The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith. The constitution provides the government will grant the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion. Several religious groups expressed frustration that the government required them to register as both civil associations and religious groups in order to be eligible for tax-exempt status, receive visas for foreign clergy, and hold public activities, noting that the Catholic Church was exempt from this requirement. The government continued its investigation into the 1994 terrorist bombing of the Argentina Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center and a subsequent cover-up, reiterating demands for Iranian cooperation in bringing the suspected perpetrators to justice. Legal action continued against Tucuman Province over the inclusion of religion in the province’s public school curriculum. Jewish organizations denounced the anti-Semitic commentary of former television journalist Santiago Cuneo, who was a candidate for governor of Buenos Aires Province. Government officials sponsored and participated in interfaith events throughout the year, including an interfaith iftar, at which then-foreign minister Jorge Faurie emphasized the country’s prioritization of coexistence among religions.
On February 25, at least five individuals broke into the house of Grand Rabbi Gabriel Davidovich in Buenos Aires, beating him and causing injuries that resulted in his hospitalization for one week. The Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA) reported 834 complaints of anti-Semitism in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 404 reported complaints in 2017. The most commonly reported anti-Semitic incidents tracked by the report were anti-Semitic slurs posted on websites, and DAIA stated the spike tracked with an increase in news stories about the Jewish community during the year, including an institutional crisis that led to the resignation of DAIA’s president. In October protesters opposed to the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion attempted to set fire to the Catholic cathedral in La Plata, according to local media. In July religious groups, including the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), Latin American Rabbinical Seminar, Islam for Peace Institute, and the Orthodox Anglican Archbishopric, organized the National Table for Interreligious Coordination (MECIN). In March the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic (CIRA), AMIA, and the CEA held an event in Buenos Aires to celebrate and recognize the historic February 4 signing in Abu Dhabi of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” between Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb of al-Azhar Mosque and Pope Francis.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials, including within the Secretariat of Worship and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) human rights office, and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination. Embassy outreach efforts included regular meetings with government officials and religious and community leaders to discuss the status of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue; the status of the AMIA case; and ways to counter anti-Semitism. In August the Ambassador gave keynote remarks on countering online hate speech and discrimination based on religion at a conference in Tucuman Province. On July 15, the embassy cohosted with DAIA a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the AMIA Jewish Community Center. Eighteen other diplomatic missions participated in the event, and the Ambassador delivered remarks in remembrance of the victims, calling for justice, and underscoring the role of Hezbollah and Iran in the attack. Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through both public statements and social media.
The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. The law prohibits, but does not define, proselytism, which may be interpreted as forced conversion. The trial continued of a prominent Baha’i lawyer, charged in 2017 with organizing illegal migration to the country. Baha’i community members said they believed the charges were brought because of his religion. According to the Alternative Report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child With A Focus on Yezidi Children in Armenia, minority children were frequently deprived of their freedom to practice their religion and faced challenges in preserving and expressing their ethnic and religious identities. The 2018 dismissal of a police officer for being a member of a religious organization triggered a Constitutional Court review of the laws prohibiting police officers’ membership in religious organizations. There were reports the government arbitrarily enforced the law, targeting police officers affiliated with minority religious groups. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan spoke about the importance of freedom of religion and established a working group to review AAC-government relations, the public-school curriculum on the history of the Armenian Church, and other issues. Some AAC representatives objected to the review, describing the process as a threat to Armenian national identity. In September, built with private funds on private land, the world’s largest Yezidi temple opened in Aknalich Village, Armavir Region. Speaker of Parliament Ararat Mirzoyan spoke at the inauguration, stating, “It is symbolic and logical that the largest Yezidi temple in the world is in Armenia. Armenia is a home for the Yezidi people.” Some Yezidis interviewed at the celebration said the temple was an important step for the preservation of Yezidi culture and religion, while others said the primary purpose of the temple was more likely to serve as a tourist attraction.
