The constitution defines the state as secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for freedom of conscience, religion, and worship. The law requires religious groups to seek government recognition by meeting legally established criteria and allows the government to shutter the premises of unregistered groups. There are 81 recognized religious groups and more than 1,100 unrecognized religious groups. The government has not recognized any new religious groups since 2004. In March, the government detained more than two dozen religious leaders and worshippers in several towns for violating a ban prohibiting all large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, religious organizations formed an ecumenical task force to advise the government’s effort to combat COVID-19. In September, the government issued a decree stating that only legally recognized religious groups could hold services on a limited basis under continued COVID restrictions. In September, leaders from the Islamic community responded by saying these restrictions violated their constitutional rights. Subsequently, the government liberalized religious restrictions to better accommodate Islamic Friday prayers.
In June, leaders of the local branch of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (IURD) split from the Brazilian church leadership, leading to competing lawsuits and the seizure by the government of seven temples for tax fraud and other fiscal crimes, according to international media.
Throughout the year, officials from the U.S. embassy raised religious freedom issues, including the 2019 closure of places of worship, COVID-19 restrictions, long-pending registration applications, and implementation of religious freedom legislation, with government officials. Embassy officials spoke with representatives of religious groups and civil society organizations throughout the country to discuss the continuing issue of recognition of religious groups, the public split of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, and the effect of COVID-19 restrictions on the ability to worship freely.
Read A Section: Hong Kong
China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau
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.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to worship and to change one’s religion. It prohibits discrimination based on belief. A colonial-era law criminalizing the practices of Obeah and Myalism remains in effect, but it is not enforced. In July, the Supreme Court ruled the constitutional rights of the claimant were not violated in the 2018 case of a child blocked from attending Kensington Primary School due to her locs (dreadlocks) because her parents did not identify as Rastafarian. School officials, however, allowed her to continue attendance. The Supreme Court decision continued to garner attention from advocacy and religious groups that noted the case’s potential impact on cultural identity and religious expression. Rastafarians said the court’s judgment underscored false misconceptions about the health and cleanliness of people who wear their hair in locs. The government formally began compensating individuals from a trust fund it established in 2017 for victims of the 1963 Coral Gardens incident, in which eight persons were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between a Rastafarian farming community and security forces. Seventh-day Adventists reported that their observance of a Saturday Sabbath was not taken into account by government COVID-19 lockdown restrictions because the government made Saturdays one of only two permitted shopping days.
Rastafarians continued to report prejudice against their religion, while they also said there was increasing societal acceptance and respect for their practices. Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for religious dialogue open to participants from all religious groups. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship, which includes representatives from Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’i, Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist organizations, continued to hold events to promote religious tolerance and diversity.
U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade; the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport; and the Jamaican Defense Force to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country, including the rights and treatment of religious minorities. Embassy officials also met regularly with leaders of religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians. The embassy published a press release on January 17 from the Ambassador celebrating U.S. National Religious Freedom Day and recognizing the importance of religious freedom. Other embassy representatives included similar references to the value of religious freedom and tolerance in speeches and other public engagements, press releases, and social media.