates, or publicly oppose the laws or institutions of the state.

To establish a religious association, applicants must certify the church or other religious group observes, practices, propagates, or instructs a religious doctrine or body of religious beliefs; has conducted religious activities in the country for at least five years; has established domicile in the country; and shows sufficient assets to achieve its purpose. Registered associations may freely organize their internal structures and adopt bylaws or rules pertaining to their governance and operations, including the training and appointment of their clergy. They may engage in public worship and celebrate acts for the fulfillment of the association’s purpose lawfully and without profit. They may propagate their doctrine in accordance with applicable regulations and participate in the creation, management, maintenance, and operation of private welfare, educational, and health institutions, provided the institutions are not for profit.

Religious groups are not required to register with DGAR to operate. Registration is required to negotiate contracts, purchase or rent land, apply for official building permits, receive tax exemptions, or hold religious meetings outside of customary places of worship. A religious group registering for the first time may not register online; its representatives must register in person. Religious groups must apply for permits to construct new buildings or convert existing buildings into places of worship. Any religious building constructed after January 27, 1992, is the property of the religious group that built it and is subject to relevant taxes. All religious buildings erected before then are considered part of the national patrimony and owned by the state.

Religious associations must notify the government of their intention to hold a religious meeting outside their licensed place or places of worship. Religious associations may not hold political meetings of any kind or own or operate radio or television stations. Government permission is required for commercial radio or television to transmit religious programming.

The federal government coordinates religious affairs through SEGOB. Within SEGOB, DGAR promotes religious tolerance, conducts conflict mediation, and investigates cases of religious intolerance. If a party presents a dispute based on allegations of religious intolerance, DGAR may mediate a solution. Each of the 32 states has offices responsible for religious affairs. The National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED) is an autonomous federal agency responsible for ensuring nondiscrimination and equal opportunity, including for minority religious groups.

The law provides that prisoners receive dignified and equal treatment from prison staff without distinction based on religious preferences.

The constitution requires that public education be secular and not include religious doctrine. Religious groups may operate private schools that teach religion and hold religious ceremonies at their schools. Private schools affiliated with a religious group are open to all students regardless of their religious beliefs. Students in private schools are exempt from participating in religious courses and activities if the students are not affiliated with the school’s religious group. Homeschooling is allowed at the secondary level after completion of schooling at an accredited primary school.

A visa category exists for foreign clergy and religious associates to obtain a temporary resident visa or visitor visa without permission to perform paid religious activities.

The constitution recognizes the right of indigenous communities to autonomy and codifies their right to use their own legal systems for the resolution of conflicts within their communities, while respecting human rights as defined in the constitution and the international treaties to which the country is a signatory. The constitution also protects the right of indigenous leaders to practice their own “uses and customs.” This right of self-governance for indigenous communities sometimes conflicts with other rights provided by the constitution, including freedom of religion, for members of those communities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). It claims both an interpretative statement and a reservation relating to freedom of religion in the covenant. Article 18 of the ICCPR states that countries may limit religious freedom only when it is “necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.” The country’s interpretative statement states that religious acts must be performed in places of worship unless granted prior permission and that the education of religious ministers is not officially recognized.

Government Practices

DGAR continued to work with state and local officials to mediate conflicts involving religious intolerance. DGAR investigated four cases related to religious freedom at the federal level during the year, compared with seven in 2019. The cases were in the states of Morelos, Chiapas, and Guerrero. Most of these cases involved religious minorities who stated members of the majority religious community where they lived had deprived them of their rights and basic services, including water and electricity. At year’s end, no updates were available on the cases. According to DGAR, most incidents of religious discrimination should have been filed with the state government because the federal government did not hold jurisdiction. Some NGOs stated municipal and state officials mediated disputes between religious groups, but government officials said this was not official practice. NGOs noted municipal and state officials frequently sided with local leaders at the expense of minority religions. Some groups also said officials rarely pursued legal punishments against offending local leaders, preferring instead to reach informal mediated solutions. According to CSW, informal mediated solutions rarely led to change in the status quo and favored the majority religious group.

During the year, CONAPRED did not receive any complaints of religious discrimination, compared with four in 2019. According to some sources, cases of religious discrimination were often not reported due to lack of awareness of the filing process.

As of September, DGAR listed 9,558 registered religious associations, including an additional 94 groups registered in December 2019. According to DGAR, it did not register any new religious associations during the year due to COVID-19. Registered groups included 9,515 Christian, 12 Buddhist, 10 Jewish, three Islamic, two Hindu, and two International Society for Krishna Consciousness groups as well as 14 new religious expression groups. According to DGAR, new religious expressions groups are philosophical or spiritual communities that might be born of new beliefs or be part of a broader religion; they are on the periphery of traditional religions.

According to media reports, on May 24, the indigenous community of San Jose Puerto Rico, Huixtan, in the state of Chiapas, expelled six evangelical Protestant families. The families said local community authorities arrested and jailed them for not practicing Catholicism. Following their arrests and release, the families abandoned their homes, belongings, and animals.

According to CSW, as of August, community members continued farming in their attempt to appropriate the land of one of four evangelical Protestant families forcibly displaced by community members of Cuamontax, in the state of Hidalgo, in July 2019. On June 15, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief made an inquiry of the government; on August 12, officials of the Mexican Permanent Mission to the United Nations acknowledged receipt of the inquiry and said they would relay it to relevant offices. As of year’s end, the government had not provided a substantive response.

NGOs and some religious organizations continued to state that several rural and indigenous communities expected residents, regardless of their faith, to participate in and fund traditional community religious gatherings and in some cases, to adhere to the majority religion. According to CSW’s 2020 report, some Protestant minority families from indigenous communities were denied access to crucial utilities, such as water and electricity, and some children were not allowed to attend local schools because their families did not adhere to the majority religion. In the state of Chiapas, 12 Protestants who were detained and then released in 2019 remained without access to water after declining to participate in Catholic festivities.

In July, the SCJN issued a ruling guaranteeing reintegration and protection for a group of indigenous Jehovah’s Witnesses in Tuxpan de Bolanos, in the state of Jalisco. In 2017, community members expelled the Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in Catholic community activities. The court decided the affected parties should reintegrate into the territory of their communities and ordered state authorities to guarantee their security. The court also ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be relocated to a different part of the territory and their prior community could continue to deny their “rights and obligations” as community members “as they no longer share an essential element, their religion.” The court ruling restored the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ access to housing and their personal belongings in the territory as well as the ability to make a living. The court also ruled the Jehovah’s Witnesses should be relocated to a different plot of land within the territory because the indigenous community was allowed to exclude the Jehovah’s Witnesses from the rights and obligations they would enjoy as full community members. According to CSW, the SCJN’s ruling was the first to provide protection for indigenous persons whose rights were reportedly abused through an indigenous community’s legally protected “uses and customs.”

According to DGAR, the federal government continued to promote dialogue with religious actors with the goal of ensuring the exercise of religious freedom and resolving conflicts involving religious intolerance. In September 2019, SEGOB launched the National Strategy for the Promotion of Respect and Tolerance of Religious Diversity: We Create Peace. DGAR advanced the three main pillars of the strategy: dialogue, dissemination, and training to promote religious freedom. Through outreach, DGAR encouraged state and municipal directors to act as auxiliaries of DGAR and assist in resolving religious intolerance issues immediately to protect the human rights of minority religious group members. According to Jorge Lee Galindo, deputy director general in SEGOB’s Religious Issues Office, DGAR trained government employees and religious leaders on DGAR’s paperwork process during the year so they could access the services DGAR offers at the municipal and state levels.

Religions for Inclusion, a government-run interfaith working group, held several meetings to discuss gender-based violence, generalized violence, efforts to search for the disappeared, and COVID-19. The group regularly discussed their experiences with religious intolerance or discrimination. CONAPRED established Religions for Inclusion to create institutional dialogue to deepen its understanding of other faiths, build common ground, and coordinate collective action on issues involving shared social concerns. Members of the group included leaders of the Protestant, evangelical Christian, Roman Catholic, Church of Jesus Christ, LLDM, Old Catholic Church (Veterocatolica), Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Church of Scientology communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate representatives met regularly with government officials responsible for religious and indigenous affairs at both the federal and state levels. Embassy and consulate human rights officers regularly and repeatedly raised these issues with foreign affairs and interior secretariat officials. U.S. officials raised concerns regarding the continued harassment of religious leaders and abuses against religious minorities, especially evangelical Protestants, by religious majority groups and local authorities.

The Ambassador and a senior embassy official met with religious and civil society leaders during travel throughout the country to reinforce the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom. In January, a senior embassy officer met with the president of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico and expressed appreciation for the committee’s work on anti-Semitism. In August, the Ambassador spoke to leaders of the Central Committee of the Jewish Community in Mexico and learned more about the community’s response to COVID-19. In October, the Ambassador visited the Jewish Documentation and Investigation Center, where he highlighted the importance of religious freedom and tolerance.

In January, the Ambassador visited Colegio Israelita (Israelite School), a private kindergarten to 12th grade Jewish school in Mexico City, and gave brief remarks at its Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. The Ambassador stressed the United States will continue to defend human rights as well as combat anti-Semitism or any other form of hatred.

Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups and religiously affiliated NGOs, including the Central Jewish Committee, CMC, and CSW, to discuss the safety of religious workers focusing on humanitarian issues, assess the status of religious freedom, and express support for religious tolerance.

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). A constitutional amendment approved in a July referendum cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors, the first and only reference to God in the constitution. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, and and/or physically abuse persons or seize their property because of their religious faith, including members of groups the government classified as extremist and banned, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, and followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi. The human rights NGO Memorial identified 228 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation and whom it considered to be political prisoners, compared with 245 in 2019. Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities again detained hundreds of its members and physically abused some of them, including one whom law enforcement agents beat, strangled, and electrically shocked to force a confession and elicit false statements against his fellow members. Five other Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids reported that law enforcement agents beat them while in custody. Religious groups said the government continued to use antiterrorism regulations to restrict religious freedom, including proselytizing and banning religious literature. Authorities designated seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong as “undesirable” foreign organizations and barred them from working in the country. Additionally, a court in Novosibirsk declared an independent regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and prohibited it from operating there. The NGO SOVA Center said that proposed amendments to the law regulating religion, pending at year end, might allow for arbitrary government interference among minority religious groups due to vague language prohibiting religious institutions from having connections with individuals the country’s courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.” A fraud case against representatives of the Church of Scientology remained pending in St. Petersburg. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported workplace harassment of members again increased, and forced resignations continued at some of their workplaces when employers discovered their religious affiliation. The country’s chief rabbi stated anti-Semitism was at a historic low, but the President of the Federation of Jewish Communities said levels of latent anti-Semitism in the country remained high. The Russian Jewish Congress reported that authorities arrested two persons suspected of planning to assassinate the leader of the Jewish community of Krasnodar in September. According to the SOVA Center, media continued to issue defamatory reports about minority religious groups. The same group reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism. Incidents included setting fire to a synagogue in Arkhangelsk, destroying headstones at a Jewish cemetery in St. Petersburg, vandalizing a monument to Holocaust victims in Rostov-on-Don, and breaking a Buddhist stupa near Sukhaya. A priest and former member of the ROC hierarchy made numerous anti-Semitic remarks from the pulpit during the year; he was subsequently expelled from the ROC and a court fined him 18,000 rubles ($240).

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities. The Ambassador spoke on the importance of remembering the Holocaust and combating religious persecution at a multifaith gathering at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow in January. In March, the Ambassador discussed cooperation to promote religious freedom with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. The embassy condemned the attack on the Jewish synagogue and cultural center in Arkhangelsk and called for a thorough investigation. In November, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning raids against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. The Ambassador then met with Jehovah’s Witness representatives to discuss the group’s ongoing persecution and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom. The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating for religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 142.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). A poll conducted in September by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim, while 26 percent reported having no religious faith. Religious groups each constituting approximately one percent or less of the population include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, members of the Church of Scientology, and Falun Gong practitioners. The 2010 census estimates the number of Jews at 150,000. The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is 172,500, while the Federation of Jewish Communities assesses there are approximately 1.5 million persons of Jewish heritage. According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, there were 25 million Muslims in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the population. Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia, which experts estimate at six to seven million, are mostly Muslim. Most Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus. Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

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 for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for 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.”

Among a set of constitutional amendments approved in a July referendum is one citing the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors. The new language is the first and only explicit reference to God in the constitution. In March, prior to the referendum, the Constitutional Court ruled that the proposed amendment’s reference to God did not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasized the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.

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 the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations 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 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,400), 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 that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

Anti-extremism legislation stipulates that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense. These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities. Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred. The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,100), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six 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 ($4,000), 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 ($6,700), 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 ($10,700) 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 entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,400). 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 administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term. Authorities impose administrative and criminal penalties for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.

According to the 2017 Supreme Court ruling declaring the Jehovah’s Witnesses Administrative Center an extremist organization, all Jehovah’s Witness activities, including the organization’s websites and all regional branches, are banned. The court’s ruling states the constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief, 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; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community. These organizations are on the 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 Ministry of Justice (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 requisite 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, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, 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 law does not provide precise criteria on how written religious materials may be classified as “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 and facilities or on lands 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.

A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property. Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations. Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems. Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel. Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures. The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).

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. There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

Federal law 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, 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 from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs. 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.

Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67 to $670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300 to $13,400) 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 ($400 to $670) and are subject to administrative deportation.

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 board 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 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. Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis. If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days. Very rarely, courts, in response to a legal challenge, may also reverse a decision to blacklist material deemed extremist. 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 ($13 to $40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27 to $67) 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 ($1,300 to $13,400). 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 such a structure does not meet legal requirements or 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, France. 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 a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups. This restriction applies to religious organizations but 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, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms. Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups. 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 stateless person 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 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.

The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.

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 persons on account of their religious belief or affiliation. Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism.

At year’s end, Memorial identified 228 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. The figure represented a seven percent decrease from the 245 reported in 2019. Memorial stated that the actual number of cases of persecution was likely three to four times higher, given the number of cases the organization identified as similar to those designated as political prisoners; however, the organization said it lacked the supporting, corroborating evidence to make designations in those instances. Memorial’s list of political prisoners included 61 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 142 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 belief or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts.

At year’s end, a case filed in 2019 by Jehovah’s Witnesses with the ECHR stating the government violated their members’ freedom of thought, conscience, and religion remained pending.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and NGOs stated Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police continued to carry out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses and again detained hundreds of suspected members. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities had raided more than 1,100 homes of members between early 2017 and November throughout the country, including in Moscow for the first time. The group reported 477 searches of homes and apartments during the year, compared to 489 in 2019 and 289 in 2018. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses sources, during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, and verbally and physically abused members. Authorities often entered 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.

In February, Jehovah’s Witnesses and various media sources reported the FSB and other law enforcement personnel searched 50 houses in the city of Chita and other towns of the Transbaikal Region and committed numerous abuses. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported security forces handcuffed and beat a minor in front of his family. They also stated authorities beat and strangled Vadim Kutsenko, as well as subjected him to electric shocks while handcuffed to force a confession and elicit false statements against fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses. Authorities released Kutsenko from detention after five days and placed him under house arrest. After 50 days, authorities released him on his own recognizance. At year’s end, Kutsenko remained a suspect in the ongoing investigation connected to the raids.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18 also reported authorities took five other Jehovah’s Witnesses seized in the raids in the Transbaikal Region to Orenburg Labor Camp No. 1, where they beat them. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, because of the abuse, one Witness suffered a broken rib, a punctured lung, and damage to his kidneys. The European Union (EU), joined by six non-EU states, issued a statement expressing deep concern over the incident and calling upon the government to permit the peaceful expression of religion by all persons, including Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In April, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Viktor Malkov, a 61-year-old Smolensk resident, died three months after his release from eight months in detention, during which he was denied care for chronic health problems.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that two of their members, Roman Makhnev and Dmitriy Kuzin, whom authorities had arrested and detained for six months in Kaluga in 2019, were released in late December of that year. After their release, a court sentenced the two to a further two months of house arrest. By year’s end, both were released from house arrest and were awaiting the results of a preliminary investigation.

On May 27, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the FSB conducted raids of adherents’ homes in Khabarovsk and Vyazembsky. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated one masked FSB agent entered the house of 68-year-old Yen Sen Li, struck him, and injured his hands while placing him in handcuffs. The FSB detained Li for 13 hours before releasing him after he agreed to sign a statement of self-incrimination. He was alleged to have organized a worship group among Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On July 13, according to widespread media reports and an official press release from the government of the Voronezh Region, investigators, local police, and National Guard troops carried out 110 raids on the homes of dozens of Jehovah’s Witnesses in that region. Jehovah’s Witnesses said authorities physically abused adherents during the raids and that security forces tortured five Witnesses while in detention, demanding that they incriminate themselves. Jehovah’s Witnesses Yuri Galka and Anatol Yagupov stated the security forces placed bags over their heads and beat them during their interrogations, and in the case of Galka, twisted his arms behind his back, tightened the bag on his head until he began to suffocate, and broke one of his ribs. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, security forces also repeatedly put a plastic bag over Alexander Korol’s head and tied it around his neck to coerce him to divulge information about other Witnesses until the bag broke. Korol said agents hit him in the face several times and threatened “to use needles” before transporting him 40 kilometers (25 miles) to another location for further interrogation and placing him in a holding cell for 48 hours. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Korol was forced to ask strangers for funds to return home when authorities released him without explanation after confiscating his phone.

On November 24, law enforcement officers carried out raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and more than 20 other regions across the country. The Federal Investigative Committee said the raids and subsequent arrests were part of a new criminal case against Jehovah’s Witnesses, which they stated had illegally been carrying out activities at the organization’s headquarters in Moscow and at its regional branches since June 2019, charges the group denied. The committee did not say how many worshippers had been detained, stating only that they were both organizers and participants in the movement. Jehovah’s Witnesses said there were at least 10 raids and four detentions in Moscow. During one of the raids, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported law enforcement officers hit Vardan Zakaryan in the head with an automatic rifle. Zakaryan was hospitalized before being placed into custody. A court released Zakaryan from detention and placed him under house arrest on November 30.

Forum 18 reported officials tortured individuals detained for exercising freedom of religion or belief with impunity. Following accusations of torture by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Blagoveshchensk, Surgut, and Kaluga, Forum 18 said authorities had taken no steps to hold the officials accountable, as none had been arrested or tried in court.

As a result of what they described as increasing government persecution since a Supreme Court ruling banning the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization in 2017, representatives of the group said that their members continued to flee the country but that there were still more than 150,000 adherents remaining.

The SOVA Center reported authorities had initiated criminal cases against 424 Jehovah’s Witnesses in 60 regions throughout the country since 2017; 110 new criminal cases were opened during the year, compared with 213 in 2019. Jehovah’s Witness representatives said that of those accused, 49 adherents were placed into pretrial detention and another 23 spent a few days in temporary detention facilities before being released.

The SOVA Center reported that of previously initiated cases, courts passed at least 25 sentences against 46 Jehovah’s Witnesses. Representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses stated district courts convicted 39 adherents of extremism; of these, 21 were awaiting appellate hearings. At year’s end, the representatives said 46 adherents remained behind bars, including 36 in pretrial detention facilities and 10 in penal colonies.

Prior to the sentencing of Gennady Shpakovsky to 6.5 years in prison in February, the longest prison term given to a Jehovah’s Witness was the six-year sentence Danish citizen Dennis Christensen received in 2019, in the Kursk Region. In June, Christensen was scheduled for early release after agreeing to pay a fine in lieu of his remaining prison time. According to various media sources and NGOs, however, the prosecutor’s office, which had previously endorsed the early release, filed a last-minute appeal to reverse it, stating Christensen had violated prison rules, including by failing to wear a special prisoner’s jacket and being in the prison canteen at the wrong time – assertions Jehovah’s Witnesses and human rights NGOs said were spurious. Christensen reported that during his ongoing imprisonment, he suffered from numerous health problems, including pneumonia, and was repeatedly refused treatment because his medical card was “lost.” In October, the Lgov District Court denied Christensen’s appeal for early release. Christensen, detained since May 2017, remained in prison at year’s end and was reportedly scheduled to complete his sentence in May 2022, which included time served during pretrial detention.

Forum 18 reported that on September 2, the Beryozovsky City Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergey Britvin and Vadim Levchuk to four years’ imprisonment at a labor camp for organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization. The two men had already spent more than 520 days in detention and 250 days under house arrest prior to the judge’s decision. They appealed the court’s decision and at year’s end were awaiting the decision while detained in Investigation Prison No. 4 in Anzhero-Sudzhensk.

On October 7, the Kabardino-Balkaria’s Maisky District Court acquitted Jehovah’s Witness Yuri Zalipaev, who had been charged with possession of extremist materials and inciting others to violence. Prosecutors appealed the decision, and, as of November, the case was pending in the appellate court. On October 9, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a court in the Kostroma Region, near Moscow, pronounced suspended jail sentences of eight and seven years, respectively, for Sergei and Valeria Rayman, a married Jehovah’s Witnesses couple. Sergei’s sentence was longer than the seven-year conditionally suspended sentence requested by the prosecutor and was the longest conditionally suspended jail sentence yet given to a Jehovah’s Witness. As part of their suspended sentences, the Raymans remained subject to multiple restrictions, including on personal travel and access to telephones and the internet. After a 2018 house raid, authorities had charged the Raymans with participating in religious extremism and holding a Bible discussion in their home.

The trial of Vyacheslav Popov and Nikolay Kuzichkin, two Jehovah’s Witnesses whom authorities arrested in 2019 and charged with “organizing the activity of a banned extremist organization,” remained pending. On April 16, the Krasnodar Regional Court ordered Kuzichkin released from pretrial detention and placed him under house arrest, where he was prohibited from correspondence and contact with other persons. On December 18, a district court in Sochi found Popov and Kuzichkin guilty of organizing extremist activities, sentencing Kuzichkin to 13 months and Popov to 22 months in prison. The court credited the time spent in pretrial detention and under house arrest towards both men’s sentences. Popov was subsequently released into house arrest from the pretrial detention center on December 29, where he had been held for 15 months.

Authorities charged 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses detained as a result of the July 13 raids in Voronezh with organizing an extremist community, preaching, and recruiting new members between 2018 and 2020. In December, a Voronezh city court released six of the Witnesses from pretrial detention and the other four from house arrest. The 10 Witnesses still faced restrictions on their personal travel and communication with others. At year’s end, the investigations remained open and trials had not been scheduled.

For the first time, authorities stripped a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses of his citizenship. Felix Makhammadiev had moved to Saratov from Uzbekistan with his mother as a minor and subsequently became a Russian citizen. Makhammadiev had been convicted in 2019 of organizing extremist activities. While serving his sentence, Makhammadiev reported he was tortured and had to undergo surgery to drain fluid from his lung caused by a beating. The Ministry of Internal Affairs in Saratov nullified Makhammadiev’s citizenship on April 17, citing his conviction for extremist activity. On December 31, authorities released him from prison before immediately placing him in a deportation center. Authorities in Saratov stripped Konstantin Bazhenov, who was convicted in the same case as Makhammadiev, of his citizenship on April 20. Bazhenov, who was born in Russia but moved to Ukraine as a child, had both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.

According to Jehovah’s Witness representatives, at the end of the year, the group had 59 applications pending with the ECHR, 12 pending complaints under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with the UN Human Rights Committee, and six 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. On May 6, the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a nonbinding decision concerning 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, calling the cases brought against them unlawful and urging the authorities to immediately release those arrested. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said delays in the ECHR process were at least partially due to COVID-19.

According to Memorial, authorities had convicted, investigated, or charged 237 persons for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir since the Supreme Court first labeled the group a terrorist organization and banned it in 2003; of those, 199 had been tried and convicted. Human Rights Watch characterized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group that aimed to establish an Islamic caliphate, but which renounced violence. Since 2003, courts have sentenced 65 persons to between 10 and 15 years in prison, and 78 to 15 years or more. The total excluded individuals from Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula whom Russian occupation authorities initially detained in Crimea before transferring them to Russia, where they were tried and sentenced. While banned in Russia, Hizb ut-Tahrir remained legal in Ukraine.

On February 10, Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported the Central Military District Court convicted Eduard Nizamov, whom the government stated was the head of the country’s branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and sentenced him to 23 years in a maximum-security prison. Authorities arrested Nizamov in October 2018 and charged him with financing terrorism and “preparing for a violent seizure of power.” Nizamov denied the charges and said authorities beat him and verbally abused him while in pretrial detention.

Individuals continued to receive harsh sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Human Rights Watch and Memorial reported that on February 5, a military court sentenced 10 members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to prison terms ranging from 11 to 22 years. The prosecution asserted the members were involved in the creation of a local terrorism cell, assisted in terrorism, and distributed propaganda that supported terrorism. The prosecution did not allege the defendants planned or carried out any specific acts, but rather that they held meetings to discuss their faith and political views, printed leaflets, and organized public recruitment events. The accused all denied the charges, stating they condemned terrorism and questioned the validity of the evidence brought against them in the court.

On September 21, the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts and sentences of 18 defendants prosecuted for their membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, according to Memorial. The individuals, all originally convicted in Ufa in 2018, received sentences of between 10 and 24 years in a maximum-security prison colony.

Authorities continued to investigate and detain alleged members of other Islamic organizations. Local media reported on June 6 that FSB agents in Moscow conducted searches and detained several supporters of Tablighi Jamaat, an organization that Memorial characterized as a peaceful, international Islamic missionary movement. FSB investigators opened a criminal case against the individuals on the grounds that they were participating in a banned religious organization. On July 31, local media reported that FSB officers detained six members of Tablighi Jamaat in the Volgograd Region. Authorities said banned extremist literature was found on the individuals and opened a criminal investigation.

In September, according to press reports, the FSB, police, and other security agencies launched a raid in Krasnoyarsk Region in Siberia and arrested Sergei Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion, and two of his aides. Torop is the founder and leader of the Church of the Last Testament. The Novosibirsk Central District Court ordered the detention of Torop, and the prosecutor’s office in Krasnoyarsk Territory filed a suit seeking dissolution of the Church. Authorities alleged the Church was an illegal religious organization and that Torop had extorted money from his followers and subjected them to emotional abuse. As of the end of the year, Torop remained in custody while authorities conducted psychiatric evaluations, and his trial date remained pending.

The Times of Israel reported October 21 that Jewish prisoner Danil Beglets, sentenced to two years in a penal colony in 2019 for pushing a policeman during a Moscow protest, went on a hunger strike to protest being forced to work on the Jewish Sabbath. Beglets stated authorities punished him for declining to work on the Sabbath and did not provide him with kosher food. Beglets further appealed to Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar to intervene on his behalf.

Memorial said the average length of sentences for religious prisoners on their list continued to increase. The group stated that between 2016 and 2018, the average prison sentence for these persons increased from 6.6 to 9.1 years.

Forum 18 stated authorities also sought to prosecute citizens living abroad who exercised their freedom of religion or belief. The NGO said the government had issued three Red Notices (requests to law enforcement worldwide to locate and detain individuals) through Interpol, two during the year and one in 2018, to attempt to detain and extradite at least three citizens living abroad to face criminal charges under the extremism law. Two of the Red Notices were against followers of the Turkish Muslim theologian Said Nursi. At year’s end, none of the individuals had been detained or extradited.

The SOVA Center reported in April that Dagestan authorities arrested Ibrahim Murtazaliev for his alleged involvement in Nurdzhular (also known as Nursi Readers), a group the government listed as extremist, and placed him in pretrial detention for two months before eventually releasing him. According to the government, members of Nurdzhular are students of Nursi’s works, which are banned. The SOVA Center continued to state that it did not believe the group existed in the country.

Yevgeny Kim, whom authorities stripped of citizenship in 2019 because of what they said were actions that promoted the works of Nursi, remained stateless and in a pre-deportation detention center for foreign nationals. After Kim’s release from prison in 2019, authorities had charged him with violating immigration law and ordered his deportation to Uzbekistan. Kim was born in Uzbekistan but did not have Uzbek citizenship.

At year’s end, the Neva District Court in St. Petersburg accepted, but did not begin to hear, a case against Ivan Masitsky, head of the Church of Scientology in St. Petersburg, and three other church officers, Konstantsiya Yesaulkova, Galina Shurinova, and Anastasiya Terentyeva; authorities accused them of financial fraud. The case was initially launched in 2017 after an FSB raid on Church offices in which authorities claimed to have found evidence that the group had illegally received 276 million rubles ($3.71 million) in compensation for Church services.

Authorities also investigated individuals for violating the law prohibiting offending the feelings of religious believers. In January, for example, comedian Aleksandr Dolgopolov left the country after police opened an investigation following media reports that an audience member at one of his shows complained that Dolgopolov had insulted his religious feelings, apparently for making a joke about Jesus and his mother Mary. Dolgopolov returned to the country in March, and the status of the investigation was unknown at year’s end.

According to the MOJ, as of December, there were 31,392 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated, compared with 31,379 in 2019 and 30,896 in 2018. In 2019, Orthodox organizations made up more than half of the new organizations, followed by Muslim and Protestant organizations. Among Protestants, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Adventists had the most newly registered organizations. 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.

Forum 18 reported that between January 2019 and June 2020, authorities prosecuted 76 registered religious organizations and 22 individuals for carrying out their activities without indicating their official full name on their materials. According to the Administrative Code, a religious organization’s “official name” must include its religious affiliation and its organizational and legal form – the use of abbreviations may incur prosecution. Most of the cases resulted in guilty verdicts and fines, with a conviction rate of 72.5 percent.

The SOVA Center, independent media, and religious groups continued to say Expert Religious Studies Council members lacked appropriate academic and religious credentials to advise the MOJ on 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.”

The country’s 83 federal subjects (administrative divisions, excluding illegally Russian-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) had varying policies on wearing the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions. Stavropol and Mordovia continued to prohibit the wearing of hijabs in schools, while Chechnya permitted schoolgirls to wear them. In September, the Education Department of Tatarstan instituted a policy permitting Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab in all primary schools of the republic after receiving complaints from Muslim parents regarding the prohibition of the hijab in one school.

