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Executive Summary

The constitution states no law may be passed respecting the establishment of a state religion or impairing the free exercise of religion.  The government may provide assistance to religiously affiliated schools for nonreligious purposes.  Observers stated Kosrae State government leaders expressed differing opinions regarding tolerance and respect for smaller religious groups.  The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Kosrae State reported it did not receive police responses to physical threats to individuals and incidents of vandalism and stated the government did not extend public services to their community.

Some Christians continued their advocacy of amending the constitution to prohibit the presence of non-Christian religious groups.  The Inter-Denominational Council in Pohnpei continued to address social problems and promote official cooperation among most Christian groups.  Other groups, including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the council’s charter was not inclusive.  Ahmadi Muslims continued to report incidents of vandalism targeting their religious centers and homes.

The U.S. embassy discussed religious freedom and tolerance with national and state governments.  The embassy also had discussions with religious leaders and sponsored educational events to promote religious tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Kosrae State government leaders expressed differing opinions regarding tolerance and respect for smaller religious groups.

An Ahmadi Muslim reported police did not respond to threats of physical assault on individuals and actual incidents of vandalizing graffiti, particularly in the predominantly Protestant Kosrae State.

The government said the Islamic Center had access to water, electricity, and ample space for lodging, prayer and outdoor activities.

The government continued to provide grants to private, church-affiliated schools.  It continued to state it made no distinction between public and private schools in its grants programs.

The Ahmadi imam reported the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Kosrae did not receive assistance from the Kosraen government to help it establish a mosque in the state.

National and state government events routinely opened and closed with a prayer, invocation, or benediction from a Protestant or Catholic clergy member, and often one from each group.


Executive Summary

The constitution protects the right of individuals to practice their religion and states religious groups are autonomous and independent from the state.  The law, however, recognizes the “exceptional importance” of Orthodox Christianity.  Minority religious groups and others reported the government continued to provide preferential treatment to the Moldovan Orthodox Church (MOC), and that the MOC exerted strong influence over government policies and electoral politics.  Several legal cases involving minority religions continued to be unresolved.  Throughout the year, President Igor Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity and particularly the MOC.  In May the Jewish community submitted a request to renew a building permit with the Chisinau mayor’s office to renovate property on which a historical Jewish synagogue stands, following a favorable Supreme Court of Justice decision in 2017 and the 2016 endorsement by parliament of the Wiesel Commission’s Report on the Holocaust.  The government also adopted a 2017-19 action plan based on the commission’s recommendations.  In October it adopted a decision to establish a National Holocaust Museum in Chisinau, renovate the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe, and approve a high school curriculum on historic lessons of the Holocaust, to be introduced in the 2019 school year.  There was progress on other commitments taken under the action plan, such as holding special sessions of parliament and government to commemorate Holocaust victims and developing content on the Holocaust for history textbooks.  In July the Supreme Court of Justice upheld a decision recognizing the validity of a building permit for a Kingdom Hall in Ceadir-Lunga.  After more than two years of opposition from local authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to proceed with the building’s construction.  A number of religious entities benefited from a 2017 law allowing individuals to direct 2 percent of their income tax to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or religious organizations.  The Islamic League of Moldova (Islamic League) reported an increase in actions taken against girls in public schools for wearing the hijab.  The Ministry of Education, Culture, and Research (Ministry of Education) did not take action following complaints submitted by the parents and advised them to take the case to the Anti-Discrimination Council.

In the separatist Transnistria region, NGOs continued to report the de facto authorities discriminated against, restricted the activities of, and monitored activities of, minority religious groups.  Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attempts to reregister their charters in Transnistria were unsuccessful.  The Muslim community said it continued to refrain from overt religious activities because of past intimidation by the de facto authorities.  The imam who led Friday prayers fled the region after the local Committee for State Security put him on their “wanted” list.  Three Jehovah’s Witnesses’ complaints of discriminatory acts in Tiraspol to the UN Human Rights Committee involving the de facto authorities and the Russian Federation remained pending at year’s end.

Representatives of the Pentecostal Church said that on February 20, unknown individuals entered a Pentecostal church’s premises in Pirlita Village in Falesti District and beat and threatened the guard with retaliation if he attempted to thwart their actions.  The individuals set several new doors in the church on fire.  This was the second attempt since 2010 to set the church on fire.  There were also arson attacks and other forms of destruction against churches in the Falesti District during the year.  The Jewish community reported an increase in hate speech during the year, particularly in online forums.  A Chisinau-based representative of the World Jewish Congress reported the presence of anti-Semitic comments and hate speech on social media sites such as VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Facebook, and in the comments section of local news websites.  The Jewish community reported one act of vandalism in which unknown individuals drew swastikas in a Jewish cemetery in Balti.

The chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and embassy officials held discussions in August with the government on the treatment and maintenance of Jewish heritage sites and the opening of a Jewish heritage museum in Chisinau.  The embassy also sponsored several events that focused on religious freedom and tolerance.  On June 1, the embassy hosted an iftar with leaders and representatives of the Muslim community and diplomatic representatives.  The community discussed its concerns over rising societal intolerance toward Muslims in media, politics, education, and employment.  The Ambassador and embassy officials called for enhancing interfaith tolerance and dialogue.  Embassy officials discussed respect for the rights of religious minorities and combating religious intolerance with representatives of religious groups.  In December the Ambassador hosted an event with leaders of minority religious groups to facilitate dialogue and cooperation between religious communities in the country.  The Ambassador also met with the heads of the MOC, Bessarabian Orthodox Church (BOC), and Roman Catholic Church in the country to discuss the prospects of creating an official platform for cooperation among various faiths.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Throughout the year, President Dodon expressed his support for Orthodox Christianity and particularly the MOC.  President Dodon took part in a number of publicized church celebrations and events promoting “traditional family values” together with the MOC head.  During a meeting with the MOC head in October, President Dodon declared the MOC would keep its unity with the Russian Orthodox Church forever.  In October, following the Russian Orthodox Church’s break from the Constantinople Patriarchate, Dodon expressed concern over the fate of the Orthodox Church, adding that Moldova would remain in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Under previous agreement between the Ministry of Education and the MOC, the government transferred control of most churches and monasteries confiscated during the Soviet era to the MOC.  The Ministry of Education is responsible for the remaining churches and monasteries not under the control of the MOC.  Local authorities working through the Ministry of Culture may arrange with local parishes to return or lease those churches or monasteries to religious groups.  Other religious groups, including the Lutheran and Jewish communities, reported they had not benefitted from a similar agreement with the government to reclaim religious property confiscated during the Soviet era.  In previous years, the Jewish community’s attempts to restitute property were unsuccessful, and its requests for the government to adopt a law enabling it to restitute historically Jewish properties and sites remained unheeded.

The PSA registered 19 religious entities during the year, consisting of new religious subgroups that are part of existing religious denominations, including the Baptist Church, MOC, BOC, Evangelical Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Union of Pentecostal Churches, Orthodox Slavonic Church, and Orthodox Metropolis of Chisinau and all Moldova.  The PSA did not reject any registration applications.

During the year, 83 religious groups received funds from income tax payments directed toward religious groups.

