The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. On May 28, prominent Mozabite (from the M’zah valley region) Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike. Fekhar was in pretrial detention following his March 31 arrest for “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices towards Ibadis. According to media reports, a court in Akbou, Bejaia fined an unnamed Christian for the “exercise of non-Muslim worship without authorization.” Two separate courts upheld acquittals of two individuals charged with “inciting a Muslim to change his/her religion” in March and “undermining Islam” in April. There were 286 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. During the year, the government closed nine Christian churches. A video posted on Facebook by the Protestant Full Gospel Church in Tizi Ouzou, described by Human Rights Watch as the country’s largest church, showed police pulling congregants from their chairs during services and forcing them outside. The then-minister of interior, after speaking of churches he ordered closed in disparaging terms, stated that the churches were unlicensed to hold Christian services. On March 17, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) informed clerics they would no longer be required to submit texts of their sermons to authorities for approval; however, MRA officials said the government sometimes monitored sermons delivered in mosques for inappropriate content, such as advocating violent extremism. The government continued to regulate the importation of all books, including religious materials. Senior government officials continued to oppose calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam. They also continued to criticize the spread of what they characterized as “foreign” religious influences, such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work and caused the Catholic Church to cancel a bishops’ conference scheduled for September 20 in Algiers.
Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. On July 18, unknown individuals knocked over the headstone for Mozabite Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar’s grave. Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Private news outlets, including El Khabar and Ennaha, referred to Ahmadis as “sects” of Islam in reporting in June and July, respectively.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups, as well as with other members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable.
The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($8,400) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training … or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.
The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides a punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($420-$840) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.
The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations.
The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The president appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the president on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals of the religion and a correct understanding of it. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the president.
The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, all organizations previously registered were required to reregister with the government. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The MOI’s registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters. The law requires the ministry to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all the required documentation and to respond within 60 days of submission of the completed application. The law states applicants are de facto approved if the ministry does not decide within the 60-day limit. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya (province).
The MRA has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the MOI makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.
The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, is responsible by law for facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs, the presidency, national police, national gendarmerie, and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).
The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Individuals of other faiths than Islam may hold other public offices and work within the government.
The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.
The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Muslim or otherwise, must take place. The law states religious demonstrations are subject to regulation and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. With the exception of daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques. Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant wali (governor) at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.
The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($840) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,700) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.
By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel, as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay, and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.
The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.
The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree establishes a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. This decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.
The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.
The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.
The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.
The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.
The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the president, who appoints the agency’s members.
The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.
By law, individuals who have converted from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On May 28, prominent Mozabite Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike. He had been in pretrial detention since his arrest on March 31 for “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices, such as more frequent arrests, questioning, and harsher sentences, towards Ibadi Muslims. An AP report stated that Fekhar also was known for his work on behalf of the country’s minority populations, including Christians. In late May his health deteriorated, and prison authorities transferred him to a hospital in Blida on May 27. The Ministry of Justice opened an in-depth investigation on May 29 into the circumstances of Fekhar’s death but did not release its findings by year’s end. Civil society organizations and human rights activists called for updates regarding the investigation and for charges against Ghardaia authorities to no avail.
The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine several Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in local community centers that Muslims might attend. On June 20, a court in Akbou, Bejaia handed down a 50,000 dinar ($420) fine to an unnamed Christian for the “exercise of non-Muslim worship without authorization.” The prosecutor had requested a two-year prison sentence. According to media reports, a group of Christians held Sunday services in a tent after authorities closed the EPA-affiliated “Church of Refuge” in October 2018.
Morning Star News reported on June 16 a judge gave a Christian man in Mostaganem who converted from Islam a two-month suspended prison sentence and fined him 100,000 dinars ($840). According to Morning Star News, the man invited a Christian couple to his home to pray.
According to Morning Star News, on April 17, a court in Tizi Ouzou upheld a previous court’s acquittal of Rachid Ouali, who had converted from Islam to Christianity. Ouali was one of five individuals acquitted by a court in Bouira on December 25, 2018 on charges of “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.” Ouali’s charges regarding his Christian faith were brought before a judge a second time as part of his divorce proceedings. According to Morning Star News, Ouali’s Muslim wife (who subsequently divorced him) had filed a complaint in July 2018 accusing the five individuals of having brought her to a church service and trying to persuade her to convert to Christianity.
Morning Star News reported on February 27, a court upheld an unnamed man’s December 30, 2018 acquittal of charges of undermining Islam. The man’s wife filed charges against him of undermining Islam in 2017 after he converted to Christianity.
Ahmadi leaders stated there were 286 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court as of the end of the year. Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said in some cases police confiscated passports and educational diplomas and in others employers placed Ahmadi Muslims under investigation on administrative leave. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prevented from employment. At year’s end, there were no reports of Ahmadi Muslims imprisoned on charges related to their faith.
According to the MOI, religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their applications within 60 days of submission and that if the ministry considered the application incomplete, it did not issue a receipt for the application. NGOs and Ahmadiyya Muslim religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt acknowledging they had submitted a completed registration application. Ahmadis reported they continued to receive no government response to their outstanding request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.
The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and is unable to meet and collect donations. Members of the community said it tried to register with the MRA and Ministry of Interior (MOI) as a Muslim group in 2012 and 2016, but the government rejected its applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in September it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not file as anything but Muslims.
In 2014, the EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church submitted paperwork to renew their registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law but as of year’s end had still not received a response from the MOI. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015, but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government.
Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received an MOI confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers, such as utilities and banks, refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.
Most Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006. Other MRA officials, however, met with Christian leaders to hear their views periodically during the year, including receiving complaints about the registration process. Christian leaders continued to say some Protestant groups avoided applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process. In a joint statement to the UN Human Rights Council on September 18, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and the Jubilee Campaign, in association with the EPA expressed “grave concern at the ongoing closure of Protestant churches in Algeria,” and stated that “authorities continue to refuse to recognize both the umbrella organization of the Protestant churches [the EPA] and churches which requested to be registered locally.” The statement also said that the MRA “has not issued a single permit” [since passage of the law] to approve church buildings. According to the statement, this lefts churches in the country in “a legal grey zone of non-recognition, giving authorities the latitude to close one building after another.”
According to media reports and EPA statements, during the year the government closed nine churches, compared to eight church closures between November 2017 and December 2018. The government also closed one Christian bookstore. All were affiliated with the EPA. Media reported eight EPA-affiliated church closures occurred in September and October. At year’s end, 14 churches affiliated with the EPA in the provinces of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou and one non-EPA church in Tizi Ouzou remained closed.
The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes. On October 23, Minister of Interior and Local Administration Salah Eddine Dahomoune told media, “We closed 49 chicken coops and warehouses unlicensed to practice Christian rites.”
Police closed the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, on October 15. The church posted a video on Facebook showing police interrupting the service, pulling congregants from their chairs and forcing them out of the building. According to one media report, while closing the church, police hit Pastor Salah Chalah, who is also the head of the EPA, striking him with a baton. According to NGOs, on October 17, police arrested 17 Christians in front of the Tizi Ouzou governorate, where they had staged a peaceful sit-in to protest the church closure.
Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.
According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious clothing including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.
On March 17, then-minister of religious affairs Mohamed Aissa informed clerics that they would no longer be required to submit texts of their sermons to authorities for approval. MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.
MRA officials said the government continued to monitor the sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.
According to Open Doors USA, a U.S. NGO, officials from the country’s intelligence services were frequently present at church services.
On April 14, Minister of Religious Affairs Belmehdi allowed mosque management committees to meet. The previous minister had halted their work in June 2018, stating extremist groups had infiltrated the committees.
According to Catholic representatives, the government granted permits for the importation of Catholic religious texts during the year, including Catholic literature and Bibles. The EPA received import authorization for an order of Bibles and religious literature placed in 2017. Out of 10,000 books, the EPA received 2,000 Bibles and 2,600 copies of the New Testament. Both included versions in French, Arabic, English, and Tamazight. According to the EPA, it had not received details on the remaining books ordered.
Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. On January 13, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.
The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.
Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.
According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.
Sources stated Christian leaders were able to visit Christians in prison, regardless of the nature of their offense.
Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups, such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.
Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. One Christian leader continued to say the government did not grant or refused 50 percent of visas requested for Catholic Church workers. As of the end of the year, three members of the Catholic Church had been waiting one year for visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. A representative from the Catholic Church reported that visa delays and refusals caused the Church to cancel its annual Regional Episcopal Conference of North Africa meeting, which it scheduled for September 20 in Algiers.
The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. The government and public and private companies also funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.
Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, religious programs countering extremism were broadcast. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.
Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.
Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.
Several Christian leaders said some citizens who converted, or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity, were assaulted by family members, or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.
According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.
In May the Algiers Herald reported Islamic scholar Said Djabelkhir called for a separation of religion and state and criticized the Muslim Brotherhood for its ideology and Saudi Arabia for its role “propagat[ing] Islamic fundamentalism.”
Media criticized religious communities it portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Private news outlets such as El Khabar and Ennahar referred to Ahmadis as “sects” of Islam in reporting in June and July, respectively.
On July 18, unknown individuals knocked over the headstone for Mozabite Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar’s grave.
Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued not to permit Christians to be buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians were buried according to Islamic rites so their remains could stay near their families.
In an August report, Arab Barometer, an international research consortium focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, found “a clear divide” in the country on the role of religion. When asked if the country would be better off if more religious persons held public office, 44 percent of those polled agreed while 45 percent disagreed, effectively unchanged since a similar survey in 2013. Similarly, 42 percent of those polled believed religious leaders should have say over decisions in the government, compared with 48 percent who disagreed. More than half of those polled, 51 percent, disagreed with the view that religion should be separate from social and economic life. Overall, the poll found general support for basing the country’s laws on sharia. The NGO also found that only 15 percent of individuals between ages 15 and 29 in the country identified as religious. This represented a decline of 3 percentage points in the country’s youth since the last survey in 2017.
Some Christian leaders continued to state they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. In March the Catholic Church held an interfaith event in which an imam and Catholic priest participated in a panel together. On May 16, the National Cathedral, Notre Dame D’Afrique, held an event during Ramadan to commemorate International Day of Living Together; which Muslims and Christians attended. In September Notre Dame D’Afrique held a national cleanup day in which local citizens participated, including young Muslims.
Central African Republic
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equal protection under the law regardless of religion. It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism.” The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion. The government continued to exercise limited or no control or influence in most of the country. Police and the gendarmerie (military police) continued to fail to stop or punish abuses committed by armed groups, such as killings, physical abuse, and gender-based violence, including those based on religious affiliation, according to human rights organizations. In February the government and 14 of the country’s armed groups signed a peace agreement that included commitments to safeguard places of worship from violent attacks. In June the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2018 to investigate serious human rights violations and alleged war crimes, announced that three of the 29 investigations launched since its inception could lead to trials. In July the government signed a tripartite agreement with Cameroon and the United Nations to facilitate voluntary repatriation of 250,000 predominantly Muslim citizens living as refugees in Cameroon. In September the International Criminal Court (ICC) began pretrial hearings in the case of an anti-Balaka commander and member of parliament accused of war crimes, as well as a second anti-Balaka leader.
The predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka militia forces continued to occupy territories in the western and northern parts of the country, respectively, and sectarian clashes between them and Christian and Muslim populations continued. Government forces usually did not intervene to curtail the violence. In May members of the armed group 3R attacked villages in the northwest of the country, killing more than 50 civilians allegedly in retaliation for the death of a member of a Muslim ethnic minority group. The government called on the leader of the armed group, appointed to a government advisor position following the signing of the February peace accord, to hand over those responsible. On May 16, the 3R handed over to the government three commanders accused of the killings. At year’s end, they were detained in Bangui and awaiting trial. Also in May, an unknown assailant killed a 77-year-old nun. The motive for the killing remained unclear.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that religion continued to be a primary feature dividing the population. Many Muslim communities remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely, either due to lack of protection from the government or because of intimidation by anti-Balaka units. During the year, the country’s top religious leaders remained united in their view that the violence in the country caused by the armed groups was based primarily on the desire to control territory for their economic gain. In May at the start of Ramadan, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Islamic Community in the country, called for the strengthening of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence of religious communities.