Representatives of minority religious associations, human rights NGOs, and some independent scholars continued to state authorities at times employed the Yarovaya-Ozerov amendments (Yarovaya package), enacted in 2016 for the stated purpose of enhancing the country’s antiterrorism capability, to limit religious freedom. Experts pointed to the government’s actions in revoking or suspending the licenses of Christian educational institutions, particularly those of Baptists, Pentecostals, and evangelicals. Experts also noted the government and ROC often viewed these institutions as sources of foreign influence. ROC educational and missionary institutions, by contrast, were not subjected to similar scrutiny by government authorities. NGOs, including the SOVA Center, Amnesty International, and Memorial, issued regular updates on individuals they deemed political prisoners due to what they described as the government’s overly broad application of the Yarovaya package.

The SOVA Center stated in its annual report that the persecution of religious organizations for “illegal” missionary activity on the basis of the Yarovaya package appeared to have increased from 2019, according to data available at the end of the year. Despite a slight decrease in 2019 compared to 2018, the 2020 numbers showed 201 cases reviewed by the courts, compared to 174 in the same period in 2019. Ninety individuals, three officials, and 39 legal entities received penalties, mainly in the form of administrative fines. The SOVA Center calculated the total amount of fines imposed by courts was 1,581,000 rubles ($21,200), compared with 1,452,000 rubles ($19,500) for the same period in 2019.

In July, according to press reports, the MOJ barred seven NGOs associated with Falun Gong from working in the country, citing unspecified national security concerns, and designated them “undesirable” foreign organizations. Six of the NGOs were from the United States, and the seventh was from the United Kingdom. As a result, the government froze the groups’ assets and banned them from distributing informational materials, implementing projects, and creating branches in the country. On November 10, the Novosibirsk Fifth General Court of Appeal declared a regional branch of Falun Gong “extremist” and barred its activities in the region.

According to the Interfax news agency, the Pushkinsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared informational materials promoting deceased U.S. preacher William Branham’s teachings extremist and prohibited their circulation in the country. The materials related to The Evening Light Christian organization. In its decision, the court cited a 2017 review of Branham’s works by St. Petersburg State University in which the works were deemed to contain elements of “neurolinguistic programing” and insulted the feelings of certain religious believers.

Religious minorities, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Falun Gong, 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 5,130, compared with 5,003 in December 2019 and 4,514 in October 2018.

The SOVA Center reported that Tartarstan’s Almetvevsk City Court banned two books by Islamic theologians as extremist. According to the center, the two books did not contain any direct appeals for violence or terrorism and, as such, were incorrectly labeled as extremist.

The SOVA Center also reported that in January, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the May 2019 Nevsky District Court decision to ban the Falun Gong book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party from distribution in the country. The center said the book did not promote violence and that there were no grounds for banning its distribution.

Amendments to the law, initially considered by the State Duma in September, would require clergy who received religious education abroad to undergo mandatory recertification in a Russian educational institution. Proponents said the amendments were intended to prevent the dissemination of “an extremism religious ideology.” However, after significant opposition from the Buddhist community, which does not have any religious educational institutions in Russia, the proposed amendments were modified so that they would apply only to clergy arriving in the country after implementation of the updated law. The proposed amendments would also prohibit religious institutions from having connections with individuals suspected of financing terrorism and those whom Russian courts declared “undesirable” or “extremist.”

According to the SOVA Center, the vagueness of the proposed amendments might permit the government to arbitrarily interfere with the activities of religious minorities and unpopular religious groups. The ROC was the only religious institution to declare support for the amendments. At year’s end, the State Duma was considering the legislation, which was expected to pass sometime in 2021.

In January, the Constitutional Court upheld the right of the Church of Jesus Christ to hold religious services in an administrative building owned by the Church. The case was an affirmation of a 2019 decision by the Constitutional Court acknowledging the right of an individual to use his or her own residential property to provide a religious organization with a place to conduct worship services and other religious rituals.

Forum 18 reported in February that three Pentecostal churches in different parts of the country – Nizhny Novgorod, Kaluga, and Oryol – faced possible closure and demolition for what local authorities said were building code violations. While the court cases were still ongoing at year’s end, each of the churches said they had resolved any reported issues. According to Forum 18, the congregations were forced to spend time and money to challenge the charges and could lose access to their places of worship during court proceedings. The Jesus Embassy Church in Nizhny Novgorod remained closed after authorities shut it down on December 31, 2019, due to what they said were fire safety violations. Alexander Verkhovsky, SOVA Center director, challenged the idea that authorities were interested in fire safety, given what he said were discrepancies in the number of violations cited and the apparent hostility state security officials had demonstrated toward the church’s operations. The churches in Kaluga and Oryol remained open during the court proceedings.

According to press reporting, the city administration in Novorossiysk filed a lawsuit and asked a local court to order the demolition of Baptist community leader Vitaliy Bak’s home in April. The city administration accused Bak of holding illegal religious worship services in the house. Local authorities had closed the house in July 2019. Following a series of failed appeals, in December 2019, the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International filed an application with the ECHR on behalf of Pastor Bak, saying the authorities’ actions violated freedom of religion. The appeal remained pending at year’s end.

The Russian Bible Society reported that Moscow authorities on September 16 ordered the group to demolish the warehouses where it stored its publications within five days. The society said that the letter from the authorities warned the group that if they did not demolish the warehouses and remove the materials therein, the authorities would do it and charge the group for related expenses.

On January 17, members of the Yekaterinburg Muslim community held Friday prayers outside during inclement weather to bring attention to the destruction of the Nur-Usman Mosque, which the government tore down in 2019 to make room for a new ice arena. Members of the mostly migrant community stated city officials had granted a new plot of land for the construction of a mosque but that the plot was smaller than the members believed was appropriate.

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 that recognized 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. For example, in August, religious scholar Roman Lunkin cited the government’s interest in promoting the ROC as a source of symbolic patriotism during an interview with online news site Lenta.ru. According to Lunkin, the ROC continued to benefit from several 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.

The Moscow Theological Seminary of Evangelical Baptists reopened as the Theological Seminary of Moscow following a 2019 decision by federal education inspectorate Rosobrnadzor to revoke the seminary’s status as a nationally licensed graduate school. Authorities allowed it to reopen as a training institution under the Russian Baptist Church. Rosobrnadzor had reported finding fault with the organization’s bachelor’s degree program and the qualifications of its staff.

In October, following the killing of teacher Samuel Paty in France by a Russian Muslim immigrant from Chechnya, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov accused French President Emmanuel Macron of inspiring terrorists by justifying cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as protected by free speech rights. In an Instagram post, Kadyrov said Macron was forcing people into terrorism and creating conditions for extremism to grow.

Claims by Jehovah’s Witnesses for government seizures of properties valued at 79.2 million euros ($97.18 million) remained pending before the ECHR at year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy and consulate representatives advocated for greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities.

In January, the Ambassador spoke at a multifaith gathering hosted by the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. In his remarks, the Ambassador underscored the unwavering U.S. commitment to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and doing everything possible to prevent similar acts of genocide and religious persecution from happening again. The embassy also highlighted this message on its social media platforms.

In March, the Ambassador and Yekaterinburg Consul General met with ROC Metropolitan Kirill of Yekaterinburg and Verkhoturye. During the visit, the Ambassador toured the Church on the Blood, built on the site of the 1918 killing of the Romanov family, and he relayed a message of cooperation between the people of the two countries, including in the promotion of freedom of religion.

Embassy officials continued to monitor the situation of U.S. citizens working with religious institutions and organizations in the country to ensure authorities did not improperly target them for their faith or religious work.

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country, the embassy moved its outreach efforts online and continued to use its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom issues. On February 18, the embassy expressed concerns on Twitter over the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses; the embassy spokesperson posted, “We welcome news that Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko was released today, after reports that Chita law enforcement abducted & tortured him on basis of his peaceful religious beliefs. We urge Russian authorities to fully investigate incident, respect #humanrights #religiousfreedom,” and on June 9, “#JehovahsWitness Gennady Shpakovsky was sentenced today to 6.5 years in prison for reading the Bible and collecting donations for his community. Russia must stop selectively prosecuting believers and let them practice their religion in peace.” On April 14, the embassy posted about anti-Semitism on Twitter, writing, “We strongly condemn the April 13 attack on the Star of the North Synagogue and Jewish cultural center in Arkhangelsk, the third such attack since 2015. We urge a thorough investigation into this heinous act. #CombatAntisemitism.”

The embassy also communicated the importance of religious freedom by celebrating major religious holidays of Christians, Jews, and Muslims via its social media platforms. These messages included video greetings from the Ambassador to mark Easter and the end of Ramadan; posts marking the contributions of various religions to American history and culture; and posts highlighting events that underscored tolerance and that commemorated victims of violence motivated by religious hatred.

On September 2, the embassy sponsored a virtual commemoration concert entitled “Music of World War II: Remembering the Shared Sacrifice of the Allied Nations.” Among the repertoire were compositions by Jewish artists of the World War II era: Polish-Jewish composer Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Piano Quintet, a performance by the Moscow Male Jewish Cappella Choir of the prayer “Ki lekach tov,” and Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” composed and first performed in a concentration camp. The virtual concert attracted 6,400 viewers on Facebook and 1,200 on YouTube, as well as drawing media coverage on various online and broadcast outlets. The embassy also highlighted the liberation of concentration camps during its World War II commemorations, posting videos about the Allied Forces’ liberation of Dachau and Ravensbruck.

On November 25, the embassy coordinated with the Department of State to release tweets condemning the November 24 raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Moscow and 20 other regions. On November 30, the Ambassador met with Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives to discuss the most recent raids and the group’s ongoing persecution. The Ambassador said the United States would continue to highlight the government’s violations of the rights of members of their group and reiterated the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.

On December 2, 2020 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Syria

Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state shall respect all religions and shall ensure the freedom to perform religious rituals as long as these “do not disturb the public order.” There is no official state religion. Sectarian violence continued due to tensions among religious groups that, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and media sources, was exacerbated by government actions, the deterioration of the economy, and the broader ongoing conflict in the country. At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced, including 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and approximately 5.6 million refugees. Government and progovernment forces continued major aerial and ground offensives initiated in 2019 to recapture areas of the northwest of the country, killing more than 1,000 civilians and forcing nearly one million people to flee prior to the brokering of a ceasefire in March that largely held through the remainder of the year. The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit human rights abuses and violations against its perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims, as well as widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 Syrians who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing. The government continued to use Law No. 10, which allows for creating redevelopment zones across the country designated for reconstruction, to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs who wished to claim their property or return to their homes. The majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but the Alawi minority continued to hold an elevated political status disproportionate to its numbers, particularly in leadership positions in the military and security services. A March study by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center (Carnegie Middle East Center) noted that all of the top 40 posts in the armed forces were held by Alawites. In a joint paper, the Middle East Institute and NGO Etana stated that there are 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia Muslims in the country’s southwest than when the Syrian conflict began. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” organizations remained illegal and punishable with imprisonment or death.

The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry (COI) reported that it had reasonable grounds to believe some Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) committed abuses that may have amounted to war crimes, including torture, rape, hostage-taking, looting, and appropriating private property, particularly in Kurdish areas, as well as vandalizing of Yezidi religious sites in areas under their control. The COI, human rights groups and media organizations reported multiple firsthand accounts of killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detentions, and torture of civilians; the desecration and looting of minority religious and cultural sites; and the looting and seizure of private properties in and around Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn. Community representatives, human rights organizations such as the NGO Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation-gathering groups reported victims of TSO abuses were often of Kurdish or Yezidi origin. The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the country. In the northeast, formerly the stronghold of the ISIS caliphate, thousands of former ISIS members and their family members were being held either in detention centers or were living in the closed al-Hol camp at year’s end. Many former victims of ISIS remained missing.

Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups. NGOs reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly. The state news agency SANA reported that Adnan al-Afiyuni, the Sunni mufti for Damascus Province, was killed when a bomb planted in his car exploded in the town of Qudssaya. International observers considered al-Afiyuni to be close to President Bashar Assad.

The President and Secretary of State of the United States continued to state that a political solution to the conflict must be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and respect for the human rights of the country’s citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard the religious freedom of all citizens.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 19.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). At year’s end, more than half of the country’s prewar population was displaced; there were approximately 5.6 million refugees registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring countries as well as 6.6 million IDPs. Continued population displacement adds a degree of uncertainty to demographic analyses, but the U.S. government estimates 74 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, which includes ethnic Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. According to U.S. government estimates, other Muslim groups, including Alawites, Ismailis, and Shia, together constitute 13 percent of the population, while Druze constitute 3 percent.

The U.S. government estimates 10 percent of the population is Christian. However, there are reports that indicate that number was considerably lower – approximately 2.5 percent. Of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in the country prior to the war, it is estimated that only approximately one-third of them – or approximately 450,000 – remain. Before the civil war, there were small Jewish populations in Aleppo and Damascus, but in June, the Jewish Chronicle reported that there were no known Jews still living in Syria. There was also a Yezidi population of approximately 80,000 before the civil war.

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

Most Christians belong to autonomous Orthodox Churches, Eastern Catholic Churches, or the Assyrian Church of the East and other affiliated independent Nestorian Churches. Most Christians continue to live in and around Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, and Latakia, or in the Hasakah Governorate in the northeast of the country. While there were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees before the conflict, the majority of the Iraqi Christian population has moved to neighboring countries or returned to Iraq. Many Druze live in the Jabal al-Arab (Jabal al-Druze) region in the southern Sweida Governorate, where they constitute a majority of the local population. Yezidis previously lived in Aleppo, but now live mainly in northeast Syria areas controlled by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

The constitution states, “The personal status of religious communities shall be protected and respected,” and “Citizens shall be equal in rights and duties without discrimination among them on grounds of sex, origin, language, religion, or creed.” Citizens have the right to sue the government if they believe it violated their rights. Some personal status laws mirror sharia regardless of the religion of those involved in the case being decided.

According to law, membership in certain types of religiously oriented organizations is illegal and punishable to different degrees. This includes membership in an organization considered by the government to be “Salafist,” a designation the government associates with Sunni fundamentalism. Neither the government broadly nor the state security court has specifically defined the parameters of what constitutes “Salafist” activity. Affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable by death or imprisonment. The law prohibits political parties based on religion, tribal affiliation, or regional interests.

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

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

The law bars publication of content that affects “national unity and national security,” harms state symbols, defames religions, or incites sectarian strife or “hate crimes.”

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

The law regulates the structure and functions of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The law provides for a Jurisprudential and Scholarly Council with the power to define what religious discourse is appropriate and the authority to fine or penalize individuals who propagate extremist thought or deviate from approved discourse. The law also charges the council with monitoring all fatwas (religious decrees) issued in the country and with preventing the spread of views associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or “Salafist” activity, including “Wahhabism.” The law concentrates a range of offices and institutions within the ministry, centralizing the government’s role in and oversight of the country’s religious affairs.

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

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

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

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

The government’s interpretation of sharia is the basis of inheritance laws for all citizens except Christians. According to the law, courts may grant Muslim women up to half of the inheritance share of male heirs. In all communities, male heirs must provide financial support to female relatives who inherit less.

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

Law No. 10, passed in 2018, allows the government to create “redevelopment zones” to be slated for reconstruction. Property owners are notified to provide documentary proof of property ownership or risk losing ownership to the state.

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

Government Practices

The government, with the support of its Russian and Iranian allies, continued to commit indiscriminate human rights abuses and violations against civilians, as well as participate in the widespread destruction of hospitals, homes, and other civilian infrastructure. According to press and NGO reporting, the government continued its widespread use of unlawful killings, attacks on civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention to punish perceived opponents, the majority of whom, reflecting the country’s demographics, were Sunni Muslims.

Some opposition groups identified themselves explicitly as Sunni Arab or Sunni Muslim in statements and publications. According to observers, these opposition groups drew on a support base made up almost exclusively of Sunnis. Some NGO sources stated that the government tried to mobilize sectarian support by branding itself as a protector of religious minorities from attacks by violent Sunni extremist groups. Other NGO sources said that some minority religious groups viewed the government as protecting them from violent Sunni extremists. A May report by the Carnegie Middle East Center stated, “The destruction during the conflict was not solely collateral damage. Its scale, nature, and consequences implied that it was used as a weapon of war to eradicate the populations of opposition areas…. Additionally, many believe the damage took place along sectarian lines, with a majority of destroyed areas being Sunni.”

The government’s counterinsurgency campaign continued to be aimed at those within the country who criticized or opposed the government, the majority of whom are Sunni and whom the government described as violent extremists. There were continued reports that in its efforts to retake opposition-held areas, the government targeted civilian centers in towns and neighborhoods, which, due to prevailing demographics, were inhabited by a majority Sunni population. From December 2019 to early March 2020, the government, with the support of its Russian allies, launched a large-scale military attack in Idlib Governate that killed hundreds of civilians as well as several dozen Turkish military personnel deployed in Idlib. The United Nations estimated that nearly one million persons were forced to leave their homes and that entire areas were left depopulated. The assault, which involved the use of heavy weapons, devastated the civilian infrastructure and exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation. Syrian and Russian airstrikes repeatedly struck civilian sites, including hospitals, markets, schools, settlements for internally displaced persons, and farms, many of which were included in UN deconfliction lists, a status meant to exempt them from military targeting. Turkey reinforced its military position in Idlib to halt the offensive, and on March 5, Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire that included joint patrols and that largely held for the remainder of the year.

The attacks in Idlib resulted in the destruction of several mosques. For example, on March 2, government forces shelled the Othman Bin Affan Mosque in Balyoun village, in the Jabal al-Zaweya area of Idlib Governorate, partially destroying the building, according to the SNHR.

The SNHR reported at least 1,882 arbitrary detentions during the year and documented at least 149,361 individuals who were detained or forcibly disappeared between 2011 and December, the vast majority of whom were disappeared by the Assad regime and remained missing.

Media and NGOs continued to report that government forces continued to detain, torture, and kill citizens in connection with their political dissent and expression of opinions despite the right to freedom of opinion and expression being protected by the constitution and international law. The SNHR estimated the government and progovernment militias arbitrarily detained approximately 900 citizens during the year, including those associated with NGOs, human rights activists, journalists, relief workers, religious figures, and medical providers. The Syria Justice and Accountability Center reported government forces operated with impunity, while systematic, officially sanctioned torture continued. According to the SNHR, since 2011, more than 14,300 persons have died from torture in government custody. During the year, government forces were reportedly responsible for 157 deaths by torture. As was the case with others who previously died in government custody, most were Sunni Muslims, whom analysts stated the government targeted believing they were members of the opposition or likely to support the opposition.

According to a March Freedom House Report, individuals living in government-held territory increasingly exposed corruption among local officials and among the government’s business allies and security services. The Freedom House report stated that the government harassed and detained those who did so, and that the government and loyalist militias punished Sunni Arab civilians more harshly than Alawites.

A July 24 Middle East Institute report stated that during the parliamentary elections in summer 2020, the Baath Party announced the list of candidates for different governorates and removed the name of at least one Christian candidate, justifying the change by stating that a Christian representative was not needed because there were no Christians left in Idlib.

The government continued to use Law No. 10 of 2018 to reward those loyal to the government and create obstacles for refugees and IDPs to claim their property and return to their homes. According NGO reports, since the law’s enactment, the government has replaced residents in former opposition-held areas with more loyal constituencies, including by allowing only religious institutions submissive to government control to operate in those areas. These reports stated that the government’s policies disproportionately impacted Sunni populations. One U.S.-based NGO described the law as part of the government’s attempt to legalize demographic change and stated, “It is unlikely that displaced citizens will ever see their property again.” In response to a conference focused on refugees hosted by the government in November, the SHNR released a statement that said that Law No. 10 and other legislation “constitute a major obstacle to the return of refugees and IDPs, amounting to enforced evictions and to an effort to manipulate demographics and social structures” of the country.

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

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

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

In a March study, Muhsin al-Mustafa, a researcher for the Carnegie Middle East Center, stated that “every single one of the top 40 posts in the Syrian armed forces was held by a member of President Assad’s Alawite sect.” He added, “The entire Syrian military is not built on one particular sect. But in recent years the institution has been characterized by an unprecedented degree of sectarianism.” The SNHR in a June report stated, “The vast majority of the leaders of the security services and the army (which are the two most prominent institutions ruling in Syria) are from the Alawite sect, a form of blatant discrimination on the basis of sectarianism….” Yazid Sayigh, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote in March, “The regime has increased dependence on Alawi recruits and on militarizing the Alawi community….” However, Abdulrahman al-Masri, writing for the Atlantic Council in September, stated that the support of the Alawite community for the government came at great cost – it suffered disproportionate battlefield losses and continued to be hurt by deteriorating living conditions – while it endured increased isolation from the rest of society.

On June 15, the New York Times reported that some in the military said the collapse of the Syrian currency had made their salaries virtually worthless, with army generals earning the equivalent of less than $50 per month and soldiers earning less than a third of that. It noted, “Anger about sinking livelihoods has flared even among members of…[the] Alawite minority, whose young men fought in large numbers…only to find that they will share in the country’s poverty instead of reaping the benefits of victory.”

There were Christian, Druze, and Kurdish members in parliament. According to observers, Alawites held greater political power in the cabinet than other minorities, as well as more authority than the majority Sunni population. The Atlantic Council, in an August 12 report, stated, “The Syrian regime deals with all groups and sects in the same way.… In reality, the regime is neither a protector of minority rights nor an advocate of women’s rights – let alone a promoter of peace and reconciliation. It operates merely to preserve itself, it undermines chances of Syrians uniting across religious and ethnic lines, and [it] gouges the government’s chances of effectiveness by manipulating positions, all while retaining the true decision-making power for itself.”

According to a June Carnegie Middle East Center report, the civil war “has altered the Sunni Muslim religious landscape of the capital, Damascus.” The report stated that Damascus was previously home to disparate and often times competing Sunni religious institutions. Many of these institutions and individual Sunni leaders have been forced into exile for being “insufficiently subservient” to the Assad regime and many have now united into a single opposition organization, the Syrian Islamic Council (SIC).

In a joint paper released in March, Manufacturing Division: the Assad Regime and Minorities in South-West Syria, the Middle East Institute and Etana Syria stated that tens of thousands of minority citizens in the country’s southwest have fled to Damascus or left the country. Compared with 2011, when the civil war began, there were 31 percent fewer Christians and 69 percent fewer Shia in the area. The report stated the government promoted itself as the champion of minorities and as a firewall against Islamic radicalism, intentionally stoking sectarian fears while simultaneously recruiting members of the Alawite and Shia communities to join the ranks of militias allied with the government. According to the report, “The weaponization of specific sects has eroded historically strong ties between Sunni, Shia, Christian, and Alawite communities in the southwest.” The paper also concluded that the government cultivated relationships with influential members of the Christian clergy, Druze leadership, and Circassian elite, granting these local powerbrokers disproportionate authority and influence in their communities, resulting in the breakdown of traditional social hierarchies and the appointment of progovernment minority figures to positions of power.

According to a report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, anti-Semitism was endemic and had taken root at every level of society. The paper stated that religious leaders “quote – out of historical and religious context – Quranic scriptures to drive this ideology of hate, while many Syrian intellectuals and the artists adopt the hateful rhetoric of this dictatorship without question.” Anti-Semitic literature remained available for purchase at low prices throughout the country. Government-controlled radio and television programming continued to disseminate anti-Semitic news articles and cartoons.

In May, the SANA Cinema and Television Industry Committee called on broadcasters to denounce the screening of a documentary series produced by the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center that called for normalization with Israel. The committee statement said, “Producers in Syria denounce the normalization with the Zionist entity through broadcasting such a series with a low message to deal with the enemy and distort facts.” A May 18 article in the official newspaper of the Syrian government, the daily Al-Thawra, stated that the COVID-19 virus had been developed by the United States and was deployed according to a plan by “the Zionist Freemasons, the Rothschilds, and the Rockefellers,” who control the United States “empire” and seek to prevent its collapse and to renew their “global control.”

Discussing Arab states’ normalization of relations with Israel, Mohammed Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed, the Minister of Religious Endowments, said in an October 27 television interview, “Every single surah in the Quran that mentions Israelites talks about their disgrace [and] their violation of treaties[.]”

The Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research’s joint Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative reported in May that the condition of 62 percent of Jewish-built heritage sites in the country was poor, very bad, or beyond repair.

The national school curriculum did not include materials on religious tolerance or the Holocaust.

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

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

There continued to be reports that the Iranian government directly supported the Assad government primarily through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that it recruited Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia fighters to the conflict. The Turkish press agency Anadolu stated that poverty and ideological motivations seemed to be the main reasons for foreign Shia to volunteer, and that while Iran promised jobs and an income, it also abused faith as a tool of sectarian-ideological exploitation. According to the report, in its recruitment efforts, Iran emphasized religious shrines and graves targeted and desecrated during the civil war and aroused hatred against Sunni groups fighting on the side of the opposition in Syria. The report also stated that Iranian recruiters promised that anyone who died in the war would be regarded as a martyr and be buried in Iran’s holy city of Qom. On March 1, Radio Farda reported that Iran buried 21 Afghan and Pakistani militia members in Qom. The Atlantic Council estimated in November that the Afghan brigade had an estimated 3,000 to 14,000 fighters spread between three battalions in Damascus, Aleppo, and Hama Governates and that the Pakistani brigade had an estimated 1,000 to 5,000 fighters deployed in Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa, and Hama Governate.

A November report by the Atlantic Council stated that Iran encouraged the Shia minority in Syria to form special militias inside Syria, adding that “some of the Shia militias in Syria were and continue to be recruited on a sectarian basis under the pretext of defending places considered holy by the Shia community. For example, campaigns are being conducted in the areas housing holy Shia shrines in Damascus in the Sayeda Zeinab district.” The report also stated, “Iran recruited from the Shia minority… mainly from northern Aleppo, northern Homs, and parts of Raqqa.” The report stated that Iranian-recruited Syrian militia had between 5,000 and 8,000 members.

According to the news website IranWire, pro-Iranian militias reinforced government forces undertaking operations against opposition groups in the southwest of the country in June. Since 2011, the government permitted Iran to open primary and secondary schools on the coast, including in Latakia, where there previously was no Shia community. In March, a new center in Deir ez-Zor affiliated with the Alawalaya Scouts was inaugurated, supported by the Iranian Cultural Center. According to a notice in front of the center, the latter sponsors “cultural activities, sports, the arts, volunteer opportunities, developmental work, and educational and Holy Quran activities.”

According to community representatives, human rights organizations such as Syrians for Truth and Justice, and documentation gathering groups, TSOs in northern Syria committed human rights abuses, reportedly targeting Kurdish and Yezidi residents and other residents, including detentions and abductions of civilians, torture, sexual violence, forced evacuations from homes, looting and seizure of private property, transfer of detained individuals across the border into Turkey, cutting off water to local populations, recruitment of child soldiers, and the looting and desecration of religious shrines. TSOs also reportedly abused members of other religious minorities.

In areas under Turkish control, TSO groups operating under the Syrian National Army (SNA) restricted religious freedom of Yezidis through attacks against and the intimidation of civilians. The COI in March reported that Yezidi civilians in Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad were attacked and stated, “Videos published on the Internet, purportedly by SNA fighters, used language comparing their enemies to ‘infidels,’ ‘atheists,’ and ‘pigs’ when referring to civilians, detainees, and property, which further amplified fears and created an environment conducive to abuse.”

In December, the Voice of America reported that Yezidi community members in the northwest of the country said they were in a state of fear after Turkey-backed rebels in control of the area launched a weeklong blockade and arrest campaign against the Yezidi community in Afrin. The campaign started after an explosion near the two predominantly Yezidi villages of Basoufan and Ba’ay in southern Afrin targeted a TSO leader.

Religious and ethnic minorities, especially displaced Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians, in areas under Turkish control, such as in the city of Afrin, reported persecution and marginalization. In August, regional news media reported that TSOs kidnapped 14 Syrian Kurds living in Afrin who had converted to Christianity. According to press reporting, TSOs attacked the predominantly Christian city of al-Suqyiabiyeh on November 6. In August, the press reported that a TSO in Afrin detained Radwan Mohammed, a Christian school headmaster, after he refused to convert his school into an Islamic educational center. The TSO alleged that Mohammed had committed apostasy.

The COI report in March stated, “Civilians in and around Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad reported numerous cases of looting and property appropriation by members of the SNA primarily affecting Kurdish residents and, on occasion, Yazidi owners who had fled in October.”

A March news report from Kurdistan 24, an Erbil-based Kurdish broadcast news station, reported anti-Yezidi abuses during the 2019 Operation Peace Spring offensive by Turkey had compounded those experienced during the Turkish incursion into Afrin in 2018. The report stated that experts on the Yezidis warned that the small community in Syria could “go extinct as the result of years of victimization by the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, and ongoing Turkish threats.” The COI reported in March, “Anticipating attacks on their community, Yezidi women, men and children, who populated some 13 villages across Ra’s al-Ayn District, also left.” Reports stated that only 15,000 of 50,000 Yezidis in northeast Syria remained and that it was feared more would flee. Yezidi Council spokesman Adnan Hassan told the Arab Weekly in an October report that since Turkish cross-border operations had begun in Afrin, 28 Yezidi villages had been evacuated, including one village that was transformed into a Turkish military base. Hassan also stated that Islamist factions in the region tried to force Yezidis to change their religion.

According to the COI, Yezidi women were detained by TSO groups and on at least one occasion were urged to convert to Islam during interrogation. In Afrin, Yezidi women who were reported to have been kidnapped by TSOs remained missing. The COI reported in September that it was “currently investigating reports that at least 49 Kurdish and Yezidi women were detained in both Ras al-Ayn and Afrin by [SNA] members between November 2019 and July 2020.”

The September COI report referenced a case in which the TSO’s Interim Government’s Ras al-Ayn Local Council and a Turkish NGO, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, converted two TSO-seized, private, Kurdish-owned properties in Ras al-Ayn into religious centers. The owner of the properties said he objected to the properties’ conversion and was not compensated, but the conversions proceeded. The Ras al-Ayn Local Council deputy chair stated this sequence of events was correct.

A September COI report identified cases from April in which “several Yezidi shrines and graveyards were deliberately looted and partially destroyed across locations throughout the Afrin region, such as Qastel Jindo, Qibar, Jindayris, and Sharran, further challenging the precarious existence of the Yezidi community as a religious minority in SNA-controlled regions.” Human rights groups and Syrian media reported that militants of the TSO group Sultan Suleiman Shah looted the archaeological hill of Arnada, in the area of al-Sheikh Hadid west of Afrin, with heavy equipment. The looting heavily damaged the hill. In April, the NGO Ezdina documented the destruction of Yezidi shrines in Afrin by TSOs, including the shrines of Sheikh Junaid, Sheikh Hussein, Gilkhan, and Sheikh Rikab. In July, the NGO Bellingcat reported on the destruction of multiple Yezidi shrines and graves in Afrin, including Qibar Cemetery. These organizations also reported cases in which TSOs imposed restrictions on religious freedom and harassed Yezidis.