The Falun Gong association’s two complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, which were filed in 2015, remained pending at year’s end.  The association exhausted all national court avenues regarding charges against it of violating the law on extremist activity by the Falun Gong’s symbol’s incorporation of five swastikas based on Buddhist and Chinese tradition, remained pending at year’s end.  A case also remained pending in the courts on the liquidation of the organization.

Minority religious groups, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported local authorities remained reluctant to allocate land to them to construct houses of worship.  They also reported Orthodox priests often pressured local mayors or councilors to discriminate against Jehovah’s Witnesses by refusing to execute court orders allowing use of facilities by Jehovah’s Witnesses for worship.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders reported fewer restrictions from local authorities and an overall improvement in the registration process for acquiring properties to build houses of worship.  Several cases related to obtaining zoning permits were ongoing, however.  For example, in Olanesti Village Jehovah’s Witnesses could not use their Kingdom Hall, renovated in 2016, because the local authorities refused to provide a zoning permit.  The case remained pending at year’s end.  Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders said police failed to prosecute individuals who threatened or verbally abused members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in rural localities.

In July the Supreme Court of Justice upheld a decision recognizing the validity of a building permit for a Kingdom Hall in Ceadir-Lunga.  After more than two years of opposition from local authorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses were able to proceed with the building’s construction.

On January 5, police in Ciorescu summoned two Jehovah’s Witnesses, alleging they had violated a law passed in 2017 by the village council banning religious preaching and distribution of religious literature in the village, which the council termed “propaganda.”  Police issued fines worth 600 lei ($35) each.  The two members submitted an appeal to the Chisinau court, which annulled the fines on March 28.  The Ciorescu police department appealed this decision, which the Court of Appeals rejected on May 22.

In May the Jewish Community of Moldova (JCM) submitted a request to the Chisinau mayor’s office to renew a building permit to renovate a historical Jewish synagogue and yeshiva.  The request followed a successful resolution of a long-standing court dispute with the Public Property Agency, which argued the JCM had taken too long to renovate the property and denied the permit.  In September 2017, the Supreme Court ruled against the agency and awarded the property to the JCM.  At year’s end, the JCM reported it had received the building permit but had not yet started reconstruction efforts on the synagogue property.  The JCM had purchased the site in 2010.

The Union of Pentecostal Churches reported that the process of importing social and humanitarian assistance had improved.  During the year, however, the Union reported that it remained unable to obtain a building certificate for a building in Copceac Village it bought in 2006 and used for religious services.  In August the Union challenged the local authorities’ refusal to issue the building certificate in court.

In October the government adopted a decision to build a Jewish museum in Chisinau.  According to the decision, the museum would provide education on the Holocaust, combat anti-Semitism, and promote culture, tolerance, and peace.  The new museum will host a Jewish library and an educational center.  Prime Minister Pavel Filip also announced in October the government would renovate the Jewish cemetery in Chisinau, one of the largest in Europe, with more than 40,000 graves.  The government also pledged to build a Yad Vashem-style Jewish historical and cultural center that would include a number of historical sites of importance to the Jewish community in the country.  These actions constituted partial implementation of the government’s 2017-19 action plan responding to recommendations of the Elie Wiesel Commission’s 2016 Report on the Holocaust.

The Jewish community reported progress in fulfilling the action plan and an enhanced openness by the authorities at the national level to address Jewish community concerns.  This included the government partnership with the Jewish community to design and build a Jewish heritage museum in Chisinau, government renovation of Chisinau’s 30-acre Jewish cemetery, building a Jewish historical and cultural center, and approving a high school curriculum on historic lessons of the Holocaust to be introduced the following school year.

Through an earlier agreement with the Ministry of Labor, Social Protection, and Family, the MOC continued to develop a network of social assistance sites, including opening day-care centers and temporary shelters within churches and monasteries.  The MOC also has agreements with other state institutions such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Penitentiary Association to provide spiritual guidance and services to police officers, state workers, and prison inmates.  Representatives of the BOC contended their attempts to obtain similar agreements with state institutions were unsuccessful.

According to minority religious groups and civil society leaders, authorities continued to exhibit preferential treatment toward the MOC, compared to other religious groups.  The government invited MOC priests to officiate at state-sponsored events, national holidays, and blessing ceremonies at schools.  During the year, President Dodon praised the role of the MOC in the lives of citizens and attended multiple MOC-led religious events.  The MOC, however, reported problems receiving building and other types of permits from the Chisinau mayor’s office.  Ahead of a planned visit by Russian Patriarch Kirill to the country in October, the Chisinau mayor’s office denied the MOC’s request for a permit to place billboards in the city to promote his visit.

An outbreak of measles during the year sparked social debate about the legal requirement for immunization.  According to the Ministry of Education, of the 5,664 children who were not enrolled in schools at the beginning of the academic year, 800 were denied admission because their parents refused immunization for religious reasons.

The Islamic League stated that the principal and teaching staff at Mihai Berezovschi Public High School in Chisinau subjected three young Muslim girls who wore the hijab to constant pressure and intimidation, causing the parents to transfer the girls to schools outside the country.  The principal reportedly tried to persuade the girls to give up their belief in Islam and banned the girls from attending school wearing a hijab, warning their dress did not comply with school norms.  The principal also reportedly expressed “fear for herself and the other 2,000 students at the school.”  The Ministry of Education did not take action following complaints submitted by the parents and advised them to take the case to the Anti-Discrimination Council.

NGOs and advocacy groups continued to note the government had no laws or mechanisms in place to address Holocaust-era claims of communal property restitution and reported the government had made no progress on resolution of these claims, including for foreign citizens.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and its public expression and prohibits compelling participation in religious ceremonies.  Roman Catholicism is the state religion and state ceremonies often include Catholic rituals.  Religious groups have to apply to the government to build a public place of worship and to receive recognition, which provides certain legal rights and privileges.  Optional Catholic religious instruction is available in public schools.  In February the government again refused to recognize the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the group again appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, where the case was pending at year’s end.  Without recognition, the group said it could not open a place of worship in the country.

The only private religious schools were Catholic.  According to the government, there was insufficient demand for non-Catholic private religious schools.  The government said it did not receive any requests from religious groups during the year to build places of worship.

In October representatives from the U.S. Consulate General in Marseille inquired about the government’s nonrecognition of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Consulate officials also discussed religious issues with members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Catholic rituals were generally a part of state ceremonies, including annual national day celebrations.

In January the Jehovah’s Witnesses registered a request with the Ministry of Interior for formal recognition by the government.  The application followed a 2017 Supreme Court decision annulling a 2016 refusal to recognize the Jehovah’s Witnesses by Minister of State (prime minister equivalent) Serge Telle.  In February Telle again refused recognition of the country’s Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and the case was pending at year’s end.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that without recognition they could not establish a headquarters in the country where they could worship and welcome new members.  They said the government’s refusal to recognize them was due to what the government called the sectarian nature of the group and concerns about proselytism.