In meetings with President Faustin Touadera and other government officials, U.S. embassy representatives raised concerns about the government’s failure to safeguard religious freedom and advocated the safe voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their home communities. They encouraged the government representatives to implement outreach activities aimed at religious communities and publicly condemn attacks on religious structures and against religious groups. Embassy officials regularly engaged with religious leaders to listen to their concerns and issues, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga and other Christian leaders, imams, and members of the Coordinating Committee for Central African Muslim Organizations. In March the Ambassador hosted a roundtable for religious leaders designed to bridge gaps, strengthen relationships, and encourage freedom of religious choice and practice.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion under conditions set by law and equal protection under the law regardless of religion. It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism” but does not define these terms. The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion.
Religious groups, except for indigenous religious groups, are required to register with the Ministry of the Interior, Public Security, and Territorial Administration. To register, religious groups must prove they have a minimum of 1,000 members and their leaders have adequate religious education, as judged by the ministry. Indigenous religious groups may receive benefits and exemptions offered to registered groups regardless of their size.
The law permits the denial of registration to any religious group deemed offensive to public morals or likely to disturb social peace. It allows the suspension of registered religious groups if their activities are judged subversive by legal entities. There are no fees for registration as a religious organization. Registration confers official recognition and benefits, such as exemptions from customs tariffs for vehicles or equipment imported into the country. There are no penalties prescribed for groups that do not register.
The law does not prohibit religious instruction in public or private schools, but religious instruction is not part of the public-school curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to exercise limited or no control or influence in most of the country. Police and the gendarmerie failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, including killings, physical abuse, religious- and gender-based violence, according to human rights organizations. The United Nations Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) remained the only force capable of maintaining security in much of the country, but according to most observers it remained hampered in its ability to protect civilians due to limited resources and personnel, as well as poor infrastructure impeding access to rural communities.
Because religion, ethnicity, and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as solely based on religious identity.
On February 6, the government and 14 of the country’s armed groups signed the Political Accord for Peace and Reconciliation (APPR), which was brokered by the African Union (AU) and supported by the United Nations. Among other commitments, armed groups agreed to refrain from acts of violence directed at places of worship.
In June President Touadera launched the first of seven public consultations on the creation of a Truth, Justice, Reparations, and Reconciliation Commission in support of the peace agreement.
In September the ICC began pretrial hearings in the case of Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, an anti-Balaka commander and member of parliament, and Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, also a senior leader of the anti-Balaka. At year’s end, both men were in ICC custody and stood accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including killings targeting Muslim civilians, deportation and torture of Muslims, and destruction of mosques. Victims and selected members of the public in the country viewed the proceedings streamed live from the ICC in The Hague.
The Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Reconciliation continued public service announcements via nationwide radio stations, reaffirming the government’s commitment to treat all citizens equally.
The government continued to observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as official but unpaid holidays, while Christian national holidays were paid holidays. President Touadera participated in an iftar with Muslim leaders at the Mosque of Lakouanga, in the 2nd District of Bangui, where he reiterated his previous year’s request for tolerance and urged the participants to find ways to live together and to seek “national harmony.” Imam Mahamat Said focused his remarks on the need for justice and mutual understanding.
In August the Ministry of Territorial Administration announced the closure of several places of worship in Bangui for failing to meet guidelines for recognition as legitimate religious organizations and for disruption of public order.
In June the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2018 in Bangui to investigate serious human rights violations including genocide and alleged war crimes, some of which were related to religious identity, announced that three of the 29 investigations launched since its inception could lead to trials. The SCC did not release details of these cases, however, since investigations they deemed sensitive were still underway.
MINUSCA continued to support government-led local peace and reconciliation initiatives that aimed to improve relationships between Christians and Muslims. The efforts included public outreach and sensitization workshops. For example, in June local authorities and MINUSCA jointly established three local peace committees in the subprefectures of Gambo, Pombolo, and Ngandou. The committees of 13 leaders in each community were tasked with sensitizing their communities to the Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and promoting social cohesion, peaceful coexistence, and the nonviolent settlement of conflicts. Observers continued to state that these initiatives helped counter inflammatory rhetoric and dispel rumors, and public meetings held under the auspices of the initiative helped to reassure vulnerable communities of their safety.
In March, 13 Muslim families departed the IDP camp in Bangassou and resettled in their original villages.
In July the government signed a tripartite agreement with Cameroon and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of 250,000 citizens living as refugees in Cameroon. According to UNHCR, approximately 2,800 refugees, the majority Muslim, expressed a desire to return to their home country.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs reported religion continued to be a primary feature dividing the population. Many Muslim communities remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely.
Religious leaders generally avoided characterizing the ongoing conflicts as religiously based. Instead, they identified political and economic power struggles and foreign influence as the root causes. In May Bishop Nestor Nongo-Aziagbia, president of the country’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the country was in the grips of a political, not a religious, conflict and pointed to economic exploitation as a significant driver of the conflict. He said that Christians and Muslims were working together for peace in a number of distressed regions of the country. In May at the start of Ramadan, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Community in the Central African Republic, called for the strengthening of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence of religious communities.
The Platform for Religious Confessions in Central Africa (PCRC) continued its efforts to promote interfaith dialogue throughout the country. In January its Muslim founder and representative, Imam Omar Kobine, reaffirmed the role of the PCRC in working to reduce violence and promote reconciliation in the country.
During the year, Radio Sewa FM, a community radio station dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue, broadcast programs aimed at both Muslim and Christian communities in PK5 and PK3. Based in PK5, the station was founded by a local NGO in 2017 with the goal of promoting interfaith dialogue.
Muslims continued to report social discrimination and marginalization, including difficulties accessing identification documents, and security concerns, which hampered their inability to move freely throughout the country.
According to religious leaders, Muslims throughout the country faced challenges within their communities because of ethnic differences, such as Muslims of Arab and Peulh (Fulani) ethnicity. For example, observers said some Muslims of Arab descent considered themselves superior to Muslims of other ethnicities and that Muslims who converted from Christianity were frequently ostracized among the Muslim population. The sources also stated these converts were often prevented from living in and interacting with some Muslim communities.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. Relations between the government and religious organizations markedly improved in 2019, following the inauguration of President Felix Tshisekedi in January, according to media reports. In contrast to the previous year, there were no reports of government repression or intimidation of religious organizations engaged in political activities.
Antigovernment militia members targeted churches and church property in the North Kivu and Ituri Provinces, where armed groups remain active. Local media reported that on June 5, armed militia members kidnapped Father Luc Adelar Alecho, a Catholic priest in Ituri Province. The militants allegedly reproached him for his homilies urging his congregation to reject armed groups before letting him go. Local leaders in the northern part of the country expressed concern over the presence of the nomadic Muslim Mbororo cattle herder communities. Some leaders described their migration as an “Islamic invasion.” Clashes between Mbororo and local populations resulted in several deaths in Upper and Lower Uele Provinces throughout the year. In addition to religious differences, observers stated there were also economic and political concerns linked to the conflict, and for that reason it was difficult to categorize these acts as solely based on religious belief.
U.S. embassy officers met with officials in the Ministries of Justice, Human Rights, and Interior to discuss religious freedom issues, including government relations with religious organizations. Embassy officials also met regularly with religious leaders and human rights organizations and discussed relations with the government, their concerns about abuses of civil liberties, and the safety of religious leaders in the country’s conflict-affected areas.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and the right to worship subject to “compliance with the law, public order, public morality, and the rights of others.” It stipulates the right to religious freedom may not be abrogated even when the government declares a state of emergency or siege.
The law regulates the establishment and operation of religious groups. According to law, the government may legally recognize, suspend recognition of, or dissolve religious groups. The government grants tax-exempt status to recognized religious groups. Nonprofit organizations, including foreign and domestic religious groups, must register with the government to obtain official recognition by submitting a copy of their bylaws and constitution. Religious groups must register only once for the group as a whole, but nonprofit organizations affiliated with a religious group must register separately. Upon receiving a submission, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) issues a provisional approval and, within six months, a permanent approval or rejection. Unless the MOJ specifically rejects the application, the group is considered approved and registered after six months even if the ministry has not issued a final determination. Applications from international headquarters of religious organizations must be approved by the presidency after submission through the MOJ. The law requires officially recognized religious groups to operate as nonprofits and respect the general public order. It also permits religious groups to establish places of worship and train clergy. The law prescribes penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment, a fine of 200,000 Congolese francs ($120), or both for groups that are not properly registered, but receive gifts and donations on behalf of a church or other religious organization.
The constitution permits public schools to work with religious authorities to provide religious education to students in accordance with students’ religious beliefs if parents request it. Public schools with religious institution guardianship may provide religious instruction. Government-owned schools may not mandate religious instruction, but offer religion as a subject.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Following the inauguration of Felix Tshisekedi as president in January, relations between the government and religious communities improved, according to the media and religious leaders. Unlike the year prior, there were no reports of acts of violence or intimidation against Catholic Church officials by the government. In March the government freed several political prisoners from the Catholic Lay Community (CLC) who had been arrested in 2018 for leading protests, which nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and others had called an arbitrary action. Other CLC activists, including Leonnie Kandolo, who spent a year in hiding after organizing protests in support of elections in early January and February 2018, stated in January that their freedom of speech had returned with the inauguration of Tshisekedi.
The MOJ again did not issue any final registration permits for religious groups, and had not done so since 2014. An MOJ internal audit reportedly focused on fraudulent registration practices remained incomplete at year’s end and was cited by some observers as an obstacle to the resumption of registration issuances. The government, however, continued its practice that groups presumed to have been approved were permitted to operate. Unregistered domestic religious groups reported they continued to operate unhindered. The MOJ previously estimated that more than 2,000 registration applications for both religious and nonreligious NGOs remained pending and that more than 3,500 associations with no legal authorization continued to operate. Foreign-based religious groups reported they operated without restriction after applying for legal status. Under existing law, which was under review, nonprofit organizations could operate as legal entities by default if a government ministry gave a favorable opinion of their application and the government did not object to their application for status. According to 2015 registration statistics, the latest year for which the MOJ had statistics, there were 14,568 legally registered nonprofit organizations, 11,119 legal religious nonprofit organizations, and 1,073 foreign nonprofit organizations. Religious nonprofits that were legally operating and registered included 404 Catholic, 93 Protestant, 54 Muslim, and 1,322 evangelical nonprofits, the latter including those belonging to the Kimbangu Church.
Muslim community leaders again said the government did not afford them some of the same privileges as larger religious groups. The government continued to deny Muslims the opportunity to provide chaplains for Muslims in the military, police force, and hospitals, despite a complaint filed in 2015 with the then-president and his cabinet.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Illegal armed groups operating in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in the eastern part of the country occasionally targeted church leaders. Local media reported that on June 5, armed militia members kidnapped Father Luc Adelar Alecho, a priest and the administrator of the Catholic parish of Marie Reine de Jiba, in Ituri Province’s Welendu Ptisi Sector. The reports stated that the militants reproached him for his homilies urging his congregation to reject armed groups before letting him go.
Some religious leaders reported continued tensions between Christian and Muslim communities in the north. Local leaders expressed concerns that the nomadic Muslim Mbororo herder population was part of an “Islamic invasion” of the country. Sporadic violence between local communities and the Mbororo in Upper and Lower Uele Provinces throughout the year resulted in several deaths. In addition to religious differences, observers stated there were also economic and political concerns linked to the conflict and for that reason it was difficult to categorize these acts as solely based on religious belief.