In the northeast of the country, civilians, many of them members of religious minorities, including Christians and Yezidis, faced threats from TSO groups to cut off water, via the deliberate shutdown of or interference with the Alouk Water Station, which since October 2019 was controlled by TSO groups. One press report stated that human rights groups reported TSOs had specifically threatened minority Christian and Yezidi communities recovering from ISIS abuses. In August, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch appealed to the UN Secretary General regarding what he termed was the use of water from the Alouk station as a “weapon,” stating that the cutting off of water amounted to “a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights.”

The COI and numerous independent sources reported that, during the course of the conflict, nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations, the United States, and other governments, such as ISIS and al-Qa’ida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), targeted Shia, Alawite Muslims, Christians, and members of other religious minorities, as well as other Sunnis, including Kurds, with killings, kidnappings, physical mistreatment, and detentions. These resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians. In areas where government control was weak or nonexistent, localized corrections structures emerged. Reports of control and oversight varied, and both civilian and religious leaders were in charge of facility administration.

The Wilson Center reported in September that ISIS was responsible for 640 attacks in the country from October 2019 through June, often targeting civilians, including persons suspected of collaborating with government security forces, and members of groups that ISIS deemed to be apostates. Despite ISIS’s territorial defeat, media and NGOs reported its extremist ideology remained a strong presence in the region, according to a January report by the NGO Open Doors. The report said that many Christians, fearing the possibility of an ISIS resurgence, did not feel safe. Thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members were being held in detention in the northeast of the country by the SDF or living in the closed al-Hol camp.

Although ISIS no longer controlled significant territory, the fate of 8,143 individuals detained by ISIS since 2014 remained unknown, according to the SNHR. Among those abducted in northern Iraq were an estimated 6,000 women and children, mainly Yezidis, whom ISIS reportedly transferred to Syria and sold as sex slaves, forced into nominal marriage to ISIS fighters, or gave as “gifts” to ISIS commanders. The Yezidi organization Yazda reported more than 3,000 Yezidi women and children have since escaped, been liberated in SDF military operations, or been released from captivity, but almost 2,800 remained unaccounted for.

According to media reports, different Islamic factions subjected Christians in Idlib Governate to the application of sharia as well as the introduction of jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims) to pressure them to leave their homes. Media reporting indicated that HTS increased such restrictions on Christians in Idlib city. According to these reports, the HTS office of “Christians’ properties” notified Christian tenants and landlords to check with the HTS administrative offices before renewing leases or setting new terms, including raising the rents of houses and shops, since HTS considered Christians’ properties to be spoils of war. According to the COI, the HTS committed a wide range of abuses based on sectarian identity in areas it controlled.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President and Secretary of State continued to condemn the government’s failure to respect the human rights of its citizens, including the right to religious freedom. The President stressed the need for a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which states that such a solution should establish credible, inclusive, and nonsectarian governance.

In June, wide-ranging U.S. sanctions against Syria went into effect. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, passed into law as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, requires the administration to impose sanctions on any foreign person who knowingly provides significant support to the Syrian government, entities owned or controlled by the government, or government-affiliated military contractors, mercenaries, and paramilitary forces, including forces operating in a military capacity inside Syria on behalf of Russia and Iran.

The Department of State continued to support the work of the UN International Impartial and Independent Mechanism for Syria (IIIM) as an important evidentiary-gathering mechanism to promote accountability for the atrocities committed by the government and others. Since its creation, the United States has provided $3.5 million to the IIIM, as well as awarded $3.4 million to the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) to support its efforts to gather evidence of ISIS crimes, including atrocities against members of Muslim, Yezidi, and Christian communities.

The U.S. government consistently urged Turkey and the Syrian opposition at the highest levels to comply with their obligations under international law in areas which they or groups they supported controlled or in which they operated.

The Secretary of State continued to work with the UN Special Envoy for Syria, members of the moderate opposition, and the international community to support UN-facilitated, Syrian-led efforts in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict that would safeguard religious freedom for all citizens. These efforts included support for the Constitutional Committee, designed to pave the way for political reforms and new elections, which met several times throughout the year. The Secretary of State took part in a virtual Syria Small Group meeting with counterparts from the UK, France, Germany, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in October. At the meeting, the Secretary and the other Small Group ministers expressed their support for the United Nations’ role in negotiating a political solution to the conflict in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. In addition, the Secretary affirmed the U.S. commitment to Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, and nonsectarian character; to ensuring state institutions remained intact; and to protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.

The U.S. embassy in Damascus suspended operations in 2012. U.S. government representatives continued to meet with religious groups and leaders in the United States and elsewhere in the Middle East region. A Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and other Department of State officials participated in virtual dialogues, roundtables, and working groups focused on increasing religious tolerance and countering extremist violence. The U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement hosted a virtual panel discussion in October on accountability for human rights abuses, including those committed against religious minorities. Groups representing religious minority communities in Syria participated in the event.

The United States continued to support the documentation, analysis, and preservation of evidence of abuses committed by all sides in the conflict, including those committed against religious minorities, through the COI and IIIM, as well as through direct support for Syrian-led documentation efforts.

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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), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.” CCP regulations allow only Chinese citizens to take part in officially approved religious practices and stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security.” CCP regulations control all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools, and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities said included Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. The CCP continued to promote “Sinicization” policies that aimed to interpret religious ideas in accordance with CCP ideology and to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations regulation, released in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions, including Tibetan Buddhism. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices. There were reports of individuals dying in custody after being beaten, and one nun in a detention facility committed suicide. There were multiple reports of individuals who had been released from detention dying as a result of long-term illnesses and injuries suffered following beatings and mistreatment during incarceration. According to nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and academic research, the PRC government undertook a large-scale and aggressive campaign of “reeducation” or “vocational training” in military-style camps to conduct forced political indoctrination and to transform traditional farmers and herders into laborers in other industries; the vocational training process required “diluting the negative influence of religion.” In some cases, this program involved transferring Tibetans away from their home districts as part of so-called labor transfer programs. Authorities arrested multiple writers, singers, and artists for promoting Tibetan language and culture. Media and human rights groups reported that 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 security officials of anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” The PRC 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 because access to Tibetan areas remained restricted, according to multiple sources, between 2016 and 2019, 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 and photographs showed that thousands of dwellings at these locations had been destroyed since 2018. PRC authorities continued to restrict the religious practices of monks, nuns, and laypersons. Travel and other 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. The government canceled some religious festivals, citing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, although some sources stated this was a pretext. The government surveilled religious sites, encouraged families to inform on their neighbors, and attempted to control access to social media. It continued to force monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag and required Tibetans to replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas with portraits of prominent CCP leaders, including Chairman Mao and General Secretary and PRC President Xi Jinping, in their homes. Media and NGOs reported that authorities erected two Chinese-style pagodas in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site generally considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet, and closed the square in front of the temple to worshippers. PRC authorities continued to restrict children from participating in many traditional religious festivals and from receiving religious education. As part of efforts to Sinicize the population, schools in some areas required instruction in Mandarin, and some students were sent to other parts of the country to expose them to Han culture. Authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in monastic practices, including by appointing government and CCP personnel and government-approved monks to manage religious institutions. The government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervised their religious and political education. It 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. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama and promoting the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. In a statement issued in December, the Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress stated reincarnations of lamas were to take place in accordance with state laws regulating religious affairs and the reincarnation of living buddhas. The statement said the 14th Dalai Lama’s own selection had been reported to the government for approval. Authorities continued in state media to justify interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities.

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

The PRC continued to tightly restrict diplomatic access to the TAR and deny the U.S. embassy in Beijing and the then-open consulate in Chengdu requests to visit the area. No U.S. diplomats were allowed to visit the TAR during the year. The outbreak of COVID-19 in January led to country-wide restrictions on travel within the PRC and entry into the PRC, which also affected the ability of foreign diplomats, journalists, and tourists to travel to the TAR and other Tibetan areas. U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns about religious freedom in Tibet with Chinese government counterparts at multiple levels. U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Ambassador to China, and other embassy officers continued sustained and concerted efforts to advocate for the rights of Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the succession of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and raised concerns about the continued disappearance of Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, missing since 1995. On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials that it had determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018. In November, Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) President Lobsang Sangay met in Washington, D.C. with the U.S. Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities. The embassy and consulates used social media to deliver direct messaging about religious freedom in Tibet to millions of Chinese citizens.

Section I. Religious Demography

According to official data from the 2018 estimate of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, the total population of the TAR is 3,371,500, of which Tibetans make up approximately 90 percent. Han Chinese make up approximately 8 percent. Other ethnicities comprise the remainder. Some experts, however, believe the number of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetans living there is significantly underreported. Outside the TAR, official census data show Tibetans constitute 24.4 percent of the total population in Qinghai Province, 2.1 percent in Sichuan Province, 1.8 percent in Gansu Province, and 0.3 percent in Yunnan Province, although the percentage of Tibetans is much higher within prefectures and counties of these provinces designated as autonomous for Tibetans.

Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion. Small minorities practice Islam, Catholicism, or Protestantism. Some scholars estimate there are as many as 400,000 Bon followers across the Tibetan Plateau, most of whom also follow the Dalai Lama and consider themselves also to be Tibetan Buddhists. Scholars estimate there are up to 5,000 Tibetan Muslims and 700 Tibetan Catholics in the TAR. Other residents of traditionally Tibetan areas include Han Chinese, many of whom practice Buddhism (including Tibetan Buddhism), Taoism, Confucianism, or traditional folk religions, or profess atheism, as well as Hui Muslims and non-Tibetan Catholics and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The majority of ethnic Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China live in the TAR, Tibetan autonomous prefectures (TAPs), and counties in Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu provinces. The PRC constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping 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 the 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.

CCP 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).

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 (a tenet of Tibetan Buddhism), and that these administrative entities must approve reincarnations. The UFWD claims 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 CCP maintains a registry of officially recognized reincarnate lamas.

Regulations issued by the UFWD allow only Chinese citizens to take part in officially approved religious practices; these regulations assert CCP control over all aspects of religions, 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 CCP 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 who provide facilities for unauthorized religious activities, and restrict contact with overseas religious institutions. The regulations require religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities say include Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. 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 Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee.

The regulations also require that religious activity “must not harm national security.” While the regulations stipulate that religious groups must 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 must be approved by the provincial UFWD.

Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules vary widely across and within regions. 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. These regulations have effectively barred Tibetan youth from entering monasteries prior to reaching 18 years of age.

On January 11, the government adopted the “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region.” These require “equal opportunities” for non-Tibetan ethnic groups at all levels of government and in schools, private business companies, religious centers and the military in the TAR.

A government policy introduced in 2018 requires Tibetan monks and nuns to undergo political training in CCP ideology. Monks and nuns must not only demonstrate competence in religious studies, but they must also show “political reliability,” “moral integrity capable of impressing the public,” and a willingness to “play an active role at critical moments.”

Self-immolation (setting oneself on fire as a form of protest) 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 local UFWD, 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 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 CCP 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 the TAR CCP Committee to take up religious orders and the 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 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: The Three-Self Patriotic Movement (Protestant), the 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 and retired government officials, including Tibetans, are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. CCP members who are found to belong to religious organizations are subject to various types of punishment, including termination of their employment and expulsion from the CCP.

Government Practices

The government continued carrying out its 2019-2024 five-year plan to Sinicize all religious groups in China by emphasizing loyalty to the CCP and the state. The plan included Tibetan Buddhism, with the involvement of the state-run BAC. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations regulation, released in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions, including Tibetan Buddhism. Article 17 stated that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

Human rights groups and media reported that during a high-level meeting in Beijing held August 29-30, President Xi announced plans to intensify efforts to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism and the “reeducation” of Tibetans. According to the government media outlet Xinhua, “Xi stressed that patriotism should be incorporated into the whole process of education in all schools. He called for continuous efforts to enhance recognition of the great motherland, the Chinese nation, the Chinese culture, the [CCP], and socialism with Chinese characteristics by people of all ethnic groups. Tibetan Buddhism should be guided in adapting to the socialist society and should be developed in the Chinese context, Xi said.”

During President Xi’s remarks at the Seventh Tibet Work Forum in September, he stressed the PRC should help guide Tibetan Buddhism “to adapt to the socialist society and promote the Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.” Many Tibetan organizations condemned Xi’s remarks, including the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), which said, “Xi’s campaign of Sinicization is a model of anti-rights policies, especially as far as religious freedom is concerned.”

Human rights groups stated authorities used the “Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for Ethnic Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region” that were adopted in January to further impose central government control and Han culture on the Tibetan population and to encourage Tibetans to become informants on each other. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) stated, “The regulations reflect the culmination of Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping’s focus on consolidating power in the party and eliminating threats, as well as the ideas of a new generation of ethnic policy thinkers who advocate for the dilution of ethnic difference. These thinkers seek to force the assimilation of Tibetans and therefore further undermine Tibetans’ inherent freedom to preserve their unique culture, religion and way of life.”

On September 28, the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) published a report entitled In Prison for their Faith 2020. In the report, HRWF stated, “Due to [the] strong link to the Dalai Lama, the CCP considers religious beliefs in Tibet to be intrinsically opposed to socialism and the Chinese state. As a result, the CCP suppresses their Tibetan Buddhist religious identity, including any association with the Dalai Lama. Instead, the aim is to establish Buddhism with so-called Chinese characteristics and without Tibetan characteristics, in line with Chinese socialism. The religious laws in place allow for this state intervention into religious affairs since religious activities must align with political goals to safeguard ethnic unity and preserve socialism.” HRWF stated the CCP “seeks to gain maximum control over every aspect of societal activities that it considers a threat to its legitimacy, by using any means possible. Although the Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the CCP’s objective is to control the lives of all Buddhists, their temples and their institutions.” According to HRWF, every monastery and nunnery had an official state-imposed management committee that was involved in the internal decision-making process of that institution. In its report, HRWF stated, “It is the politicisation of Buddhism that drives the persecution of Buddhists in Tibet.”

In October, HRW reported a herder named Lhamo from Driru County, Nagchu Prefecture, died in August in a hospital where police sent her for treatment of injuries she suffered while in police custody. Sources said police detained Lhamo and her cousin, Tenzin Tharpa, in June on charges of sending money to family members and other Tibetans in India. According to HRW, Lhamo was in good health prior to her arrest, but when family members were summoned to the hospital, they found her badly bruised and unable to speak. Konchog Rinchen, a Tibetan living in exile, told Radio Free Asia (RFA), “Her family believes her death was caused by severe torture she suffered in custody.” Rinchen said the family wanted to perform traditional funeral ceremonies, but authorities forced them to cremate the body immediately. HRW noted the cremation also prevented Lhamo’s family from obtaining an autopsy.

There were no reported cases during the year of Tibetans self-immolating as a means of protesting against government policies, compared with one individual in 2019. According to the ICT, from 2009 to December 2019, 156 Tibetans 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. 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 family were reportedly abducted. Media reported that on May 19, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Nyima “received free compulsory education when he was a child, passed the college entrance examination, and now has a job.” Zhao said neither Nyima nor his family wished to be disturbed in their “current normal lives.” 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 31st birthday. Advocacy groups called on the government to release him and allow him to resume his religious duties.

In September, Tenzin Dhadon, a member of the UN and Human Rights Desk staff of the CTA (the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India) stated, “Chinese authorities disappearing and secretly sentencing Tibetans are their key political tool in suppressing the Tibetan dissent in Tibet. The Chinese government has been practicing enforced disappearances by detaining incommunicado Tibetans deemed a threat to PRC’s unity and stability.”

Media reported that on December 2, authorities arrested Tibetan writer and poet Gendun Lhundrup in Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) County, Malho (Huangnan) TAP, Qinghai Province. Lhundrup, a former monk, was a proponent of preserving Tibetan culture and language, and he released an anthology of poems entitled Khorwa (cycle of repeated birth) in October. He also contributed to a website called Waseng-drak that promotes freedom of expression for writers and artists. His whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

In December, the ICT issued a statement calling for the release of Rinchen Tsultrim, a Bon monk whom authorities continued to hold incommunicado following his arrest in August 2019 for “suspected incitement to split the country.” According to the ICT, police originally took Tsultrim into custody in Barma (Waerma) Township, Ngaba County, Sichuan Province for “peacefully expressing his thoughts on a range of Tibetan political, social and culture issues” on WeChat. The ICT stated it was concerned Tsultrim might be tortured while in custody.

Sources reported that the whereabouts of several monks remained unknown. These included Dorje Rabten, who in September 2018 protested against government policies restricting young people from becoming monks; Tenzin Gelek, who had protested Dorje’s detention; Lobsang Thamke, who was arrested in 2018 and sentenced on July 30 to four years in prison on unknown charges; Lobsang Dorje, who was arrested in August 2018; and Thubpa, whom police took from the Trotsik Monastery in Ngaba County, Sichuan Province, toward the end of 2017.

Sources told media that authorities routinely abused Tibetan prisoners. In May, a Tibetan former political prisoner told RFA, “Living conditions in Chinese prisons are extremely poor. Especially while inmates are being pressed to confess under questioning, interrogators use extreme violence against them that is beyond anyone’s imagining.”

Sources told RFA many monks and nuns who were evicted from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute were placed in internment camps, where treatment of detainees was poor. RFA reported that an unnamed nun who had been expelled from Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute in 2019 and held at an internment camp in Sichuan Province committed suicide in February at the camp due to the harsh conditions. According to a source, “She was defiant of the political reeducation in the camp and always protested against the Chinese officials’ instruction and education, which often resulted in her being beaten.”

There were multiple reports of individuals who had been released dying as a result of illnesses and injuries suffered following beatings and mistreatment during incarceration. In August, RFA reported that authorities released a woman named Dolkar due to failing health after 15 months’ incarceration. She was convicted in May 2019 of telling others that her nephew publicly called for the release of the Panchen Lama. Sources told RFA, “While she was in prison, she was tortured and made to lift heavy stones and do other hard work, and her body is all bruised. Because she was not able to get treatment on time, her limbs are crippled, and she is now immobilized.”

Media reported that Gendun Sherab, a Tibetan monk arrested in 2017 and charged with sharing politically sensitive materials on social media, died in April shortly after being released. According to a source, authorities had charged Sherab with “sharing and disseminating politically sensitive documents on WeChat and social media.” He had shared a letter from the Dalai Lama on WeChat that recognized the reincarnation of religious figure Choedon Rinpoche, from Sera Je Lhopa Khantsen. The source said that during his incarceration, Sherab’s health deteriorated due to beatings, torture, and poor prison conditions, while authorities denied him medical treatment. The source said, “The torture was so bad that he could not even move his body and was unable to speak. They only let him go because it was pretty clear he was about to die.” Before his arrest, Gendun had been expelled from Rongpo Rabten Monastery in Sog County, TAR, for holding what the source said were controversial political views.

Tibetan Review reported that in May, Choekyi, a former monk, died at home in Serthar (Seda) County, Sichuan Province, after authorities denied him permission to travel to a hospital in Lhasa to be treated for damage to his liver and kidneys suffered as a result of torture during his incarceration from 2015 to 2019. According to Tibetan Review, Choekyi had been jailed in 2015 in Sichuan’s Mianyang Prison for making a T-shirt that celebrated the 80th birthday of the Dalai Lama.

The India-based Tibetan media outlet Phayul reported that in February, Samdup, a former monk from Drepung Monastery in TAR, died of diabetes-related complications linked to his seven-year incarceration. Authorities had arrested Samdup for taking part in peaceful protests in 1992 and had not allowed him to return to his monastery after his release.

RFA reported that Tsering Bagdro, a former monk at the Ganden Monastery, died on April 26 in Maldro Gongkar (Mozhugongka) County, near Lhasa. A source told RFA, “His untimely death is certainly related to the physical torture and suffering he endured while he was in prison.” Authorities had arrested Bagdro and others in 1992 for demonstrating in Lhasa for Tibetan independence and carrying the Tibetan flag. He was released in 2000. One source said, “During his time in prison, he experienced physical torture and psychological trauma like the other political prisoners held there…. He was not really free even after his release, though. Like other former political prisoners, he lived under constant surveillance by the Chinese authorities, and his movements, activities, and speech were restricted.”

In September, the Jamestown Foundation published a report entitled Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet. The report noted that government documents indicated TAR authorities had launched a large-scale and aggressive “reeducation” or “vocational training” campaign to transform farmers and herders into laborers. The report also stated the vocational training process required “diluting the negative influence of religion.” Satellite imagery from 2018 showed that facilities built for “reeducation” purposes included high walls and large-scale, barracks-style buildings. According to the report and human rights advocates, the government claimed the campaign was aimed at poverty alleviation, but there was evidence that farmers and herders were forced to participate in the program and were then subjected to coercive labor practices. According to the report, CCP documents showed these programs used “military drill and military-style training to produce discipline and obedience; emphasize the need to ‘transform’ laborers’ thinking and identity, and to reform their ‘backwardness’; teach law and Chinese; aim to weaken the perceived negative influence of religion; prescribe detailed quotas; and put great pressure on officials to achieve program goals.” The report stated, “While some documents assert that the [training and labor assignment] scheme is predicated on voluntary participation, the overall evidence indicates the systemic presence of numerous coercive elements.”

The report stated there was evidence that internment camps in the region were increasingly transitioning from political indoctrination to labor training facilities, with detainees being sent to other regions within the TAR, as well as to other parts of the country, to work in low-skilled jobs that included road construction, cleaning, mining, cooking, and driving as part of so-called labor transfer programs. In September, RFA reported Tibetans were also being forced to work in cotton and textile factories.

Limited access to information and travel restrictions, due both to government policies limiting access to Tibetan areas and to the COVID-19 pandemic, 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.

In its report In Prison for Their Faith, HRWF stated “It is common for Buddhists to be imprisoned with no official criminal charges or convictions. Instead, they often face vague accusations such as: ‘possession of banned photos of the Dalai Lama’, ‘praying to the Dalai Lama’, ‘found with books and religious audio recordings of the Dalai Lama’, ‘taking part in birthday celebrations of the Tibetan spiritual leader’, ‘inciting self-immolation and sending information on self-immolations abroad’, and ‘leading a conspicuous protest in public against the law of the land, calling for the release of a Tibetan spiritual leader.’ These accusations have no legal basis in the Constitution or the Penal Code and are often related to the Dalai Lama. As the Dalai Lama is considered to be a ‘splittist’ by the CCP, any affiliation with him is seen as against the communist state.”

In July, authorities sentenced lyricist Khadro Tseten and singer Tsego to seven years and three years in prison, respectively, for “subversion of state power” and “leaking state secrets” after they composed and circulated a song praising the Dalai Lama on social media.

Sources told media that officials handed down long prison sentences to writers, singers, and artists for promoting Tibetan national identity and culture. The NGO Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) reported that in June, authorities sentenced Tibetan singer Lhundrub Drakpa to six years in prison for performing the song “Black Hat,” which denounced years of repressive policies and practices. Authorities arrested Drakpa two months after “Black Hat” debuted and held him in pretrial detention for one year with no access to legal representation.

According to multiple sources, political prisoners, particularly monks and nuns, often were forced to perform patriotic songs and dances praising the CCP and to watch propaganda films. If participants seemed uninterested, authorities considered it evidence of disloyalty to the state and subjected them to severe punishment, including beatings, and refused them permission to receive gifts of food or clothing from visiting family members.

In September, Tibet.net, the news outlet of the CTA, reported that according to official sources, in September, authorities released Phagba Kyab, whom the CTA described as a Tibetan political prisoner, in Khanlo TAP, Gansu Province. Authorities had arrested Kyab in 2012 and had held him for more than eight years in a Chinese prison for his involvement in the case of a Tibetan who self-immolated in 2012. According to local sources, during a series of interrogations, authorities beat him, deprived him of sleep and food, and told Kyab to denounce the Dalai Lama. Following his release, he was forbidden to travel outside his home village.

The NGO Dui Hua reported that from June to August, the Kardze (Ganzi) TAP Intermediate People’s Court in Sichuan Province convicted nine individuals of “inciting splittism.”

According to Dui Hua’s political prisoner database, at year’s end there were 1,008 known cases of Tibetans detained due to “ethnic minority activism.” It was unclear how many of these cases were connected to religion, but often charges contained vague references to political or religious activities. Observers 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 continued to report extensions of pretrial detention periods were common for Tibetans accused of engaging in prohibited political activities or threatening national security, 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 and human rights groups 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 January, authorities charged 12 villagers from Sog County, Nagqu Prefecture, TAR, for running a “criminal gang.” Court documents stated these individuals had disseminated “negative religious influences” throughout their village.

Sources told tibet.net that from November 2019 through January, officials in Dze Mey Township, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, arrested nearly 30 persons, including monks from the Dza Wonpo Ganden Shedrub Monastery, on a variety of charges, including scattering pro-independence leaflets in front of a government building, using social media, displaying pictures of the Dalai Lama, and having contact with individuals outside of Tibet. Sources said authorities held the detainees for more than a month. The detainees were fed only barley flour and attended political reeducation classes for two weeks. One source told RFA that following the arrests, Chinese police patrolled the streets in Wonpo Township and other nearby townships, conducted mobile phone searches and interrogations, and extracted forced confessions.

RFA reported that in January and February, authorities detained seven Tibetans in Chamdo (Changdu) Prefecture, TAR, and charged them with “spreading rumors” about the spread of COVID-19. Tengchen County authorities punished a man identified as “Tse” for posting messages to WeChat asking readers to recite prayers 10 times in order to protect themselves against the virus. Tse also requested that readers share the post with their friends and families. Local authorities held him in administrative detention for seven days for positing information that did not comply with laws and regulations.

Media reported that sources said on or about December 30, 2019, police in Dzogang (Zuogong) County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR, arrested 75-year-old Jampa Dorje and his son for listening to recordings of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on a mobile phone and for communicating with Dorje’s daughters living in exile in India. A source said authorities subsequently released them after recording the phone numbers on their phones and forcing them to sign a document stating they would not communicate with the women or listen to recordings of the Dalai Lama again.

The NGO Free Tibet reported that in February, authorities released a man named Chochok, a monk at the village monastery in Zamey Wonpo, Serchul County, Kardze TAP, Sichuan Province, after imprisoning him for two years for a message he posted on WeChat in which he used the picture of Konpe, a Tibetan monk who self-immolated in December 2017, as the background.

RFA reported that on December 14, the Golog People’s Intermediate Court in Qinghai Province sentenced Lhundup Dorje, a nomad, to one year in prison, followed by one year of probation, for promoting “separatism.” According to a source, in 2019 Dorje posted a New Year’s greeting message to the CTA on his Weibo account and a 10-second video clip of teachings by the Dalai Lama. The source said that on March 11, he posted slogans calling for Tibetan independence, and that on May 3, Dorje posted a picture of the Dalai Lama as a young man, “along with praises and compliments to him.” According to the source, these postings were viewed on social media at least 2,383 times, and all were listed separately in the indictment against Dorje.

Media reported that in late March or early April, authorities released a shopkeeper named Sonam Dhargyal from prison. According to sources, Ngaba County police had arrested Dhargyal in 2015, two months after he attended the Monlam prayer festival at Ngatoe Goman monastery, where he carried a blue religious flag showing a world peace symbol and a color photograph of the Dalai Lama with two other prominent Tibetan figures.

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 between 2016 and 2019, 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.

In October, India.com reported that authorities destroyed large portions of the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. Accompanying the article were before-and-after photographs of each institute showing large areas where structures had been demolished. Media and local sources stated that during the year, authorities completed demolition of many structures at both Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes, and that authorities encouraged Han Chinese to visit the sites as tourists or to move there.

During the year, the government reportedly 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 that 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 continued to view such measures as CCP and government efforts to dilute religious belief and weaken the ties between monasteries and communities.

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. 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 and preventing monks from traveling to villages for politically sensitive events and religious ceremonies. Religious figures and laypersons frequently reported difficulty traveling to monasteries outside their home regions, both within the TAR and in other parts of the country. Travelers said they encountered 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. 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 monasteries after 2008 protests in Lhasa and other areas, such as Ngaba, had not returned, some because of government prohibitions.

According to sources, PRC authorities, citing COVID-19 concerns, continued to restrict many major monasteries across the Tibetan Plateau from holding large scale religious events. Many of these sources said officials were using pandemic restrictions to prevent individuals from participating in religious activities. In March, ICT reported that authorities cancelled public religious festivals and prayer ceremonies for Losar (Tibetan New Year) in February, citing COVID-19 restrictions.

On April 17, ICT reported that in similar notifications, dated April 14 and 15, respectively, Samye and Yasang Monasteries in Lhokha (Shannan) Prefecture, TAR announced they were closed as “per circular from higher authorities, and in accordance with the need of work relating to the prevention of the infectious coronavirus.” According to ICT, “These announcements are surprising, as China claims that there were no newly confirmed or suspected cases for 78 consecutive days in the TAR.” ICT stated the PRC, “to bolster its image internationally and indicate a sense of normalcy after the coronavirus crisis,” announced on March 30 that some monasteries in Lhasa would reopen, but with restrictions.

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 85th 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.

A source told RFA that officials visited monasteries in Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces and parts of Kanlho (Gannan) TAP, Gansu Province, warning staff not to host “outside visitors” on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. In Kardze Prefecture, Sichuan Province, a government group led by Wang Shu Yin, a CCP official and head of the local police department, inspected Ganden Phuntsok Ling Monastery in Rongdrag (Danba) County on July 5. The source said that during their tour, the Chinese officials “urged the residents to become ‘exemplary and patriotic’ monks and watch out for any outside visitors in the area and in the monastery itself. The officials urged the monks to report any suspicious persons to the local government or police department.”

In May, Asianews.it reported authorities banned Tibetan students and civil servants from participating in religious events during Saga Dawa, the month-long festival that marks the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death. Sources said authorities threatened there would be “serious consequences” for individuals who defied the ban. Authorities intensified surveillance of and restrictions on access to the Jokhang Temple complex on the fifteenth day of Saga Dawa, the holiest day of the month. Free Tibet reported, “The residents of Lhasa have been watched carefully by the local police, military personnel and officers dressed in civilian clothes. The offering sites at the temple and the circumambulation areas were packed with these police officers patrolling around. Tibetans who intended to go to the temple to carry out circumambulations and make offerings were stopped and their mobile phones were checked, reportedly making some of them feel anxious.”