The government’s stated policy was to consider non-Catholic religious groups’ requests to build public places of worship on a case-by-case basis.  The government again reported it did not receive any requests for new sites during the year.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for “freedom of conscience and religion,” prohibits discrimination based on religion, and mandates the separation of the activities of state and religious institutions.  The law requires religious institutions to register with authorities but provides little detail on registration procedures, leaving most specifics of implementation to local authorities.  The law prohibits hindering the free exercise of faith but limits proselytization.  The law also prohibits religious legal entities from engaging in government or political activity, organizing religious activities at public premises, including schools, and recruiting children against their will.  Some religious groups reported continued difficulties in some localities obtaining and renewing registration due in part to differing registration guidelines among provinces, uncertain registration practices, frequent staffing changes, and the necessity for each branch of a religious group to register separately.  The government considered a new law on religion, which included registration issues, and invited public comment.  Some regions reportedly delayed new registrations for years.  A Christian group reported that an Ulaanbaatar government official stated its registration application was refused based on the large number of Christian organizations already registered.  Foreign citizens seeking to enter the country to proselytize must obtain religious visas, and some reportedly faced difficulty doing so.  The foreign minister created the position of and appointed an ambassador at large for religious freedom issues following his attendance at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.

There were reports of social media-based harassment of individual Christians, Muslims, and members of other minority religious groups.  For example, a Christian church reported that a Facebook posting of baptism photographs received many negative comments.

U.S. officials discussed religious freedom concerns, including uneven application of visa laws and the registration difficulties religious groups face, with high-level officials in the Office of the President, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, parliament, provincial governments, and the Ulaanbaatar Assembly.  In July the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with Foreign Minister Damdin Tsogtbaatar to encourage improvements in the law on religious freedom.  In October the Ambassador at Large met with his newly appointed counterpart to identify areas of cooperation.  Embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and tolerance.  In January the embassy hosted an interfaith youth discussion focused on increasing interreligious dialogue and promoting religious tolerance with young representatives from several religious communities in honor of International Religious Freedom Day.  The embassy invited Buddhist, Christian, Shamanist, and Muslim leaders to an embassy roundtable in October that focused on promoting respect for religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and religious tolerance.  The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Registration and renewal procedures for religious institutions reportedly varied significantly across the country, largely depending upon the practices of local government officials.  Some religious groups continued to say the government inconsistently applied and interpreted regulations, changing procedures frequently and without notice.  Some religious groups continued to state that the registration and renewal process was arbitrary in some instances, with no appeal mechanism for denials.

Some groups said they were deterred from registering because of the length of the registration process, which varied from several weeks to years, an inability to fulfill requirements due to a lack of dedicated, regular worship sites, and changing government personnel.

Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials continued to say the registration and renewal process allowed the government to assess the activities of religious groups, monitor the number of places of worship and clergy, and know the ratio of foreigners to nationals conducting religious activities.  After a religious organization filed for new registration or renewal, according to Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials, a specialized team visited the applying organization to conduct an inspection to determine whether it met specific registration requirements for religious legal entities.  This inspection team was composed of individuals from relevant agencies, such as the National Police Agency, General Intelligence Agency, and General Agency for Specialized Inspection.  The officials continued to say any applications for initial registration or renewal that ostensibly were “denied” were more accurately “postponed” because of incomplete documentation, poor physical conditions of the place of worship, instances of providing English language instruction in schools without an educational permit, or financial issues (e.g., failure to pay property tax or to declare financing from foreign sources).  The authorities said in these cases, they instructed religious institutions to correct deficiencies and resubmit their applications.

A Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs’ 2016 inspection found there were 848 religious organizations nationwide (54.2 percent Christian, 34.6 percent Buddhist, 5.1 percent Muslim, and 6 percent other religion), of which 352 were operating without official registration.  According to Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials, there were 306 officially registered religious institutions in Ulaanbaatar as of October 2018.

The Ulaanbaatar Assembly limited registrations and renewals to one year from the date of issuance, although some provincial representative assemblies granted registrations and renewals that were valid for two or three years.  An Ulaanbaatar Assembly official said Christian groups constituted the majority of those seeking registrations or renewals; for this reason, most of the cancelled or suspended registrations were for Christian groups.  A Christian group reported that an Ulaanbaatar Assembly official stated its registration application was refused based on the large number of Christian organizations already registered.

The Ulaanbaatar Assembly and other provincial representative assemblies continued to decline to recognize branch churches as affiliated with a single religious institution; instead, each individual church was required to register separately.  According to Christian leaders from various denominations, the requirement that branches of the same church required separate registrations, which had unclear status in the law, continued to cause particular problems for religious groups seeking to operate multiple churches under a centralized administration, although such denominations were able to register their churches individually.

Unregistered religious groups were often still able to function, although at times they experienced frequent visits by local tax officers, police, and representatives from other agencies.  Some religious leaders expressed concern that unregistered status could leave their organizations vulnerable to investigation and possible legal action.  Shamanist leaders expressed concerns that the requirement for a registered place of worship placed limitations on their religion because of its nature-linked practices.  Unlike in previous years, there were no reports from Christian groups that this requirement restricted their ability to hold worship services in members’ households.  Unregistered churches lacked official documents establishing themselves as legal entities and as a result were unable to own or lease land, file tax returns, or formally interact with the government.  Individual members of unregistered churches typically continued to own or lease property for church use in their personal capacity.

There was a report that a Christian organization experienced registration difficulties in Ulaanbaatar that Ulaanbaatar Assembly officials stated were due to the pending implementation of updated local regulations.  A different Christian organization reported registration and renewal application processing delays, for unknown reasons, in Tuv, Khentii, and Bayan-Olgii Provinces.  Unregistered Christian religious organizations, however, were able to operate.

In June the Ulaanbaatar Assembly implemented a 2017 Ulaanbaatar Administrative Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation and renewed its registration.  The congregation had filed a court petition contesting the Ulaanbaatar Assembly’s 2017 decision to cancel its registration based on the assembly’s determination that the church’s doctrine was potentially harmful to national security.  The registration for the Evangelizers of Good News of Holy Scriptures – the legal entity used by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Nalaikh District – remained pending with the Ulaanbaatar Assembly at year’s end.  The delay occurred despite a ruling from the same court that the Ulaanbaatar Assembly failed to provide any evidence that the congregation in Nalaikh District posed a potential threat to national security.

A new draft law on religion was under review at year’s end.  According to its concept note, the stated intent of the draft law was to improve the monitoring, registration, renewal systems, and accountability mechanisms of religious institutions.  In October the government held a public discussion of the draft law and allowed for the submission of comments on the draft law during a public submission period.  During the public discussion, religious groups expressed concern over the composition of the new law’s proposed Religious Council, which would oversee a national registration process.

During an interfaith roundtable in October, Buddhist, Christian, Shamanist, and Muslim religious leaders reported that inconsistent implementation of registration requirements and difficulties obtaining religious visas posed barriers to the free exercise of religious practices.

There were reports that local authorities continued to restrict unaccompanied minors’ participation in Christian religious services due to fears of “brainwashing.”  Children under the age of 16 required written parental permission to participate in church activities.  Churches are required to retain this permission in church records and make it available upon request.