In April ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks against a government military base that were carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group long-operating in North Kivu Province that proclaimed allegiance to ISIS in 2017 and was publicly recognized by ISIS as an affiliate in late 2018. In conjunction with the April claim of responsibility, ISIS announced the establishment of a new wilayat (province), ISIS–Central Africa. According to civil society sources in the eastern part of the country, these statements highlighted ADF’s desire to promote a strict brand of Islam in the overwhelmingly Christian region of the Great Lakes. Local Christian and Muslim leaders, with vocal support from the government, condemned ADF’s actions.
Leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported generally positive relations with individuals from other religious groups but noted that 27 cases of assault on or suspected killings of Jehovah’s Witnesses dating from as early as 2015 continued to languish in the court system or were never sent to court for criminal prosecution after the arrests of suspects. They also reported five assaults during the year that they stated were due to their religious beliefs in rural areas of Kwilu, South Kivu, and Sankuru Provinces.
Muslim leaders said that Christian groups sometimes failed to include them in intercommunal dialogues.
During the year, the Anglican Church reported that it was attempting to leave the Church of Christ in Congo, (ECC) a union of more than 70 Protestant denominations, in order to have the ability to act more independently.
The constitution states “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in 2017. In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prisons terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in a suburb south of Cairo. On February 9, authorities arrested Muslim students at Al-Azhar for posting video footage mocking Christian religious practices. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 814 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings, bringing the cumulative total to 1412 of 5,415 applications for licensure. In April the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the Anba Karas Church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. Local authorities continued to periodically rely on customary reconciliation sessions instead of the official judicial system to resolve sectarian disputes. In April security officials closed a church in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib in response to threats of an attack by Muslim villagers. In November Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of Hgara were directed to rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village following a customary reconciliation session related to a dispute with the local Muslim population. According to an international NGO, there were no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) or houses of worship in the country. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi.
On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat to the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian based on his religious affiliation at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in Northern Sinai on January 17. His fate was unknown at year’s end. In January a religious sheikh at a mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City, Cairo, to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police later discovered an improvised explosive device (IED). One police officer died and two others were injured as they attempted to defuse the bomb. Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019. According to human rights groups and religious communities, discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports. Of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian. Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.
U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador, and former Charge d’Affaires, as well as visiting senior-level delegations from Washington and embassy representatives and officials of the former consulate general in Alexandria met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation. The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and, “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. It describes freedom of belief as absolute. The constitution limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.
The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The grand imam is elected by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term. The president does not have the authority to dismiss him. While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion Egyptian pounds ($1 billion).
According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the grand mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out. The mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the death sentence.
The constitution also stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their respective personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), depending upon their official religious designation. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) issues national identity cards that include official religious designations. Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens. Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash. The minister of interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.
Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize. The law states individuals may change their religion; however, the government recognizes conversion to Islam but not from Islam to any other religion. In a 2008 ruling on a lawsuit against the government for not recognizing a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the government, stating its duty to “protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam.” The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order. Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints. After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims. When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.
Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. A woman in this situation can continue to live with her husband until she has a legal need to prove her marriage, at which time the marriage may be considered void. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.
A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.
The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating the rules of the Christians and Jewish communities govern in personal status matters.
According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.
There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar Al Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar Al Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.
Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to MOI’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar. The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.
The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.
The government appoints and monitors imams, who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,100). The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines. Any imam who does not follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including losing his preaching license. The ministry also issues prewritten sermons as an obligatory guide for imams to draw from, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques. Imams are subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal, for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.
The prime minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.
A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates rather than the president. The governor is required to respond within four months of receipt of the application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor does not respond within the required timeframe. The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches. It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. Construction of new churches must meet stringent land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.
Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1900 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.
In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Determinations of religious identity are based on official designations, not personal or parental decisions. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other. A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including Christian-owned schools. Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves approximately two million students from elementary through secondary school, using its own curriculum.
The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,300)
Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.
Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit Al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations convene opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Sources say in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo, it has become inactive.
The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric. Since the state does not recognize Baha’i marriage, married Baha’is are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence. Baha’is, in practice, file individual demands for recognition of marriages in civil court.
In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.
Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program entitled “Alternative Family,” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain requirements are met.
The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of violations of religious freedom.
According to the constitution, “No political activity may be exercised or political parties formed on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location, nor may any activity be practiced that is hostile to democracy, secretive, or which possesses a military or quasi-military nature.”
The constitution mandates the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, by year’s end, parliament still had not yet established such a commission.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.
In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail, who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in December 2017.
In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for the bombings of Coptic churches between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 persons. The court commuted the sentences of 19 other defendants to life imprisonment, eight to 15 years, and another to 10 years. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and said the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.
In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prison terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017 in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.
On July 1, the Court of Cassation upheld a death sentence issued against a suspect convicted of killing two Copts, terrorizing the Christian community of Shamiya village in Assiut, and imposing taxes on the village in 2013-14.
On March 30, a Cairo court sentenced 30 men to prison terms of 10 years to life for planning a suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria as well as other charges, including the bombing of a liquor store in Damietta. Eighteen defendants received life terms, eight received 15 years in prison, and four received 10 years. Ten of those convicted remained at large, and the court sentenced them in absentia. Authorities said the defendants had embraced ISIS ideology.
On December 11, a group of UN special rapporteurs publicly called on the government to end the detention and ill treatment of Ramy Kamel Saied Salid, who worked to defend the rights of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. According to a December press release issued by the UN Human Rights Council, as well as NGO and media sources, authorities arrested, questioned, and tortured Kamel on November 4 and November 23. They charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. His arrest coincided with his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a Geneva UN forum on November 28 and 29, where, in the past, he discussed issues relating to the Coptic community. According to the statement, police broke into Kamel’s home on November 23 and confiscated personal documents, a laptop, camera, and mobile phone before taking him to an unknown location.
On February 7, Christian activists circulated a video depicting a group of Al-Azhar students mocking Christian religious practices. Al-Azhar University referred the students to a disciplinary board at the university and in a statement said Al-Azhar strongly condemned such actions. On February 9, authorities arrested the students for “inciting sectarian strife” and subsequently released them on bail on February 27. At year’s end the case was still pending.
In January atheist blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to purchase another nationality so he could leave the country. Authorities banned Gaber from travel abroad in 2018 and accused him of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube. On September 16, Gaber posted on his Facebook page that he was sentenced to three years in prison for contempt of religions and disturbing the public peace.
Efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support, including from multiple members of parliament, although in late 2018 President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing.” On March 22, Al-Azhar announced the formation of a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa that would focus on “counter(ing) atheism” and preventing youth from “falling into disbelief.”
The government prosecuted some perpetrators of crimes targeting Christians and instances of sectarian violence. Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities charged four individuals with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. In June, after the court in Beni Suef referred the case to the Minya Criminal Court, the Minya court postponed hearing the case, which was still pending at year’s end. On February 17, the Ain Shams Misdemeanors Court sentenced a man who had stormed a church and attacked security officers in November 2018 to three years’ imprisonment.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities interrogated several of their members due to their status as a “banned group” during the year. In February security officials twice “violently interrogated” a Jehovah’s Witness in Upper Egypt, threatening, blindfolding, and beating him and confiscating his cell phone and personal identification. In April, October, and November, police officials in Cairo summoned individual Jehovah’s Witnesses to their office for questioning. In April officials summoned a Jehovah’s Witness in Minya for interrogation. In September security officials allowed more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a religious meeting in a private home.
There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests and sometimes failing to extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, particularly in Upper Egypt. On January 7, following a Mass celebrating Coptic Christmas, a crowd of Muslims protested the presence of the unlicensed Mar Girgis Church in the village of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya in Upper Egypt. On January 11, a crowd reportedly gathered again and chanted anti-Christian slogans until police and security forces intervened to disperse the crowd and closed the church. The Coptic Diocese of Minya subsequently released a video and statement that indicated security forces aided Muslim residents seeking to close the church. The Wall Street Journal quoted the Coptic Diocese of Minya, “Every time, the extremists are able to impose their demands.”
In February press reported local Christians had conducted three funerals of church congregants in the streets of Kom el-Raheb due to their continued denial of access to the church, which authorities closed in 2018. In July press reported Copts from Kom el-Raheb stormed into the closed church and staged a sit-in protesting the church’s continued closure. According to press reports, unknown persons burned down three Christian-owned properties following the sit-in. According to press reports, the church and individual church members blamed local government authorities and security forces for siding with anti-Christian “hard-liners.”
On April 12, a mob protesting the unlicensed expansion of the Anba Karas Church in the village of Nagaa el-Ghafir in Sohag Governorate attacked the church with rocks and wounded two Christians. Security forces intervened to stop the attack and ordered the church closed. In April EIPR condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. EIPR reported there had been 32 sectarian incidents between 2016 and April 2019 and stated security forces were responsible for the closure of 22 unlicensed churches, with up to four closed during the year.
According to official statistics, the government approved 814 applications to license churches and related buildings during the year, and, since September 2017, approved 1,412 of the 5,415 pending applications to license of churches and related buildings. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) quoted Coptic Orthodox Bishop Makarios of Minya as saying his diocese had approximately 150 villages and neighborhoods in need of a church or other religious buildings.
As it did in previous years, the government in September closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura. Although in previous years the government explained the closure was due to construction, reports in media stated the Ministry of Al-Awqaf circulated internal correspondence affirming the ministry would not allow any “sectarian practices,” and any attempts of sectarian “parades,” especially around the mosques of the Prophet’s family, would be confronted.
According to Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no husseiniyahs in the country and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. MRGI reported in January, “The state has failed to respect the right of the Shia to practice their religious rituals” and that security services often subjected Shia citizens traveling on religious pilgrimages to interrogations, sometimes including torture. According to MRGI, Shia risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services and security and intelligence services.
In July the Ministry of Awqaf announced a 12-day closure of the Imam Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo for maintenance. Community members said the actual reason for the closure was a call from Sufi groups to gather in the mosque square in response to an Al-Dostour newspaper article critical of Imam Hussein, entitled “Hussein Unjust,” that Sufi adherents deemed insulting to religion.
There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. In an October 7 press conference, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki announced the government was dismissing 1,070 public school teachers because of “extremist ideas.” A former senior official in the Ministry of Education (MOE) told the press the Muslim Brotherhood was targeting primary school students to continue to propagate its ideology.
According to June press reports, a mob attacked the homes of a Christian and his two relatives in the village of Ashnin in Upper Egypt. The mob forced its way into the homes and destroyed furniture and appliances before being dispersed by local police. Following an investigation, police arrested three Christians but none of the attackers. After a customary reconciliation session, the Christians were released and charges were dropped. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, on April 30, a customary reconciliation meeting was held in the Upper Egypt village of Nagib after threats of a potential mob attack by Muslim villagers led security officials to close the village’s church. The NGO also stated that a November customary reconciliation session in Hgara village, located in Upper Egypt, resulted in local Christians being told that they must rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village.
While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. While at least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt refused to participate in reconciliation sessions due to criticism that they frequently were substitutes for criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches, Orthodox Church leaders took part in two customary reconciliation sessions in other dioceses, according to EIPR. Although other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions, human rights groups and many Christian community representatives said the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship and pressured Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.
On January 25, MRGI released a report, Justice Denied, Promises Broken: The Situation of Egypt’s Minorities Since 2014, which stated, “A key factor in the prevalence of sectarian attacks against Christian communities is the continued practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’ between communities, often with the active encouragement of police and officials. This reliance on informal justice approaches that are usually weighted heavily in favor of the Muslim majority is further entrenched by the failure of security forces and the formal judiciary to discharge their responsibilities to prevent and punish targeted attacks on Christians…The dominance of this partial system of informal justice is accompanied by the failure of the formal justice system to protect Christian and other minority victims.”
As it has in previous years prior to Ramadan, the Ministry of Awqaf in April announced restrictions on the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents to spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan. As in previous years, authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.