According to local sources, security forces continued to block access to and from important monasteries during politically sensitive events and religious anniversaries. Police maintained heavy security during the Shoton festival held from August 15-25 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.

In August, the NGO Tibet Watch reported authorities barred Tibetan government workers, school children, and retirees from entering the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, considered the most sacred temple in Tibet, while an increasing number of Chinese tourists were allowed in during the year. A source told Tibet Watch the Chinese tourists did not respect sacred Buddhist spaces. The source said, “The Chinese visitors smoke in holy sites like the central Barkhor area and the Potala Palace. They litter the ground with empty bottles and throw waste everywhere.”

In August, the government again banned the annual Dechen Shedrub prayer festival from occurring at the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute. Authorities cited overcrowding and COVID-19 concerns as reasons for the ban. The ban marked the fifth consecutive year the government prohibited the 22-year-old festival from taking place.

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

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.

According to human rights groups and local sources, authorities continued to install overt camera surveillance systems at monasteries. RFA reported in October that authorities had opened “security centers,” or convenience police stations, throughout Lhasa. RFA described the security centers’ role as “subverting local indigenous populations through surveillance.”

According to multiple sources in Ngaba County, Sichuan Province, officials there 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.

The report Xinjiang’s System of Militarized Vocational Training Comes to Tibet stated that the government employed “grid management” and a “double-linked household” system to surveil and control communities. Under the grid management system, neighborhoods and communities were divided into smaller units with dedicated administrative and security staff who maintained detailed databases on everyone living in that grid. The “double-linked household” system “corrals regular citizens into the state’s extensive surveillance apparatus by making sets of 10 ‘double-linked’ households report on each other.”

According to human rights groups and media sources, authorities frequently checked mobile phones for pictures of the Dalai Lama and other content that was considered sensitive. There were reports that authorities surveilled ordinary Tibetans for years after finding such material. In May, RFA reported authorities continued to surveil a walnut seller named Jampa Sonam eight years after police arrested him for a photograph of the Dalai Lama they found on his mobile phone in a random search. A Tibetan living in exile told RFA, “Now, whenever Jampa Sonam needs to go outside his place of residence, he needs to ask permission from the Chinese authorities, first at the village and then at the township level. Thus, he has remained in a virtual prison for the last eight years.”

In a March report entitled Repressed, Removed, Re-Educated: The stranglehold on religious life in China, the NGO CSW (formerly Christian Solidarity Worldwide) reported the presence of military surveillance and armed police in riot gear at monasteries during religious occasions such as prayer days. CSW wrote “religious ceremonies can resemble military exercises.”

Sources stated authorities forced monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag.

In April, Free Tibet reported authorities expanded the requirement that families replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas with portraits of preeminent CCP leaders, including Chairman Mao and President Xi, in their homes. Previously, this policy was only compulsory for families that were dependent on state support under the poverty alleviation program. According to Tibet Watch’s sources, authorities in the region stated that, in order to “remember the gratitude of the party and in the spirit of following the party, all households, monasteries, schools and offices must display the portrait of top party leaders.” As part of the program, authorities across Tibet gathered villagers together and distributed images of party leaders for them to hang on their walls or altars. Authorities also distributed images to be hung in schools, monasteries, and offices. Sources said authorities conducted inspections of each household to check for compliance. Tibet Watch reported an estimated 14,000 images of President Xi and other CCP leaders were distributed.

In June, RFA reported authorities ordered that prayer flags and the flagpoles from which they hung be taken down in TAR villages as part of what sources said the government called an “environmental cleanup drive” and “behavioral reform” program. One source said this was “an act of contempt and utter disregard for local Tibetans’ customs and faith.” In June, Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in China, reported TAR officials embarked on a campaign to remove Tibetan prayer flags from hilltops and villages. Bitter Winter stated the CCP “is trying to destroy Tibetan religion and culture, leaving only a ‘Disneyfied’ version for the benefit of naive tourists.”

According to HRW, 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 kora 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 the potential loss of pensions and social benefits.

The CCP reportedly 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.

According to The Diplomat, on April 1, officials used bulldozers to demolish a building under construction that was to house 16 monks at Langdi Monastery in Markham County, Chamdo Prefecture, TAR. The building was reportedly built by the local community in traditional Tibetan style. The abbot of the monastery appealed against the demolition, but he was beaten. Authorities threatened to imprison him and two other monks. According to The Diplomat, photographs taken prior to the demolition showed two Chinese flags displayed on the main building, with Tibetan prayer flags beside them. The Diplomat reported, “Now the monastery is empty, as all the [20] monks were compelled to leave.”

Sources reported that authorities destroyed Tibetan religious sites outside the TAR. According to Bitter Winter, in July, the local government demolished the Fuyan Temple, a 1,000-year-old Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Jinzhong City, Shanxi Province, and expelled the monks. The Fuyan Temple was a popular tourist attraction, but in November 2019, local authorities ordered the removal of Tibetan prayer flags and two statues of Buddha. Accompanying the article were “before” photographs that showed the temple, which contained both Tibetan and Chinese architectural styles, and “after” images of the barren field where the temple had stood. According to an eyewitness, prior to bulldozing the temple, police, urban management officers, and village officials had broken some statues, looking for valuables inside them, and taken away all mahogany tables and chairs.

Media and NGOs reported that in April, authorities began erecting two Chinese-style pagodas in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site originally built in 652 that is generally considered to be the most sacred temple in Tibet. In February 2018, a fire had damaged the temple complex, and the government started renovations that included laying pipes under the square in front of the temple that were aimed at improving security and firefighting facilities at the complex. ICT said the alterations appeared to be incompatible with traditional Tibetan architecture. In October, RFA reported the construction was completed in August but that the square in front of the temple remained closed to worshippers. One source told RFA the square was surrounded by fencing that barred entry to devotees. The source said, “The pilgrims have nowhere to prostrate and worship, and only Chinese police and Chinese visitors can come inside the fenced enclosure. You don’t see any activities by Tibetan Buddhist devotees.”

In addition to the prohibition on the open veneration of the Dalai Lama, including the display of his photograph, the government continued also to ban pictures of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, whom the Dalai Lama and nearly all Tibetan Buddhists recognize as the 11th Panchen Lama. In some counties of the TAR, punishments for displaying images of the Dalai Lama included expulsion from monasteries. Local sources told RFA that officials from government bureaus monitoring religious practice visited Tibetan schools and warned teachers and students not to keep or display photographs of the Dalai Lama.

Local sources reported that “The 20 Prohibitions” were still in force. These regulations, instituted in the TAR in 2019, forbade 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.

Authorities increased the surveillance of and efforts to restrict access to WeChat and other social media. In May, HRW stated that a TAR official from Lhasa said, “The government monitors the WeChat and social media activity of monks even more strictly than that of ordinary citizens.” In June, Tibetan Review reported that according to Free Tibet, TAR officials also blocked the WeChat accounts of monks and nuns living outside the PRC. According to Tibet Watch, these measures were designed to restrict and control communication between Tibetan monks living abroad and friends and family inside Tibet. According to Tibet Watch, TAR officials investigated 4,000 to 5,000 Tibetan households with family ties to exiles living in Nepal and India.

In December, TCHRD reported that on November 24, Chinese internet police in the TAR again announced criminal prosecutions against individuals who used online communication tools to “split the country” and “undermine national unity.” The notice listed a range of illegal online activities, such as using virtual private networks (VPNs) and joining discussion groups. The notice said authorities would “strike hard” against offenders “in accordance with law.” TCHRD stated that in February 2019, authorities had released a similar notice that criminalized online activities that purported to “collect, produce, download, store, publish, disseminate, and publicize malicious attacks against the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government, the socialist system, the regional ethnic autonomy system, and the party and the government’s policy of managing TAR.” The 2019 notice offered rewards of up to 300,000 renminbi (RMB) ($45,900) for information regarding violators of the policy.

According to HRW, in anticipation of National Uprising Month in March (which commemorates the 1959 Lhasa uprising and large riots in 2008 protesting Beijing’s rule over Tibet), the PRC increased its censorship and security posture in Lhasa to deter any public gatherings or displays of support for the Dalai Lama. HRW reported the PRC staged mass rallies in Lhasa and other provincial cities on March 7. In Lhasa, thousands of armed police and other security forces from across the region gathered to “pledge” loyalty to the party and its political objective of “comprehensive, long-term stability.” Ding Yexen, head of the TAR Stability Maintenance Command, addressed the police, calling on them to “intimidate and terrify hostile forces and splittist forces, giving them nowhere to hide.” This was followed by a parade of armored vehicles and military equipment through the city.

Multiple sources reported the government continued to interfere in the religious education of laypersons and children. According to Bitter Winter, during the Seventh Tibet Work Forum organized by the CCP Central Committee on August 28 and 29, President Xi said the CCP should build a “new modern socialist Tibet that is united” and that this would be achieved through school reforms that “plant the seeds of loving China deep in the heart of every youth.” Authorities in the TAR required monks to cancel all classes with children, warning that monks and parents could have their social security benefits restricted or be detained if classes continued. The ban on religious education was also implemented in some places outside of the TAR.

A source told Bitter Winter that one of the government’s strategies to Sinicize Tibet was to send high performing students from Tibetan areas to other parts of the country to expose them to Han culture and Mandarin so that these students could become “reliable successors who will build Tibet and guard borders, [and] shoulder the great mission of ethnic unity.” The students were required to live with Han families with “strong political views and [the] correct ethnic minority outlook.” Host families were instructed to “pay attention to students’ spiritual growth” and to educate them with “correct” views that conformed to CCP ideology. Discussing Tibetan Buddhism and other “sensitive topics” was strictly forbidden in Han homes and in schools. A Tibetan college student studying in Qinghai Province told Bitter Winter that students who were found to possess images of the Dalai Lama on their computers were subject to academic probation and other punishments for “being anti-Communist” or “having ideological problems.” The student said this might affect their studies, graduation, and future employment. The student said, “No one dares to touch the topics of religion.”

In September, RFA reported authorities closed primary schools in several towns in Rebkong County, Qinghai Province and forced the students to attend boarding schools in other regions of the country against the wishes of their parents. A source told RFA that police suppressed a protest by parents using police vehicles and blaring sirens and took one protester into custody. Authorities merged two middle schools in Themchen (Tianjun) County, Qinghai Province and changed the curriculum so that only the Tibetan-language class was taught in Tibetan, while all other subjects were taught in Mandarin.

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

Local sources stated authorities in the TAR and some areas in Sichuan Province continued to prohibit Tibetan students from undertaking long-distance travel to other parts of the country during their two-month winter break. It was the fourth consecutive year authorities had implemented such restrictions. Tibetan rights advocates said the prohibition was an effort by authorities to stop parents from taking their children to visit temples outside the capital during the break.

During September testimony before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington, DC, Zeekgyab Rinpoche, Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, which serves as the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama, said, “The Chinese government interferes and intervenes in the functioning of the monastic education system by imposing restrictions on our monks and nuns. Even in schools, we see this malign design to wipe out our unique identity in the form of restructuring the curriculum and banning the learning of Tibetan language.”

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. 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 Norbu.

In accordance with official guidelines for monastery management, 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, continued instead to be 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 progovernment 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.

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.” The Dalai Lama was reportedly not on the list.

According to sources, “Every single individual now on the official reincarnation database has to go through an entire political procedure, entirely separate to 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 the declining numbers of young monks. Religious leaders and scholars continued to say these and other means of interference continued to cause them concern about the ability of religious traditions to survive for successive generations. In a June letter about the continued enforced disappearance of the Panchen Lama, three UN special rapporteurs, including the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and representatives of two UN working groups, wrote, “Many Tibetan Buddhists have expressed their concerns about the regulation of reincarnation as it undermines the Tibetan religious traditions and practices while such regulation allow the State to interfere in the choice of their religious leaders.”

The government continued to require 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 in 2018, many major monasteries and religious institutes have implemented political training programs.

According to media 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 President Xi’s speeches, learn Mandarin, and hear lectures praising the leadership of the CCP and the socialist system.

According to the government media outlet China Tibet Net, from November 6 to 14, 168 Tibetan Buddhists in Lhasa attended training sessions on the constitution, religious affairs regulations, cybersecurity laws, and other subjects. Sources stated that 26 Buddhist nuns in Lhatse County of Shigatse (Xigaze) City, TAR, completed a similar training session. One participant, Luosang Taba, Executive Deputy Director of the Kangma Temple Management Committee in Dangxiong County, said that after the training he had “the determination and confidence to take the lead in educating and guiding the monks and religious believers to firmly support the leadership of the party, adhere to the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, take a clear-cut stand against division, safeguard the unity of the motherland, [and] strengthen national unity.”

According to Tibet Watch, on May 1, the Department of Justice and the TAR Religious Affairs Bureau conducted online training for more than 30,000 monks and nuns in “popularization activities” that included lessons on the constitution, national security law, antiterrorism law, and cyber security law.

Authorities continued to ban minors younger than 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, were beaten by police, and that parents and other family members were also threatened with loss of social benefits if underage monks did not comply.

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 March, TAR Communist Party Secretary Wu Yingjie publicly criticized the Dalai Lama’s “reactionary” nature and called on all Tibetans to strictly adhere to the CCP’s “guiding principles.” In July, Wu publicly called on security officials to crack down on the “Dalai Lama clique’s infiltration and destructive activities” and to “educate the masses to draw a clear line between them and the Dalai Lama.”

Tibet Watch reported that from July 6 to 8, Wang Yang, chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, toured monasteries, nomadic areas, and sites of relocated settlements in and around the cities of Lhasa and Shigatse. During the inspections, he reportedly said, “Tibetan religion is tied to the long term stability of Tibet, primary effort should be made on integrating Buddhism into China’s socialist society, and religious activities and monasteries should be strictly managed according to the law.” He also said laws of the state “are above religion. Tibetans should resolutely fight against the force of separatism… Training of model individuals and monks and promotion of patriotism should continue.”

In comments broadcast on CCTV on July 9, Wang said leaders needed to “thoroughly study and comprehend Xi Jinping’s ideas on Tibet and the CCP’s strategy for governing Tibet in the new era.” Wang said it was necessary to focus on improving the level of Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.

The government outlet Chinese Communist Party News reported that at a province-level party meeting on September 2, TAR Party Secretary Wu vowed to “eliminate the negative religious influence of the 14th Dalai Lama” in order to implement the CCP Central Committee’s Tibet policy.

The Standing Committee of the Tibetan People’s Congress issued a statement in December that said, “Living Buddha reincarnation is a unique way of inheritance of Tibetan Buddhism, with fixed religious rituals and historical customization. The Chinese government has promulgated the ‘Regulations on Religious Affairs’ and the ‘Administrative Measures for the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas of Tibetan Buddhism’ to respect and protect the inheritance method of Tibetan Buddhism.” The statement, which was published in response to passage of the U.S. Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2020, said the 14th Dalai Lama’s own selection had been reported to Chinese authorities for approval.

Authorities continued to justify in state media the interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities.

During the year, there were no reports that the Boundary Management System Agreement signed by the PRC and the government of Nepal in 2019 had been used to return long-staying Tibetan refugees to the PRC from Nepal. Tibetan advocacy groups had stated when the agreement was signed that the provision that would require both countries to hand over citizens who illegally crossed the Nepal-China border 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 “gentlemen’s agreement” with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees which provides for Tibetan refugees in Nepal’s custody to transit to India.

Many Tibetans, including monks, nuns, and laypersons, reported continued difficulties traveling to India for religious training, meetings with religious leaders, or to visit family members living in 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 said they could only obtain passports after promising not to travel to India or not 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 travel. 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 in India involving the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans who traveled to Nepal and planned to continue to India reported that PRC officials visited their families’ homes in Tibet and threatened their relatives if they did not return immediately. 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.

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 they required other hotels to notify police departments when Tibetan guests checked in.

RFA reported that on June 11, a recruitment notice for government jobs restricted employment to those who “have a firm stand on the political principals of anti-secession, criticizing the Dalai [Lama], safeguarding the reunification of the motherland, and national unity.” According to RFA, applicants for low-wage positions such as drivers, office cleaners, and kitchen staff were required to support the CCP’s leadership and socialist system.

In June, RFA reported that according to Shide Dawa, a Tibetan living in exile in India, Tibetans wishing to join the PRC army were required to have no record of engaging in political activities. A former resident of Chamdo Prefecture living in exile in India told RFA, “My younger brother tried to enroll in the Chinese police force. But because I’m now in India, they have denied my brother the job.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns about religious freedom in Tibet with Chinese government counterparts at multiple levels. U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Ambassador to China, and other Department and embassy officials continued sustained and concerted efforts to advocate for the rights of Tibetans to preserve, practice, teach, and develop their religious traditions and language without interference from the government. U.S. embassy and consulate officials regularly expressed concerns to the Chinese government at senior levels, including central government and provincial leaders, regarding severe restrictions imposed on Tibetans’ ability to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom and cultural rights. The Ambassador pressed senior PRC officials on the government’s refusal to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama. U.S. officials continued to underscore that only the Dalai Lama and other faith leaders could decide the succession of the Dalai Lama, and they also raised concerns about the disappearance of the Panchen Lama. In addition to raising systemic issues, such as impediments to passport issuance to Tibetans, U.S. officials expressed concern and sought further information about individual cases and incidents of religious persecution and discrimination, and they sought increased access to the TAR for U.S. officials, journalists, and tourists, including religious pilgrims and those traveling for religious purposes.

Due to COVID-19 and tight PRC restrictions on access to the TAR, U.S. officials were not allowed to visit the TAR during the year. Before the PRC ordered the closure of the consulate in Chengdu in retaliation for the closure of the PRC consulate general Houston, the Consul General’s request to visit the TAR was denied. In July, the PRC extended an invitation to the Charge d’Affaires to visit the TAR but rescinded it after the U.S. government announced that same month visa restrictions in accordance with the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On May 17, on the 25th anniversary of the disappearance of the 11th Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Secretary of State said in a statement, “The United States remains deeply concerned about the PRC’s ongoing campaign to eliminate the religious, linguistic, and cultural identity of Tibetans, including through the ongoing destruction of communities of worship and learning, such as the Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Buddhist Institutes. Tibetan Buddhists, like members of all faith communities, must be able to select, educate, and venerate their religious leaders according to their traditions and without government interference. We call on the PRC government to immediately make public the Panchen Lama’s whereabouts and to uphold its own constitution and international commitments to promote religious freedom for all persons.”

On June 3, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom told participants at an online forum organized by the ICT, “They [Tibetans] need to be able to practice their faith freely. The Dalai Lama needs to be able to go and return to his homeland if he would so choose. And yet these are all denied.”

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018. In making the announcement, the Secretary stated, “The United States will continue to work to advance the sustainable economic development, environmental conservation, and humanitarian conditions of Tibetan communities within the People’s Republic of China and abroad. We also remain committed to supporting meaningful autonomy for Tibetans, respect for their fundamental and unalienable human rights, and the preservation of their unique religious, cultural, and linguistic identity.”

On September 2 remarks to the press, the Secretary of State said, “We’re also concerned about Chinese actions in Tibet, in light of the general secretary’s recent calls to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism and fight ‘splittism’ there. We continue to call upon Beijing to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions, to reach a settlement that resolves their differences.”

In November, at the virtual global Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said, “Tibetan Buddhists have successfully picked their leader for hundreds of years…. [T]he United States supports that religious communities have the right to pick their own leadership.”

On October 14, the Secretary of State designated the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to serve concurrently as the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. In his announcement, the Secretary said the Special Coordinator would “carry forward the Department’s engagement with and support for Tibet’s global diaspora and their many courageous advocates for the protection of human rights, including the freedom of religion or belief.” The Office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues continued to coordinate U.S. government efforts to preserve Tibet’s distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identity, as well as efforts to promote dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. In November, CTA President Lobsang Sangay met with the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in Washington, DC.

On December 4, the Special Coordinator for Tibet Issues spoke at a forum hosted by the US Mission to International Organizations in Geneva entitled, “Religious Freedom in Tibet: The Appointment of Buddhist Leaders and the Succession of the Dalai Lama.” The Special Coordinator said, “The United States is committed to helping Tibetans safeguard their way of life – not just in Tibet but also in India, Nepal, Bhutan, and everywhere that it flourishes.” The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the Office of the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva also pressed the PRC to respect the unique language, culture, and religion of Tibetans.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states (in part): “(1) decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and in the context of the will of practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism; (2) the wishes of the 14th Dalai Lama, including any written instructions, should play a determinative role in the selection, education, and veneration of a future 15th Dalai Lama; and (3) interference by the Government of the People’s Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear violation of the fundamental religious freedoms of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan people.” The law further states the U.S. government may impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and visa restrictions under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act on Chinese officials “who are responsible for, complicit in, or have directly or indirectly engaged in the identification or installation of a candidate chosen by China as the future 15th Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism[.]”

Although U.S. officials were denied access to the TAR during the year, they maintained contact with a wide range of religious leaders and practitioners, as well as NGOs in other Tibetan areas, to monitor the status of religious freedom, although travel and other restrictions made it difficult to visit and communicate with these individuals.

The embassy and consulates delivered direct messaging to the public about religious freedom in Tibet through social media posts on Twitter and on the embassy’s official website, which is required to be hosted on a PRC server and registered in an official PRC domain. In addition to more than 100 general messages promoting religious freedom posted by the embassy and consulates on Twitter and the PRC-controlled Weibo and WeChat platforms over the course of the year, the embassy also published many social media messages on Twitter that directly and indirectly promoted the religious freedom of the Tibetan people. Over the course of the year, statements from the Secretary of State and others supporting religious freedom for Tibetans reached millions of Chinese social media users. The Secretary’s call on Beijing to enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without preconditions, the appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, and statements of concern over continuing interference with the religious freedom of Tibetans drew particularly high attention on social media despite China’s online censorship.

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United Kingdom

Executive Summary

In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church. The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion. The Emergency Coronavirus Bill was amended in March in response to concerns from Muslim and Jewish advocacy groups that the bill would permit cremation of COVID-19 victims “against the wishes of the deceased.” In January, the Welsh government announced plans to make relationships, sexuality, and religion a mandatory part of the curriculum for all students over the age of five by 2022. In September, Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Rehman Chishti resigned from his position as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Religious Freedom. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce was appointed his successor in December. In July, Imam Qari Asim, the Deputy Chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, was appointed independent advisor to propose a working definition of Islamophobia. On the one-year anniversary of the March mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, the government announced that funding for the Places of Worship Scheme, which provides physical security measures to Muslim, Christian, Sikh, and Hindu places of worship, would double from the previous year to 3.2 million pounds ($4.37 million) in 2020-2021. In April, the government provided 14 million pounds ($19.13 million) via a nongovernmental organization (NGO) to provide security at Jewish institutions, including schools and synagogues. In January, the Scottish government announced 500,000 pounds ($683,000) to fund security at places of worship. In January, the government renewed its commitment to the founding principles of the 2000 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (Stockholm Declaration). To mark International Holocaust Memorial Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the UK government announced a one-million pound ($1.37 million) grant to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to help preserve the site of the former concentration camp. The main political parties and party members continued to face numerous accusations of religious bias. The Conservative Party faced allegations of anti-Muslim incidents, with the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) submitting a dossier of 150 cases of alleged anti-Muslim incidents by party members to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The party announced it would conduct a review into how complaints were handled and the EHRC accepted the party’s terms of reference for the investigation, but the MCB criticized the scope of the inquiry. In October, the EHRC released a report calling on the Labour Party to reform its handling of allegations of anti-Semitism within the party. In light of his negative reaction to the report, Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from both the wider Labour Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party and was forced to sit as an independent MP, a first for a former leader. While his wider-party membership was later reinstated in November, he continued to serve as an independent MP. In December, the Labour Party published a plan to implement the EHRC’s recommended reforms.

The government reported a 5 percent decline (from 8,566 to 7,203 offenses) in religiously motivated hate crimes in England and Wales in the 2019-2020 period compared to the same period one year prior. This was the first period of decline in religiously motivated hate crimes since 2012-2013. Where the perceived religion of the victim was recorded (in 91 percent of cases), 50 percent (3,089 offenses) of religious hate crime offenses targeted Muslims, and 19 percent (1,205 offenses) targeted Jews. The annual report of the NGO Community Security Trust (CST) recorded 1,668 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, an 8 percent decline from 2019, yet still the second-highest ever annual figure recorded by the organization. Among the incidents were 97 assaults and three incidents classified as “extreme violence.” (Due to privacy laws, CST did not provide details on cases of extreme violence.) There were a further 1,399 incidents of nonviolent abusive behavior. CST recorded 634 anti-Semitic online incidents, a 9 percent decline from the previous year. In September, the NGO Tell MAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks), which monitors anti-Muslim activity, released its annual report for 2018. The report disclosed 3,173 reports of anti-Muslim hate incidents in 2018, including 1,891 recorded by police. This was the highest number since the NGO’s founding in 2011. Several religiously motivated conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic circulated online. According to a report by the Henry Jackson Society think tank, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories included claims that Jews used global lockdowns to “steal everything.” Both Jewish and Muslim communities were vilified by media commentators such as Katie Hopkins, who alleged that Muslims were flouting lockdown restrictions and spreading COVID-19 by continuing Friday prayers at mosques.

U.S. embassy and consulate staff engaged with government officials, political parties, and religious groups to advance religious freedom issues, with a strong emphasis on digital engagement and use of social media in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. In May, the Ambassador, along with the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, gave remarks at virtual iftars, which were part of the largest such series in the UK, entitled #RamadanatHome. In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual meeting with representatives of the Jewish community, and separately, with Labour Leader MP Sir Keir Starmer, to discuss the Labour Party’s plan to confront the issue of anti-Semitism within the party. In April, the Ambassador spoke to the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues to extend his best wishes for Passover and to show support for the British Jewish communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, in May, the Ambassador called Dr. Ahmad al-Dubayan of the Central London Mosque to commemorate Ramadan and discuss how the Muslim community was faring, given COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on gatherings. In December, a senior embassy official delivered remarks and conducted a virtual candle lighting in honor of Diwali, in partnership with the Hindu Forum of Europe. In January, a senior embassy official represented the United States at the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and met with Trustees of the Holocaust Day Memorial Trust. To mark National Religious Freedom Day in January, the consulate general in Belfast hosted an interfaith dialogue. Throughout the year, the embassy’s social media messaging on international religious freedom reached approximately 400,000 persons.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 65.8 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Census figures from 2011, the most recent, indicate 59.3 percent of the population in England and Wales is Christian. Of the remaining population, 4.8 percent identified as Muslim; 1.5 percent Hindu; 0.8 percent Sikh; 0.5 percent Jewish; and 0.4 Buddhist. Approximately 25 percent of the population reported no religious affiliation in the 2011 census, and 7 percent chose not to answer. Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate there are 137,000 members in the country, and the Baha’i community estimates it has more than 7,000 members.

According to the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey, an annual survey conducted by the independent National Center for Social Research, 52 percent of those surveyed UK-wide described themselves as having no religion, 12 percent as Anglican, 7 percent as Catholic, and 9 percent as belonging to non-Christian religious groups. The survey showed 6 percent of individuals identified as Muslim, less than 0.5 percent as Jewish, and 3 percent as “other non-Christian.”

The Muslim community in England and Wales is predominantly of South Asian origin, but it also includes individuals from the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as a growing number of converts of British and other European descent. Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists are concentrated in London and other large urban areas, primarily in England.

Census figures for Scotland in 2011 indicate 54 percent of the population is Christian, comprising the Church of Scotland (32 percent), Roman Catholic Church (16 percent), and other Christian groups (6 percent). The Muslim community constitutes 1.4 percent of the population. Other religious groups, which together make up less than 1 percent of the population, include Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists. Persons not belonging to any religious group make up 36.7 percent of the population, and the remainder did not provide information on religious affiliation.

A 2017 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found 58 percent of those surveyed did not identify with any religion, 18 percent identified as part of the Church of Scotland, 10 percent as Roman Catholic, 11 percent as other Christian, and 2 percent as non-Christian.

Census figures from Northern Ireland in 2011 indicate 41.5 percent of the population is Protestant – consisting of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (19 percent), Church of Ireland (14 percent), Methodist Church in Ireland (3 percent), and other Protestant groups (6 percent) – and 41 percent Roman Catholic. Less than 1 percent of the population belongs to non-Christian religious groups, and approximately 10 percent professes no religion; 7 percent did not indicate a religious affiliation.

In his 2019 ‘Sectarianism in Northern Ireland’ report, Ulster University Professor Duncan Morrow found there is a “clear statistical trend towards a change in the religious minority-majority structure of Northern Ireland.” His research illustrates a consistent decline of Protestants in all 26 district council areas of Northern Ireland since 2001, contrasted with an increased Catholic population in 19 of 26 council areas in the same time period. Morrow’s analysis of 2011 census figures also illustrates this trend is likely to continue. Census figures show a Protestant majority in the over-60 age bracket and a Catholic majority in the under-20 age bracket. Professor Paul Nolan of Queen’s University Belfast stated based on current statistical trends, there will be a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland by 2021, when the next census will be conducted.

Census figures from Bermuda in 2010 cite 22 religious groups in the population of 71,000; 78 percent identifies as Christian, including 16 percent Anglican, 15 percent Roman Catholic, 9 percent African Methodist Episcopal, and 7 percent Seventh-day Adventist. Approximately 2 percent identifies with other religious groups, including approximately 600 Muslims, 200 Rastafarians, and 120 Jews. Approximately 20 percent did not identify with or state a religious affiliation.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have state religions. Legislation establishes the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church, but it is not dependent on any government body or the Queen for spiritual matters or leadership.

The Human Rights Act 1998 protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” The Human Rights Act reaffirms the European Convention of Human Rights, Article 9, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society.”

As the supreme governor of the Church of England, the monarch must always be a member of, and promise to uphold, that Church. The monarch appoints Church of England officials, including lay and clergy representatives, on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Crown Appointments Commission. Aside from these appointments, the state is not involved in the Church’s administration. The Church of Scotland is governed by its General Assembly, which has the authority to make the laws determining how it operates.