As allowed by law, religious groups continued to experience periodic audits, usually by officers from tax, immigration, local government, intelligence, and other agencies.  During an interfaith roundtable, Buddhist, Christian, Shamanist, and Muslim religious leaders said such audits typically took place once in a two-year period, but some inspection visits reportedly followed routine submissions of registration renewal applications.  Secular business entities have also been subject to similar inspections and experience periodic audits.  Some religious leaders said such periodic audits were a form of harassment.

Government officials continued to receive Buddhist leaders during Lunar New Year celebrations.

Some foreign citizens continued to face difficulties obtaining religious visas.  Since most religious groups were bound by the requirement for 95 percent of staff to be local hires, groups that could not afford to hire enough local employees could not sponsor additional religious visas.  Christian groups reported foreign missionaries seeking to enter the country often did nonreligious work and applied for the corresponding type of visa (such as student or business).  As a result, the groups reported they could legally participate only in limited religious activities and were vulnerable to deportation because of inconsistent interpretations of the activities in which they could legally engage.  The validity of religious visas remained linked to the religious organization’s registration, which some Christian religious groups reported resulted in additional visa problems.  Foreign citizens could not receive or renew a religious visa unless their religious organization’s registration or renewal was already granted.  The length of the religious visa’s validity corresponded with and could not exceed the registration validity of its sponsoring organization.

The government continued to allocate funding for the restoration of several Buddhist sites that it stated were important religious, historical, and cultural centers.  The government did not provide similar subsidies to other religious groups.

The president’s advisor on cultural and religious policy stated in an October press interview that some foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations conducted religious activities in violation of the law.  She also expressed concern that some churches illegally distributed cash and food as incentives for membership and targeted children to join congregations.

The foreign minister appointed the country’s first ambassador-at-large for religious freedom issues following his attendance at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.


Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion as well as the right to change one’s religion.  It specifies there is no state religion and guarantees equality and freedom for all religious communities.  The law prohibits religious discrimination and hate speech.  Religious groups, particularly the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC), continued to say the laws governing their legal status were inadequate.  The SOC said the Ministry of Interior (MOI) denied visas to its clergy based on discriminatory registration procedures.  Police on occasion prevented Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MOC) and SOC members from engaging in religious activities at Orthodox sites at the same time, citing security concerns over potential clashes.  Construction was halted for several months during the year on a new synagogue in Podgorica begun in 2017 by the Jewish community, pending the granting of necessary permits and documentation, which the Jewish community said was a bureaucratic issue rather than discrimination.  The government maintained its policy of not restituting religious properties confiscated by the communist government, although it discussed a new religion law that could potentially address restitution.  The prime minister said that an SOC church in a spot revered by Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox would have to be removed because it did not have the proper permits.  SOC Metropolitan Amfilohije stated, “The destruction of the church would be equal to a crime.”

The SOC and the MOC continued to dispute ownership of religious sites, and to call on the government to protect their interests.   

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials met throughout the year with government representatives to discuss relations between the government and religious groups, specifically regarding the new religion law and outreach the government reports it is conducting.  The Ambassador spoke with MOC Metropolitan Mihailo about the MOC’s status and interreligious relations; the Charge d’Affaires held similar talks with Rifat Fejzic, the Islamic Community Reis (leader).  In June the Ambassador hosted an iftar with representatives of different religious communities to discuss interfaith tolerance and moderation.  The embassy also hosted the visit of a U.S. law enforcement specialist who discussed countering violent extremism with representatives of the Islamic Community.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

On August 19, for the ninth year in a row, police banned members of both the MOC and SOC from celebrating the transfiguration of Christ at the Church of Christ the Transfiguration at Ivanova Korita, citing concerns over potential clashes.  The SOC controls the site, which is near the seat of the MOC in the historical capital of Cetinje.  The MOC said the ban constituted a violation of members’ basic human rights and requested state authorities allow MOC priests to practice in SOC-controlled Orthodox churches and monasteries.  The SOC stated that by preventing the services from taking place in the church, police were attacking the centuries-old canonical order and church property rights, and were toying with the deepest feelings of Orthodox believers.

Religious groups, especially the SOC, continued to say the law regulating their legal status was outdated and inadequate, particularly in regards to property, as it was drafted during the time of the former Yugoslavia.  For the third consecutive year, the government said it was revising a draft of a new law on religious communities.  By year’s end, the government had not completed the draft.

Representatives of ethnic Albanian parties strongly criticized national authorities for failing to remove an SOC church on Mount Rumija, near Bar, a site revered by local Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.  The critics said the government’s inaction undermined multiethnic and religious harmony in the region.  Prime Minister Dusko Markovic stated the construction of the church was illegal, as it lacked the necessary permits, and that it would have to be removed.  Minister of Human and Minority rights Mehmed Zenka said the government would have a proper response to the SOC’s “provocation,” adding the placing of the church on top of Mount Rumija had a “negative effect” on the Albanian Muslim and Catholic populations.  In an open letter to Prime Minister Markovic, Metropolitan Amfilohije of the SOC said “the destruction of the church would be equal to a crime,” while another SOC bishop said he had never before seen such hatred against Serbs in Montenegro.  The statements came after Metropolitan Amfilohije reportedly blessed a new reinforcement of the church’s exterior in October.  In 2005, prior to Montenegro’s independence, helicopters from the Army of Serbia and Montenegro airlifted the metal church to the top of the mountain without permission from local authorities.

There was no change in the SOC position that it need not seek registration because the controlling 1977 law grandfathered in all religious groups active within the borders of present-day Montenegro in 1977 and that reregistration could have negative repercussions for the status of the Church.

The SOC said the MOI denied visas to its clergy based on discriminatory procedures that require work documentation from a registered employer, although the SOC is not legally required to register and is fully recognized.  The SOC said the MOI refused visas to 21 priests and nuns in August, September, and October.  The SOC also said the Ministry of Education refused to introduce religious education into schools as an optional subject and wanted the law changed to allow for such an option.

The MHMR continued to provide funding to some religious groups, which they could use to maintain religious shrines, for education or cultural projects, or to pay for social and medical insurance for clergy.  Both registered and unregistered religious communities remained eligible to apply for this funding.  For the first 10 months of the year, the MOC received 45,878 euros ($52,600), the ICM 38,765 euros ($44,500), the SOC 32,130 euros ($36,800), the Jewish community 17,500 euros ($20,100), and the Catholic Church 28,442 euros ($32,600).  Recognized religious communities also continued to receive in-kind assistance, such as property on which to build houses of worship, from other government ministries and from local governments.

The government continued its policy of not providing restitution of religious properties expropriated by the former Yugoslav communist government.  Government officials said the draft law on religious communities would address restitution issues.  Although the law remained highly contested, there were reports it would be passed in early 2019, but the contents were not available by the end of the year.

Delays with building permits stalled the building of a new synagogue in Podgorica, which the Jewish community started in December 2017.  The community said the delay was the result of bureaucracy rather than discrimination.  Government officials publicly supported the construction on a number of occasions.