In May the Ministry of Awqaf ordered imams limit the length of Ramadan night prayers (tarawih) to 10 minutes, and banned mention of political topics, the government, or political figures in prayers. At the start of Ramadan in May, Minister of Awqaf Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa announced the ministry had decided to close zawiyas (small prayer rooms used as mosques) during Ramadan and to restrict the use of loudspeakers.
In April the Ministry of Awqaf announced its intention to permanently close unauthorized mosques. There was no coordinated implementation of a policy of closures during the year.
The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims from worshiping privately in small numbers, according to community representatives. The government, however, continued to refuse their requests for public religious gatherings.
The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 23, the High Administrative Court rejected an appeal by the Witnesses to overturn a 1985 law that prevents their members from registering property ownership and marriages. The court ruled the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses contradict the public order and morals in the country.
In August the Ministry of Awqaf gave Yasser Borhami, the deputy head of the Salafist Call, the umbrella organization of the country’s Salafi movements, approval to deliver sermons during Friday prayers at an Alexandria mosque. Borhami had previously stated Muslims should not send holiday greetings to Christians or watch soccer games and had described Christianity as polytheism, said churches should not be allowed in the country, and Muslim taxi and bus drivers should not transport Christian clergy. Critics said Borhami’s past comments reflected hostility towards Christians and non-Salafi Muslims; they condemned the ministry’s decision allowing him to return to preaching.
On August 29, the Anti-Defamation League published a report, Anti-Semitic Show Does Not Belong on Egyptian State Television, detailing how a program, Blue Line, which aired on the government-run Channel Two, propagated a broad range of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The claims included Holocaust denial, Jewish control of U.S. banking, media, and government, and blood libel.
The UN Human Rights Council began its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s commitments under the ICCPR in November. Previous UPRs took place in 2010 and 2014. In submissions for the UPR, NGOs stated discrimination and sectarian violence against Copts persisted at the local level, often with inadequate intervention from security services to prevent it; many religious minorities lived in fear of societal persecution; Christians still faced discrimination in education and workplaces, and the law on the Construction and Reparation of Churches placed many restrictions on Christians attempting to restore or build new churches, while defining them as a “sect,” contrary to their right to equal citizenship. In its submission, the government stated, “certain practical steps have been taken to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, and incitement to violence on the basis of religion or belief.” The government cited several initiatives that it had undertaken in this regard, including the circulation of pamphlets and brochures, changes to the educational system, new classes, and employing the authority and expertise of Al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions to promote tolerance, moderation, and a culture of dialogue.
The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. In 2018, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011, when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests. The new governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.
Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services. Christians admitted at the entry level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks, according to sources.
No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.
The government generally permitted foreign religious workers to enter the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.
The MOE continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, second grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum after it was introduced in first grade and kindergarten in 2018.
The president established a Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents in 2018, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent such incidents, addressing them as they occur, and applying the rule of law. The committee, headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs, is composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the National Security Sector (NSS), and the Administrative Oversight Agency. TIMEP said the committee did not include representatives of the judiciary, legislature, human rights groups, or of any minority communities. According to press, however, the committee is entitled to invite ministers, officials, and religious leaders to its meetings when considering topics relevant to them. The committee held its inaugural meeting on January 16 to look into a January 11 attack by a crowd of approximately 1,000 Muslim villagers on Coptic villagers of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya. Coptic parliamentarian Emad Gad observed the committee did not issue any statement on the incident, even though it was formed to combat sectarian violence. Since the inaugural meeting, EIPR reported the committee had not announced any subsequent meetings.
Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance. On March 10, the Al-Azhar Center for Interfaith Dialogue and the Episcopal Church co-organized a conference on equal citizenship to promote interreligious tolerance and a shared sense of belonging, according to media reports. In May the Center for Interfaith Dialogue launched a new campaign entitled “God Hears Your Dialogue” to increase awareness among youth of the importance and necessity of dialogue to promote peaceful coexistence. In September Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf participated in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
In a January 7 statement, the Al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced its introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance in the 11,000 schools under its purview. The statement read that the new texts would focus on unity between Muslims and Christians and would stress the concept of citizenship without distinction on the basis of religious belief.
Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff grew to approximately 100 employees, who monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the Al-Azhar International Academy, also began offering courses on a wide range of subjects related to Islam to imams and preachers in 20 countries. Prominent members of parliament strongly criticized Al-Azhar for failing to rapidly institute the president’s directive to launch a renewal of religious discourse as a means to combat extremism, and for exercising excessive independence from the government. An EIPR analyst reported that President al-Sisi insisted Al-Azhar exert greater efforts to combat extremist ideas. Another EIPR analyst said Al-Azhar’s overseas programs were part of “Al-Azhar’s vision of itself as the guardian of Islam around the world and as a partner – rather than an affiliated institution – to the Egyptian state.”
On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi. The document condemned practices “detrimental to human life and freedom,” and pledged cooperation to combat extremism and promote peace.
In June President al-Sisi delivered a speech during a ceremony in Cairo for Laylat al-Qadr (the 27th day of Ramadan that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran) in which he said, “When we wish our Christian brothers a happy feast and (congratulate them) on building new churches, we represent our religion.” President al-Sisi added that the country’s main goal was to preserve the essence of religion, to raise religious awareness, and combat extremist threats among youth.
Dar al-Iftaa and Al-Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays. At the January 7 inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the largest church in the region, and the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque in the New Administrative Capital, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar said Islam obliged Muslims to safeguard houses of worship for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. President al-Sisi also attended the opening of the newly built mosque and the cathedral, where for the fifth consecutive year he celebrated Christmas services with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros.
In February the Jerusalem Post reported President al-Sisi met with a visiting delegation of private U.S. citizens and told them the government would welcome a resurgence of the Jewish community in the country and that it would support such a resurgence with the construction of synagogues and help with related services. According to the report, the president also promised to address concerns about the ancient Jewish Bassatine Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair. Following the meeting, the government facilitated a brief trash cleanup effort of the cemetery involving work crews from multiple municipalities; however, NGO representatives said the government did not contribute to the rehabilitation of the cemetery.
The Ministry of Antiquities (MOA) engaged in a multimillion dollar effort to restore the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue, one of two remaining in the greater Alexandria area. Authorities stated progress at the synagogue underscored the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage and very small remaining community, and that this was a reflection of a broader policy of stressing the government’s commitment to safeguarding religious diversity and freedom.
On February 7, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country. The ministry said it would conduct a design competition to decide on details and that only mosques designed in accordance with the new guidance would be granted construction permits in the future.
In July the state-run University of Alexandria and state-run University of Damanhour announced the establishment of centers of Coptic studies, in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes will include courses in the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat on the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in northern Sinai on January 17 based on his religious affiliation. The men had been checking the identification of motorists and abducted the man after learning he was Christian. On January 25, ISIS released a statement that read, “the soldiers of the Islamic State in Sinai set up an ambush to target the apostates.” According to media reports, the man had still not been located at the end of the year and his fate was unknown.
On January 5, a sheikh at a neighboring mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police discovered an IED. One police officer died and two others were injured when the IED exploded while it was being defused. While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, in December the NSS arrested three students of Al Azhar University and accused them of planting the explosives. The investigation continued through year’s end.
Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019.
Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities. According to a Coptic Christian advocacy group, of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian.
In May EIPR called on authorities to provide followers of unrecognized religions the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.
Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. In January Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim posted a video in which he criticized Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb for participating in the opening ceremony of the cathedral in the New Administrative Capital. Ghoneim said Islam considers Copts infidels, and that those who accept the Christian religion or assist them in practicing it are nonbelievers.
Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued. Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned television endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy. In May Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud received heavy criticism in the press and on various social media platforms for his interview with a prominent Israeli online news site. In August commentators and local anti-Zionist organizations strongly criticized a theatre performance on the Holocaust performed by university students and accused members of the cast of glorifying Zionism and insulting Muslims.
On January 28, attorney and activist Samir Sabri brought suit on behalf of a group of Muslim scholars seeking to ban the movie, The Guest, for misrepresenting Islam. The Cairo Court of Urgent Cases scheduled a hearing for February 23, and then postponed it until April 6. The case remained open through year’s end.
The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion. The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to arrest and mistreatment and released on the condition that they formally renounce their faith, although some unregistered groups are allowed to operate, and the government tolerates their worship activities. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media continued to report members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions. Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions and detention without explanation of individuals observing the recognized faiths. Haji Ibrahim Younus, arrested in 2018 for taking part in the funeral for Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, reportedly died in prison in January following an extended period in detention during which, according to religious groups, he did not receive adequate medical care. Said Mohamed Ali, who also participated in the funeral, died in June after physical abuse in prison and delayed medical assistance. In successive waves between May and August, the government arrested approximately 300 members of unrecognized Christian groups. There was no information on the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, the charges against them, if any, or if they remained in detention. The government closed a number of Catholic and other religious-run secondary schools and health clinics, citing a 1995 law prohibiting religious institutions from providing social services. Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006; in July Church officials excommunicated him for “heresy,” although he was allowed to live in a Patriarchate residence. NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 52 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith. An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018, although many reportedly were released. The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994 for refusing to participate in the referendum that created the independent state of Eritrea.
The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious communities created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom. Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended worship services and religious celebrations. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals organized by both the recognized and unrecognized religious groups were widely attended, including by senior government officials.
U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios. Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during bilateral meetings with senior Eritrean officials in Washington, New York, and Asmara. The government welcomed the September visit of a U.S. government delegation to open a new dialogue on these issues. U.S. embassy officials met with clergy and other members of religious groups, both registered and unregistered. Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of individuals, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, and UN officials. Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.
Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act. Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and the freedom to practice any religion.
Proclamation 73/1995 calls for separation of religion and state; outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, including concerning foreign relations and social activities; establishes an Office of Religious Affairs; and requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities. Some members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law reportedly continue to be subject to a provisional penal code that officially was replaced four years ago; the code sets penalties for failure to register and noncompliance. The current provisional penal code does not directly address penalties for religious groups that fail to register or otherwise comply with the law but includes a punishment for “unlawful assembly” of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,001 to 20,000 nakfa ($330-$1,330).
The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official registration. Each application must include a description of the religious group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other religious groups; names and personal information of the group’s leaders; detailed information on assets; a description of the group’s conformity to local culture; and a declaration of all foreign sources of funding.
The Office of Religious Affairs has registered four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation). A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval. The government, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, states that it is willing to register new religious groups but has not received any applications.
Religious groups must obtain government approval to build facilities for worship.
While the law does not specifically address religious education in public schools, Proclamation 73/1995 outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, and education is not included as an approved activity. In practice, religious instruction is commonplace within worship communities.
By law, all citizens between 18 and 50 must perform 18 months of national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy. In times of emergency, the length of national service may be extended indefinitely, and the country officially has been in a state of emergency since the beginning of the 1998 war with Ethiopia. A compulsory citizen militia requires some persons not in the military, including many who had been demobilized, elderly, or otherwise exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend militia training. Failure to participate in the militia or national service could result in detention. Militia duties mostly involve security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling. Militia training primarily involves occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures. The law does not provide for conscientious objector status for religious reasons, nor are there alternative activities for persons willing to perform national service but unwilling to engage in military or militia activities.
The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups.
The government requires all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to departing the country. The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information. An exit visa or other travel documents are not required to cross the newly opened land border with Ethiopia, although the government has not yet established crossing procedures and closes the border at times.
The law limits foreign financing for religious groups, including registered groups. The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign sources.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Haji Ibrahim Younus, a Muslim elder arrested in 2018 for taking part in the funeral for Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, reportedly died in prison in January following an extended period in detention during which, according to religious groups, he did not receive adequate medical care. Said Mohamed Ali, who also participated in the funeral, died in June after physical abuse in prison and delayed medical assistance.
In June security forces arrested five Orthodox priests from the Debre-Bizen Monastery, three of whom were older than 70, for protesting government interference in church affairs and for their support of Abune Antonios as the legitimate patriarch.