Blasphemy and blasphemous libel remain criminal offenses in Northern Ireland under common law. To date, however, there have been no convictions for blasphemy or blasphemous libel there. Northern Ireland Humanists continues to run a campaign to repeal blasphemy laws originating from the 1888 Law of Libel Amendment Act and the 1819 Criminal Libel Act, which remain in force in the region. These laws prohibit “composing, printing or publishing any blasphemous libel or any seditious libel tending to bring into hatred…any matter in Church or State.”

In England and Wales, the law prohibits religiously motivated hate speech and any acts intended to incite religious hatred through the use of words or the publication or distribution of written material. The law defines religious hatred as hatred of a group because of its religious belief or lack thereof. Police are responsible for investigating criminal offenses and for gathering evidence; the Crown Prosecution Service, which is an independent body and the main public prosecution service for England and Wales, is responsible for deciding whether a suspect should be charged with a criminal offense. The maximum penalty for inciting religious hatred is seven years in prison. If there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with any crime, it is a “religiously aggravated offense” and carries a higher maximum penalty than does the underlying crime alone.

Blasphemy is an offense under common law in Scotland. It is a crime against public order and decency and has two aspects: whether an individual’s spoken or written words against God or religion occurred, and the words are spoken or written with intent to cause disorder. The law relates only to Christianity and is punishable by fines or imprisonment or both. The law requires courts to consider the impact of religious bias when sentencing.

Northern Ireland does not have specific hate crime laws, but current legislation allows for increased sentencing if offenses are judged to be motivated by hostility based on religion, among other aggravating factors.

By law, the General Register Office for England and Wales governs the registration and legal recognition of places of worship in England and Wales. A representative of the congregation, for example, a proprietor, trustee, or religious head, must complete and submit an application form and pay a fee of 29 pounds ($40) to a local registrar. The General Registrar Office typically provides registration certificates to the local superintendent registrar within 20 working days. The law also states buildings, rooms, or other premises may be registered as meeting places for religious worship upon payment of a fee; the General Register Office for England and Wales keeps a record of the registration, and the place of worship is assigned a “worship number.” Registration is not compulsory, but it provides certain financial advantages and is also required before a place of worship may be registered as a venue for marriages. Registered places of worship are exempt from paying taxes and benefit from participating in the country’s Gift Aid program. Gift Aid allows charities to claim back the 25 percent basic rate of tax already paid on donations by the donor, boosting the value of a donation by a quarter. The law only applies in England and Wales and does not cover the Church of England or in Wales.

The law requires religious education (RE) and worship for children between the ages of three and 18 in state-run schools, with the content decided at the local level. Specialist schoolteachers, rather than religious groups, teach the syllabus. Parents may request to exempt their children from RE, and in England and Wales, students may opt out themselves at age 14, although religious worship continues until students leave school at either age 16 or 18. State schools that are not legally designated as religious require the RE curriculum to reflect “Christian values,” be nondenominational, and refrain from attempts to convert students. It must also teach the practices of other principal religions in the country. Students and teachers, unless they are employed by faith-based schools, may decline participation in collective worship, without prejudice. All schools not designated as religious, whether private or state-run, must maintain neutrality in their interpretation of the RE syllabus and must avoid presenting one faith or belief as greater than another.

State schools in England and Wales that are not legally designated as religious are required to practice daily collective prayer or worship of “a wholly or mainly…Christian character.” Schoolteachers lead these assemblies; however, parents have the legal right to request their children not participate in collective prayer or worship. The law permits sixth form students (generally 16- to 19-year-olds in the final two years of secondary school) to withdraw from worship without parental permission or action. State schools not designated as religious are free to hold other religious ceremonies as they choose.

The government requires schools to consider the practices of different religious groups when setting dress codes for students. This includes wearing or carrying specific religious artifacts, not cutting hair, dressing modestly, or covering the head. Guidance from the Department of Education requires schools to balance the rights of individual students against the best interests of the school community as a whole; it acknowledges schools could be justified in restricting individuals’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs when necessary, for example, to promote cohesion and good order.

In Scotland, only denominational (faith-based) schools practice daily collective prayer or worship; however, religious observance at least six times per year is compulsory in all Scottish schools. Religious observance is defined as “community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school’s community.” Examples of religious observance include school assemblies and events to recognize religious events, including Christmas and Easter. Parents may make the decision to opt out their children from this requirement, but children may not make this decision themselves.

In Bermuda, the law requires students attending state schools to participate in collective worship, characterized by educational officials as reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but it prohibits worship “distinctive of any particular religious group.” At the high school level, students are required to take a course that explores various religions until year 9 (ages 11-14); in years 10 and 11 (ages 15-16), courses on religion are optional.

There are two faith-based private schools in Bermuda that operate from kindergarten through high school. One follows the guidance of the North American division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The other follows principles of the Catholic Church.

The government determines whether to establish a faith-based school when there is evidence of demand, such as petitions from parents, religious groups, teachers, or other entities. If a faith-based school is not oversubscribed, then the school must offer a place to any child, but if the school is oversubscribed, it may use faith as a criterion for acceptance. Nonstate faith-based schools are eligible to claim “charitable status,” which allows for tax exemptions.

Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support, with approximately 90 percent of students attending Protestant or Catholic schools. Approximately 7 percent of school-age children attend religiously integrated schools with admissions criteria designed to enroll equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children without the intervention of the state, as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds. Students of different faiths are able to attend Protestant or Catholic schools but tend to gravitate toward the integrated schools. These integrated schools are not secular but are “essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none.” RE – a core syllabus designed by the Department of Education, Church of Ireland, and Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist Churches – is compulsory in all government-funded schools, and, “The school day shall include collective Christian worship whether in one or more than one assembly.” All schools receiving government funding must teach RE; however, students may request to opt out of the classes and collective worship. Catholic-managed schools draw uniquely on the Roman Catholic tradition for their RE, while other schools may draw on world religions.

An estimated 30 sharia councils operate parallel to the national legal system. They adjudicate Islamic religious matters, including religious divorces, which are not recognized under civil law. Participants may submit cases to the councils on a voluntary basis. The councils do not have the legal status of courts, although they have legal status as mediation and arbitration bodies. As such, rulings may not be appealed in the courts.

The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion or belief” or the “lack of religion or belief” and requires “reasonable” religious accommodation in the workplace for employees. The EHRC – a body sponsored by the Department of Education’s Government Equalities Office – is responsible for enforcing legislation prohibiting religious discrimination. The EHRC researches and conducts inquiries into religious and other discrimination in England, Scotland, and Wales. The Minister for Women and Equalities appoints the members. If the commission finds a violation, it may issue a notice to the violator and seek a court order to enforce the notice. The EHRC receives government funds but operates independently. The Northern Ireland equivalent to the EHRC is the Equality Commission.

In Northern Ireland the law bans discrimination on the grounds of religious belief in employment; however, schools may be selective on the grounds of religion when recruiting teachers. In the rest of the country, the law prohibits any discrimination, including employment discrimination, based on religious belief, unless the employer can show a genuine requirement for a particular religion.

Citing a limited broadcast spectrum, the law prohibits religious groups from holding national radio licenses, public teletext licenses, more than one television service license, and/or radio and television multiplex licenses, which would allow them to offer multiple channels as part of a single bundle of programming.

Twenty-six senior bishops of the Anglican Church sit in the House of Lords as representatives of the state Church. Known as the Lords Spiritual, they read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play a full role in the work of the upper house.

The law requires visa applicants wishing to enter the country as “ministers of religion” to have worked for at least one of the previous five years as a minister and to have at least one year of full-time experience or, if their religion requires ordination, at least two years of part-time training following their ordination. A missionary must also be trained as such or have worked previously in this role.

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

Government Practices

On March 23, Muslim and Jewish advocacy groups issued statements in response to proposed burial measures in the Emergency Coronavirus Bill ahead of its debate in the House of Commons. The draft bill allowed designated local authorities to disregard the section of public health legislation designed to “prevent a local authority from being able to cremate a body against the wishes of the deceased.” Religious groups, including the Muslim Engagement and Development advocacy group and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, strongly criticized the bill, which they said would give medical professionals the ability to override the religious beliefs of the deceased and their families in regard to the treatment of their body after death. Labour MP Naz Shah proposed an amendment to the bill intended “to ensure if local authorities reach their capacity, they do not proceed to cremate the deceased from faith backgrounds automatically” without appropriate consultation. In response, the government agreed to amend the bill to reflect Shah’s concerns, negating the need for a vote.

On January 21, the Welsh government announced that relationships, sexuality, and religion will be compulsory for all children over the age of five as part of the new “Curriculum for Wales Framework,” being developed and refined before use in schools in 2022. On March 12, Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced the establishment of a Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) working group to agree on topics to be covered by schools and to prepare detailed guidance on the proposed changes. The working group includes key stakeholders, teachers, teachers unions, and faith organizations, and is cochaired by the government and regional consortia. Religious objections include concerns that children will be taught values that contradict their parents’ beliefs or religion, such as LGBTQI+ relationships, constituting an erosion of parental rights. Expressing concerns surrounding the lack of detail on what will be in the RSE curriculum and at what age children will learn various aspects, religious groups stated that young children should be allowed a childhood free of “sexualization.” Humanists UK and the National Secular Society supported ending of the right to withdraw children from classes, in principle. They argued that religious worldviews must be taught impartially before the right to withdraw is removed.

In September, MP Rehman Chishti resigned from his position as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief, which he had held for one year. Chishti said his resignation was not related to differing views on religious freedom, but instead on his opposition to economic legislation dealing with internal markets. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce was appointed to the role in December. Bruce is also vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Groups including Humanists UK and the Council of Christians and Jews expressed concerns over Bruce’s previous support of mandatory prayer in schools and hope that the government would not pursue a Christians-only agenda.

In July, Imam Qari Asim, Deputy Chair of the government’s Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group, was appointed independent advisor to propose a working definition of Islamophobia after an existing definition came under question for potentially undermining freedom of speech. The Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group was established in 2012 to develop and implement proposals to address anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. The group is made up of representatives from Muslim communities, independent experts, academics, and a range of government departments, including the Attorney General’s Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), and the Home Office. The Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group did not agree on a working definition by year’s end. Separately, the London Metropolitan University became the first UK university to adopt the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ working definition of Islamophobia in November. The APPG’s definition states, “Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expression of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

On February 25, the All-Party Parliamentary Humanists Group (APPHG) published a report entitled “Time for Reflection: A report of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group on religion or belief in the UK Parliament.” The report called for parliamentary prayers to be replaced with a “time for reflection”; for the House of Commons Speaker to consider introducing additional forms of religious and pastoral support alongside that already provided by the Anglican chaplain; and for an end to automatic seats in the House of Lords for Anglican bishops. The report highlighted the exclusive nature of “Prayers,” a parliamentary tradition to open the day’s proceedings, which also serves as a way to obtain a seat for the day, since these are not formally reserved. The report argued that MPs who chose not to participate in the religious prayers could miss out on seats in the parliamentary chambers for key debates including during the Prime Ministers Questions and the Budget sessions. The report also revealed details of nine cases in which bishops in the House of Lords changed the outcomes of votes, including two votes that directly benefited the Church of England.

Timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque attacks, on March 15, the government’s Home Office announced that during 2019-2020, the Places of Worship Scheme provided 1.6 million pounds ($2.19 million) to fund physical security measures at 27 mosques, 13 churches, five Sikh gurdwaras, and four Hindu temples. This was the highest level of funding for the scheme since it was established in 2016. The government announced that funding for the period covering March 2020-2021 would be doubled to 3.2 million pounds ($4.37 million).

The government simultaneously launched an eight-week public consultation period, from March 15 to June 28, to improve the government’s response to religiously motivated hate crimes at places of worship. Consultation results were not published at year’s end.

On April 1, the Home Office granted the CST 14 million pounds ($19.13 million) for the Jewish Community Protective Security Grant to cover protective security at Jewish institutions, including schools and synagogues.

In 2019, the government simplified the application system for the Places of Worship security funding scheme by commissioning a central contractor to install physical security measures. Applicants were no longer required to show they had already experienced a hate crime, and became eligible to apply if they showed they were vulnerable to hate crime. Associated faith community centers were also eligible to apply. The Chair of the Anti-Muslim Hatred Working Group welcomed the developments and said, “The simplified process will hopefully make it even easier for mosques to improve their security and will go some way in building community confidence.”

In January, the Scottish government announced 500,000 pounds ($683,000) of funding for security at places of worship. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf and Communities Secretary Aileen Campbell announced the new scheme on Holocaust Memorial Day during a visit to a synagogue in Glasgow. Yousaf said the government was committed to ensuring “safety and security for our faith communities” and he hoped the “scheme will provide reassurance to all faith communities and their places of worship that hate crime and prejudice will not be tolerated.”

On January 19, the government renewed its commitment to the founding principles of the 2000 Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust (Stockholm Declaration). As part of the commemorations to mark the 20th anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration, and to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration and extermination camps, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister for Human Rights, represented the country at an International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) meeting held to adopt a renewed commitment. Lord Ahmad said, “It is important that we reaffirm our collective commitment to combatting prejudice and intolerance, and pledge to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust that they will never be forgotten.”

On January 27, to coincide with International Holocaust Memorial Day, the government announced a one-million pound ($1.37 million) grant to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation endowment fund to help preserve the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. In a statement, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “The government is supporting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation because we must never forget history’s darkest moment, and we must educate future generations so it can never be repeated.” Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said, “The UK stands shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish countrymen and women.” Separately, the City of London committed 300,000 pounds ($410,000) to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation to support the preservation of the gas chambers, crematoria, barracks, and other exhibits.

In January, the royal family and members of the cabinet marked Holocaust Remembrance Day via social media. Additionally, Prince Charles delivered a speech at the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, on January 23. At the event to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, Prince Charles warned, “Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart” and, with lessons of the Holocaust still “searingly relevant,” he called on the 40 world leaders in attendance to be “fearless in confronting falsehoods” and violence.

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust hosted a remembrance service at which Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Prince William spoke. The Prime Minister said, “I feel a deep sense of shame that here in Britain – in 2020 – we seem to be dealing with a resurgence of the virus of anti-Semitism – and I know that I carry responsibility as Prime Minister to do everything possible to stamp it out.” He also committed to constructing the National Holocaust Memorial and Education Centre, which was announced in 2015 but remains in planning stages. The Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and cities and towns across the United Kingdom also hosted Holocaust Memorial Day events, with many focusing on this year’s theme, “Stand Together,” to promote interfaith engagement.

The pastoral needs of prisoners were addressed, in part, through chaplains paid for by the Ministry of Justice, rather than by religious groups. All chaplains worked as part of a multifaith team, the size and breakdown of which was determined by the size of the prison and the religious composition of the prisoner population. Prison service regulations stated that “…chaplaincy provision must reflect the faith denomination requirements of the prison.”

The military generally provided adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith. There were approximately 240 recruited chaplains in the armed forces, all of whom were Christian. The armed forces also employed five civilian chaplains as full-time civil servants to care for Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim recruits. During the year, the Armed Forces Chaplaincy Policy Board reviewed how chaplain services were provided to minority religious groups and was considering the use of suitable chaplains in the reserve forces.

In January 2019 (the latest data available), there were 6,802 state-funded faith-based schools in England, representing 34 percent of all state-funded mainstream schools and serving approximately 1.9 million students. Church of England schools were the most common type among primary schools (26 percent); Roman Catholic schools were the most common at the secondary level (9 percent). Additionally, at the primary and secondary levels, there were 72 “other Christian,” 36 Jewish, 25 Methodist, 14 Islamic, six Sikh, five Hindu, and two multifaith state-funded faith-based schools. There were 370 government-funded denominational schools in Scotland: 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian, and one Jewish. The government classified schools with links to the Church of Scotland as nondenominational.

The Conservative Party faced allegations of anti-Muslim sentiment. In March, the MCB submitted a dossier of 150 cases to the EHRC that catalogued alleged anti-Muslim incidents attributed to members of the Conservative Party, increasing pressure on the EHRC to launch a formal investigation. The dossier was in addition to 150 cases submitted in 2019, making a total of 300 cases. The submission catalogued evidence of what the MCB stated were anti-Muslim comments and actions by hundreds of party activists, local councillors, MPs, and advisors to the Prime Minister. Examples include MP Sally Ann Hart, who in 2017 posted on Facebook a claim by an anti-Islamist activist that a women’s march had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood to promote the “Muslim agenda.” Hart publicly apologized for her comments.

In May, the EHRC dropped plans for an inquiry into “Islamophobia” in the Conservative Party after the party announced it would conduct its own review of how complaints were handled. On May 12, the party established the terms of reference for the investigation, which were formally supported by the EHRC. The party confirmed that the review would examine the “nature and extent” of complaints of anti-Muslim statements by party members since 2015 and would also consider what sanctions could be taken against members who quit the party before being investigated. Furthermore, the investigation would consider allegations of discrimination relating to all “protected characteristics” in the 2010 Equalities Act, including not only religion, but also age, race, sexual orientation, and disability.

The MCB criticized the scope of the inquiry. On May 12, MCB Secretary General Harun Khan said, “By restricting the terms to an inquiry merely into the complaints received, the party is choosing to summarily dismiss all the issues of the toxic culture of racism that have been raised by the Muslim Council of Britain.” MP Amanda Milling, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party, said that having the terms of reference agreed upon was a positive step forward. She said the party is “committed to this investigation, to ensure that any abuse that is not fit for public life is stamped out.”

In September, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Hope Not Hate political action group found that 47 percent of Conservative Party members surveyed in July believed Islam is “a threat to the British way of life.” The poll of 1,213 Conservative Party members found that more than 33 percent believed that Islamist terror attacks reflected a widespread hostility towards Britain among the Muslim community, and that 58 percent thought “there are no-go areas in Britain where Sharia Law dominates and non-Muslims cannot enter.” However, 53 percent of those asked thought it was wrong to blame all Muslims for the actions of a violent minority. Former Conservative Party Chair Baroness Warsi said, “This latest poll is further evidence that the party has a real and serious issue with racism directed at Muslims.”

Media reported in October that Rakhia Ismail, the former ceremonial mayor of the London district of Islington, resigned from the Labour Party and joined the Conservative Party, citing the anti-Muslim sentiment she experienced within Labour as her reason for leaving.

In January, all five Labour Party leadership candidates signed the “Ten Pledges to End the Anti-Semitism Crisis,” a document prepared by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The 10 pledges included an agreement to resolve outstanding cases, to reform the party disciplinary process to ensure complaints were properly handled, and to engage the British Jewish community on a way forward. The move was criticized by the left-wing paper Morning Star and far-left Labour members, who said it was wrong for an outside body to interfere in the party’s leadership election. In a parallel deputy leadership contest, two candidates – Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgnon and Shadow Equalities Minister Dawn Butler – refused to sign the declaration.

After winning the Labour Party leadership election on April 4, Sir Keir Starmer used his victory speech and his first op-ed as leader in The Sunday Times to apologize publicly to the British Jewish community concerning previous allegations of anti-Semitism on the part of Labour Party leaders and members. On April 7, both Starmer and newly elected deputy leader Angela Rayner held a virtual meeting with representatives of Jewish community organizations to discuss ways to repair the party’s relationship with the British Jewish community. In a joint statement, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the NGO CST, and Jewish Labour welcomed Starmer’s commitment, describing it as a “good start,” and praising him for achieving “in four days more than his predecessor did in four years.” Starmer also outlined a plan to rid the party of anti-Semitism and rebuild trust between Labour and the Jewish community.

In July, newly appointed Labour Party General Secretary David Evans formally apologized and settled a defamation case brought by seven whistle-blowers who appeared in a 2019 BBC Panorama documentary accusing the party of mishandling cases of anti-Semitism. The whistleblowers had previously sued the Labour Party for attempting to undermine their reputations after it released a statement referring to them as “disaffected former staff” with “personal and political axes to grind.”

In October, the EHRC completed an 18-month investigation and published its final report into complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. The report found the party had allowed “unlawful harassment,” political interference in the party’s complaints process, and a lack of education and training for staff handling the complaints process. Targeted recommendations included commissioning an independent process to handle anti-Semitism complaints; implementing clear rules and guidance to prohibit and sanction political interference in the complaints process; publishing a comprehensive policy and procedure setting out how anti-Semitism complaints will be handled; commissioning and providing education and training for all individuals involved in the anti-Semitism complaints process; and monitoring and evaluating improvements to ensure lasting change. In addition to the targeted recommendations that the EHRC has a legal mandate to enforce, the commission urged changes to both the party culture and its processes.

The EHRC report heavily criticized the former party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn and found that the party breached the Equality Act by committing “unlawful harassment” in several cases in which Labour MPs were found to have used “anti-Semitic tropes and suggesting that the complaints of anti-Semitism were fakes or smears.” A case cited in the report involved former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said “the Israel Lobby,” which aimed “to undermine Corbyn’s leadership,” was responsible for allegations of anti-Semitism against fellow Labour MP Naz Shah. Livingstone later resigned from the party. The EHRC found a further 18 “borderline cases” involving local councillors, election candidates, and branch officials. It also noted several incidents of political interference by the Leader of the Opposition’s Office in addressing complaints of anti-Semitism. The EHRC’s report provided recommendations, and the watchdog requested that the Labour Party submit an implementation plan.

During a press briefing following the release of EHRC’s report, Labour Party leader Starmer said an action plan would be submitted to the EHRC before year’s end, apologized formally to the Jewish community and Jewish Labour party members, and provided assurances that Labour accepted the report without qualification. Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn released his own statement decrying anti-Semitism, but he suggested the findings of the report were “dramatically overstated for political reasons” by opponents and media. Party leaders subsequently suspended Corbyn from the Labour Party and removed him from the Parliamentary Labour Party, forcing him to sit as an independent MP – a first for a former leader. Corbyn contested the suspension and his wider-party membership was subsequently reinstated, but he continued to sit as an independent MP at year’s end.

British Jewish organizations and some Labour figures welcomed the EHRC report, while expressing concern about existing conditions within the Labour Party. The Campaign Against Antisemitism said, “The EHRC’s report utterly vindicated Britain’s Jews, who were accused of lying and exaggerating, acting as agents of another country, and using their religion to ‘smear’ the Labour Party.” In December, Labour published the anticipated action plan for tackling anti-Semitism within its ranks. The plan was developed within six weeks of the EHRC report’s publication and sent to Parliament on December 10, after the National Executive Committee, Labour’s ruling body, unanimously agreed. The plan commits the party to establish an independent complaints process by December 10, 2021 and to deal with the backlog of existing anti-Semitism complaints. Labour also committed to establish an advisory board of Jewish members and develop educational material on anti-Semitism. The EHRC approved the plan before publication.

In January, Conservative Party Councillor in Dudley, Colin Elcock, was suspended indefinitely from the party and was removed from the Conservative Group of councillors after tweeting that Islam was “domination not integration,” and asking if people in Iran were “all on the dole.” Council leader Patrick Harley described the comments as “inappropriate” but did not rule out a return for Elcock.

Also in January, media criticized Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, for approving the publication of a cartoon in 2006 that depicted the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb under his turban on The Spectator website at a time when he had “overall responsibility” for the website. In February, Andrew Sabisky, an advisor to the Prime Minister, resigned after media uncovered a 2014 book review of Tatu Vanhanen’s Ethnic Conflicts, in which Sabisky questioned whether the growing Muslim population in the UK should be met with violent resistance.

On February 3, The Jewish Chronicle reported that a Labour member was expelled from the party for accusing television presenter Rachel Riley of “prostituting” her Jewish heritage. Bob James, from North Wales, was suspended from the party in March 2019 over a series of tweets aimed at Riley that included the claim that her campaign against anti-Semitism under Corbyn was “poisoning the memory of your ancestors.” He also tweeted, “Judaism is a religion but what Israel does in the name of God is pure Satanic.” The Jewish Chronicle commended Steve Cooke, a member of the Stockton North Labour Party and a party political education officer, for being “instrumental in demanding the party launch an investigation into Mr. James’s conduct.” According to the article, during the disciplinary process, it emerged that James had been subject to an earlier complaint over social media posts in which he said, “Israel is using the Holocaust as an excuse for murder.” A party source confirmed that James had been expelled and commented, “Under the previous administration, some complaints weren’t dealt with adequately,” and “Since Jennie Formby became General Secretary [in 2018], we’ve used a comprehensive, central complaints system.”

In late June, the Labour Party removed MP Rebecca Long-Bailey from her position as Shadow Education Secretary for tweeting her support for an interview that contained anti-Semitic rhetoric. Individuals described as party moderates praised Long-Bailey’s dismissal, but those characterized as more leftist within the party criticized the move.

In August, Care NI, a Christian charitable organization, stated that since 2015, 601 cases of criminal damage to religious buildings had occurred in Northern Ireland, one every three days. Care NI called for the Places of Worship security scheme to be introduced in Northern Ireland, the only region of the UK where it did not apply.

The Northern Ireland Humanists group continued to publicly call for the repeal of the region’s blasphemy laws, passed in 1891 and 1888. All major political parties supported repeal except for the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which stated, “Anti-discrimination and hate crime legislation did not provide adequate protection for Christians.”

During the year, the Scottish Parliament agreed to support the principles of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, and the legislature’s Justice Committee was scrutinizing and amending the legislation at year’s end. The bill would repeal Scotland’s blasphemy laws. However, the National Secular Society warned that the replacement legislation risked creating a more wide-ranging definition of blasphemy, describing the bill as a “de facto clampdown on freedom of expression.”

In June, Northern Ireland Justice Minister Naomi Long announced that new hate crime legislation, including measures covering hate crimes based on religion, would not be brought forward for at least two years. An independent review into hate crime legislation, including religious hate crime, concluded in November, with 34 recommendations made to improve support for victims, widen the range of protections, as well as opportunities for restorative justice. Northern Ireland Justice Minister Long welcomed the review report, stating the recommendations will help to strengthen and update Northern Ireland’s hate crime legislation.

In July, the Christian Institute, a nondenominational Christian charity dedicated to the “furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom,” criticized the hate crime legislation review and said the report would propose extending the definition of hate crime to apply to religious practitioners opposed to same-sex marriage ceremonies. In September, the Northern Ireland Office confirmed that legislation passed in July providing for religious same-sex marriages also included equality law protections, which shield religious bodies and officiants from charges of discrimination against same-sex couples should they refuse to officiate.

In July, the legal regulations required to hold the next census in England and Wales on March 21, 2021 were passed into law. Humanists UK raised concerns, arguing that “What is your religion?” is a leading question, as it presumes respondents have, or should have, a religion. Humanist UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Public Policy Richy Thompson said, “We are hugely disappointed that the ONS [Office for National Statistics], despite its own admission that the Census religion question is leading, has chosen to continue with it for the 2021 Census.” He said “Census data is used across the country to determine religion or belief provision in public services; from school places, to hospital services, to the provision of public services.” Humanists UK conducted a public outreach campaign to ensure that individuals identifying as nonreligious understood they should mark the “no religion” box when responding.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate staff engaged with government officials, political parties, and religious groups to advance religious freedom issues, with a strong emphasis on digital engagement and use of social media, in response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. In June, the Ambassador spoke with Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer to discuss the party’s plan to confront anti-Semitism. Throughout the year, embassy officials met counterparts from the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office; the Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, Lord Sir Eric Pickles; the government’s Independent Special Advisor on Anti-Semitism, Lord Mann; and the Honorary President of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Lord Polak, in addition to Members of Parliament and advisors.

Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from a wide variety of religious groups and initiated engagement with organizations such as Humanists UK in an effort to broaden understanding of and messaging on freedom of religion and belief.

Staff from the consulate general in Belfast maintained regular contact with a wide range of religious leaders in Northern Ireland, conducting regular visits to diverse places of worship, as well as convening formal and informal gatherings to discuss religious freedom, tolerance, and the shared societal challenges faced by their communities.

On January 27, a senior embassy official represented the United States at the UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony, held to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The official met with current and past Trustees of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. The Ambassador also used social media to mark the date.

In April, the Ambassador had a telephone conversation with Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogues, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to pass on his best wishes for Passover and to show support for local Jewish communities during the difficult time of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, the Ambassador called Ahmad al-Dubayan, Director General of the London Central Mosque, to commemorate Ramadan, discuss how the local Muslim community was coping with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, and to underline the U.S. commitment to promoting religious freedom.

In June, the Ambassador hosted a virtual meeting with representatives of Jewish community organizations to discuss the Labour Party’s plan to confront the issue of anti-Semitism within the party.

In May, the Ambassador and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom gave remarks during a virtual iftar co-hosted by the Naz Legacy Foundation as part of its #RamadanAtHome series, the largest virtual iftar series in the UK. Other speakers included prominent faith leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic communities, as well as the Church of England. Approximately 19,000 viewers viewed the Ambassador’s remarks on the importance of promoting international religious freedom on platforms including Zoom, Facebook, and British Muslim TV. Aggregate audience figures for #RamadanAtHome totaled 76,700 livestream viewers, and globally more than 300,000 watched highlight videos on social media.

In December, a senior embassy official delivered remarks at a virtual Diwali celebration convened by the Hindu Forum of Europe. He said that despite “being faced with the difficulties of COVID-19, we saw people across our communities roll up their sleeves and get to work…to find new ways to celebrate.” The senior embassy official said that the continuation of celebrations this year was a powerful reflection of the real spirit of Diwali, the spirit that light triumphs over darkness, and that such celebrations are “a reminder for all faiths – and none – that even during the darkest times, we will continue to find light and hope and joy in each other.” The senior official also conducted a virtual candle lighting. The event included remarks from interfaith and secular leaders from across Europe. To mark National Religious Freedom Day, the Ambassador tweeted a quote from the President. The consulate general in Belfast hosted an interfaith dialogue on January 16. The event convened a diverse group of Northern Ireland’s religious leadership representing the region’s Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, and Islamic communities to discuss shared concerns. Participants welcomed the U.S. initiative fostering interfaith dialogue.

To mark International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy created and tweeted a video highlighting the U.S. commitment to the promotion of religious freedom. The video included remarks made by the President and the Secretary of State. The video was viewed 3,285 times and was displayed on social media feeds more than 20,493 times.

