The constitution protects freedom of religion and the right of religious communities to establish their own institutions. It specifies the state and the Roman Catholic Church are independent, with their relations governed by treaties, including a concordat granting the Church a number of specific privileges and benefits, and financial support. Twelve other religious groups have accords granting many of the same benefits in exchange for a degree of government monitoring. Religious groups must register to request an accord. Unregistered religious groups operate freely but are not eligible for the same benefits as groups with accords, although they may apply separately for benefits. The Muslim community, which does not have an accord, continued to experience difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. From March 8 to May 18, the government banned public gatherings, including all religious services in all places of worship, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Italian Catholic Bishops Conference objected to these COVID-19 measures, and the government allowed the Catholic Church to resume services outdoors starting on May 10 and other religious groups on May 18. On February 10, a Rome court convicted and sentenced 24 persons to up to three years and 10 months in prison for racial and ethnic hate speech, defamation, and threats against Jews, migrants, and some public figures. Politicians from several political parties again made statements critical of Islam. On January 20, League Party leader Matteo Salvini said the large numbers of immigrants from Muslim majority countries had increased anti-Semitism in the country. On June 6, Jewish Member of Parliament Emanuele Fiano reported he had received an envelope in the mail containing an image of Adolf Hitler and subtitled “In the Oven.” The President of the Senate appointed 25 members to an extraordinary committee to fight intolerance, anti-Semitism, and hate crimes, as proposed by Senator for Life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre and approved by parliament in 2019. In July, the European Court for Human Rights ruled as admissible an appeal by the president of a Bangladeshi cultural association in Milan, who was sentenced to prison and fined in 2019 for hiring a construction company to convert a storage site into a place of worship without prior local government approval. The case marked the first time a court imposed criminal rather than administrative penalties for this type of violation. The Court of Cassation (the country’s highest court of appeal) suspended the prison sentence and fine associated with this case following the appeal.
There were reports of anti-Semitic incidents, including harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Anti-Semitism Observatory of the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center Foundation (CDEC) recorded 224 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, compared with 251 in 2019 and 181 in 2018. Of the incidents, 117 involved hate speech on social media or the internet. The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters, including depictions of swastikas on walls, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and praise of neo-Nazi groups in cities such as Rome, Pavia, and Forli. The private research center STATISTA reported an estimated 15.6 percent of Italians believed the Holocaust never happened. While there was no official government data from institutions or public agencies on anti-Muslim incidents, local and European NGOs reported several physical attacks and verbal harassment against Muslims, especially involving hate speech. The NGO Vox Diritti reported 67,889 tweets, representing 59 percent of the total mentioning Islam, containing negative messages against Muslims during the year, compared with 22,532, or 74 percent of the total, in 2019.
Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with national and local government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and equal treatment for all faiths during the year. They also discussed efforts to integrate new migrants – many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu – and second-generation Muslims living in the country, and the prospect for an accord between the government and Muslim communities. In October, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and other senior officials met with religious leaders and government officials to advance priority issues, including the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and regional and local rules that impede the establishment of new places of worship. Embassy, consulate, and senior Department of State officials met with religious leaders and civil society representatives to promote interfaith dialogue and awareness, social inclusion, the empowerment of faith groups through social media, and the mobilization of youth leaders among faith groups. In September, embassy officials met with the national coordinator for the fight against anti-Semitism, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), and Rome Jewish community leaders to discuss how to support their efforts to counter anti-Semitism among self-defined far-right groups and civil society. The embassy and consulates general consulted with the country’s Jewish communities and concerned authorities to develop the Department of State’s Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act Report for the country, which was published on July 29. The report highlighted the government’s commitment to the Terezin Declaration and its goals and objectives as well as areas where the government had not followed through with a government commission’s recommendations to identify survivors of targeted persecution in World War II or their heirs who are entitled to unclaimed property. The embassy also worked with the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad to engage on issues surrounding a development that could affect a Jewish cemetery in Mantua. The embassy and consulates continued to use their social media platforms to acknowledge major Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays as well as to amplify initiatives that promote religious freedom and interfaith dialogue at the local level.
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.
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.