According to a report by Release International, the government imposed tight security throughout May in advance of Independence Day celebrations, and police raided several Protestant groups. The government reportedly arrested 141 Christians in Asmara, including 14 minors, on May 10, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), only 50 of whom were reportedly subsequently released. Another 30 Christians were arrested in early June, according to international media. On June 23, there were 70 more, including 10 children, arrested in Keren, followed by another 80 on August 18 in Godaif. No information was available as to the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, or the charges against them, if any.
CSW reported that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including some who had been imprisoned without charge for 23 years, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 52 Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than half of whom had been in prison for more than 20 years, for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith. There were unconfirmed reports that most of the Muslim detainees, arrested following protests in Asmara in 2017 and 2018, were released.
Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who last appeared in public in July 2017, remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting the government’s interference in church affairs.
Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.
The government did not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service and continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service. The government continued to hold Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons. Authorities prevented prisoners held for national security reasons, including religious prisoners, from having visitors. Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter.
Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.
The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders. Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching their religious beliefs to others.
In June the government closed at least seven Roman Catholic-run secondary schools and 22 Church-run health clinics, as well as some secondary schools run by other religious groups, citing a 1995 law prohibiting the provision of social services by religious groups. According to the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, as well as international news organizations, the closures followed a call in April by the Catholic Church for the government to effect urgent reforms to reduce emigration and to open a dialogue on peace and reconciliation. Catholic bishops characterized the school closures as motivated by “hatred against the faith and against religion” in a September letter to the minister of education. The Catholic Church was forced to transfer operation and administrative authority of clinics to the Ministry of Health. According to Catholic Relief Services, authorities closed the last Catholic hospital on July 5. Police forcibly removed the nuns who ran the facility and sealed the doors, preventing the nuns from taking hospital equipment with them. In June the Eritrean Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva issued a press release responding to Kravetz’s comments that cited regulations limiting the activities of religious organizations specifically. According to the press release, Regulation 73/1995 does not allow religious institutions to “conduct developmental activities in areas of their choice” nor to solicit funds from external donors.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.
Arrests and releases often went unreported. Information from outside the capital was extremely limited. Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge. International religious organizations reported authorities interrogated detainees about their religious affiliation and asked them to identify members of unregistered religious groups.
The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.
Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences. According to a report by the European Asylum Support Office, the issuance of exit visas was inconsistent and did not adhere to any consistent policy; members of nonrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation.
The government continued to allow only the practice of Sunni Islam and ban all other practice of Islam.
Official attitudes differed toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities. Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting. Local authorities sometimes denied government ration coupons to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.
Diaspora groups reported authorities controlled directly or indirectly virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups. The leaders of the four groups continued to state their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice, but individuals privately reported, among other obstacles, restrictions on import of religious items used for worship. Whether authorities used these restrictions to target religious groups was unclear, since import licenses remained generally restricted. Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.
Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged. Religious structures used by unregistered Jewish and Greek Orthodox groups continued to exist in Asmara. The government protected the historic Jewish synagogue building, which was maintained by the last remaining Jew. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Christ, remained shuttered. The government allowed the Baha’i center to remain open, and the members of the center had access to the building. A Baha’i temple built outside of Asmara was allowed to operate. The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, but the government did not permit religious services on the site. The Anglican Church building held services but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.
Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.
Government control of all mass media, as well as fear of imprisonment or other government actions, continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government repression against them, according to observers. Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship, according to group members. The government permitted church news services to videotape and publish interviews with foreign diplomats during the public celebration of the Eritrean Orthodox Meskel holiday.
Observers noted that the government exerted significant direct and indirect influence over the appointment of heads of recognized religious communities, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church and Sunni Islamic community, and some NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments. The government continued to deny this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities. The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the acting head of the Sunni Islamic community and the acting head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower level officials for both communities. Observers said that since the 2017 death of the former mufti, Sheik Alamin Osman Alamin, the government-friendly executive director of the mufti office, Sheik Salim Ibrahim Al-Muktar, in effect was acting as head of the Islamic community.
The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church remained without a patriarch since the 2015 death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros. In July the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church excommunicated the third patriarch, Abune Antonios, in home detention since 2006, for “heresy.” In July the BBC reported that some analysts believe he was expelled so the government could have full control of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Lay administrators appointed by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice managed some Church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.
The government continued to permit a limited number of Sunni Muslims, mainly the elderly and those not fit for military service, to take part in the Hajj, travel abroad for religious study, and host clerics from abroad. The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened to import foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.
The government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations. The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers Church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas. Students attending the Roman Catholic seminary, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials. Some Catholic leaders stated, however, national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.
While the overwhelming majority of high-level officials, both military and civilian, were Christian, three ministers, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims. Foreign diplomats, however, reported that individuals in positions of power, both in government and outside, often expressed reluctance to share power with Muslim compatriots and distrusted foreign Muslims.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Government control of all media, expression, and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom. Churches and mosques were located in close proximity to each other, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on various religious holidays and other events. Senior Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran religious leaders sat as honored guests alongside the ranking Eritrean Orthodox officials during the high profile public celebration of Meskel on September 28.
Some Christian leaders continued to report Muslim leaders and communities were willing to collaborate on community projects. Ecumenical and interreligious committees did not exist, although local leaders met informally, and religious holidays featured public displays of interfaith cooperation. Representatives of each of the official religions attended the state dinners for several visiting foreign officials. Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their faith.
The constitution codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state. On July 18, violence broke out in Sidama Zone, Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Region, in connection with demands for regional statehood. According to media affiliated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC), attackers killed a priest and two followers of the Church, burned three churches to the ground, and partially destroyed four churches in the violence. On February 3, youth members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Mekane Yesus, Amhara Region, burned mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses. The Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC reported that security forces detained 55 followers of the Church on September 27 during processions for the eve of the Meskel holiday (finding of the true cross). In March the government lifted restrictions on charities and societies, including faith-based organizations, from engaging in rights-based advocacy and accepting foreign funding. In May the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) revised a directive that had limited the formation of fully fledged Islamic (interest-free) banks.
In December attackers burned down four mosques and one church in Mota Town, Amhara Region, prompting condemnation by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and sparking protests by several thousand Muslims across the country. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups. EOTC followers in several towns of Amhara Region staged peaceful protests on September 15 and 22 to condemn attacks against the Church, religious leaders, and followers in Sidama Zone in the SNNP Region.
U.S. embassy and Department of State officials met officials from the Ministry of Peace throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance and radicalization. Embassy representatives met with prominent members of the Protestant Christian community and with NGOs to discuss the government’s role in religious affairs and their assessment about the growing influence of Protestantism in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs. It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law in order to protect public safety, education, and morals, as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion. The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another. The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.
Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches. The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols. Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity, and 15 for registration as a ministry or association; the rights and privileges are the same for each category. During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper; if there are no objections, registration is granted.
Unlike other religious groups, the EOTC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force. Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery. Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits. Religious groups must renew their registration at least every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.
Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports. Activity reports must describe proselytizing activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.
Under the constitution, the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.
Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state. The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays for workers to attend Islamic prayers. Private companies are not required to follow this policy.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values. The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques. The Charities and Societies Agency, a government agency accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction. The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.
The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.
In March the government revised a law that had restricted rights-based advocacy activities and foreign funding sources of charities and societies, including faith-based organizations. The new law allows all civil society organizations to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities and to collect and obtain funding from any legal source.
Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.
In May the NBE revised its directive to allow the formation of fully fledged Islamic (interest-free) banks. Seven business groups started the process of establishing Islamic banks. Previously, 10 commercial banks provided interest-free banking service through dedicated windows. In an emergency session on July 31, the House of People’s Representatives approved a revised proclamation on banking and customs providing the legal basis for the NBE to implement its directive and facilitate the establishment of Islamic banking services.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On July 18, groups of individuals from the Sidama ethnic group demanding regional statehood attacked a church in Sidama Zone, SNNP Region. Ministry of Peace officials confirmed that mobs attacked religious institutions but did not give details. Media affiliated with the EOTC reported that the mob killed a priest and two followers of the Church, burned three churches to the ground, and partially destroyed four others. Local researchers who investigated the media claims could not determine the motivation of the attack. Organized groups of youth vandalized the Chironie St. Emmanuel Church, according to local press reporting. The chief priest of Bore Debre Genet St. Mary Church in neighboring Oromia Region told media that his church sheltered 474 internally displaced persons, including deacons and priests whose churches were burned during the conflict. Media reported police arrested hundreds of suspects as well as leaders of a Sidama youth group known as Ejjetto.
In Dire Dawa on January 21, an unidentified group of youth hurled rocks at followers of the EOTC returning from Epiphany celebrations. Orthodox youth retaliated by physically attacking the unidentified youth. Police intervened, using tear gas and arresting some participants in the incident. The clash was followed by unrest that evolved into broader political protests in the week that followed. On January 24, the Police Commission announced it had arrested 84 individuals suspected of participating in the clashes that broke out on January 21.
On February 3, youth members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Mekane Yesus in the Amhara Region burned mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses. According to local government officials and religious leaders, Christians found an icon of St. Mary scattered among pieces of paper used to decorate the floor of a tent constructed for an Islamic wedding. Youth angered by this perceived desecration burned down two mosques, partially damaged a third, and vandalized shops owned by Muslim community members. Regional special police forces deployed to the area to help local police quell the unrest. Local media did not report any casualties associated with the incident. Federal and regional governments dispatched a team of officials to the town to hold public discussions between Muslims and Christians. Both Muslim and Christian groups condemned the incident and pledged to collaborate on rebuilding the destroyed mosques.
In February a group of Muslims attacked and burned seven Protestant churches in Halaba Kulito in the SNNP Region, according to local officials. Regional officials said the attacks were spurred by false news reports claiming mosques had been attacked by non-Muslims in the area. According to one report, the suspects chanted a jihadist slogan while attacking places of worship belonging to different Christian denominations. According to the report, municipal police were present but took no action, and order was not restored until state police arrived in the early afternoon.
In May there were reports of armed groups attacking Orthodox churches in North Shoa Zone of Oromia Region.
The Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC reported that security forces detained 55 followers on September 27 during processions on the eve of the Meskel holiday. Police said that 33 of the detainees wore T-shirts with messages demanding an end to attacks against the Church and that 12 of those detained carried sharp objects. Police released 37 of the detainees hours after the celebrations concluded.
In October there were reports of fighting during protests in Oromia Region. While the fighting was primarily along ethnic lines, the regional police commissioner stated that there were attempts to burn churches and mosques and that “there was a hidden agenda to divert the whole protest into an ethnic and religious conflict.” According to the mayor of the city of Adama in Oromia Region, 68 persons were arrested on suspicion of robbing and attempting to burn a mosque and an Orthodox church. In Dodala an Orthodox priest stated Orthodox Christians were targeted. In one week, eight persons were killed and buried in his church while 3,000 sheltered inside its compound.
Reports of government imposition or dissemination of Al-Ahbash teachings (a Sufi religious movement rooted in Lebanon and different from indigenous Islam) declined during the year.
In 2018 the Directorate for Registration of Religious Groups within the Ministry of Peace reported 816 religious institutions and 1,640 fellowships and religious associations were registered as of late in the year.
On May 1, Prime Minister Abiy brought together leaders of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (IASC) and the Muslim Arbitration Committee, a rival group, in an effort to resolve disputes within the Muslim community. Prime Minister Abiy’s effort prompted representatives from the Muslim community to agree at the meeting to replace the IASC (also referred to as Majlis) with a transitional council of Ulamas (Muslim scholars). The prime minister, accompanied by Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil, addressed the May 1 meeting of Muslim leaders and stated, “A united Muslim community is the foundation for national unity.” The goal of the 23-member transitional council is to prepare the legal and institutional framework for a new leadership structure for the Muslim community. Majlis leaders formally handed over power to the transitional council, which then elected Mufti Haji Oumer Idris, a respected elder, as its chairperson.