Executive Summary

According to the Moroccan constitution, Islam is the religion of the state, and the state guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.  The constitution also says the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.”  The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country.  It also prohibits political parties founded on religion and political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam.  Moroccan law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam.  According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religion were Jews.  Local Christian and Shia leaders reported the government detained and questioned some Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians and Shias.  Christian and Shia Muslim citizens also stated their fear of government and societal harassment led to their decision to practice their faiths discreetly.  According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack.  On April 3, a group calling itself the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize rights for Christian citizens such as freedom to worship, celebrate civil marriages, establish and operate cemeteries, use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school.  In May human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two citizens who had converted to Christianity the necessary documents to register to marry because of their religious beliefs.  Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches.  Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests.  The authorities continued to introduce new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references.  The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.  According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify and monitor imams (morchidines) and female Muslim spiritual guides (morchidates) who have accounts on social media to ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.  The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  On June 14, Minister of State for Human Rights Mustafa Ramid stated in an interview that “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion.  On June 19, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens on national television, but he said throughout history, Morocco has allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religious affairs freely.  In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).  The government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez from September 10 to 12, where King Mohammed VI delivered remarks underscoring the tradition of coexistence in Morocco between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.

According to the Assabah newspaper, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador received death threats, which the government investigated and reported were unfounded allegations.  According to media reports, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts, Christian citizens face pressure from non-Christian family and friends to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith.  They also reported the government did not respond to complaints about frequent societal harassment.  Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm.  According to an interview with TelQuel magazine, however, Baha’i citizens reported they did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan.  Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, members of religious minority and majority communities, religious leaders, activists, and civil society groups, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government at times reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs.  According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack.  In May and June human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two Christian converts the necessary documentation to register to marry because of their religious beliefs.  The couple hosted a small symbolic wedding ceremony in a human rights organization’s headquarters in Rabat in June, but the couple stated they feared being accused of fornication, which is punishable under the penal code, because they did not have a government-issued marriage certificate.  According to activists and members of the religious minority community, authorities also detained and questioned several Shia Muslims for hours about their religious beliefs and about members of their religious community.  According to activists, during these instances, police did not document the detention and, according to media reports, denied such events transpired.

According to press reports, a group called the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the CNDH on April 3 to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize a series of rights for Christian citizens including freedom of worship, celebration of civil marriages, establishment and operation of cemeteries, being able to use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school, as well as the legal normalization of Christian churches.  CNDH informed the group that CNDH welcomed official complaints where violations of human rights occurred.  CNDH was not aware of a government response to the petition.

Press also reported that on November 22, the Court of Appeals in Taza upheld a Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a defendant who was acquitted of “shaking the faith of a Muslim,” a crime under the penal code, after he reportedly handed a book explaining the Bible to another individual.  The appeals court ruling mentioned the ICCPR, which guarantees “the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.”

Nonregistered religious groups reported receiving varying treatment by authorities; however, during the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting these groups from practicing their religion in private.  A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal in past years to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious ceremonies.  There were no known Shia mosques.  Shia representatives reported they had not attempted to register during the year.

According to representatives of the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms, on May 3 government authorities refused to accept the application for registration of their association under the determination the association aimed to undermine Islam.

A Christian group applied to register as an association in December 2018; it was awaiting a response from MOI at year’s end.

The government allowed the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches.  Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended their churches, and they did not encourage them to do so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing.  According to some reports from activists, authorities at times pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith by informing the converts’ friends, relatives, and employers of the individuals’ conversion.  According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities made phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.  Foreigners attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches.

According to media reports, on June 20, the Collective for Democracy and Liberties cancelled a long-planned seminar on individual rights, including “sexual rights” and religious freedom, immediately before it was scheduled to begin.  A statement from the Ministry of Justice explained the Ministry of Interior had informed the seminar organizers they lacked the appropriate registration to hold the event.  Assabah reported the Head of Government Saadeddin El Othmani, Minister of State for Human Rights Ramid, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar, and Secretary-General of the Party of Progress and Socialism Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah withdrew from participating in the seminar after cabinet and party members were reportedly ordered not to participate in any meetings encouraging sectarianism.  According to a Telquel article, Minister Aujjar said that after reviewing the agenda for the seminar, he cancelled his participation because “speaking about individual liberties does not bother [him], but it is a difficult question to assume politically.”

In an interview on June 14, Minister Ramid stated “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion.  On June 19, Minister Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens, but said throughout history Morocco had allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religions freely.  The Moroccan Christians Coordinating Group issued statements rejecting Minister Aujjar’s denial that they, whose numbers they maintained exceed those of Morocco’s recognized Jewish population, exist.

According to a human rights association, on November 26, it hosted a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities.  During the event, leaders of human rights organizations said they were beginning to follow the issue more closely; however, limited information was available and official data on Moroccan religious minorities was not available.

The ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa imposed in 2017 remained in effect.  The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban.  The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use.  Authorities, however, continued not to allow police and army personnel in uniform to wear a hijab.

The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious sphere and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam.  It employed 1852 morchidines and 804 morchidates in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country.  The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning.  It continued to provide government-required, one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year.  It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa.  The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country.  The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.

According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere with the topics the religious leaders chose to address during sermons; however, religious leaders were required to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher when they operated in the country.

The MEIA monitored Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.  The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism.  Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  Its policy remained to control the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.  According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify morchidines and morchidates with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus social media to monitor and ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches.  In October the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca began the construction of a community center with approval from government authorities.  The government also gave the Anglican Church approval to renovate and expand the church upon completion of its community center.

The government permitted the display and sale of bibles in French, English, and Spanish.  A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in university religion courses.  Authorities confiscated bibles they believed were intended for use in proselytizing.

During the year, the government organized four national and regional training sessions on instruction based on “values” and “respect for religious principles.”  The government also introduced 13 new textbooks on the subjects of religion and legal sciences at the primary, junior and high school levels following a review by the MEIA and the Ministry of Education to remove extremist or intolerant references and promote moderation and tolerance.  As of year’s end, the government was also drafting an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.”  Modifications to textbooks continued through the end of the year.

Jewish and Christian citizens stated elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country.  The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels.  Television channel Assadissa (Sixth) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam.  For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.  The Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated.  It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered.  The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations.  The government occasionally prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance.  Since 2012, an estimated 170 Jewish cemeteries across 40 provinces have been restored.  According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues.

The Prison Administration (DGAPR) said it authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

Two adoul (notaries), typically religious men, are needed to perform marriages.  In January the School of Islamic Thought and Testimonies convinced the Supreme Scientific Council to amend the law so the king could permit women to become adoul.

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the heads of the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in Moroccan society.

In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the USHMM, to facilitate the sharing of documentation on Jewish history in Morocco.  The delegation met with country’s leaders to discuss continuing collaboration between the museum and the country’s National Archives to promote religious tolerance and awareness.

On September 10-12, the government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez in collaboration with the International Organization of La Francophonie.  According to media reports, at the conference King Mohammed VI delivered remarks describing the tradition of coexistence in the country between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.