West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: West Bank And Gaza

Israel

Executive Summary

West Bank and Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of separate authorities, with different implications on the fabric of life. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, Palestinian Authority (PA) law. Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander and Israeli law and Israeli legislation. The PA exercises varying degrees of authority in the small portions of the West Bank where it has some measure of control. Although PA laws theoretically apply in the Gaza Strip, the PA does not have authority there, and Hamas continues to exercise de facto control over security and other matters. The PA Basic Law, which serves as an interim constitution, establishes Islam as the official religion and states the principles of sharia shall be the main source of legislation, but provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It also proscribes discrimination based on religion, calls for respect of “all other divine religions,” and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. On December 4, Israeli security forces arrested Muayad al-Alfi in Nablus in suspicion of aiding in the 2009 killing of Rabbi Meir Chai near the settlement of Shavei Shomron. On May 18, an Israeli court found Israeli Jewish settler Amiram Ben Uliel guilty of murder, attempted murder, arson, and “conspiracy to commit a crime motivated by racism” in the 2015 deaths of three members of the Dawabsheh family. On February 17, Israeli police arrested a Palestinian man who attempted to stab a Border Police officer at a security checkpoint for the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites in Jerusalem, including the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign,” after the dawn prayers. Islamic organizations, including Hamas, called on worshippers to gather for Friday fajr prayers starting in January at the site and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank to defend them against Israeli “violations.” On July 2, the Jerusalem Police informed the Waqf that they had petitioned the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court requesting the closure of the Gate of Mercy, a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, explaining that the move was necessary because of evidence that the building had been used in 2003 by an organization affiliated with Hamas. According to press reports, the Samaria Regional Council (which provides municipal services for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank), in coordination with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), including the Ministry of Defense’s coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT), organized monthly visits to the site of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus. Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited, throwing rocks and bottles at IDF personnel providing security, who responded by firing tear gas and rubber bullets. On November 20, Israeli security forces detained a Palestinian resident of the occupied West Bank suspected of planting an explosive device at Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem. In April, the Israeli government approved a 2019 decision by former Israeli Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett to bypass the Hebron Municipality and expropriate land at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs. Press reports stated that the land expropriated for the project was owned by the PA’s Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) and Religious Affairs. In May, Hifthi Abu Sneineh, the mosque’s imam, condemned the decision and said it was a “blatant and serious” violation of the Hebron protocol of the Oslo Accords. Some official PA media channels, as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling Fatah political movement, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence, at times referring to assailants as “martyrs.” Senior Fatah and PA official Jibril Rajoub made several public remarks during the year extolling martyrs and prisoners in Israeli prisons convicted of terrorism. Anti-Semitic content also appeared in Fatah and PA-controlled media. In an August 15 interview on Palestine TV, Mahmoud al-Habash, religious advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, when asked about some Arab governments’ recognition of Israel, said, “It is normalizing relations with those who murdered your father and brothers. It is normalizing relations with the enemies of the Prophet Mohammed, who want to [build] a temple at the destination of Mohammed’s Night Journey [referring to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount].” The PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed while engaged in violence, including killings of Israeli Jews, and also continued to provide separate stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those convicted of acts of terrorism involving Jewish targets. In September, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) IMPACT-se said that its annual review of Palestinian education found that extreme nationalism and Islamist ideologies remained widespread throughout the curriculum, including science and mathematics textbooks. Norway reduced funding to the Palestinian Ministry of Education due to incitement to violence and anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks. Following the announcement of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab countries, Muslims and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem sometimes harassed Muslim visitors from the Gulf who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in coordination with the Israeli government or vilified the visitors on social media. The PA-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who has no authority over the site) issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf), which administers the site, rejected it, stating that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf.

Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization with de facto control of Gaza, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other extremist groups disseminated anti-Semitic materials and advocated violence through traditional and social media channels as well as during rallies and other events. Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia.

According to local press and social media, some settlers in the West Bank continued to justify “price tag” attacks on Palestinian property, such as the uprooting of Palestinian olive trees, vandalism of cars and buildings, arson, and slashing of tires as necessary for the defense of Judaism. (“Price tag” attacks refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against individuals, particularly Palestinians and Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel, and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government contrary to the attackers’ interests.) According to media reports, on July 27, arsonists set fire to the Bir wal-Ihsan Mosque in al-Bireh City in a suspected price tag attack. The arsonists spray-painted graffiti on the walls of the mosque; Reuters said that the graffiti was a reference to “a biblical, historical, and political claim that includes the West Bank.” On February 22, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem issued a statement that, according to press reports, “condemned” the February 21 gathering of thousands of Israeli settlers on land owned by the Patriarchate in Tayasir in the northern Jordan River Valley. Various Israeli and Palestinian groups continued to protest against interfaith social and romantic relationships and other forms of cooperation.

Senior U.S. officials worked for increased normalization between Israel and predominantly Muslim countries, which would improve access for Muslim worshippers to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Senior U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about anti-Semitism by PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year. Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence. U.S. embassy officials met with Palestinian religious leaders to discuss religious tolerance and a broad range of issues affecting Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities. They met with political, religious, and civil society leaders to promote interreligious tolerance and cooperation. U.S. representatives met with representatives of religious groups to monitor their concerns about access to religious sites, respect for clergy, and attacks on religious sites and houses of worship and also met with local Christian leaders to discuss their concerns about ongoing Christian emigration from Jerusalem and the West Bank.

This section of the report covers the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem territories that Israel occupied during the June 1967 war. In 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Language in this report is not meant to convey a position on any final status issues to be negotiated between the parties to the conflict, including the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem or the borders between Israel and any future Palestinian state.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total Palestinian population at 2.9 million in the West Bank and 1.9 million in the Gaza Strip (midyear 2020 estimates). According to the U.S. government and other sources, Palestinian residents of these territories are predominantly Sunni Muslims, with small Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities. The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics reports an estimated 441,600 Jewish Israelis reside in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. According to various estimates, 50,000 Christian Palestinians reside in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and according to media reports and religious communities, there are at most 1,000 Christians residing in Gaza. According to local Christian leaders, Palestinian Christian emigration has continued at rapid rates. A majority of Christians are Greek Orthodox; the remainder includes Roman Catholics, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Maronites, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, other Protestant denominations, including evangelical Christians, and small numbers of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christians are concentrated primarily in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus; smaller communities exist elsewhere. Approximately 360 Samaritans (practitioners of Samaritanism, which is related to but distinct from Judaism) reside in the West Bank, primarily in the Nablus area.

The Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics estimates 563,200 Jews, 345,800 Muslims, and 12,850 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 936,400, as of 2019.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

West Bank and Gaza Strip residents are subject to the jurisdiction of different authorities. Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to Jordanian and Mandatory statutes in effect before 1967, military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander in the West Bank in accordance with its authorities under international law, and in the relevant areas, PA law. Israelis living in the West Bank are subject to military ordinances enacted by the Israeli military commander and Israeli law and legislation. West Bank Palestinian population centers mostly fall into Area A, as defined by the Oslo-era agreements. The PA has formal responsibility for security in Area A, but Israeli security forces frequently conduct security operations there. The PA and Israel maintain joint security control of Area B in the West Bank. Israel retains full security control of Area C (which constitutes approximately 60 percent of the West Bank) and has designated most Area C land as either closed military zones or settlement zoning areas.

Palestinians living in the portion of the occupied West Bank designated as Area C in the Oslo II Accord are subject to military ordinances enacted by the military commander. Palestinians who live in Area B fall under PA civil and criminal law, while Israel retains the overriding responsibility for security. Although per the Oslo II Accord, only PA civil and security law applies to Palestinians living in Area A of the West Bank, Israel applies military ordinances enacted by its military commander whenever the Israeli military enters Area A as part of its overriding responsibility for security. The city of Hebron in the West Bank – an important city for Jews, Muslims, and Christians as the site of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs – is divided into two separate areas: area H1 under PA control and area H2, where approximately 800 Israeli settlers live and where internal security, public order, and civil authorities relating to Israelis and their property are under Israeli military control.

The Oslo Accords stipulate that protection of 12 listed Jewish holy sites and visitors in Area A is the responsibility of Palestinian police and created a joint security coordination mechanism to ensure “free, unimpeded and secure access to the relevant Jewish holy site” and “the peaceful use of such site, to prevent any potential instances of disorder and to respond to any incident.” Both sides agreed to “respect and protect the listed below religious rights of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Samaritans” including “protection of the Holy Sites; free access to the Holy Sites; and freedom of worship and practice.”

Israeli government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The Israeli Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled since 1993 that Jews have the right to pray on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, but police may restrict this right in the name of public order and safety. The court reiterated in 2019 that its precedent on this issue is nonintervention in government decisions, “except in highly unusual cases when the decision constitutes a major distortion of justice or is extremely unreasonable.” The court upheld this position again in a decision on May 19.

The Israeli “Nakba Law” prohibits institutions that receive Israeli government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

In 2007, Hamas staged a violent takeover of PA government installations in the Gaza Strip and has since maintained a de facto government in the territory, although the area nominally falls under PA jurisdiction.

An interim Basic Law applies in the areas under PA jurisdiction. The Basic Law states Islam is the official religion but calls for respect of “all other divine religions.” It provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites unless they violate public order or morality. It criminalizes the publishing of writings, pictures, drawings, or symbols of anything that insults the religious feelings or beliefs of other persons. The Basic Law also proscribes discrimination based on religion and stipulates all citizens are equal before the law. The law states the principles of sharia shall be the main sources of legislation. It contains language adopted from the pre-1967 criminal code of Jordanian rule that criminalizes “defaming religion,” with a maximum penalty of life in prison. Since 2007, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council, controlled by Hamas, has not convened. The Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian Legislative Council in December 2018 and called for new elections. The President of the PA promulgates executive decrees that have legal authority.

There is no specified process by which religious organizations gain official recognition; each religious group must negotiate its own bilateral relationship with the PA. The PA observes 19th century status quo arrangements reached with Ottoman authorities, which recognize the presence and rights of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenian Catholic Churches. The PA also observes subsequent agreements that recognize the rights of the Episcopal (Anglican) Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Council of Local Evangelical Churches (a coalition of evangelical Protestant churches present in the West Bank and Gaza). The PA recognizes the legal authority of these religious groups to adjudicate personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance. Recognized religious groups may establish ecclesiastical courts to issue legally binding rulings on personal status and some property matters for members of their religious communities. The PA Ministry of Religious Affairs is administratively responsible for these family law issues.

Islamic or Christian religious courts handle legal matters relating to personal status, including inheritance, marriage, dowry, divorce, and child support. For Muslims, sharia determines personal status law, while various ecclesiastical courts rule on personal status matters for Christians. By law, members of one religious group may submit a personal status dispute to a different religious group for adjudication if the disputants agree it is appropriate to do so.

The PA maintains some unwritten understandings with churches that are not officially recognized, based on the basic principles of the status quo agreements, including with the Assemblies of God, Nazarene Church, and some evangelical Christian churches, which may operate freely. Some of these groups may perform some official functions, such as issuing marriage licenses. Churches not recognized by the PA generally must obtain special one-time permission from the PA to perform marriages or adjudicate personal status matters if these groups want the actions to be recognized by and registered with the PA. These churches may not proselytize.

By law, the PA provides financial support to Islamic institutions and places of worship. A PA religious committee also provides some financial support for Christian cultural activities.

The Israeli government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. For Jewish children, there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Minor children have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference. By law, Israel provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semiprivate) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Palestinian residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Some Israeli-funded public schools in Jerusalem use the PA curriculum.

Religious education is part of the curriculum for students in grades one through six in public schools the PA operates as well as some Palestinian schools in Jerusalem that use the PA curriculum. There are separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses. Recognized churches operate private schools in the West Bank, which include religious instruction. Private Islamic schools also operate in the West Bank.

Palestinian law provides that in the defunct Palestinian Legislative Council, six seats be allocated to Christian candidates, who also have the right to contest other seats. There are no seats reserved for members of any other religious group. A 2017 presidential decree requires that Christians head nine municipal councils in the West Bank (including Ramallah, Bethlehem, Birzeit, and Beit Jala) and establishes a Christian quota for the same, plus one additional municipal council.

PA land laws prohibit Palestinians from selling Palestinian-owned lands to “any man or judicial body corporation of Israeli citizenship, living in Israel or acting on its behalf.” While Israeli law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority, which administers the 93 percent of Israeli land in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return.

Although the PA removed the religious affiliation category from Palestinian identity cards issued in 2014, older identity cards continue to circulate, listing the holder as either Muslim or Christian.

The Israeli Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the Ministry of Interior makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Jordanian Waqf administers Islamic courts in Jerusalem for Muslim residents, with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in Jordan having appellate authority.

There is no Israeli legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the Israeli Minister of Labor and Welfare to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.

Israeli law states public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

Government Practices

Because religion and ethnicity or nationality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to the Jerusalem Post, on December 4, Israeli security forces arrested Muayad al-Alfi in Nablus on suspicion of aiding in the 2009 killing of Rabbi Meir Chai near the settlement of Shavei Shomron.

On May 31, the Times of Israel reported that Israeli military prosecutors had charged Salah Hammad, a Palestinian security officer, with the killing of Ben-Joseph Livnat, an Israeli, and the injuring of three others in 2011 when he and two other officers opened fire on the Israelis’ car after the men had visited Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus without permission. Israeli military courts previously found other members of the Palestinian patrol guilty and sentenced them to prison terms.

On May 18, a court in Lod found Israeli Jewish settler Amiram Ben Uliel guilty of murder, attempted murder, arson, and “conspiracy to commit a crime motivated by racism” in the 2015 deaths of a Palestinian couple, Saad and Riham Dawabshe, and their 18-month-old son Ali in an arson attack. The prosecution said Ben-Uliel had spray-painted the words “revenge” and “long live the Messiah” at the site before committing the attack. A 19-year-old man arrested as a juvenile with Ben Uliel pleaded guilty in 2018 to his role as an accessory and entered prison in December to begin serving the remaining 10 months of a three-and-a-half-year sentence, with credit for previous time served under house arrest. On September 14, the court sentenced Ben Uliel to three life sentences plus 20 years. Ben Uliel’s attorney said he planned an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court. According to press reports, a crowd-sourced funding campaign endorsed by a number of rabbis began raising money for his defense team to challenge the convictions.

On February 17, Israeli police arrested a Palestinian man who attempted to stab a Border Police officer at a security checkpoint for the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Israeli police and the IDF reported investigating other instances of religiously motivated attacks and subsequent arrests. In general, however, NGOs, religious institutions, and media continued to state that arrests in religiously motivated crimes against Palestinians rarely led to indictments and convictions. Palestinians stated that they faced procedural difficulties in filing complaints with Israeli police, who are located at stations within settlements or at military-run liaison offices outside those settlements. Data from the NGO Tag Meir, which tracks hate crimes, and media reports indicated in recent years Israeli authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites.

The Israeli government stated that authorities maintained a zero-tolerance policy against what it described as “Israeli extremists’ attacks” on Palestinians and made efforts to enhance law enforcement in the West Bank, including through task forces, increased funding, and hiring additional staff members. The Israeli government said that there were “numerous investigations” of ideologically motivated criminal incidents in 2020.

In a fact sheet that it released in January, the Israeli NGO Yesh Din stated, “After 15 years of monitoring Israeli law enforcement authorities in their handling of complaints filed by Palestinian victims of ideological crimes committed by Israelis, the picture that emerges demonstrates that the State of Israel is failing in its duty to protect Palestinians in the occupied territories from those who would harm them and, in fact, leaves them defenseless as they face assault and harassment.” According to Yesh Din statistics, Israeli police failed in the investigation of 82 percent of the files opened between 2005 and 2019 and 91 percent of all investigation files were closed without an indictment.

Attacks by Israeli citizens, some of whom asserted their right to settle in what they stated is the historic Jewish homeland of Judea and Samaria in the West Bank, continued, as well as Palestinian attacks on settlers. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported 772 attacks by Israeli settlers and other Israeli civilians against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem during the year, with 168 Palestinians injured. This compared with 819 attacks and 140 Palestinians injured, respectively, in 2019. UNOCHA updated its metrics to incorporate more information from civil society about violence against Israelis. During the year, “in the context of the occupation and conflict,” UNOCHA estimated that there were 24 Palestinian fatalities and 2,694 Palestinians injured and three Israeli fatalities and 40 Israelis injured in West Bank violence, including in East Jerusalem. The Israeli government said that UNOCHA did not provide information about actions by Hamas in its public statistics and did not fully cover attacks targeting Israelis.

The Israeli government said that the Israeli intelligence community foiled “423 major terrorist attacks” against Israeli civilians (primarily targeting the majority Jewish Israeli civilians), of which 417 were planned by Palestinians from the West Bank and six by Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Of these, 70 percent were organized by Hamas, while “independent terrorists” organized the remaining attacks. The nongovernmental Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center said 40 significant terrorist attacks occurred in the West Bank, an increase from 34 in 2019 after five consecutive years of decline. Meir Amit assessed that the West Bank remained relatively quiet due to efforts of Israeli security forces and limited motivation by the general Palestinian population in the West Bank to carry out terrorist attacks. Meir Amit also reported that the Israel Security Agency prevented 430 “significant terrorist attacks” in the West Bank and Jerusalem, down from 654 in 2019.

On October 20, the trial of an Israeli Jewish minor, accused in the 2018 killing of a Palestinian woman, Aysha al-Rabi, a resident of Bidya village, began at the Central District Court in Lod. Prosecutors accused the minor, then 17, of throwing a two-kilogram (4.4 pound) stone through al-Rabi’s windshield “with the intent of using it to harm Arab passengers out of an ideological motive of racism and hostility toward Arabs.” In 2019, authorities arrested and later released four other suspects who, like the defendant, were yeshiva students from the settlement of Rehelim. According to press reporting, the prosecution linked the defendant’s DNA to the stone that caused al-Rabi’s death and also linked him to Kahanism, which Haaretz described as a “far-right anti-Arab ideology inspired by Rabbi Meir Kahane.” In January, authorities acknowledged that the stone throwing that killed al-Rabi, a mother of eight, was a terror attack but declined to recognize her as a victim of terrorism. Press reports said that authorities said the decision was reached because al-Rabi was not an Israeli citizen and the killing occurred outside Israel’s recognized borders. At year’s end, the trial was continuing, and the accused remained under supervised house arrest.

The government of Israel continued to discourage Israeli citizens in unofficial capacities from traveling to the parts of the West Bank under the civil and security control of the PA (Area A), with large road signs warning Israelis against entering these areas and stating it was dangerous for Israelis and against Israeli law to do so. Significant numbers of Arab Israelis, and some Jewish and other Israelis, chose to privately visit Area A without repercussions, according to media and individuals who visited. Media reported that, while these restrictions in general prevented Jewish Israelis from visiting numerous Jewish religious sites, the IDF provided special security escorts for Jews to visit religious sites in Area A under Palestinian control, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, a site of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and the Shalom al Israel Synagogue in Jericho. Some Jewish religious leaders said the Israeli government policy limiting travel to parts of the West Bank prevented Jewish Israelis from freely visiting several religious sites in the West Bank including Joseph’s Tomb, because they were denied the opportunity to visit the site on unscheduled occasions or in larger numbers than permitted through IDF coordination. IDF officials said requirements to coordinate Jewish visits to Joseph’s Tomb were necessary to ensure Jewish Israelis’ safety. The Israeli government said that Jewish worshippers could only visit Areas A and B of the West Bank with the protection of the IDF and that the PA was not fulfilling its commitments to ensure freedom of religion for Jewish worshippers in these areas under the Oslo Accords. Palestinian and Israeli security forces coordinated some visits by Jewish groups to PA-controlled areas within the West Bank, which generally took place at night to limit the chance of confrontations with Palestinians who opposed the visit. The PA suspended security coordination with Israel in May and resumed coordination in late November. Israeli authorities stopped informing Palestinian authorities of these visits during the PA’s suspension of coordination and continued to provide security escorts to Jewish sites in PA-controlled territory, with some clashes occurring between Israeli security forces and Palestinians.

Palestinians at times violently protested when Jewish groups visited holy sites in areas under Palestinian control, where freedom of access was guaranteed by the PA in the Oslo Accords in the West Bank, particularly Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus (located in Area A). According to press, the Samaria Regional Council (which provides municipal services for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank), in coordination with the IDF, organized monthly visits to the site. On February 25, Israeli authorities neutralized an explosive device planted near Joseph’s Tomb prior to the arrival of 2,000 Jewish worshippers. Palestinian protestors also clashed with IDF personnel providing security for the visit, throwing rocks at the IDF soldiers, who fired rubber bullets and used tear gas in response. Although routine visits paused after February 25 due to the COVID-19 outbreak, approximately 150 Jewish worshippers prayed at the tomb on June 3. According to the Times of Israel, due to the suspension of security cooperation between the Government of Israel and the PA, Palestinian security personnel withdrew from the site prior to the Israeli group’s arrival but returned after the pilgrims departed, when, according to press reports, they prevented an attempted arson attack on the site by Palestinian protestors. The Israeli government said Palestinian Civil Police protected the site throughout the year, except during visits organized by the IDF, and prevented more than one attack on the site by Palestinians.

Approximately 2,500 pilgrims visited the site on June 22 on the anniversary of Joseph’s death. Haaretz stated that this visit to the shrine was “essentially a political event” because worshippers said they would be praying for the success of plans announced by the government to annex parts of the West Bank. Media reported that Palestinians threw stones at IDF military escorts during the visit and that the IDF used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Press reports stated that an unspecified number of protestors were injured in the incident.

On December 3, as the IDF secured a route for buses carrying Jewish worshippers, Palestinians gathered, throwing stones and setting fire to tires. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets in response. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, located in Gaza City, stated that two Palestinians were injured in the encounter. On December 30, the Palestinian news agency WAFA reported that, after protestors attempted to block Jewish worshippers from entering the shrine, the IDF used rubber bullets and tear gas, resulting in nine Palestinians requiring medical attention. The Israeli government said the IDF facilitated six visits to the site during the year, with “terrorists” attacking the worshippers and IDF with stones and Molotov cocktails each time.

On November 20, Israeli security forces detained a Palestinian resident of the West Bank suspected of planting an explosive device at Rachel’s Tomb, a Bethlehem shrine of religious significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims under Israeli jurisdiction in Area C. Israeli security forces shot and injured an individual in August suspected of attempting to throw a firebomb at the site. The shrine remained separated from the West Bank by a barrier built during the 2000-2005 Second Intifada, and Palestinians were able to access it only if permitted by Israeli authorities. Residents and citizens of Israel continued to have relatively unimpeded access. Israeli police closed the site to all visitors on Saturdays for the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat).

The Israeli government continued to allow controlled access to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with only Muslims permitted to engage in religious worship there. The Israeli government stated it understood the post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount to allow non-Muslim visitors but prohibit non-Islamic worship on the compound, while Israel respected Jordan’s “special role” at the site, as reflected in the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty. Muslim representatives stated that they generally had a different understanding of the status quo and that the Waqf should have full autonomy in administering the site (reflecting wide Palestinian and Muslim rejection of Israeli authority or sovereignty at the site) and that only Muslim worshippers were entitled to unrestricted access to the site.

In January, worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and mosques in Gaza and the occupied West Bank engaged in a protest campaign called “The Great Fajr [Dawn] Campaign,” after the dawn prayers. Hamas and other Islamic organizations had called on worshippers to gather for Friday Fajr prayers starting in January at the site and at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank to defend them against “violations” by Israeli Jews. Media reported on January 17 that police dispersed protestors at the site after Friday dawn prayers. Press reports said that Palestinian demonstrators chanted slogans recalling the Muslim massacre of Jews at the Battle of Khaybar, near Medina, in the seventh century. Police broke up the impromptu demonstration without incident. Clashes between police and demonstrators occurred at other times near the site in January and February. Press reported that at least 10 Palestinian Muslims were injured by rubber bullets fired by police on January 31 and that police turned away “hundreds” of worshippers from the site on February 7.

The Jordanian Waqf in Jerusalem administered the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The issue of the use of the Gate of Mercy (Bab al-Rahma), a building within the Haram al-Sharif/Temple that was reopened by the Waqf in 2019 after it had been closed since 2003, remained unresolved. The Israeli government stated it regarded the reopening as a violation of the status quo.

On July 12, an Israeli court asked the Waqf to provide its views within 60 days regarding the closure of the Bab al-Rahma site after the Israeli police requested the court on July 2 to extend the current court-ordered closure and stated the building, if open, would be used by Hamas, according to media. Police also asked the Waqf to close the building permanently. In response, the Waqf said it did not recognize the authority of Israeli courts over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. Throughout the year, Muslim worshippers could generally enter the site, although Israeli police regularly conducted security searches there.

Israeli media reported that Israeli security forces arrested six Muslim worshippers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on January 7 for “shouting nationalist rhetoric.” Video of the incident showed police kicking one of those arrested. Police and the Waqf reached agreement to close the site from March 22 to May 31 to both Muslim and non-Muslim visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Waqf said it sought to close the site on one other occasion but kept it open because Israeli authorities did not agree to simultaneously close it to non-Muslim visitors. The Israeli government stated that the public regulations in place at that time did not mandate closure of the site. Israeli government authorities closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, other houses of worship, and holy sites for Passover, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter holidays, as well as for the Ramadan and Lenten seasons, due to the pandemic. Christian leaders stated that they were frustrated when Israel restricted indoor gatherings, including religious services, to 10 persons, saying that the cap was based on the number of men required for a minyan (a Jewish prayer quorum) and did not allow for greater numbers by taking into account the size of religious buildings and ability to socially distance safely. Israeli authorities made exceptions to health restrictions for Easter and Christmas services, allowing greater but still limited public attendance.

Israeli government restrictions on gatherings for prayer varied from March through December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During a nationwide lockdown in the spring, no gatherings were allowed, including for prayer; at other times, prayer gatherings of 10 to 20 persons were allowed, including in roped-off groups at the Western Wall. Guidelines at other periods were more lenient.

Israeli authorities briefly closed the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount on January 29 after two Palestinians were arrested for attempting to carry out a stabbing attack against police.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the only restrictions imposed by Israel during the year were due to COVID-19.

On September 6, an association of Muslim leaders in Jerusalem issued a statement accusing police and authorities of violating the sanctity of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount by erecting ladders and installing loudspeakers at the entrance to the Lions Gate. The Waqf posted photos showing police and other staff mounting the roof and installing the equipment. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the speakers were installed outside the compound and were for the safety of individuals visiting the site.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site or incited others to violence, and public figures whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. Banned individuals included Waqf guards and administrative and maintenance staff and imams delivering sermons at the site. The Wadi Hilweh Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 46 Waqf staff during the year. The government stated that police banned individuals from accessing the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. The government said that these bans were authorized according to procedures by police officials and courts and targeted both Jews and Muslims who “called for violence and disrupted the peace” at the site. According to the government, 225 individuals, including Jews and Muslims, were banned from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for different time periods. The Wadi Hilweh Information Center reported that Israeli authorities banned 315 individuals from the site during the year.

While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians resident in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, and Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel from the site. Palestinian civil society organizations said that starting in November, police checked the identification of individuals entering the Old City to visit the site for Friday prayers and would bar from entry persons with West Bank identification cards and return them to the West Bank.

Media reported that Israeli authorities barred a number of prominent Muslims from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for periods of time, including for six months, including Radwan Amr, director of the manuscripts department at al-Aqsa Mosque, and Sheikh Issam Amireh, a senior leader of the Hizb al-Tahrir political party, after he called the beheading of a teacher by a Muslim terrorist in France a “great honor for all Muslims” during a sermon at the site. On January 18, the Israeli police barred Ekrima Sabri, the imam of the al-Aqsa Mosque, head of the private Islamic Higher Committee in Jerusalem and the former Palestinian Grand Mufti, from the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for a period of four months, after accusing him of incitement in a January 17 sermon. On May 29, authorities detained him again and later informed him that he would not be allowed to visit the site for an additional four months. On October 28, police raided the office of the deputy director of the Waqf, Najeh Bkirat, in the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and told him to report to the intelligence services in seven days, when he was told that he would be banned from entering the site for six months. According to media, he was banned for “incitement” against the normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries and visitors from those countries to the site, as well as possible linkages to Hamas. Later, on November 26, authorities presented him with an order that he would not be allowed in the site for three months. Bkirat told the International Middle East Media Center in November that since 2003, police had banned him from the site 21 times for a period of more than seven years, adding, “In 2019, I was admitted into the mosque only for one week.”

Human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted some Muslims based on gender and age from entering the site. Israeli authorities have not issued permits for Gazans to visit the site during Islamic holidays since 2017, when it issued several hundred permits for Gazans during Ramadan, according to UN reports. Muslims who are Israeli citizens, Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, or foreigners already present in Israel do not need permits to visit the site.

The Waqf also said that Israeli authorities interfered in the administration of the site by the Waqf, including maintenance and restoration work there. Israeli officials and activists stated the Waqf sometimes attempted to conduct repairs without coordinating with Israeli authorities. For example, pictures on the Waqf’s Facebook page showed their personnel digging at the site on March 31, while the site was closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the police banning of individual Waqf staff members, the Waqf said that it had a reduced capacity to administer the site because Israeli authorities refused to grant permits to new staff hired to work at the site, leaving the Waqf seriously understaffed.

The IDF continued occasionally to limit access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another site of significance to Jews, Christians, and Muslims as the tomb of Abraham. Palestinian leaders continued in statements to local media to oppose the IDF’s control of access, citing Oslo-era agreements that gave Israel and the PA shared responsibilities for the site, although Israel retained full security responsibility for it while the Oslo Accords and 1997 Hebron Accords gave “civil powers and responsibilities” including “planning authority” for the site to the Hebron municipality. Some Muslim leaders publicly rejected a Jewish connection to the site.

The IDF again restricted Muslim access to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs during the 10 days corresponding to Jewish holidays and Jewish access during the 10 days corresponding to Islamic holidays. The IDF restricted Muslims to one entry point, which was manned by soldiers with metal detectors, while granting Jews access via several entry points. Citing security concerns, the IDF periodically closed roads approaching the site and since 2001 has permanently closed Shuhada Street, the former main Hebron market and one of the main streets leading to the holy site, to Palestinian-owned vehicles. The government said the closure was done to prevent confrontations. Both Muslims and Jews were able to pray at the site simultaneously in separate spaces, a physical separation that was instituted by the IDF in November 1994 following an attack earlier in the year by an Israeli that killed 29 Palestinians. Israeli authorities continued to implement frequent bans on the Islamic call to prayer from the Ibrahimi Mosque, stating the government acted upon requests by Jewish religious leaders in Hebron in response to requests of Jewish worshippers at the site. The news website al-Monitor reported that Israeli authorities banned calls to prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque 56 times during the month of April; Passover was celebrated from April 8 to 16.