A group of local youth and police in the town of Bishoftu, Oromia Region, stopped Sunday School youth of Debremetsehet Kidanemihret Church of the EOTC during processions for the Meskel holiday on September 27, stating the EOTC followers wore clothes depicting an unauthorized version of the Ethiopian flag. The unauthorized version of the flag is closely linked with the country’s ethnic Amhara population and the EOTC. The Sunday School youth refused to change their uniforms and returned to the premises of the church. Reports stated that participants from other EOTC churches heard of the controversy and decided not to light a demera (large bonfire) in the absence of their fellow church members.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On December 20, attackers burned down four mosques in Mota Town, Amhara Region, north of Addis Ababa, during an outbreak of violence in which Muslim-owned businesses were also targeted, according to media reports. State-owned media reported that one church was also attacked. Prime Minister Abiy condemned the attack, calling it an attempt “by extremists to break down our rich history of religious tolerance and coexistence.” In the week following the incident, several thousand Muslims across the country demonstrated in protest. Police subsequently arrested 15 individuals suspected of involvement in the attacks.
NGOs continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups.
Followers of the EOTC in several towns in Amhara Region staged peaceful protests on September 15 and 22 to condemn attacks against the Church, its religious leaders, and its followers in Sidama Zone in the SNNP Region. Organizers of the protest told media they wanted those behind the attacks brought to justice.
The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community. One example the EIASC cited was foreign Salafist groups forcibly taking control of local mosques. The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.
The constitution and other laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance and to debate religious questions. The constitution provides for special qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law. Human rights and Muslim religious organizations stated that certain Muslim communities, especially ethnic Somalis, continued to be the target of government-directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention. The government denied directing such actions. The Registrar of Societies again did not register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and approximately 4,400 religious group applications remained pending. In January the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that required a publicly funded school to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab, citing faults in the petition process but encouraging the parties to file a new suit using correct procedures so the court could rule on the merits of the case. The judgment directed the board of the school to provide exemptions for students to wear clothing in accordance with their religious beliefs, but some Muslims interpreted the ruling as permission for officials to ban the hijab. A court ruled in September that a secondary school broke the law by asking a student to shave her dreadlocks, stating that Rastafarianism is a religion.
The Somalia-based terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties in the northeastern part of the country and said the group had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. On February 16, media reported that al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Wajir County, a predominantly Muslim region. There were again reports of religiously motivated threats of societal violence and intolerance, such as members of Muslim communities threatening individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity. In February a group of men believed to be Somali Muslims reportedly beat and raped a Somali mother of four in Dadaab refugee camp because she converted to Christianity. In April a pastor in Garissa, who ministered to former Muslims in an underground church, was reportedly beaten unconscious by a group of Muslims and hospitalized. Muslim minority groups, particularly those of Somali descent, reported continued harassment by non-Muslims. Some religious and political leaders, however, stated tolerance improved during the year, citing extensive interfaith efforts to build peace between communities. Prominent religious leaders representing the main faiths in the country issued a joint statement condemning the January 15 attack at the Dusit D2 hotel in Nairobi by five al-Shabaab terrorists that killed 21 persons, including one U.S. citizen. Unlike the 2013 terrorist attack at Westgate Mall, there were few reports of reprisal attacks against Muslim communities. A survey by the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK), a national interfaith umbrella group, examined the extent of freedom of religion and belief in two coastal counties, Mombasa and Kwale. The study targeted youth, community members, teachers, women, religious leaders, government officials, and peace organizations. Findings indicated the perceived level of religious tolerance was 37.3 percent, and the perceived level of government intolerance to religions was 46.4 percent.
U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, especially underscoring the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering violent extremism related to religion. In June embassy representatives participated in an interfaith iftar as part of an embassy-sponsored program to support efforts by IRCK to strengthen understanding, respect, and acceptance within multifaith communities in Nairobi and Mombasa Counties. In September the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable to build relationships with religious leaders and discuss efforts to improve tolerance and inclusion. The embassy hosted roundtables and other events that brought individuals of diverse faiths together to discuss religious tolerance and build mutual understanding.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there shall be no state religion and prohibits religious discrimination. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief individually or in communities, including the freedom to manifest any religion through worship, practice, teaching, or observance. The constitution also states individuals shall not be compelled to act or engage in any act contrary to their belief or religion. These rights shall not be limited except by law, and then only to the extent that the limitation is “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.”
The constitution requires parliament to enact legislation recognizing a system of personal and family law adhered to by persons professing a particular religion. The constitution also specifically provides for qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law, including questions relating to personal status, marriage, divorce, or inheritance in cases in which “all the parties profess the Muslim religion.” The country’s secular High Court has jurisdiction over civil or criminal proceedings, including those in the qadi courts, and accepts appeals of any qadi court decision.
Although there is no penal law referring to blasphemy, a section of the penal code states that destroying, damaging, or defiling any place of worship or object held sacred with the intention of insulting the religion of any class of persons is a misdemeanor. This offense carries a penalty of a fine or up to two years in prison but is reportedly rarely prosecuted using this law. Crimes against church property are more likely to be treated as malicious destruction of property, which is also a misdemeanor.
According to the law, new religious groups, institutions or places of worship, and faith-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) must register with the Registrar of Societies, which reports to the Attorney General’s Office. Indigenous and traditional religious groups are not required to register, and many do not. To register, applicants must have valid national identification documents, pay a fee, and undergo security screening. Registered religious institutions and places of worship may apply for tax-exempt status, including exemption from duty on imported goods. The law also requires that organizations dedicated to advocacy, public benefit, the promotion of charity, or research register with the NGO Coordination Board.
All public schools have religious education classes taught by government funded teachers. The national curriculum mandates religious classes, and students may not opt out. Some public schools offer religious education options, usually Christian or Islamic studies, but are not required to offer both.
The law establishes fees for multiple steps in the marriage process, which apply to all marriages, religious or secular. All officiants are required to purchase an annual license, and all public marriage venues must be registered. Officiants must be appointed by a registered religious group to conduct marriages in order to purchase the license.
The Ministry of Information, Communications, and Technology must approve regional radio and television broadcast licenses, including for religious organizations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Human rights groups and prominent Muslim leaders and religious organizations continued to state the government’s antiterrorism activities disproportionately impacted Muslims, especially ethnic Somalis and particularly in areas along the Somalia border. According to these groups, the government’s actions reportedly included extrajudicial killing, torture and forced interrogation, arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, and denial of freedom of assembly and worship. The government denied directing such actions. The government took steps, described by human rights organizations as limited and uneven, to address cases of alleged unlawful killings by security force members. The governmental Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA), established to provide civilian oversight of the work of police, continued to refer cases of police misconduct to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecution for prosecution.
In August Kenya Defenses Forces personnel killed ethnic Somali Muslim Abdullahi Kasim Yusuf, allegedly after he entered a Garissa military camp. The death led to local protests, and human rights defenders in the area called for an investigation, alleging other abuses by security forces in the region and stating there had been little accountability. In September security officers shot and killed two Muslims in Mombasa and Kwale whom they alleged were connected to terrorism and criminal activities. The men’s relatives and the NGO Muslims for Human Rights said the men were victims of extrajudicial killings and called for IPOA to investigate.
The Registrar of Societies continued not to register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and approximately 4,400 religious group applications remained pending.
In January the Supreme Court overturned on procedural grounds a lower court decision that required a publicly funded school in Isiolo County to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab, citing faults in the petition process. While the court’s decision included language recognizing the importance of accommodating religious dress in schools, some Muslims interpreted the ruling as permission for officials to ban the hijab. The court invited interested parties to file a new lawsuit following correct procedures so that it could rule on the merits of the case. The decision further directed the board of the school involved in the original petition to consult with parents and provide exemptions for students to wear clothing in accordance with their religious beliefs. The court also urged the secretary for education to establish new guidelines to better protect religious freedom in schools. In public statements, the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims highlighted what it called positive messages in the court’s ruling in what observers stated was an effort to defuse anger in the Muslim community.
The High Court ruled in September that a secondary school broke the law by asking a student to shave her dreadlocks, stating they were a manifestation of her religious beliefs as a member of the Rastafarian religion. The court ruling contained a permanent injunction restraining the school’s administration from interfering with the student’s education based on her religious beliefs, specifically mentioning her dreadlocks. The school had previously expelled the student for wearing her dreadlocks in a turban, after which her family sought redress and the court in January ordered the school to allow her to return pending a verdict in the case.
Christian televangelist Paul Makenzi of the Good News International Ministries, who was arrested in 2017 with his wife Joyce Mwikamba and charged with radicalizing children in Malindi, remained free on bail and resumed preaching while awaiting a court ruling on his case.
Muslim leaders continued to state that police often linked the whole Muslim community to al-Shabaab. IPOA reported numerous complaints from predominantly Muslim communities, particularly in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, regarding intimidation, arbitrary arrest, and extortion by police. Some complainants stated police accused them of being members of al-Shabaab.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabaab again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties in the northeastern part of the country and said the group had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. Authorities received numerous reports of terrorist attacks in the northeast of the country bordering Somalia by al-Shabaab and its sympathizers that targeted non-Muslims. On February 16, media reported that al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Wajir County, a predominantly Muslim region. Al-Shabaab remained the focus of government antiterror and police efforts throughout the northeast and coastal region.
In April a group of men believed to be Somali Muslims, according to Christian media, reportedly beat unconscious a pastor in Garissa who ministered to former Muslims in an underground church. Following his hospitalization, media reported the pastor moved with his family to a safer location.
In August a group of Muslims reportedly prevented an attack against Christians in the northern part of the country. According to Christian media, individuals affiliated with al-Shabaab planned to attack Christians working at a construction site for a new hospital in Kutulo. Muslims who heard of the planned attack went to the site to warn Christian workers to flee and confronted the gunmen when they arrived. The attackers reportedly opened fire, but there were no injuries.
According to NGO sources, some Muslim community leaders and their families were threatened with violence or death, especially individuals who had converted from Islam to Christianity and those of Somali ethnic origin. In February, according to Christian media, Somali Muslims beat and raped a Somali mother of four in Dadaab refugee camp because she converted to Christianity. They reportedly threatened her for more than a year to return to Islam.
Some interreligious NGOs and political leaders said religious tensions were not as high as in previous years, citing extensive interfaith efforts to build peace between communities. For example, the national interfaith umbrella group IRCK implemented several programs to promote interfaith acceptance in diverse communities. In several instances, national religious leaders representing the IRCK used their influence to help resolve violent conflicts, particularly among youths. Other community-level religious leaders came together to learn about each other’s faiths. Following the January 15 al-Shabaab attack at the Dusit D2 hotel in Nairobi that left 21 persons dead, including one American, Muslim, Catholic, Anglican, Pentecostal, and other religious leaders condemned the attack in a joint press release that conveyed a united stance against terrorism and appealed for peace. Threats of reprisal against Muslim communities after the incident appeared largely on social media, in contrast to the widespread physical attacks against Muslims that occurred after the 2013 Westgate terrorist attack.
There were reports that, in general, non-Muslims continued to harass or treat with suspicion persons of Somali origin, who are predominantly Muslim. Police officers often did not serve in their home regions, and therefore officers in some Muslim majority areas were largely non-Muslim.
A survey by IRCK examined the extent of freedom of religion and belief in two coastal counties, Mombasa and Kwale. The study targeted youth, community members, teachers, women, religious leaders, government officials, and peace organizations. Findings indicated the perceived level of religious tolerance was 37.3 percent, and the perceived level of government intolerance to religions was 46.4 percent. Those surveyed cited extrajudicial killings of suspects of terror activities as a primary driver of marginalization and intolerance. Most respondents, 56.9 percent, believed attacks on other religions were responsible for hatred between religious groups. Less than half, 41.2 percent, believed the government “treated religions well.”
In February the National Council of Churches of Kenya proposed constitutional changes to limit the role of qadi courts, triggering claims of intolerance by some Muslim organizations and causing a significant rift for much of the year. IRCK leadership finally resolved the issue through discussions and mediation.