On September 26, Head of Government El Othmani delivered a message from the king at a UN roundtable table on “The Power of Education in Preventing Racism and Discrimination:  The Case of Anti-Semitism” in New York on the margins of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.  The message highlighted the country’s preservation of its synagogues and noted the importance of “shedding light not only on humanity’s glorious moments, but also its darkest hours.”  It stated, “Anti-Semitism is the antithesis of freedom of expression.  It implies a denial of the other and is an admission of failure, inadequacy and an inability to coexist.”

In November the Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the Essaouira-Mogador Association, opened the Bayt Al Dakyra (House of Memory), a research center built from the remains of an old synagogue in Essaouira.  On December 11-12, UNESCO and the Aladdin Project in partnership with Mohammed V University, a public university in Rabat, hosted an international conference in Marrakech titled, “The Importance of History Teaching in Education: The Case of the Holocaust and Great Tragedies of History and 75 Years after the Holocaust, Honoring the Righteous in the Muslim World.”  The organizers paid tribute to the “Muslim Righteous” from Morocco and other countries that helped Jews during the Second World War and discussed the importance of education for highlighting the different phases and experiences of coexistence in the region.  Public officials from Mohammed V University, the Ministry of Education, the Archives of Morocco, and other public institutions participated in the conference.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right to practice or not to practice religion freely and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  These and other rights may temporarily be suspended or restricted only in the event of a declaration of a state of war, siege, or emergency.  The constitution prohibits faith-based political parties and the use of religious symbols in politics.  Religious groups have the right to organize, worship, and operate schools.  In the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, the government responded to attacks on security forces and killings and beheadings of civilians by a group sometimes referred to as Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah and which was termed jihadist by the government and the media, with significant security force operations and the arrest of hundreds of suspected jihadists.  These operations were characterized by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and news media as sometimes heavy-handed and contributing to a “growing cycle of grievance and revenge” between militant Islamists and security forces.  The government reopened all seven mosques it ordered closed in 2017.  The Greek Orthodox Church reported no progress in its efforts to regain property the government seized following independence.

Religious leaders at the national and provincial level called for religious tolerance and condemned the use of religion to condone violence.  For example, Muslim leaders joined former liberation fighters condemning those who allegedly use religion for illicit and criminal purposes.

The Ambassador discussed the challenge and importance of sustaining the country’s tradition of religious tolerance, especially in light of the attacks in the northern region, with President Filipe Nyusi, the minister of justice, and other high-level contacts.  The Ambassador hosted an iftar at the Anwaril Mosque during which religious tolerance was discussed with members of Islamic civil society organizations and religious leaders.  Embassy representatives discussed the importance of religious tolerance with Catholic Church representatives and Islamic religious leaders in the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Sofala, and Nampula.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Violent attacks by Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah continued throughout the year in northern Cabo Delgado Province.  The group, which claimed ties to the al-Shabaab terrorist group and was characterized by the government and the media as jihadist, was composed primarily of Muslims who followed what observers said was a strict version of Islam.  The attacks, which began in October 2017, included killings of security force members and beheading of civilians.  Significant security force operations to counter these attacks were at times heavy-handed, according to NGOs and news media, which said they focused primarily on Muslims following a strict interpretation of Islam and contributed to a “growing cycle of grievance and revenge” between militant Islamists and security forces.  Several organizations reported men, women, and children being arbitrarily detained based on appearing to be Muslim.  The government charged the detainees with crimes including first-degree murder, use of banned weapons, membership in a criminal association, and instigating collective disobedience against public order.  The government continued to state publicly that security forces had the situation under control.

In response to the attacks, government officials stated they arrested more than 280 attackers, whom they termed suspected jihadists, and at year’s end were prosecuting 189 of those individuals, including 152 Mozambicans, 26 Tanzanians, and three Somali nationals.  Among the individuals arrested were Muslim religious leaders.  Representatives of international organizations with access to the region stated they believed the number of individuals arrested was higher than that reported by the government.

Human rights organizations stated that the government also responded by implementing policies that they said inhibited reliable reporting in the northern region.  Reporting on the attacks remained limited and was often characterized as unreliable due to a strong security force presence and what journalists termed a government-imposed media blackout in the region.

In May the government reported reopening all of the seven mosques it ordered closed in 2017 after repeated attacks on police stations and hospital units by armed men who had alleged links to persons termed Islamists.  According to Provincial Director of Justice Alvaro Junior, the government decided to destroy seven other mosques due to their links to radicalism.

The Ministry of Justice registered 32 new religious groups and six new religious organizations during the year.  There were a total of 913 religious groups and 232 religious organizations registered.  There were no reports of difficulty with religious groups registering.

The Greek Orthodox Church continued to report no progress in its efforts to obtain the return of the Ateneu (Athenaeum), a church property in central Maputo seized by the government after independence and renamed the Palacio dos Casamentos (Wedding Palace).


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of belief and the right to practice, profess, and promote any religion.  Some religious groups again noted the difficulty of obtaining work visas for foreign religious workers; however, they also said all organizations were subject to strict visa enforcement and this policy was not targeted at religious groups.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Embassy representatives engaged with the government-run Ombudsman’s Office about complaints regarding religious freedom.  U.S. embassy officials engaged with religious groups and leaders to discuss religious freedom and the creation of an interfaith council.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

The government Ombudsman’s Office received one religiously related complaint during the year from a religious group regarding visas for a foreign religious organization.

The government periodically included religious leaders in discussions regarding issues affecting the country and in national events.  President Hage Geingob held consultations with leaders from major religious groups in the country, including from the Council of Churches that represented Christian denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dutch Reformed Church, and Roman Catholic Church, and from the Muslim community, to discuss opportunities for collaboration in fighting poverty.

Religious leaders said the only issues they occasionally faced with the government were regarding visas.  The director of the Windhoek Islamic Centre stated that during the year a Saudi investor who was attempting to visit to assess a mosque site had difficulty obtaining a visa.  The center director and other religious leaders stated nonreligious organizations also had difficulty obtaining visas and did not believe they were targeted by the government based on religion.


Executive Summary

The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion, and for freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs.  Smaller churches continued to find the 750-member requirement for registration difficult to meet, although religious groups stated they could conduct most normal functions without registration.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

The U.S. Ambassador to Fiji is accredited to the government.  Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Suva discussed religious pluralism, tolerance, and registration requirements during visits with government officials in November.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

Although the law requires registration for religious groups to conduct a full range of activities, local religious leaders stated the government required such recognition only if a denomination’s clergy wished to officiate at marriages.  There were no reports the government discriminated in the registration process, although leaders of churches with smaller congregations continued to express concerns that the 750-member requirement implemented in 2014 was difficult to meet.  The registration application for the Baptist Church, which did not have 750 members, remained pending at the end of the year.

In his New Year’s message, President Baron Waqa stated the country continued to live harmoniously with refugees and asylum seekers.  He ended his message saying he trusted the people to have celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ.


Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.”  It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion.  The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and bans religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality.  A new criminal code, which became effective in August, reduces the punishments for “convert[ing]… the religion of another person” or for engaging in any act that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of others from six to five years’ imprisonment.  It also criminalizes “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing.  The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries.  All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally.  In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen.  Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs.  Christian and Muslim groups continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.  Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but drastically curtailed their ability to hold public celebrations since 2016, a break from historical practice.  The government once again rescinded its recognition of Christmas as a public holiday, a decision Christian groups said was a reflection of anti-Christian sentiment.  For the first time under the constitution that went into effect in 2015, officials deported numerous foreigners for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity.  In July authorities fined a Filipino and Indonesian couple and revoked their visas.  Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the emphasis placed by some politicians on the re-establishment of the country as a Hindu state, which they said had a negative impact on the public perception of Christians.  On July 2, police arrested four Christians in Taplejung District, accusing them of forcible conversion in a case involving the non-Christian husband of a Christian woman who had asked for help with her husband’s alcoholism.  Authorities arrested two Christians on April 30 in Chitwan District on charges of forceful conversion and hurting religious sentiment, releasing the men a few days later.  According to an online Christian media outlet, on May 9, police in Kathmandu arrested three women at a church on charges of attempting to convert through inducement.  Authorities arrested six Christians in Terhathum District on charges of proselytizing in early May.  On July 9, a court acquitted them of distributing literature.  Police arrested nine Jehovah’s Witnesses in November for proselytizing.  Police deported three to their countries of origin, released three on bail and three remained in prison.  Police arrested nine Jehovah’s Witnesses in November in Bardiya and Rupandehi Districts on charges of proselytizing.  Among these, authorities detained and deported three foreigners, two Japanese and one Australian.  The district courts released three of the Nepali citizens on bail in December, while three remained incarcerated without access to religious material since their arrests in November.

In May assailants bombed the Mahima Church in Kailali District and arsonists targeted three churches in other districts.  On April 28, arsonists attacked a Catholic church building in the Banke District, and members of Hindu Jagaran Nepal, which local experts described as a small pro-Hindu group with little influence, on April 30 threatened to destroy it.  Eight to 10 unidentified men broke into St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Banke District and set it on fire on May 5.  The fire caused minor damage; there were no injuries reported.  Christian leaders stated their belief the attacks during the year on churches, as well as the 2017 arson attack on the Assumption Roman Catholic Cathedral in Lalitpur and 2017 shooting of a Federation of National Christians Nepal (FNCN) employee, represented an effort to foment panic among the Christian community.  They also expressed concern about lack of police willingness to investigate the cases thoroughly.  Police filed charges against 28 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim interreligious clashes in 2016 during which two persons in the Banke District were killed; as of year’s end, the case remained pending.  Muslim leaders expressed disappointment at the district court’s decision to set the arrested individuals’ bail at a low amount.  According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other high-caste individuals continued to prevent persons of lower castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites.

Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador, embassy officers, and other U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the new criminal code, including the continued criminalization of conversion and new measures to criminalize proselytization.  They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians.  Following May’s multiple arson attacks, U.S. embassy officers met with victims and police, and urged the latter to investigate the cases thoroughly.  Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Government Practices

According to members of civil society groups, police arrested at least 26 individuals for alleged cow slaughter during the year, and civil society sources reported that many more remained incarcerated for previous convictions of cow slaughter.  According to press reports, in March authorities dismissed the case against four persons whom the District Police Office in Gorkha had arrested in August 2017 for slaughtering a cow.  The press reported police arrested four persons, Hum Bahadur Rana, Kumari Gharti, Ram Kumari Gharti, and Kunti Thapa, in Kapilvastu District on March 24 for cow slaughter.

On February 23, Parbat District Court sentenced four individuals – all of whom were Dalit – accused of slaughtering oxen in 2017 in Parbat to eight years imprisonment.  One suspect remained at large.  The accused said they did not kill the ox and that the animal was dead when they found it.  In mid-August when the government enacted the new criminal code, the sentences were reduced to three years.  Dalit rights activists said they believed the accused were targeted because of their social status as Dalits.

According to Christian groups and legal experts, police arrested and deported several persons for proselytizing.  In June authorities deported a Filipino and an Indonesian couple to their respective countries on charges of “forceful religious conversion.”  They had been operating a restaurant under a one-year business visa while also serving as pastors in a local Christian church.  Authorities did not imprison the pair, but fined them 50,000 rupees ($450) and deported them after a complaint was lodged with the Ministry of Home Affairs for the alleged conversion of Hindus to Christianity.  This was the first reported incident of deportation on religious grounds since the adoption of the new constitution in 2015, but Christian advocates stated they were concerned about what they characterized as increasing restrictions on religious freedom and hostility toward their faith community.

On July 2, in Taplejung District, police arrested Isak Tamang of the Shreejanga Free Church, Pastor Dip Rai of the Chengbung Free Church, as well as David Limbu and Shristi Limbu, accusing them of forcible conversion in a case involving the non-Christian husband of a Christian woman who had asked for help with her husband’s alcoholism.  The husband filed charges, asking for 500,000 rupees ($4,500) to settle the case out of court.

According to local advocates, on April 30, authorities arrested two Christians in Chitwan District on charges of forceful conversion and hurting religious sentiment, releasing the men a few days later.

On May 9, police in Kathmandu arrested three women, Sumitra Gauli, Radhika Maharjan, and Phuldevi Bhattarai, in a church and charged them with attempting to convert “through inducement.”

In March police arrested a woman along with her six-month-old baby on charges of attempting religious conversion and destroying Hindu idols.  Officials subsequently released the mother and child, and as of September, the case remained ongoing.  Several other arrests in April and May involved accusations of speaking against Hindu gods, encouraging the destruction of Hindu idols, and attempted conversion.

According to the online Christian media outlet Morning Star News, authorities arrested six Christians in Terhathum District on charges of proselytizing in early May.  Four of the six, Dinesh Subba, Ashish Subba, Dipak Subba, and Manatula Dhital, were from Jhapa; two others, Barshiya Dhital and Pawan Rai, were visiting from India.  Following a May 17 court appearance, authorities released them on bail after 15 days.  On July 9, a court acquitted them of distributing literature, freeing them and releasing their car, which had been impounded.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses and local civil society members, police arrested nine Jehovah’s Witnesses – three of whom were foreigners – in November in Bardiya and Rupandehi Districts on charges of proselytizing.  Authorities detained the three foreigners, two Japanese and one Australian, for two weeks, fined each approximately $500, and deported them.  Rupandehi District Court released two of the Nepali citizens on approximately $1,000 bond on December 10, and Bardiya District Court released another Nepali citizen on approximately $3,000 bail on December 11.  The other three Nepali citizens remained incarcerated without access to religious material.

Human rights lawyers and leaders of religious minorities expressed concern the constitution’s and new criminal code’s continuation of the ban on conversion could make religious minorities subject to legal prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of their religious practices, and also vulnerable to prosecution for preaching, public displays of faith, and distribution of religious materials in contravention of constitutional assurances of freedom of speech and expression.  Human rights experts also expressed concern that a provision in the criminal code banning speech or writing harmful to others’ religious sentiments could be misused to settle personal scores or target religious minorities arbitrarily.  According to numerous civil society and international community legal experts, some provisions in the law that restrict religious conversion could be invoked against a wide range of expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups or merely speaking about one’s faith.