On March 31, the PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs issued a statement condemning the IDF for preventing mosque attendants and guards from entering the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron due to COVID-19 restrictions and limiting access to only one person to perform the call for prayer. On May 26, according to media reports, the IDF dispersed hundreds of Muslim worshippers who had arrived at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron to perform prayers. Media reported the IDF allowed only 50 persons to pray inside the mosque and another 100 worshippers to pray in its courtyard, per Israeli restrictions to control the COVID-19 outbreak. The Palestinian Authority had reopened mosques to the general public as of May 26.

On July 31, Hebron mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh said the IDF banned the entry to the Ibrahimi Mosque of thousands of Muslim worshippers trying to perform Eid al-Adha prayers and allowed only 35 individuals to attend the Eid prayers and sermon. The Israeli government said it managed access to the site in accordance with the status quo and based on the principle of religious freedom and in coordination with the Hebron municipality and PA Waqf managing the site. According to the Israeli government, Israeli authorities and the Waqf coordinated access during the Eid to allow 850 Muslim worshippers to enter the site in small groups, in accordance with the COVID-19 restrictions in place during the Eid, which limited access for both Muslim and Jewish worshippers. According to the Israeli government, authorities made the same arrangements during the celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, when only Muslims were allowed access to the site, and for Yom Kippur, when only Jews were allowed access. Israeli authorities closed the site to Palestinian worshippers for Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashana (September 18-20) and Yom Kippur (September 27-28), and then on September 30 closed the building due to COVID-19. Jewish worshippers living within one kilometer (0.6 miles) were still able to pray in the complex’s outside courtyard. On September 30, the imam of the Ibrahimi Mosque, Hifthi Abu Sneineh, said that the IDF had prevented staff and Muslim worshippers from accessing the mosque and attending prayers under what he said was the pretext of the COVID-19 pandemic. Abu Sneineh said that the IDF evacuated staff and worshippers from the mosque after the noon prayer on Tuesday and closed all entrances to the site. He also stated the IDF banned the director of the Waqf, Jamal Abu Aram, along with a number of staff, from accessing it on Tuesday. Abu Sneineh said the IDF blocked Muslim worshippers from performing prayers but allowed Jewish worshippers to access the mosque to commemorate Yom Kippur. The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs issued a statement stating that this measure was a “blatant and serious” violation, an attack on the sanctity of the mosque, a provocation to the feelings of Muslims, a serious threat, and an attempt to control the rest of the mosque. The Israeli government said that the two sides at the site had an agreement to allow exclusive access to the Jewish and Muslim communities on specific holy days throughout the year specific to the two faiths.

In April, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit approved a 2019 decision by former Israeli Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett, shortly before Bennett left office, to bypass the Hebron municipality and expropriate land at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron. COGAT issued an expropriation order on May 13. The Israeli government stated it intended to renovate the site and establish elevators to make it accessible to persons with disabilities in order to “promote the rights of people with disabilities and allow access to religious sites for every population.” The Israeli government said it proceeded with the plan after multiple attempts to gain PA, Hebron municipality, and Waqf support for increased access to the site for persons with disabilities. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Hebron’s Jewish community and right-wing politicians and activists have long lobbied to make the site wheelchair accessible.” The paper stated that the only way that Jewish sanctuaries within the site could be reached is by climbing a long staircase.

Press reports stated that the land expropriated for the project was owned by the PA’s Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs. In May, Hifthi Abu Sneineh condemned the decision and said it was a blatant violation of the Hebron Protocol of the Oslo Accords and that “The Israeli authorities did not notify the Waqf in charge of managing the mosque of the details of the project. The settlement project will facilitate the Judaization of Ibrahimi Mosque.” Separately, he told the Middle East Eye website, “This is their [Israelis’] goal: to make life harder for the Palestinians, and make life easier for the settlers. To restrict Palestinian worship, promote Jewish visitation, and forever change the history and Islamic character of this place.” On June 18, Palestinians from Hebron and the Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh filed objections with COGAT regarding the project. Emek Shaveh stated, “The plan is more political than humanitarian and marks a breach of the status quo, creating additional friction between Jews and Muslims in a place which is already suffering from extreme tension.” An Israeli court dismissed the case in August. On December 27, the Knesset Finance Committee voted to transfer 1.5 million shekels ($467,000) to the elevator project. Member of the Knesset Moshe Gafni, the committee chair, said, “It is enormously important to allow public sites to be accessible to the disabled, even more so for a sacred sited like the Tomb of the Patriarchs.” On May 14, members of the Fatah chapter in the Hebron district organized a protest in front of the site to protest the decision and said the Ibrahimi Mosque is a purely Islamic site, with all its parts and courtyards, and has no Jewish heritage.

On November 19, the Judea and Samaria planning committee rejected petitions by Emek Shaveh and Palestinian residents of Hebron against the plan. Emek Shaveh said it objected to the plan because it did not include a documentation and conservation study as is standard for construction at historical monuments and that the staff officer for archaeology at the Civil Administration was not involved in overseeing the plan. The NGO stated that the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarch was arguably the most important historical and holy site in the West Bank. Emek Shaveh also argued that the elevator, which was planned to be built near the Jewish end of the complex, would not aid Muslim worshippers who wished to access their prayer halls because of the stringent security checks that they would be forced to endure. A case in an Israeli court was pending at the end of the year.

On December 4, Israeli police arrested an Orthodox Jewish man for trying to set fire to the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The suspect poured flammable liquid inside the Catholic church and set it on fire before a church guard detained him and police took him into custody. On December 31, an Israeli judge found the assailant mentally incompetent and remanded him to a psychiatric institution for up to 20 years.

Israeli authorities and settlers, who are often armed, prohibited access by Palestinians to several mosques in the occupied West Bank located within Israeli settlements. Israeli authorities declared all legal settlements as restricted Israeli military zones. Palestinians were unable to visit them without Israeli government approval.

In an October 7 report, the Israeli NGO Machsom (“Checkpoint”) Watch stated that the Israeli government has used three strategies to “erase” Muslim religious sites in the West Bank: enclosing sites within closed military zones, including sites in nature reserves; divesting shrines of their Islamic religious identity by opening them to the general public; and declining to recognize the site as having any religious significance in Islam. The NGO said that Israeli authorities give more weight to sites associated with Biblical prophets than to sites that are significant only to Muslims. Machsom Watch said that Israeli authorities deny Palestinians any access to 13 sites in the West Bank that are of traditional heritage, worship, and Muslim prayer or that are important to multiple faiths. The NGO said some of these sites are dilapidated and frequently the object of vandalism by Israeli settlers.

The Israeli government said it coordinated access to the Prophet Samuel’s mosque during the year for 1,500 Palestinian residents of the Nebi Samuel and al-Khalaila villages. The site has both a mosque and synagogue and, with the villages, is located in the West Bank, but inside the Israeli barrier.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, with police officers stationed both inside the site and at entrances. Police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance, through which non-Muslims may enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours. Police sometimes restricted this access, citing security concerns.

Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer. The Israeli government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, who reiterated this view at a campaign event in March. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that in practice, police generally allowed discreet non-Muslim prayer on the site. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha – the body of Jewish religious law), to enter with police escort.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the al-Aqsa Mosque, unless they were participating in a Waqf-sponsored visit. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. The Waqf objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals whom they perceived to be dressed immodestly or who caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials exercised only a limited oversight role. The government extended visiting hours in the afternoon by 30 minutes to prevent large groups forming at the entrance for non-Muslims in accordance with COVID-19 health restrictions. Following the announcement of the normalization agreements establishing relations between Israel and several Arab countries, Muslim visitors from the Gulf were at times harassed in person and vilified on social media by Palestinian Muslims for visiting the site as part of visits to Israel. The PA Mufti of Jerusalem issued a fatwa denying access to the site to Muslims from countries that established diplomatic relations with Israel, but the Jordanian Waqf rejected the fatwa. The Waqf stated that Muslim visitors from those countries were brought by Israeli officials without coordination with the Waqf. The government welcomed these visits as a positive outcome of normalization and as demonstrating freedom of religion.

On May 4, the NGO Returning to the Mount filed a petition to the Supreme Court demanding the state allow Jewish visitors to enter the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, arguing that the arrangement at that time – under which only Muslim Waqf staff were allowed to enter the site due to the COVID-19 pandemic – discriminated against Jews who wished to visit. The court rejected the petition on May 19, stating it did not find grounds to interfere with the state’s discretion. On June 23, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond by November 21 to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing at year’s end. The Waqf and others criticized non-Muslim visitors who entered the site escorted by the police as “settlers” and said they “stormed” the site.

Many Jewish religious leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount for reasons of ritual purity. Some Jewish religious leaders, Knesset members, and activists called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors.

The government continued to allow Knesset members and ministers to visit the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. Members of the Knesset were required to inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the police.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to enforce a regulation prohibiting the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services, to the objection of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements. The organization Women of the Wall argued that its monthly presence at the wall for more than 30 years had established the group as part of the “customs of the place.”

Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.

Pending COVID-19 limitations, authorities allowed Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza, but in a barricaded area or as a pod at the rear of the main plaza along with other separated prayer pods. However, during the period when the Western Wall was open for prayer by only 10 persons due to COVID-19 regulations, Women of the Wall reported that Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinowitz rejected their April 19 request for a group of 10 women from Jerusalem to pray at the Western Wall, despite having approved similar requests for ultra-Orthodox visitors from outside of Jerusalem.

Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation (WWHF), which administers the Western Wall main plaza, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. The Supreme Court criticized the government on November 4 for its lack of progress since 2018 on upgrading the area to a permanent egalitarian prayer space. The government blamed the delay on multiple rounds of national elections, COVID-19, and an obstacle posed by a Jerusalem municipality planning committee, but it also stated that it was not under a legal obligation to implement the construction plan. The court ordered the government to make progress by April 4, 2021. This case is a combination of lawsuits against the government, some dating back to 2013, that would allow prayer for all religious streams of Judaism at the Western Wall. In 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that would have offered them symbolic recognition in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In 2018, a special government committee approved expansion of the temporary platform. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill their 2016 agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing at year’s end. In addition, observers have stated that scaffolding has prevented visitors from touching the sacred wall in the egalitarian prayer space since a rock fell there in 2018. Over the same period, the WWHF managed large construction projects in the main plaza, making routine inspections for loose rocks at the main plaza without blocking access to the wall.

The government continued to promote the establishment of a cable car route from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City that would pass over a Karaite cemetery. In September, the Jerusalem municipality published a tender for the construction of the cable car, and on September 9, a Jerusalem local planning committee approved the expropriation of more than 10,000 square meters (108,000 square feet) of private lands, mostly in Silwan, for construction of the project. According to the Karaite community, the cable car would desecrate the cemetery, thus preventing its further use. While the original plan included a physical roof over the cemetery, which would contradict Karaite customs, the approved plan does not include a roof. Nonetheless, the project’s infrastructure still posed a problem for the Karaite community, according to community representatives. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, but some NGOs said the project was meant to specifically promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem and to reinforce Israel’s claims of sovereignty over the area. The plan was pending final government approval at year’s end. A petition against the cable car was also pending at year’s end.

The barrier that divided the majority of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities in Jerusalem, affecting residents’ access to places of worship, employment, agricultural lands, schools, and hospitals as well as the conduct of journalistic, humanitarian, and NGO activities. The government stated that the barrier was needed for security reasons.

On July 20, the IDF seized a 1,500-year-old Byzantine-era baptismal font from Taqqou’a town, southeast of Bethlehem. The eight-ton font had been moved in 2000 from an ancient church in the archeological site of Khirbet Taqqou’a and had again been moved in 2002. Taqqou’a municipality retrieved the font and placed it in the vicinity of the mayor’s house, pending the construction of a local museum, according to media reports. According to press reports, the whereabouts of the font remained unknown after it was moved in July. The Israeli government said the Israeli Civil Administration (CA), which is part of COGAT, took the item as part of the CA’s efforts to “restore archeological items” and to “stop the theft of antiques” in the West Bank.

The PA continued to provide imams with themes they were required to use in weekly Friday sermons in West Bank mosques and to prohibit them from broadcasting Quranic recitations from minarets prior to the call to prayer.

Unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a continued PA ban on proselytization but stated they were able to conduct most other functions unhindered. Palestinian authorities generally recognized on a case-by-case basis personal status documents issued by unrecognized churches. The PA, however, continued to refuse to recognize personal status legal documents (e.g., marriage certificates) issued by some of these unrecognized churches, which the groups said made it difficult for them to register newborn children under their fathers’ names or as children of married couples. Many unrecognized churches advised members with dual citizenship to marry or divorce abroad to register the action officially in that location. Some converts to unrecognized Christian faiths had recognized churches with which they were previously affiliated perform their marriages and divorces. Members of some faith communities and faith-based organizations stated they viewed their need to do so as conflicting with their religious beliefs.

Religious organizations providing education, health care, and other humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinians in and around East Jerusalem continued to state that the barrier begun by Israel during the Second Intifada impeded their work, particularly south of Jerusalem in West Bank Christian communities around Bethlehem. Clergy members stated the barrier and additional checkpoints restricted their movements between Jerusalem and West Bank churches and monasteries as well as the movement of congregants between their homes and places of worship. Christian leaders continued to state the barrier hindered Bethlehem-area Christians from reaching the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They also said it made visits to Christian sites in Bethlehem difficult for Palestinian Christians who lived on the west side of the barrier. Foreign pilgrims and religious aid workers also reported difficulty or delays accessing Christian religious sites in the West Bank because of the barrier. The Israeli government previously stated it constructed the barrier as an act of self-defense and that it was highly effective in preventing terrorist attacks in Israel.

Christian expatriate workers in Israeli settlements complained that lack of public transportation on Saturdays prevented them from participating in religious activities and worship in Jerusalem.

According to a November 9 Times of Israel report, Jerusalem mayor Moshe Lion and his administration proposed a plan to designate seats on Jerusalem community councils as either ultra-Orthodox or not. Jerusalem is the country’s only municipality to use community councils, which were established to provide greater communication between the city’s diverse population groups and the municipal government. Each council has 15 members, nine elected and the other six appointed. Lion said the proposal was designed to reduce conflicts on the councils and to ensure that the views of minority communities were represented on each council. Members of both the ultra-Orthodox and non-ultra-Orthodox communities expressed concerns about the proposal, with one describing it as “undemocratic.” While there are eight community councils serving Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, none of them has elected members.

The Government of Israel’s Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) listed 28 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and West Bank settlements for civil burial and burial of persons the government defined as “lacking religion.” Only three of the cemeteries, however, were available for use to the broader general public in Israel and Israeli West Bank settlements regardless of residence, one of which has been full for several years. The other cemeteries, located in Israeli agricultural localities, were permitted to bury only “residents of the area.” This, according to the NGO Hiddush, left the majority of the Israel’s population deprived of the ability to exercise its right to be buried in accordance with secular or non-Orthodox religious views, as mandated by Israeli law. The two MRS-administered cemeteries in West Bank settlements were available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. On December 12, the Supreme Court, as a part of a petition by Hiddush, issued an order instructing the state to explain why it would not allow civil burial in agricultural localities for individuals who were not local Israeli residents and who do not have another alternative. The case was pending as of the end of the year.

According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the Israeli government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, as a condition of its lease of land for its campus on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

After workers sent by the Jerusalem municipality demolished a wall and stairs in the Islamic al-Yusufiye Cemetery to make way for a park, local Palestinians gathered in protest and the work stopped. On December 24, the Jerusalem District Court issued a temporary restraining order against the municipality, forcing the city to suspend its work. The cemetery, which is hundreds of years old, is affiliated with the Islamic Waqf and adjacent to the Old City.

Hizb al-Tahrir, a global pan-Islamic Salafi movement founded in Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem in 1953, among other groups criticized the PA for at times reopening parts of the economy while maintaining COVID-19 restrictions on religious sites. On September 7, the heads of Christian churches in Bethlehem issued a statement in which they commended President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, including Intisar Abu Amara, the chief of staff at the President’s office, for what they said as their effective role in support of the Palestinian Christian community, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reported PA government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem said at an April 13 press conference that Israelis “are not only exporting [the virus]. They are agents of this virus…These are not accusations. These are facts.”

In an August 27 interview with Israel’s Kan TV, Yasser Arafat’s widow, Suha al-Tawil, said the PA, particularly Intisar Abu Amara, discriminated against PA Christian staff. The accusation was made following a PA decision to recall her brother, Ghabi al-Tawil, the PA ambassador to Cyprus. PA officials said al-Tawil was dismissed from his position after he refused to receive Fatah activists at the PA embassy who were organizing a protest against the Emirati-Israeli normalization agreement. Following the interview, heads of Christian churches in Bethlehem released a joint statement warning against attempts to harm Christian-Muslim relations.

Palestinian leaders, media, and social media regularly used the word “martyr” to refer to individuals killed during confrontations with Israeli security forces, whether those individuals were involved in confrontations or were innocent bystanders. Some official PA media channels, social media sites affiliated with the Fatah political movement, and terrorist organizations glorified terrorist attacks on Jewish Israelis, referring to the assailants as “martyrs.” On May 12, IDF sergeant Amit Ben Ygal was killed by a rock thrown by a Palestinian during a security operation in the West Bank. According to a report by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Palestinians Ramp Up Incitement to Murder Jews, Fatah then began a widespread social media campaign that referred to Ben Ygal’s death by including the phrase, “If you don’t have a gun, kill an IDF soldier with a rock.” Several local Fatah chapters posted memorials, including photographs, of suicide bombers. On several occasions on PA television, senior PA and Fatah official Jibril Rajoub extolled “martyrs” and prisoners serving sentences in Israeli prisons for conducting terrorist attacks. On June 17, on the 90th anniversary of the execution by British mandate officials of three persons convicted of involvement in the 1929 massacre of the Hebron Jewish community, a PA television presenter praised their actions and “martyrdom.”

The PA and the PLO continued to provide “martyr payments” to the families of Palestinians killed during terrorist acts or to those who were killed as bystanders in Israeli-Palestinian confrontations, as well as stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons, including those awaiting charges and those convicted of acts of terrorism. Such payments and separate stipends were initiated by the PLO in 1965 and have continued under the PA since the signing of the Oslo Accords with Israel in 1993 and 1995. On April 16, Fatah Central Committee member Mahmoud Aloul, speaking about Palestinian Prisoners’ Day, said on official PA Palestine TV, “The first amount of money Fatah was able to collect was allocated to prisoners’ and martyrs’ families. The Americans and Israelis tried to stop us from supporting Palestinian martyrs’ and prisoners’ families, but our decision was clear and it was given by President Abbas when he said that even if we had a few pennies, then we would offer them to the families of martyrs and prisoners.”

The Israeli Deduction Law provides that Israel must deduct a portion of the revenues it collects for the PA that is equal to the expenditures by the PA in the previous year for payments to families of persons killed, injured, or imprisoned for attacks on Israel. On October 26, Qadri Abu Bakr, the director of the PLO Commission for Prisoner Affairs, addressing the Deduction Law, said, “If we agree to deduct this money, it means that we agree that they are truly a group of terrorists – murderers, as Israel calls them. We would be defining their struggle as a crime and defining as a crime our people’s struggles for more than 50 years…” In accordance with the Israeli Deduction Law, Israel withheld a monthly sum equal to what the PA paid to these individuals and families (approximately 41.8 million shekels – $13 million) from its monthly transfers of tax revenues to the PA from January-March. Israel then suspended the deductions pending approval of the new amounts by the Israeli Security Cabinet, which did not occur until December due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The PA stated that these payments were social payments for families who lost their primary breadwinner. The Israeli government stated that the payments incentivized, encouraged, and rewarded terrorism, with higher monthly payments for lengthier prison sentences tied to more severe crimes.

The PA Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs continued to pay for construction of new mosques, maintenance of approximately 1,800 existing mosques, and salaries of most Palestinian imams in the West Bank. The ministry also continued to provide limited financial support to some Christian clergy and Christian charitable organizations.

The PA’s Palestinian Broadcasting Company’s code of conduct states it does not allow programming that encourages “violence against any person or institution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, or sex.” Some official PA media channels as well as social media accounts affiliated with the ruling political movement Fatah, however, featured content praising or condoning acts of violence against Jews. Fatah announced September 26 that Facebook had restricted its ability to promote stories on its site. The Israeli NGO Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) stated this was due to concerns PMW had raised about Fatah’s promotion of terror and incitement to violence against Jewish Israelis. Following the announcement of diplomatic normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, on September 15, Fatah Central Committee-member Jibril Rajoub on official PA television referred to Prime Minister Netanyahu as “a distorted copy of Mussolini,” and said the situation was similar to “everything that had happened in the 1930s and 1940s in Europe.” Referring to statements made by Arab governments regarding their recognition of Israel, Rajoub stated, “I think that even their ‎speeches were written for them…in ‎Tel Aviv, of course….”

Both Palestinians and Israelis evoked ethnoreligious language to deny the historical self-identity of the other community in the region or to emphasize an exclusive claim to the land. On September 18, on official PA television, PA Grand ‎Mufti Muhammed Hussein said, “If an inch of the Muslims’ lands is stolen, jihad becomes a personal religious commandment for everyone.” Anti-Semitic material continued to appear in official PA media. A Christian columnist for the official PA daily, Muwaffaq Matar, wrote, “Christian Palestinians understood the danger of Judaization to their existence and to their holy sites…They also know that the Zionist plot is not limited only to Judaizing the holy sites of the Muslim Palestinians…Therefore, they view the sale of Palestinian lands to the Israeli racist colonialist occupiers and settlers as a betrayal of Jesus. They think that whoever does this…is not eligible to represent the church or any Christian citizen in Palestine.”

Press reports stated that on November 18, after a Jewish settler placed a hanukkiah (Hanukkah candelabra) on the roof of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Mahmoud al-Habash, the PA President’s religious affairs advisor, told the official WAFA news agency, “The occupation state…is exploiting every opportunity, and particularly the so-called ‘Jewish holidays,’ in order to commit crimes and plans that desecrate our Islamic holy sites in Hebron.” According to press, he also said that the Ibrahimi Mosque is a pure Islamic heritage site to which those who are not Muslim have no rights. The newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida reported that the PA’s Supreme Fatwa Council had called the action “a blatant violation, a true provocation of Muslims’ sensibilities, and an additional aggressive attempt to erase Islamic history in service of the goal to Judaize the Ibrahimi Mosque and create a fake Jewish character for it.”

In a July 18 appearance on Palestine TV, PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, in response to a question about an incorrect report that Apple Maps and Google Maps had removed the name “Palestine” from their apps, said, “It is clear that these two companies have obvious orientations. It is obvious who owns them, and the Israeli-Jewish influence on them is also obvious.”

The Middle East Monitor website, in a report that it attributed to the Palestinian news agency WAFA, said that the Palestinian Authority had condemned the “continuous and increasing aggression” of Israeli Jewish settlers on Palestinians and their properties in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. According to the report, the PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the settlers’ attacks as “part of a campaign supported and run by the occupation state and its institutions, aiming to Judaize Area C.”

In an August 15 interview on Palestine TV, Mahmoud al-Habash, commenting on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab states, said, “Normalization [of relations] is treason, full stop. It is treason. It is normalizing relations with those who murdered your father and brothers. It is normalizing relations with the enemies of the Prophet Mohammed, who want to [build] a temple at the destination of Mohammed’s Night Journey [referring to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount].”

Anti-Semitic, militaristic, and other adversarial content continued to be directed against Israel in Palestinian textbooks, while references to Judaism were absent in the context of discussions of other religions, according to Palestinian Media Watch and IMPACT-se. Norway announced June 4 that it intended to withhold half of its funding designated for the PA’s education system until textbooks no longer promoted “hate and violence.” Foreign Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide said that Norway had raised these concerns with senior PA leaders.

In September, IMPACT-se released a report on the new Palestinian school curriculum (West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East – UNRWA) for the 2020-21 academic term. The NGO reviewed each revision of the school curriculum released over the previous five school years. IMPACT-se’s report on the 2019-20 textbooks found no substantive changes from the previous revision of the curriculum. According to IMPACT-se, a Palestinian cabinet announcement on May 18 approved a plan to make changes to the PA curriculum for the then upcoming 2020-21 school year, and the PA presented the plan at a meeting with donor nations in Ramallah on May 21. However, the NGO said its analysis of the new curriculum “found it [the curriculum] to have moved further from meeting UNESCO standards, and the newly published textbooks were found to be more radical than those previously published. According to the report, there “is a systematic insertion of violence, martyrdom and jihad across all grades and subjects. Extreme nationalism and Islamist ideologies are widespread throughout the curriculum, including science and math textbooks.” Marcus Sheff, the CEO of IMPACT-se, told the Jerusalem Post in a September 22 report, “It is disastrous that 1.3 million Palestinian children are condemned to yet another year of sitting in PA and UNRWA schoolrooms to be fed hate and incitement on a daily basis.” In addition to providing teachers with training in human rights and tolerance in education to equip them to discuss controversial materials in PA textbooks, UNRWA publicly asserted there is no place for anti-Semitism in its programs.

According to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, on May 14, the European Parliament passed three resolutions that condemned the PA for using school textbooks that promote hate and violence. The resolutions were passed as amendments by the Committee on Budgetary Control in a budgetary report. One resolution called on the European Commission to make sure that “no Union funds are used to finance textbooks and educational material which incite religious radicalization, intolerance, ethnic violence and martyrdom among children.” The resolution said the European representatives were “concerned that problematic material in Palestinian school textbooks has still not been removed and is concerned about the continued failure to act effectively against hate speech and violence in school textbooks.” According to the resolutions, money allocated for textbooks should “be used for drafting and teaching curricula which reflects UNESCO standards of peace, tolerance, coexistence, and nonviolence.”

In 2019, the European Union commissioned the German NGO Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research to conduct a review of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 PA curricula to assess the extent of inciteful content. The findings are due in early 2021.

The Jerusalem-based Center for Near East Policy Research (CNEPR) reported in February that PA teacher guides published by the PA Ministry of Education between 2016 and 2018 delegitimized the State of Israel, demonized Israel and Jews, and lacked any attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peacefully. In 2019, CNEPR described excerpts from the guides referring to Jews as “aggressive, barbarous, full of hate, and bent on extermination,” and “enemies of Islam since its early days.”

In November, Israeli media reported that the government had agreed to pay 400,000 shekels ($124,000) in compensation to the Old Yosef Chai Yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar to cover the cost of the building’s use by security forces since it was seized in 2014. The yeshiva, which the Times of Israel said was a “hotbed of violence against local Palestinians and Israeli security forces,” released a statement saying that total damage to the building was more than 800,000 shekels ($249,000) and that the government’s payment was “the beginning of rectification.” In the statement, the yeshiva added that it hoped to return to its original location at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus.

Under the Israeli Antiquities Law, excavations within a sacred site require the approval of a ministerial committee, which includes the Ministers of Culture, Justice, and Religious Affairs. The government stated that Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) researchers “have greatly intensified their research on ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.” Palestinian residents of Jerusalem and Muslim leaders continued to protest archaeological excavations and construction work done at the City of David National Park in the Silwan neighborhood outside the Old City and in the Old City near the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, including an elevator being installed at the rear of the Western Wall plaza. Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. Archeologists from the NGO Emek Shaveh continued to dispute the government’s representation of the “Pilgrim’s Road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan in 2019, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple; Emek Shaveh said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road. NGOs such as the City of David Foundation and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies continued to support the government’s position.

Some NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in the West Bank continued to state that the IAA exploited archaeological finds to bolster Jewish claims while overlooking other historically significant archaeological finds involving other religions or the needs of Palestinian residents at these sites. Emek Shaveh reported on September 9 that Israel’s Civil Administration issued expropriation orders for the antiquity sites Deir Sam’an and Deir Kala’, located in Area C of the West Bank, northwest of Ramallah. According to Emek Shaveh, both sites are on privately-owned Palestinian property and next to Israeli settlements. The expropriation orders stated that the sites were being expropriated for the purpose of preservation and safeguarding archaeology and were the first expropriation orders by Israeli authorities for archaeological sites in the West Bank since 1986. Emek Shaveh said that Israeli authorities were “using archaeological sites as a pretext for barring Palestinians from sites in Area C.”

The NGO Regavim’s Preserving the Eternal Project criticized the PA for damaging historical sites or attempting to erase Jewish heritage in areas under the PA’s control as well as in Area C and for failing to fulfill its obligations under the Oslo Accords to “protect and safeguard all archaeological sites,” including ensuring freedom of access to them. Regavim stated in September that constant vandalism and looting at historical sites in the West Bank “will be exacerbated if jurisdiction is transferred to the Palestinian Authority, which is intent on obliterating the physical record of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel…The physical remains of biblical history will be decimated under Palestinian custodianship.” Regavim identified sites the PA failed to protect or allow free access to, including the ancient synagogue at Samu’a; Tel Aromah in Area B; Mount Ebal (Tel al-Burnat) in Area C; Fatzalis, straddling Areas B and C; Sebastia or Ancient Samaria; and Archilaus. According to media, Israeli forces shot and killed a 15-year-old protestor during clashes with Palestinian protestors in response to a tour of Tel Aromah organized by Regavim and the Samaria Regional Council in March.

The Israeli government retained its previous regulations regarding visa issuance for foreigners to work in the West Bank, regulations Christian institutions said impeded their work by preventing many foreign clergy and other religious workers from entering and working. The government continued to limit Arab Christian clergy serving in the West Bank to single-entry visas, which local parish leaders said complicated needed travel to other areas under their pastoral authority outside the West Bank or Jerusalem, such as Jordan. Clergy, nuns, and other religious workers from Arab countries said they continued to face long delays in receiving visas and reported periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated visa delays or denials were due to security processing and visitors from states without diplomatic relations with Israel. The Israeli government said during the year it did not receive any applications from clergy from states that did not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel and that religious workers from all countries working in the West Bank received visas that allow multiple entries. Officials from multiple churches expressed concerns that non-Arab visa applicants and visa-renewal applicants also faced long delays. While Christian clergy generally were able to obtain visas, Christian leaders said Israel’s visa and permit policy adversely affected schoolteachers and volunteers affiliated with faith-based charities working in the West Bank. In recent years, Israeli authorities issued permits for some Christians to exit Gaza to attend religious services in Jerusalem or the West Bank and for Muslims from the West Bank to enter Jerusalem for Ramadan. Due to COVID-19, Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to travel for Ramadan or Christmas during the year. The Israeli government said it did issue some permits for Gazan Christians to visit Israel and use Ben Gurion airport to travel abroad during Easter.