Religious leaders representing interfaith groups, including the Anglican, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Hindu communities, continued to engage with political parties and the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission in the national reconciliation process initiated after violent 2017 presidential elections. In December representatives of a number of religious organizations participated in a National Dialogue Reference Group conference to promote national healing and identify social cohesion challenges.
The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations – including several in July against the ongoing detention of IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky – resulting in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, which left as many as 30 dead, including protesters and police. Security forces fired on Shia religious processions for Ashura in September, killing 12, according to the IMN. Following the July violence, the government banned the IMN and declared the group a terrorist organization. The IMN stated it planned to legally contest the ban. In July the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to local and Catholic media. The government continued its detention of El-Zakzaky despite a December 2016 court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The government launched new security operations in the North West states and continued ongoing operations in the North Central states that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian. There were several incidents of violence involving these groups in the North Central and North West. In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled. Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out person-borne improvised explosive device (IED) bombings – many by young women and girls drugged and forced into doing so – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. In July ISIS-WA abducted six Action Against Hunger (AAH) aid workers from a convoy heading to deliver food in Borno State. In July 65 people returning from a funeral in a predominantly Muslim community in Borno State were killed by Boko Haram. In September ISIS-WA released a video depicting the beheading of two Christian aid workers; in the video one of the killers vowed to kill every Christian the group captured in “revenge” for Muslims killed in past conflicts. In October ISIS-WA filmed and publicly released its killing of one of the six abducted AAH aid workers, who was Muslim. On December 24, Boko Haram killed seven people and abducted a teenage girl in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State. On December 26, ISIS-WA released a video of the execution of 10 Christians and one Muslim to avenge the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Conflicts between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in the North Central states continued throughout the year, although the violence was lower than during the 2017-2018 spike, reportedly due to government intervention and efforts of civil society to resolve conflicts. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern that this conflict took on increasingly religious undertones. In addition to religious differences, local authorities, scholars, and regional experts pointed to ethnicity, politics, lack of accountability and access to justice, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources among the key drivers of the violence. Attacks and killings by Fulani herdsman continued during the year, although according to the publicly available Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the number of civilian victims fell dramatically, from over 1,500 in 2018 to approximately 350 in 2019. According to international media, in February 131 Fulani and 11 Adara were killed in Kaduna State. On April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Some domestic and international Christian groups stated that Fulani were targeting Christians on account of their religion. Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities.
U.S. embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials regularly promoted principles of religious freedom and religious coexistence in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. The Ambassador, Consul General, and other senior U.S. officials hosted interfaith dinners, participated in interfaith conferences, and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored training sessions for journalists who report on ethnoreligious conflicts to help reduce bias in their reporting and prevent tensions from becoming further inflamed. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator visited Abuja, Bwari Local Government Area, and Lagos to highlight U.S. government support for interfaith cooperation and conflict mitigation efforts.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other virtues, as a distinct “national ethic.”
The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law courts. Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for “civil proceedings”; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear civil cases in which all litigants are Muslim and provides the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in the sharia courts if they wish.
The constitution is silent on the use of sharia courts for criminal cases. In addition to civil matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for hudud (serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning). Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, may seek advice from sharia experts.
Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
To build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($55).
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place that community wholly maintains.
Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools for registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations, some of which resulted in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces. IMN was the largest Shia organization in the country and was led by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky who, according to his writings and online communications, draws inspiration from the Iranian revolution and from the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Between March and July, members of the IMN conducted daily protests in Abuja to contest the continued detention of El-Zakzaky, despite a December 2016 Abuja High Court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The protests continued until his temporary release due to illness in August. During an initially peaceful IMN demonstration in Abuja on July 9, an IMN member sparked an exchange of gunfire between police and IMN protestors when he grabbed an officer’s holstered pistol, resulting in the deaths of the officer, 15 IMN members, and a security guard, according to press reports. IMN members also broke through police barricades at the National Assembly and police dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Following the July 9 events, the Senate called for the arrest of IMN members involved in the violence, while the House of Representatives called on the government to urgently engage the IMN to resolve the conflict and expressed fears the Shia group was fast evolving “the way Boko Haram started.”
Human Rights Watch reported that on July 22, police opened fire on peaceful IMN protesters and killed 11 protesters, a journalist, and a police officer, while dozens of others were wounded or arrested, according to witnesses and authorities. On November 27, police arraigned 60 IMN members arrested at the July 22 protest on charges of culpable homicide, destruction of public property, and public disturbance.
On July 26, the Federal High Court ruled IMN’s activities amounted to “acts of terrorism and illegality” and ordered the government to proscribe the “existence and activities” of the group. On July 28, the government complied, officially banning the IMN as an illegal organization and thereby prohibiting its meeting or activities. In its announcement, the government emphasized its proscription of the IMN “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.” Following the ban, then-Archbishop of Abuja Cardinal Oneiyekan defended the country’s Shia Muslims and criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to Catholic media. On September 10, despite the government prohibition, the IMN sponsored Ashura religious processions in Bauchi, Kaduna, Gombe, Katsina, and Sokoto States. The IMN reported as many as 12 participants in the processions died in clashes with security forces, with media sources reporting between three and nine killed.
In August the government granted El-Zakzaky temporary release to seek medical treatment in India; he traveled but reportedly refused treatment in India after stating armed Indian guards had been posted in his room during his medical treatment. Upon his return home the government returned him to custody, where he remained through the end of the year.
On November 27, police broke up an IMN protest and arrested 12 members and two journalists. The journalists later were released.
Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. Approximately 100 IMN members arrested after that clash remained in detention.
In June the Kaduna state legislature approved a bill to regulate religious preaching. While the government said the new law would protect against “hate speech,” religious leaders said it infringed on freedom of speech and the rights of Christians and Muslims. The law required all preachers to be licensed by a state-level body composed of religious leaders, government officials, and security agencies. Later in June Kaduna’s highest court nullified the law, stating that it was inconsistent with the constitution’s guarantees for freedom of expression, association, and religion. The state government announced it would appeal the decision at the federal level.
In May the Kano state Hisbah Board arrested 80 Muslims accused of eating in public rather than fasting during Ramadan. The Kano hisbah spokesman said they were all eventually released since it was their first offense but noted they would be taken to court if detained again. In October the Kano state hisbah arrested four men for organizing a false online wedding to a young woman over Facebook, stating it “mocked Islam” as well as demeaned the “sanctity of the institution of marriage.”
Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or effectively mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities in the Middle Belt region.
In June some ethnoreligious organizations in the South West and South East reacted with threats of violence to news of a government plan to resettle predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country. In the South West, both Muslim and Christian groups threatened violence against members of the Fulani ethnic group. The government later abandoned the plan.
In June President Muhammadu Buhari announced plans for the eventual ban of Almajiri Quranic schools due to their reported practice of forcing students to beg in the streets and their perceived association with urban crime and violence; he said the government first would consult with states, which have jurisdiction over the schools, and others in the education community. In July the Kaduna State Commissioner for Education announced that Quranic schools would be integrated into the formal education system. In October the Kano state government announced a “free and compulsory education initiative” that would abolish the payment of school fees and integrate all Almajiri pupils into the formal education system in 2020.
In October police raided four Islamic schools in Kaduna and Katsina States and freed over 1,000 men and boys living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, including being chained and physically abused, according to international media. In November police freed 259 men, women, and children from an Islamic school in Oyo State and rescued 15 people chained in a church in Lagos. In November Human Rights Watch reported its investigators found individuals chained in 27 of 28 institutions they visited, which included psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, traditional healing centers, Christian churches, and both Islamic and state-owned rehabilitation centers. Following the raids, President Buhari issued a statement saying, “No responsible democratic government would tolerate the existence of the torture chambers and physical abuses of inmates in the name of rehabilitation of the victims.”
In January Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III and then-Archbishop of Abuja Onaiyekan organized a conference with religious leaders from throughout the country to promote peaceful elections.
In September the Kaduna State Urban Planning Development Agency served the 110-year-old St. George Anglican Church a notice to vacate its premises within seven days on the grounds that the church did not have a certificate of occupancy. A week later the Kaduna state government issued a statement saying the church would remain because of its historical value.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Numerous fatal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Fulani Muslim herders. Scholars and other experts, including international NGOs, cited ethnicity, politics, religion, lack of accountability and access to justice, increasing competition over dwindling land resources, population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from crime and other forms of violence all as drivers contributing to the violence. Several international and domestic experts noted that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought herder groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they are unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups. Similarly, internal transhumance (movement of livestock) to the North Central and Southern parts of the country has increased in recent years due to demographic and ecological pressures, according to the UN.
Multiple Christian NGOs stated that religious identity was a primary driver of the conflict. A Le Monde op-ed in December, however, stated “reducing the violence in the center of the country to sectarian confrontation is an extreme simplification,” and other analysts noted that the same conflict dynamics exist across the region where both herders and farmers are Muslim, including the North West, but had received less media attention.
According to a report released by the U.K.-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), “Fulani militia” killed over 1,000 Christians throughout the year. The report noted that the “underlying drivers of the conflict are complex,” and stated that violence targeting predominantly Christian communities, the targeting of church leaders, and the destruction of hundreds of churches suggested religion and ideology were key factors. It also stated that retaliatory violence by Christians occurred, though “we have seen no evidence of comparability of scale or equivalence of atrocities.” According to various secular and Christian media outlets, from February to mid-March, Fulani herders and Boko Haram terrorists killed 280 individuals in predominantly Christian communities. ACLED data, however, documented 350 total civilian deaths by “Fulani militia” in 2019.
A study by the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel noted that within the country, “there are many different Fulani clans, sub-clans, local Fulani cultures and dialects, and variations in herding practices.” Experts stated there was no evidence to suggest the Fulani had an explicit Jihadist agenda or were mobilized behind a common ethnic agenda, and noted there are between 30-40 million Fulani in Africa.
On February 10, on the eve of general elections, as many as 131 members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani ethnic group and 11 members of the predominantly Christian Adara ethnic group were reportedly killed and some 10,000 were internally displaced in clashes in Kajuru. In response, the Kaduna governor arrested the Adara leaders and elder statesmen, a move which local Christian leaders condemned. The governor also announced there were 131 casualties of the attacks and said, “The more the police dig into this matter, the more it is clear that there was a deliberate plan to wipe out certain communities.” Christian leaders disputed the casualty figures announced by the governor, while Fulani leaders later released a list of what they said were the names of the 131 Fulani killed. A Fulani herder told The Los Angeles Times, “There is no effort to protect our villagers,” and added that “bandits” were responsible for a deadly attack on [farmers in] Ungwan Barde, not herders; “We don’t know why [the farmers] blamed us.”
On March 14, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported that Fulani militia members had killed 120 persons since February 9 in the Adara chiefdom of South Kaduna. According to the Adara Development Association, on March 11, Fulani militia killed 52 persons in attacks on Inkirimi and Dogonnoma villages in Maro, Kajuru Local Government Area, while the Kaduna Police Command reported 16 deaths.
According to local and international media, in May the discovery of two dead boys at the border between a Christian village and a Hausa Muslim community in Plateau state sparked ethnic-based riots against Hausas, resulting in from five to as many as 30 deaths. In August and September, local media reported armed, ethnicIgbo Christian criminal gang members posing as Fulani Muslim herdsmen killed two priests in the South East in an attempt to incite religious conflict. According to international media, on April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Pastor Samson Gamu Yare, community leader of the Mada ethnic group in Nasarawa State, called on the federal government to take measures towards curtailing these attacks on his people.
During the year, media and religious groups reported several cases of priests and other Christian clergy and their families who were attacked, killed, or kidnapped for ransom, often by attackers identified as of allegedly Fulani ethnicity. These cases included, among others, the killing of Father Paul Offu and Father Clement Ugwu and the beating of an evangelical Christian pastor from Kaduna State and kidnapping for ransom of his wife, who died in her captors’ custody. Authorities stated these incidents were criminal acts and not religiously motivated, reportedly due to the ethnicities of those arrested for the crimes, although many Christian civil society groups pointed to such incidents as examples of religiously motivated persecution. In August 200 Catholic priests marched through the streets of Enegu city, protesting insecurity and what they characterized as “Fulani attacks on Christians.” Muslim religious figures were also the victims of kidnapping. In March Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmad Sulaiman was kidnapped in Katsina State and released after 15 days.