According to the Jhapa district attorney’s office, the criminal case against four suspects accused of detonating small homemade explosive devices at three churches in Jhapa District in 2015 continued.  All four suspects remained free on bail while the criminal case was pending.  Police continued to search for three additional suspects; there were no additional developments or arrests as of year’s end.

Civil society members reported that in October authorities reprimanded and punished a constable with the Nepal Armed Police Force after he spoke openly about his Christian faith while off-duty at a multifaith religious gathering.  A local reporter at the event reportedly published an article critical of his speech and informed his superiors, which led to his arrest and forced return to his home department.  His superiors allegedly postponed his departmental promotion for five years as punishment.

According to legal experts and leaders of religious minority groups, the constitutional language about protecting the “age-old religion” and the prohibition on conversion were intended by the drafters to mandate the protection of Hinduism.  Minority religious leaders said some politicians’ emphasis on re-establishing the country as a Hindu state continued to negatively affect public perception of Christians and Christianity.  (The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007 when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.)

Some media and academic analysts stated that prohibiting conversion had slowly entered into religious spheres in the country and that actors seeking political advantage manipulated the issue.  The main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), criticized the government for formal participation in the December Universal Peace Federation’s Asia Pacific Summit in Kathmandu sponsored by the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).  The topic of reverting from the secular state to a Hindu nation also dominated the opposition Nepali Congress Party’s General Convention Representative meeting held in December, despite not being part of the convention’s official agenda.  Civil society leaders argued pressure from India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and other Hindu groups in India had pushed politicians in the country to support reversion to a Hindu state.

Civil society leaders alleged right-wing religious groups associated with India’s ruling party provided money to influential politicians of all parties, in an effort to push the country to again become a Hindu state.  At the same time, Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) supporters concentrated their efforts on creating an unfriendly environment for Christians and encouraging “upper-caste” Hindus to enforce caste-based discrimination.

Leaders of the minority RPP continued their calls for the re-establishment of the country as a Hindu state and pushed for strong legal action against those accused of killing cows.  The party leadership also stated its intention to ban forced, organized, and planned religious conversion achieved by financial rewards or false promises.  Christian leaders continued to report support for a Hindu state was gaining momentum.

NGOs in various locations stated that municipalities and other local bodies began requiring significant tax payments despite their nonprofit status recognized at the central government level.  NGOs are required to register with local government authorities annually, which religious leaders said placed their organizations at particular political risk.  Christian leaders expressed fears the new obligations could potentially limit the establishment of churches, which must be registered as NGOs.  Some Christians interpreted the government efforts as an attempt to push Christian NGOs out of the country.  Many Christian leaders said missionary hospitals, welfare organizations, and schools continued to operate without government interference, although others reported increased scrutiny when registering as NGOs.  They said the government usually did not expel foreign workers for proselytizing (although there were exceptions), but missionaries reported they attempted to keep their activities discreet.

In April the government informally introduced a draft “National Integrity Policy,” which, if instituted, would ban international NGOs that tried to spread religion.  Due to widespread backlash from civil society, media, the public, and in the government, the policy did not reach the level of political approval necessary to be finalized or presented to the cabinet.

Unlike in past years, the government chose not to provide a public holiday for Christmas.  The Christian community criticized the government for bias and failure to respect minority religious practices because while the country is officially a secular state, Hindu and Buddhist holidays were routinely declared as public holidays.  Christian community members said they interpreted the decision as a reflection of growing anti-Christian sentiment in the country.

The government continued restrictions instituted in 2016 on Tibetans’ ability to celebrate publicly the Dalai Lama’s birthday (July 6), stating the celebrations represented “anti-China” activities, but these restrictions were eased significantly, compared with previous years.  Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday only in private ceremonies and conduct other private ceremonies with cultural/religious significance, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and World Peace Day (which commemorates the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize).  Tibetan leaders said they continued to mark certain anniversaries considered politically sensitive with small, quiet prayer ceremonies within Tibetan settlements, although during the year authorities allowed a large celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday.  Abbots of Buddhist monasteries reported monasteries and their related social welfare projects generally continued to operate without government interference.

A Central Hajj Committee, made up of representatives of political parties, mosques, and civil society, under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs, continued to coordinate and facilitate logistics for the Hajj for all participating Muslims.  The government paid for 14 committee members, compared with 18 in 2017 and 10 in 2016, to travel to Saudi Arabia to carry out their work.

Christian leaders said the government-funded Pashupati Area Development Trust continued to prevent Christian burials in a common cemetery behind the Pashupati Hindu Temple in Kathmandu, while allowing burials of individuals from non-Hindu indigenous faiths.  According to Christian leaders, the government continued its inconsistent enforcement of a court ruling requiring protection of congregations carrying out burials.  Protestant churches continued to report difficulties gaining access to land they had bought several years prior for burials in the Kathmandu Valley in the names of individual church members.  They stated local communities continued to oppose burial by groups perceived to be outsiders but were more open to burials conducted by Christian members of their own communities.  As a result, they reported, some Protestants in the Kathmandu Valley continued to travel to the countryside to conduct burials in unpopulated areas.

Catholic leaders reported that despite their general preference for burials, almost all Catholic parishioners continued to choose cremation due to past difficulties with burials.  Many Christian communities outside the Kathmandu Valley said they continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, conduct burials in public forests, or use land belonging to indigenous communities for burials.  They also said they continued to be able to use public land for this purpose.

Muslim groups stated individuals in the Kathmandu Valley continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, but local Hindus sometimes refused to sell them land.  In the southern Terai region, which is home to many Muslim-majority communities, Muslim groups said they had not encountered such problems.

According to Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups, the government continued to permit them to establish and operate their own community schools.  The government provided the same level of funding for both registered religious schools and public schools, but private Christian schools (not legally able to register as community schools) continued not to receive government funding.  Although religious education is not part of the curriculum in public schools, some public schools displayed a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on their grounds.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development, which is under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, 907 madrassahs were registered with district education offices, an increase from 879 the previous year and 765 in 2016.  The number of gumbas (Buddhist centers of learning) registered with the Department of Education rose from 82 in 2016 to 110 in 2017 and 114 in 2018.  The Department had 100 gurukhuls (Hindu centers of learning) registered during the year, up from 83 in 2016 and 97 in 2017.

Some Muslim leaders stated as many as 2,500 to 3,000 madrassahs continued to be unregistered.  They again expressed apprehension that some unregistered madrassahs were promoting the spread of less tolerant interpretations of Islam.  According to religious leaders, a large number of madrassahs as well as Buddhist and Hindu schools continued to be unregistered because school operators hoped to avoid government auditing and the Department of Education’s established curriculum.  They said some school operators also wished to avoid the registration process, which they characterized as cumbersome.

Many foreign Christian organizations had direct ties to local churches and continued to sponsor clergy for religious training abroad.

On September 27, former Deputy Prime Minister and current chairman of the RPP Kamal Thapa posted a statement on Twitter claiming the spread of Christianity posed a serious threat to the country’s cultural identity that could result in religious conflict.  On December 31, Thapa posted a statement on Twitter warning proselytizing was spreading and posed a serious threat to national identity, stability, and social harmony.

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