The Israeli NGO Gisha noted that while Israeli authorities did not issue permits to Gazans due to COVID-19, thereby essentially restricting them from being able to go to Israel or the West Bank except for urgent humanitarian cases, it permitted foreigners for much of the year to enter Israel for religious study and to attend weddings, funerals, and bat or bar mitzvahs. Furthermore, Israelis were able to move freely inside Israel as well as to and from settlements in the West Bank, including for religious worship and gatherings. Gisha said that even in previous years, religious travel from Gaza was extremely limited; no Muslims were issued permits for religious travel in 2019, according to Gisha and UN reports. In 2015, Israel issued 11,214 permits for Muslim worshippers to travel for Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, or Friday prayers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, which dropped to just 600 in 2017 and 2018, according to Gisha.

According to church officials, Israel continued to prohibit some Arab Christian clergy, including bishops and other senior clergy seeking to visit congregations or ministries under their pastoral authority, from entering Gaza. The Israeli government said it approved 64 of 83 requests during the year to visit Gaza for religious reasons from religious organizations and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, including for individuals from 19 nationalities, including Egypt and Jordan.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits under the citizenship and entry law with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of Palestinian residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern that this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities.

According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community.

While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners were allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who were not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. Arab citizens are allowed to participate in bids for JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA will grant the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel wins a bid. Despite a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that the ILA Executive Council must have representation of an Arab, Druze, or Circassian member to prevent discrimination against non-Jews, there were no members from these groups on the council at year’s end.

On June 24, the Jerusalem District Court denied a request by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to block the transfer of three properties in Jerusalem’s Old City to Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish prosettlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease for the properties in 2004. The court’s decision followed similar ruling by the Supreme Court in 2019 and a lower court in 2017. The Patriarchate had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. The Church filed the district court lawsuit after the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. Following the decision, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate released a statement saying it received the ruling with “surprise” and that “We believe the court erred in its decision and intend to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court.”

On July 7, 13 heads of churches and Christian communities in Jerusalem issued a joint statement that the court’s ruling on the three properties threatened the Christian presence in the city. The heads of the churches said that they stood united in their “commitment to safeguarding the historical status quo of the Holy Sites and rights of the churches which are universally recognized.” According to the statement, the case represented a “systematic attempt to undermine the integrity of the holy city, to obstruct the Christian pilgrim route, and to weaken the Christian presence in Jerusalem.” The heads of the churches called on the Israeli government “to act in order to safeguard the integrity of the Christian heritage and patrimony in the Old City, as well as the holy sites and the rights of the residents of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem.”

At year’s end, Christians held minister-level positions in three PA ministries (Finance, Health, and Tourism) and the cabinet-level office of Deputy Prime Minister for Public Information.

The PA Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly condemned killings and terrorist attacks in France “under the slogan of religion” following the beheading of a teacher who had displayed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in a class on free speech. The ministry rejected the killing of any human being regardless of his religion, nationality, or race, and stated, “Religion is innocent from such crimes that completely contradict the Islamic tolerant teachings.” The ministry also rejected insulting religious figures, symbols, and teachings and called for the prohibition of such insults through changes to national laws.

On January 10, a Catholic church, St. John the Baptist Chapel, near Qasr al-Yahud, located on the banks of the Jordan River, opened for prayer for the first time since the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israeli and Jordanian Armies laid approximately 6,500 landmines around the church during the 1967 and 1973 wars, resulting in its closure. Between 2018 and April, a British NGO, the HALO Trust, and Israeli authorities worked to clear the area of more than 1,150 landmines. A Catholic Church official specifically thanked Israeli President Reuven Rivlin for his support of the restoration efforts.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and other militant and terrorist groups continued to be active in Gaza. Hamas remained in de facto political control of Gaza.

On October 13, a group of approximately 15 gunmen associated with the PIJ terrorist organization kidnapped and beat three worshippers from a mosque east of Khan Younis in Gaza during dawn prayers. According to media and NGO reports, the assailants targeted the victims because of a PIJ factional dispute. The kidnappers released all three victims, two of whom suffered broken bones, later that morning. Hamas stated it launched an investigation into the incident.

Hamas leaders and other militant groups continued to call for the elimination of the State of Israel, and some called for the killing of “Zionist Jews” and advocated violence through traditional and social media channels as well as during rallies and other events.

Hamas also continued to enforce restrictions on Gaza’s population based on its interpretation of Islam and sharia, including a judicial system separate from the PA courts. Hamas courts occasionally prohibited women from departing Gaza due to ongoing divorce or family court proceedings, despite having Israeli authorization to travel. Media outlets reported the Hamas-affiliated Islamic University of Gaza required hijabs for all females. Gazan civil society leaders said Hamas in recent years had moderated its restrictions on dress and gender segregation in public.

Palestinians in Gaza reported interference by Hamas in public schools at the primary, secondary, and university levels. Hamas reportedly interfered in teaching methodologies or curriculum deemed to violate Islamic identity, the religion of Islam, or “traditions” as defined by Hamas. Hamas also interfered if there were reports of classes or activities that mixed genders. UNRWA, however, reported no Hamas interference in the running of its Gaza schools.

Christian groups reported Hamas generally tolerated the small Christian presence in Gaza and did not force Christians to abide by Islamic law. According to media accounts, Hamas continued neither to investigate nor prosecute Gaza-based cases of religious discrimination, including reported anti-Christian bias in private sector hiring and in police investigations of anti-Christian harassment. Media reports quoted Gazan Christians as saying that Hamas generally did not impede private and communal religious activities for the Christian minority in Gaza. Hamas continued to not celebrate Christmas as a public holiday in Gaza, unlike in the West Bank.

On May 12, Hamas member of the defunct Palestinian Legislative Council Marwan Abu Ras said in an address uploaded to YouTube by the Palestine Islamic Scholars, “The criminal Zionist enemies of Allah occupy the al-Aqsa Mosque. They defile it day and night, kill Muslims, and violate the sanctity of Muslim women and holy places. Hating them is an obligation, according to the sharia.”

Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahhar, in an interview with Iran’s al-Alam TV discussing the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and some Arab states, said, “We cannot consider [normalization with Israel] to be ‘normal.’ It is a misleading term that is interchangeable with treason, or with stabbing the resistance in the back, or with betraying Allah and His Messenger. Particularly, and this is the central issue…This is primarily because it goes against what Allah revealed to the Prophet Muhammad…[The Quran says:] ‘Oh, believers do not…’ This is a total prohibition…‘Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies…for they are allies of each other. Whosoever does so shall be counted as one of them.’ This means that normalization transfers anybody who normalizes with Israel from Islam to Judaism, from belief to heresy.”

In a July 3 interview on al-Aqsa TV, Nasser Maarouf of the Palestine Islamic Scholars Association said, “Millions of people were killed [in the two world wars], all because of these Jews, who ran wild, tyrannized the world, and spread corruption in it. Their corruption affects all walks of life. Look at the poverty all over the world. Look at the blood that is being spilled all over the world. Look at the honor of women being violated all over the world. If you check, you find that it is the Jews who are behind all that. They are the ones feeding all corruption on earth, and they are the ones financing it.”

In a rally in Gaza that was televised on July 9, Rajaa al-Halabi, head of the Hamas Women’s Movement, said, “These are the Jews. They are the ones who slayed the prophets, the ones who acted treacherously and violated [sanctities]…Indeed, my dear sisters, our conflict with the Zionist enemy is a matter of faith, not of borders. Needless to say, we will not make do with what we have here. We will not make do with partitioning the land and taking only a part of it. This land will be ours in its entirety, Allah willing, because our conflict with the Zionist enemy is an existential conflict, not a conflict about borders. This enemy, who came from all corners of the world, has no place here, but this is what Allah wanted for them… This is our fate, my beloved sisters – to be Allah’s hand on Earth, the hand that will finish off the Israelites, this Zionist enemy, Allah willing. Allah brought them here in droves, so that Palestine becomes their graveyard, Allah willing.”

Some Muslim students in Gaza continued to attend schools run by Christian institutions and NGOs.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior White House and other U.S. officials publicly raised concerns about anti-Semitism by PA officials and more broadly in Palestinian society throughout the year. Senior White House officials and other U.S. officials repeatedly and publicly pointed out that Palestinian leaders did not consistently condemn individual terrorist attacks nor speak out publicly against members of their institutions, including Fatah, who advocated violence.

Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The embassy awarded grants to the Jerusalem Intercultural Center for an interreligious community economic development program in the Old City of Jerusalem. Additionally, the embassy presented a grant to the Interfaith Encounter Association to bring together three interfaith groups in Jerusalem’s Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods to meet with U.S. experts, coordinators, and fellow interfaith groups. The embassy also issued public statements condemning attacks on places of worship, including an attempted arson attack on the Church of All Nations at the Garden of Gethsemane.

On April 20 and 23, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with Israeli government and civil society representatives to discuss increasing COVID-themed manifestations of anti-Semitic tropes against Israel and Jews, especially online. The Special Envoy and his counterparts agreed that increasing education, monitoring, legislation, and law enforcement could help combat this trend.

Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations. Embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.

Throughout the year, embassy officials used embassy social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.

U.S. government representatives met with representatives of a range of religious groups from Jerusalem, the West Bank, and when possible, the Gaza Strip. Engagement included meetings with Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Reform rabbis as well as representatives of various Jewish institutions; regular contacts with the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox patriarchates; and meetings with the Holy See’s Custodian of the Holy Land, leaders of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and leaders of evangelical Christian groups as well as Muslim community leaders. U.S. government representatives also met with political and civil society leaders to promote tolerance and cooperation to combat religious prejudice. These meetings included discussions of the groups’ concerns about religious tolerance, access to religious sites, respect for clergy, attacks on religious sites and houses of worship, as well as concerns by local Christian leaders about ongoing Christian emigration from the West Bank and Gaza.

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Israel

Xinjiang

Read A Section: Tibet

China | Tibet | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.” The U.S. government estimated that since April 2017, the government has detained more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as some Christians, in specially built internment camps or converted detention facilities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) under the national counterterrorism law and the regional counter-extremism policy. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and academics estimated the number of individuals detained in internment camps or other facilities was higher. Authorities subjected individuals 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 that authorities moved tens of thousands of individuals from their home areas to work elsewhere in the region and the country. One researcher stated that, based on a survey of Chinese academic research and government figures, up to 1.6 million transferred laborers were at risk of being subjected to forced labor. The government continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification for enacting and enforcing restrictions on religious practices of Muslims and non-Muslim religious minorities. During a speech in September, PRC President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping said the government’s actions to Sinicize Islam were “totally correct and must carry on for a long time.” In February, new analysis of 311 entries in the “Karakax List,” a set of PRC government documents originally leaked in 2019 that described the systematic targeting and imprisonment of Muslim populations in Karakax (alternate Uyghur spelling: Qaraqash, Mandarin spelling: Moyu) County, Hotan (Hetian) Prefecture, showed that the government recorded the personal details of individuals living in the region and listed reasons for detaining them, including violating the government’s family planning policies. The whereabouts of hundreds of prominent Uyghur intellectuals, religious scholars, cultural figures, 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, medical neglect, and torture. One Uyghur advocacy and aid organization reported that since 2018, authorities have detained at least 518 Uyghur religious figures and imams. PRC government documents, eyewitness accounts, and victims’ statements indicated the government sharply increased the use of forced sterilization and forced birth control to reduce the birthrate among Muslims. Authorities implemented a variety of different methods, including home inspections, to ensure families were not observing religious practices such as praying, and it forced people to consume food and drink during Ramadan. According to government sources and eyewitness accounts, the government encouraged – and in some cases required – neighbors to spy on each other. Other surveillance included behavioral profiling and forcing Uyghurs to accept government officials and CCP members living in their homes. Government documents revealed extensive use of surveillance cameras and security checkpoints in public spaces. In September, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report based on satellite imagery and other sources that estimated that approximately 16,000 mosques in the region (65 percent of the total) had been destroyed, damaged, or desecrated, and a further 30 percent of important Islamic sacred sites had been demolished. Research conducted during the year estimated that by 2019, nearly 900,000 children, including some preschool-aged children, were separated from their families and were living in boarding schools or orphanages, where they studied ethnic Han culture, Mandarin, and CCP ideology. The government sought to forcibly repatriate Uyghur and other Muslim citizens from overseas and detained some of those who returned. The government harassed and threatened Uyghurs living abroad and threatened to retaliate against their families in Xinjiang if they did not spy on the expatriate community, return to Xinjiang, or stop speaking out about relatives in Xinjiang who had been detained or whose whereabouts were unknown.

Unequal treatment of Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uyghur language, culture, and religious practices while promoting the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life. Muslims reported severe societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities. There were reports that some Han Chinese living in Xinjiang described Uyghurs in derogatory terms.

U.S. embassy officials met with national government officials regarding the treatment of Uyghur Muslims and other Muslim and non-Muslim minority groups 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 Xinjiang’s ethnic minority Muslim populations. On June 17, President Trump signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against individuals responsible for the detention and other human rights abuses of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The act also directed U.S. agencies to take steps to hold accountable PRC officials, or individuals acting on their behalf, who harassed, threatened, or intimidated Uyghurs within the United States. During the year, the Department of Commerce placed one PRC government entity and 19 commercial industries on the “Entity List” for being implicated in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance in Xinjiang, making them subject to specific license requirements for export, re-export, and/or transfer in-country of specific items. On July 1, the Departments of State, the Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued the Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa sanctions on three senior CCP officials and their families for their involvement in gross violation of human rights in Xinjiang. The Secretary also placed additional visa restrictions on other CCP officials believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang. Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act on one government entity and four current or former government officials in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed additional sanctions on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and its current and former senior officials for serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang. On May 1, June 17, and September 14, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups being held in internment camps. On December 2, CBP announced it would detain all shipments of cotton and cotton products originating from the XPCC because of forced labor concerns. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.

Section I. Religious Demography

A 2018 report on the XUAR issued by the Department of Population and Employment Statistics of the National Bureau of Statistics estimates the total population was 24.87 million. The report states Uyghurs, along with Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups constitute approximately 14.9 million residents in Xinjiang, or 60 percent of the total population. According to the BBC, of these, 12 million are Uyghurs. The largest segment of the remaining population is Han Chinese, with additional groups including Mongols, Tibetans, and others. Most Uyghurs are Muslim. The Globe and Mail reported in September 2019 that according to sources in the region, Christians likely number in the thousands.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states that 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.

In addition to the national counterterrorism law, Xinjiang has its own counterterrorism law and de-extremification laws that went into effect in 2016 and 2017, respectively, containing similar provisions to the national law regarding “religious extremism.” These laws ban the wearing of long beards, full-face coverings, religious dress, expanding halal practice beyond food, daily prayer, and “interfering” with family planning, weddings, funerals, or inheritance, among other provisions. The law limits the information that may be released to the public following an incident the government defines as a terror attack.

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 that “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.” Neither “abnormal” nor “religious extremism” are defined in law. Similar regulations are in effect in other parts of Xinjiang.

Authorities in the XUAR 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. 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 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 XUAR authorities continued to cite what they called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups. Police raids and the government’s restrictions on Islamic practices, carried out 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 Uyghurs and other Muslims went unreported to international media or NGOs due to government restrictions on the free flow of information.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), during a speech at the September 25-26 Xinjiang Central Work Forum, President Xi said the government’s strategy and policies in Xinjiang were “totally correct and must carry on for a long time.” He also said, “We must also continue the direction of Sinicizing Islam to achieve the healthy development of religion,” and he stated the government’s policies brought stability and economic growth to the region.

According to multiple human rights NGOs and academic sources, authorities held more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups as well as some Christians, in a vast network of camps since 2017, many of them co-located with factories, where sources said detainees were subjected to forced labor and “re-education.” Several human rights groups estimated the number of individuals interned to be higher. The government continued to use detentions to implement a XUAR-specific counterextremism policy that identifies “extremist” behaviors (including growing beards, wearing headscarves, and abstaining from alcohol) in concert with the National Counterterrorism Law, which contains provisions on “religious extremism.”

In September, researchers at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre published the Xinjiang Data Project, an online database that used satellite imagery, Chinese government documents, official statistics, and other sources to document human rights abuses in the region. The project located, mapped, and analyzed suspected detention facilities. According to the data, the government built or expanded 381 detention centers between 2017 and 2020, including at least 61 facilities that were built or expanded between July 2019 and July 2020. Based on satellite imagery analysis of security features including high perimeter walls, watchtowers, internal fencing, and other features and usage patterns, analysts concluded 108 were low security facilities, 94 were medium security facilities, 72 were high security facilities, and 107 were maximum security facilities.

In a press release about the launch of the Xinjiang Data Project, ASPI stated, “The findings of this research contradict Chinese officials’ claims that all ‘re-education camp’ detainees had ‘graduated’ in December 2019. It presents satellite imagery evidence that shows newly constructed detention facilities, along with growth in several existing facilities, that has occurred across 2019 and 2020.”

The Washington Post reported in September that one new facility that had opened “as recently as January” in Kashgar (Kashi) City, Kashgar Prefecture, was a 60-acre compound, with 45-foot-high walls and guard towers and 13 five-story residential buildings that could house more than 10,000 individuals. According to the Washington Post, at least 14 new facilities were under construction during the year. In November, RFA reported police officers from Uchturpan (Wushi) County, Aksu (Akesu) Prefecture, said that at least three camps were still in operation in the county and estimated that together they likely held more than 20,000 detainees, nearly 10 percent of the county’s population.

On November 16 and November 24, 2019, the New York Times (NYT) reported on the leak of 403 pages of purported internal government and CCP documents describing the government’s mass internment program in Xinjiang; these leaked documents were later called “The Xinjiang Papers.” NYT was one of 17 media outlets to partner with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) regarding release of the leaked documents. Also in November 2019, the ICIJ reported on an additional 24 leaked government and CCP documents, later referred to as the “China Cables.” 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.”

On February 17, the ICIJ, human rights NGOs, and international media provided additional analysis of the “Karakax List” (also referred to as the “Karakax Document,” “Qaraqash Document,” or “Qaraqash List”) that was originally made public in November 2019. The list contained the personal details of 311 individuals being held in camps in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture, as well as official determinations on whether they could have contact with their families and the grounds upon which they could be released. Reasons for detention included wearing a veil, having a wife who wore a veil, growing a beard, having a household with “a dense religious atmosphere,” applying for a passport, obtaining a passport but not leaving the country, visiting a foreign website, and being related to a person living outside China. The number one reason for imprisonment was violating the government’s family planning policies. Authorities sentenced one man to five years for having a beard and organizing religious study groups. CNN stated it had independently corroborated the details of eight families mentioned in the document.

CNN reported that in a press conference on February 22 in Urumqi, Mehmutjan Umarjan, governor of Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture, said “after careful investigation,” many of the residents mentioned in the Karakax List had never been in the camps. At the press conference, a Uyghur man told reporters he had been to a “training center” but it had been “for his own good.” In a video released by state broadcaster CCTV, the man said, “My mind used to be filled with religious extremist thinking. Not only did I not earn a living for my family, but I also prohibited my wife from doing so, because I believed it was against Muslim practices for women to earn money. At the center, I learned to speak Mandarin and [learned] about national laws and regulations. I also got lessons in business management.”

The Economist reported in 2018 that authorities used detailed information to rank citizens’ “trustworthiness” using various criteria. According to the Economist, “The catalogue is explicitly racist: people are suspected merely on account of their ethnicity.” Being labelled “untrustworthy” could lead to being detained by authorities. Officials deemed individuals as trustworthy, average, or untrustworthy depending on how they fit into the following categories: aged 15 to 55 years old (i.e., of military age); of Uyghur ethnicity; unemployed; possessed religious knowledge; prayed five times a day; had a passport; had ever overstayed a visa; wore religious clothing or had long beards; had family members living abroad; homeschooled their children (which was prohibited throughout the country); or had visited one of the “sensitive countries.” According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 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 December, HRW reported what it called the “Aksu List,” a leaked list, dated 2018, of more than 2,000 detainees from Aksu Prefecture that the government had identified through its “predictive policing program based on big-data analysis,” called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP), which collects a variety of personal information on the lives and movements of individuals. According to HRW, “The Asku List provides further insights into how China’s brutal repression of Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims is being turbocharged by technology.” According to HRW, the Aksu List showed authorities consider behaviors that included certain Islamic traditions to be suspicious, such as: studying, reciting, or preaching the Quran without state permission; wearing religious clothing or having a beard; having children in excess of the government’s family planning policy; “marrying through a nikah (an Islamic law marriage contract), or practicing polygamy”; going on the Hajj; and “performing the Hijra, a form of migration to escape religious persecution.” HRW stated the list indicated that in at least one case, authorities in 2019 detained a woman, identified as “Ms. T,” whose sister lived in one of the “sensitive countries.” Ms. T’s sister told HRW that upon her release, Ms. T was forced to work in a factory five days a week against her will and was allowed to go home only on weekends.

There were numerous reports of individuals being incarcerated, sometimes for lengthy periods of time, held under harsh conditions, physically and sexually abused, and subjected to involuntary sterilization. Many individuals disappeared in prior years, but relatives only learned what happened to them in 2020. Some ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh individuals who had been held in detention facilities managed to emigrate abroad during the year, where they were able to speak with human rights NGOs and journalists about their experiences.

In February, when COVID-19 was spreading throughout the country, a report from the Australian outlet SBS News that included interviews with Uyghur refugees stated that in the camps, “Access to hospitals, quarantine areas, food, and hygiene products is severely restricted, according to human rights organizations and former detainees. Showers are rare and monitored; washing your hands or feet is considered a Muslim ablution, and therefore very controlled.” Munawwar Abdulla, cofounder of the Uyghur diaspora organization Tarim Network, told SBS News, “Each camp holds thousands of inmates in highly unsanitary conditions. There are also reports of sexual abuse, lack of medical care, neglect, psychological stress, and injections of unknown substances; these all create ripe conditions for a virus to spread.”

In October, RFA reported that Qelbinur Sidik, a former Mandarin-language instructor at two internment camps who subsequently left China, described harsh conditions at one camp holding approximately 3,000 men and a second camp holding approximately 10,000 women in Urumqi. She said at the men’s camp, the prisoners were rushed under unreasonable time constraints to use the bathroom, which had only one toilet, and to wash their hands and faces. They did not have access to shower facilities. She said that the men’s camp also had an underground interrogation room, and that at times she could hear screams coming from this room. Sidik also said she heard of one case in which a man was “very badly hurt in the process of interrogation” and that he later died of his injuries. At the women’s camp, there were more than 50 women in each cell, and they were not provided with appropriate privacy – only a partial wooden partition separated a bucket that was used as a toilet from the living space in the cell. There was a communal shower that each woman could use for 10 minutes once per month.

In August, the BBC reported that Uyghur fashion model Merdan Ghappar sent a video of himself in a cell in a detention center. There were bars on the windows, and one of Ghappar’s hands was handcuffed to the metal frame of a bed. Accompanying the video, Ghappar sent a series of text messages in which he described 18 days spent shackled and hooded in a jail with more than 50 other Uyghurs in Kuchar (Kuche) City, Aksu Prefecture. He said he was later moved to his own cell after showing signs of being ill and was given access to his phone. Relatives said authorities forcibly transported Ghappar back to Xinjiang in January after he completed a 16-month sentence for a drug offense in Foshan City, Guangdong Province, where he had been living and working. In August, Ghappar’s uncle told RFA that Ghappar and his aunt, who sent the video out of the country, had both disappeared and their whereabouts were unknown at year’s end.

In October, Zumrat Dawut, a Uyghur woman living in exile who spent two months in an internment camp, told the Economist that during her time there, every day the female inmates would gather in a classroom to study “Xi Jinping Thought.” As they left, guards would ask them, “Is there a God?” If an inmate answered “yes,” she would be beaten. According to Dawut, guards would then ask if there was a Xi Jinping, and say, “Your God cannot get you out of here, but Xi Jinping has done so much for you.”

According to Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in China, on June 13, the People’s Court in Korla City, Bayingolin (Bayinguoleng) Mongol Autonomous Prefecture sentenced 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses to imprisonment, with sentences ranging from two and a half years to six and a half years and a 30,000 renminbi (RMB) ($4,600) fine for “using or organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” According to Bitter Winter, this was the first case of using Article 300 of the criminal code, which covers “cult” offenses, against Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to a report by Weiquanwang, a Chinese blog that reports on human rights abuses in the country, most of the 18 Jehovah’s Witnesses were subject to physical punishment and mistreatment while in detention, and one of them attempted suicide.

According to CNN, shortly after former Xinjiang resident Yerzhan Kurman, an ethnic Kazakh who moved to Kazakhstan with his family in 2015, returned to Xinjiang to visit his mother in 2018, authorities placed him in a “political educational school.” Speaking to CNN in October, Kurman said authorities placed him in a cell with nine other men, with whom he shared a bucket as a toilet. Police continuously monitored them via cameras, did not allow them to talk to each other, and required them to ask permission to use the bucket. If they disobeyed the rules, police punished them by making them stand upright all night or by denying them food.

In October, a former Xinjiang resident, an ethnic Kazakh living in exile, said authorities placed her in a camp in 2017 when she returned to Xinjiang from visiting her family in Kazakhstan. She said cameras monitored her every movement. According to the former detainee, “If we cried, they would handcuff us, if we moved, they would also handcuff us…They would allow us to go to the toilet for two minutes only. If anyone exceeded that time, they would hit us with electric sticks.” She also stated that authorities cut her hair and took blood samples.

In August, the German media outlet Deutsche Welle reported that Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh born in Ili Kazakh (Yili Kasake) Autonomous Prefecture and a former camp detainee, said she was aware of “reports of mass rapes, mock trials, suspected drug experiments – and a ‘black room’ where she was imprisoned.” Sauytbay said authorities tortured detainees in an electric chair in the “black room,” and that she said personally had experienced this.

In January, sources told RFA that in 2018 authorities jailed Ekber Imin, a Uyghur businessman who ran a real estate firm based in Urumqi, his two brothers, Memetturdi Imin and Memetjan Imin, and 20 employees, including company drivers, on charges that included “extremism.” A police officer in Hotan Prefecture told RFA that one of the crimes of which Ekber Imin was convicted was “propagating extremist ideology by incorporating ethnic and religious elements into building designs.” A source from the prefectural legal and political bureau said Ekber Imin had been sentenced to 25 years in prison, while a Hotan City police officer said he had been sentenced to life imprisonment.

In January, RFA reported that the niece of Abidin Ayup, a 90-year-old Uyghur imam of the Qayraq Mosque in Atush (Atushi) City, Kizilsu Kirghiz (Keleisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, learned that authorities had arrested her uncle in 2017 for “religious extremism.” She said since his being taken into custody, Ayup’s condition was unknown. Ayup’s family only became aware of his arrest after a CCP official, Song Kaicai, was charged with corruption and criminal negligence after he permitted Ayup to visit a hospital to treat an illness he experienced while being incarcerated. Ayup’s niece told RFA, “It appeared that [my uncle] got sick around May of [2017] and was taken to the Atush City Hospital.” Song reportedly gave permission for Ayup’s sons and other relatives to visit him in the hospital. Song was later arrested for taking bribes.

In August, Buzzfeed News interviewed multiple ethnic Kazakhs born in China and living in Kazakhstan about their experiences in internment camps. Former inmates said that “vocational training” consisted of being taught Mandarin and CCP ideology and working in factories without pay. In the classrooms, the teacher at the front was separated from the detainees by a transparent wall or a set of bars. Guards flanked the classroom, and some former detainees said they carried batons and even hit “pupils” when they made mistakes about Chinese characters.

In August, Buzzfeed News reported that authorities first detained Dina Nurdybai, an ethnic Kazakh who ran a clothing manufacturing business, on October 14, 2017. Nurdybai was moved between five different camps, ranging from a compound in a village to a high security prison. She told the media outlet that in the first camp, “It seemed like 50 new people were coming in every night. You could hear the shackles on their legs.” After some time, authorities told her she had been detained for downloading WhatsApp – which authorities described as “illegal software” – to her mobile phone.

Human rights groups reported that 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 April 20, Amnesty International wrote on its website, “While Chinese authorities have since indicated that he is being tried on corruption charges, his current condition and whereabouts remain unknown. Without any official information about the charges and proceedings against him, there are grave fears for Tashpolat Tiyip’s future.”

Human rights groups reported the whereabouts of Rahile Dawut, a prominent professor at Xinjiang University who disappeared in December 2017, remained unknown. The Open Society University Network marked the third anniversary of her disappearance by naming Dawut an Honorary Professor in Humanities. Prior to her disappearance, Dawut had told a relative that she planned to travel from Urumqi to Beijing. Scholars at Risk, an international network of institutions and individuals whose mission is to protect scholars and promote academic freedom, awarded Dawut its Courage to Think Award for 2020. The organization recognized Dawut “for her own work, as well as that of all the scholars and students of the [XUAR], who together struggle for academic freedom and freedom of opinion, expression, belief, association, and movement.”

Human rights groups and family members reported in December that authorities sentenced Gulshan Abbas, a Uyghur doctor missing since September 2018, to 20 years in prison on terrorism-related charges. The sentence had been issued in March 2019 following a secret trial, but Abbas’ family only learned of the sentence in December 2020. On September 25, at a virtual event at the UN General Assembly hosted by the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Ziba Murat, the daughter of Dr. Abbas, said, “Innocent people are being abducted, and my mother, Dr. Gulshan Abbas, a Uyghur retired medical doctor, was not spared from this tragedy, and as of now has been in a concentration camp for the past two years…I am trying every moment of my day to receive news about my mother, to fight to free her. Every day I’m left wondering where she is being held, if her delicate health is being taken care of, if she is mentally strong without a contact for two years…I would not wish this pain on my worst enemy and I cannot bear it any longer.”

RFA reported in March that authorities sentenced Rashida Dawut, a well-known Uyghur singer who had been missing since 2018, to 15 years in prison in late 2019, reportedly on “separatism” charges. Although the sentencing took place in 2019, RFA and Dawut’s family only learned of it (from multiple sources) in March 2020.

In March, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that a Uyghur woman living in exile in Turkey said she and her daught