According to international media, in October in Chikun, Kaduna State, Fulani gunmen kidnapped six school girls and two teachers from Engravers College Kakau, a high school with a Christian perspective that has a secular curriculum and enrolls both Christian and non-Christians. Shunom Giwa, vice principal of Engravers’ College, told Morning Star News that security issues led to some parents withdrawing their children from the school. Media reported the abductors stormed the boarding school when most of the students and teachers were asleep. The individuals were released after authorities paid a ransom.
In its report, “Nigeria: The Genocide is Loading,” NGO Jubilee Campaign stated that it had documented at least 52 Fulani militant attacks between January and June 12. HART, in its report, stated the situation between Fulani herdsman and farmers amounted to genocide and governments worldwide should recognize and respond to it as such. Other longtime observers, however, including those with the Africa section of the French National Center for Scientific Research, expressed concern that describing the situation as one of “pre-genocide” was inaccurate, and ran the risks of “misrepresenting the facts, discrediting the media, and making the situation on the ground worse.” In a Le Monde op-ed on conflict in Nigeria, scholars stated that the term “genocide” allows some Nigerian politicians to “vindicate one group and instrumentalize another.” Other international observers warned against framing the issue as an attack on one group, since such a claim ignored the complexity of the issue and could deepen and perpetuate the conflict.
In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled.
In November student protests took place after the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in predominantly Christian Enugu State, announced it would host a conference on witchcraft and the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria called for Christians to pray against the event. The event took place as scheduled after the university removed the term “witchcraft” from the title of the conference.
On February 23, interfaith leaders and members of the Strength and Diversity Development Center held a “Weekend of Prayer and March for Peace” in seven states across the country.
On January 10, the NGO 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative organized the first of three international religious freedom roundtables. Participants included representatives of several Muslim and Christian communities. The group formed an interfaith steering committee to guide its efforts to promote religious tolerance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status. Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws, one requiring religious groups to register with the government and the other criminalizing, defining, and punishing hate crimes and speech, could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech. In March the Pretoria High Court ordered the Dutch Reformed Church to allow individual church councils to recognize and bless same-sex relationships and to employ noncelibate gay clergy. In September the Constitutional Court ruled that parental rights to religious freedom did not include the right to discipline their children using corporal punishment (including spanking), in response to a case brought by the NGO Freedom of Religion SA.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 36 anti-Semitic incidents during the year – a 15-year low. Numerous individuals made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year. Religious leaders reported a number of anti-Muslim incidents, including vandalism of several mosques and desecration of Muslim graves in a Cape Town cemetery, and attempts to prevent the slaughter of animals for Eid-al-Adha.
U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and humanist representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief, including the right to form, join, and maintain religious associations. It prohibits religious discrimination and specifies freedom of expression does not extend to advocacy of hatred based on religion. The constitution permits legislation recognizing systems of personal and family law to which persons professing a particular religion adhere. It also allows religious observances in state or state-supported institutions, provided they are voluntary and conducted on an equitable basis. These rights may be limited for reasons that are “reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality, and freedom” and take account of “all relevant factors.” Cases of discrimination against persons on the grounds of religion may be taken to Equality Courts, the South African Human Rights Commission, and the Constitutional Court. The constitution also provides for the promotion and respect of languages used for religious purposes, including, but not limited to, Arabic, Hebrew, and Sanskrit.
The constitution establishes and governs the operation of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Communities (CRL) with the mission of fostering the rights of communities to freely observe and practice their cultures, religions, and language. The CRL is an independent national government institution whose chair is appointed by the president and whose commissioners include members of the clergy, scholars, and politicians, among others.
The law does not require religious groups to register; however, registered religious and other nonprofit groups may qualify as public benefit organizations, allowing them to open bank accounts and exempting them from paying income tax. To register as a public benefit organization, groups must submit a nonprofit organization application, including their constitution, contact information, and list of officers and documentation stating they meet a number of prescribed requirements that largely ensure accounting and tax compliance, to the provincial social development office. A group registers once with the local office but its status then applies nationwide. Once registered, the group must submit annual reports on any changes to this information, important achievements and meetings, and financial information, as well as an accountant’s report.
The government allows but does not require religious education in public schools but prohibits advocating the tenets of a particular religion.
The law allows for marriages to be conducted under customary law; however, it applies only to “those customs and usages traditionally observed among the indigenous African people” and may be performed by all religious groups and their leaders.
The constitution grants detained persons visitation rights with their chosen religious counselor.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March the Pretoria High Court ordered the Dutch Reformed Church to allow individual church councils to recognize and bless same-sex relationships and to employ noncelibate gay clergy. The case effectively ended the Church’s 2016 policy banning LGBTI persons from marrying or becoming clergy, according to civil society activists. In September the Church’s General Synod adopted a policy “in which everyone’s human dignity is respected.” The synod’s decision allowed councils and ministers to “confirm civil unions between persons of the same sex” and called for the licensing of theological students without regard to their “race, gender, class, or sexual orientation and identity.”
In June the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) charged an officer with disobedience for refusing to remove her religious headscarf. Major Fatima Isaacs worked in SANDF for more than a decade and always wore the Islamic garment under her military beret. According to her attorney, Isaacs received permission to wear her hijab from senior officers. One “colonel had continuously refused her request until he served her with a final written warning for repeatedly disobeying a lawful instruction,” the attorney said. In August SANDF gave Isaacs interim relief while it reviewed its dress code. In November the case was postponed to January 2020.
In September the CRL denounced a public school in Alberton, Gauteng for promoting a specific religion. The CRL cited a 2017 ruling by the High Court in Johannesburg that found it unconstitutional for Laerskool Randhart and other public schools to promote one religion over others. A parent complained to the CRL that the school continued to hold Monday morning Bible reading and prayer along with Wednesday religious periods featuring a teacher from a church. “The outcome of the High Court matter is quite explicit about this because it said that schools have the right to determine access to any religion, but any preference given to one religion is not permitted,” said CRL Chair Luka David Mosoma.
Also in September, in a case brought by the NGO Freedom of Religion SA, the Constitutional Court ruled that parents may not spank their children. The case concerned a father convicted in 2016 of assaulting his 13-year-old son and upheld an earlier ruling by the High Court to do away with the common-law defense of reasonable chastisement when spanking a child. The Constitutional Court found that “violence meted out to the son… took the form of vicious kicking and punching… The father could not… [have] relied on any religious or cultural ground to justify that unmistakably immoderate and unreasonable application of force…The application of force or a resort to violence, which could be harmful or abused, cannot in circumstances where there is an effective non-violent option available be said to be consonant with the best interests of the child.” The court charged parliament with devising an appropriate regulatory framework to implement the decision and stated, “The aim is not to prosecute parents but to get them to parent better. The removal of the defense does not mean that all cases of parental corporal punishment mean automatic or frequent prosecution of parents.” Freedom of Religion SA argued that “there is a clear distinction between violence or abuse, and mild (non-injurious) physical correction.” Freedom of Religion SA’s attorney said the judgment “sets a very dangerous precedent in that the State can dictate to people of faith how to read and live out the Scriptures, thereby seriously eroding their right to religious freedom.”
According to media, the Johannesburg Metro Police (JMPD) closed at least 16 churches for not complying with city bylaws regarding noise and fire safety. JMPD also created a forum with church leaders to raise awareness about the municipal code. “Rogue churches, they will never be allowed,” JMPD head David Tembe told the private broadcaster eNCA.
In February the then minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs urged the CRL to “protect the public against abuse in the name of religion” after a video clip of a pastor allegedly raising someone from the dead was widely distributed on the internet. In July the new CRL chair stated that “the issue of regulation of religion is still on the plate… Parliament will have to take a position on whether religion is regulated or not.” Several groups, including the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the nonprofit Christian organization Freedom of Religion South Africa (FORSA), and the International Institute for Religious Freedom, stated their continued opposition to a 2016 CRL legislative proposal requiring religious groups to register, stating it would restrict their religious freedom. The proposal would require religious groups to register formally with the government and would create a peer review council, consisting of representatives from various religious groups, which would grant organizations and individual religious leaders’ permission to operate. In 2018 the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs announced that every comment it had received from the religious community opposed the CRL proposal. No member of the committee recommended that the CRL proposal be forwarded for adoption by parliament. According to media, the legislative proposal was prompted by the CRL’s 2016 investigation that revealed some independent church leaders instructed their congregations to eat live snakes, expose their faces to insect repellant, drink gasoline, and pay large sums of money to receive blessings and miracles. The proposal remained with the parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs at year’s end.
In 2018 the Department of Justice introduced to parliament a hate crimes and hate speech bill that would criminalize any action or statement motivated by bias or hatred towards an individual based upon a number of categories, including his or her ethnic, national, religious, or sexual identity; health status; employment status or type; or physical ability. The bill would provide law enforcement officials and courts increased authority to arrest and punish offenders, and it would mandate prison sentences of up to three years for first-time offenses. Opponents to the bill, including religious figures, media representatives, and civil society and NGOs, argued the bill’s definition of hate crimes and speech was too vague and could potentially restrict freedom of religion and speech. The draft legislation was expected to be debated in parliament in early 2020, according to media reports.
Twin brothers Brandon Lee Thulsie and Tony Lee Thulsie continued to await trial on charges of contravening the Protection of Constitutional Democracy Against Terror and Related Activities. The brothers, along with two others who were alleged to have links to ISIS, were arrested in 2016 for allegedly planning to set off explosives at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria and Jewish institutions in the country. Their trial was expected to begin in March 2020.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In June unknown individuals vandalized three Western Cape Jewish cemeteries. A Jewish group in Strand filed a police complaint after four Jewish gravestones were damaged.
In July at a Johannesburg university following the showing of a documentary, a student said that “if Hitler had succeeded in wiping out the Jews, there would be no apartheid state of Israel,” according to the SAJBD. The student subsequently apologized.
In August a driver rammed the trailer of a Muslim family in Saddlebrook Estate, a gated neighborhood in Midrand, Gauteng, as they were arriving home with animals to slaughter for Eid-al-Adha. The driver also slashed the tires of the family’s vehicle, for which he was subsequently arrested. The slaughtering eventually took place under police guard. Representatives of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had visited the residents’ premises and deemed them suitable for the slaughtering ceremony. The estate’s board of directors denounced the “intolerant and illegal actions in the estate of some residents.”
In September protesters from nearby neighborhood Thokoza forced open the gate of Katlehong Mosque in Johannesburg and burned a parked car and some artwork in the building. Imam Sheikh Ishaq told media the attack stemmed from a hoax message circulating on social media alleging that Pakistanis and Bangladeshis were kidnapping students from a local school. Later in September, a man threw a Molotov cocktail at the Himayatul Islam Mosque while worshippers were inside. Police arrested two suspects, according to media reports.
In October vandals desecrated 80 Islamic graves in Mowbray in Cape Town and rearranged the headstones in the shape of a cross, according to media.
The SAJBD recorded a 15-year low of 36 anti-Semitic incidents during the year, a 40 percent drop from the 62 during 2018. The incidents included verbal threats and intimidation, verbal abuse, abusive communications, and graffiti/offensive slogans.
During Ramadan in Cape Town, a neighbor of the Zeenatul Islam Mosque in the neighborhood known as District Six lodged a noise complaint with the city over the mosque’s call to prayer. A variety of organizations, including the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, defended the mosque. “It defies logic that anyone living in District Six…would consider the call to prayer worthy of a complaint,” it said in a statement, referring to the fact that District Six has historically had a significant Muslim population and the Zeenatul Islam Mosque had been broadcasting the call to prayer since 1919.