Religious minorities said they continued to face hate speech and negative portrayals of their communities, especially in social media. According to observers, anti-Semitic slurs were posted on social media platforms, in some cases together with cartoons depicting Jews in an offensive manner. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were again societal incidents of verbal harassment towards the group’s members, to which authorities responded promptly and appropriately. There were 16 reported instances of verbal harassment, compared with 12 in 2018. In November an AAC priest published an article on an AAC website, where he discussed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Pentecostals, Protestants, and others, referring to them as “sects.” He stated, “Sectarian organizations hurt our nation by creating divisions among our people, removing it from our Holy Church and the true faith of our ancestors.” Societal and family pressure also remained a major deterrent for ethnic Armenians to practice a religion other than Armenian Orthodox.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance, respect for religious minorities, and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to discuss the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. In August the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation – bringing together representatives of religious and ethnic minorities, civil society, and the government. In September the Ambassador, with national and local government officials, celebrated the completion of a U.S.-funded cultural preservation project of the AAC Saint Hovhannes Church and the restoration of its rare 17th century frescoes in Meghri, Syunik Region. The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to convey messages in support of religious tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, as well as with individual Muslims, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.
The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions. It also protects the right of individuals to express their religious beliefs and practice religious rituals, provided these do not violate public order or public morality. The law prohibits the government from interfering in religious activities, but it also states the government and citizens have a responsibility to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism.” The law specifies the government may dissolve religious organizations if they cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; proselytize in a way that “degrades human dignity;” or hinder secular education. Local courts sentenced 57 of the 77 individuals detained after the July 2018 attack on the then head of the city of Ganja Executive Committee, and subsequent killing of two police officers. Authorities said those sentenced were part of a Shia “extremist conspiracy” that sought to undermine the constitutional order. Human rights defenders considered 48 of these individuals to be political prisoners at year’s end; they also reported that in court hearings throughout the year, these individuals testified that police and other officials tortured them to coerce false confessions. Local human rights groups and others stated the government continued to physically abuse, arrest, and imprison religious activists. Leaders of the political opposition party Muslim Unity Movement Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Services officials in Gobustan Prison. Human rights defenders said they considered these and other incarcerated Muslim Unity Movement members to be political prisoners. Estimates of the number of religious activists who were political prisoners or detainees ranged from 45 to 55 at the end of the year. Authorities briefly detained, fined, or warned individuals for holding unauthorized religious meetings. The government’s requirements for legal registration were unachievable for communities with less than 50 members. The government continued to control the importation, distribution, and sale of religious materials. The courts fined individuals for the unauthorized sale or distribution of religious materials. According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. A senior government official stated in May while the law did not explicitly address the issue of the hijab in the workplace, there remained an unofficial ban on wearing it in government employment. The government sponsored events throughout the country to promote religious tolerance and combat what it considered religious extremism, including the November 14-15 Baku Summit of World Religious Leaders.
Civil society representatives stated citizens continued to tolerate “traditional” minority religious groups (i.e., those historically present in the country), including Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics; however, groups viewed as “nontraditional” were often viewed with suspicion and mistrust.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers urged government officials to investigate allegations of serious physical abuse – including alleged torture – of those individuals detained after July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja, and engaged the State Committee for Work with Religious Associations (SCWRA) to address longstanding issues with the registration process for religious communities. The Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with representatives of traditional and nontraditional religious groups and civil society in and outside the capital to discuss the situation for religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials met with representatives of various religious groups in Baku and in the regions to discuss religious freedom in the country. Officials had consultations with theologians and civil society representatives and urged the government to implement the constitutionally provided alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.
The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia to be a principal source for legislation. It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites. The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.” The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. Authorities detained a number of clerics over the content of their sermons during the commemoration of Ashura in September; all were subsequently released without charge. In January authorities released Majeed al-Meshaal, the head of the Shia Scholar’s Council, who was sentenced in 2016 to two and a half years in prison. On June 9, the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) banned al-Meshaal from delivering Friday sermons on the grounds that he was inciting hatred. In March the criminal court sentenced 167 individuals to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years for their participation in the 2016 Diraz sit-in held by supporters of Isa Qassim, identified by media as the country’s leading Shia cleric. On July 30, authorities placed Shia cleric Sheikh Isaal al-Qaffas in solitary confinement in Jaw Prison for protesting the execution of two Shia. On August 30, Jaw Prison authorities banned inmates from gathering in large groups to commemorate Ashura in the corridors. The prison permitted inmates to conduct observances in small groups in their cells from 8:00 to 9:00 each night. In general, non-Muslim religious minorities reported they could practice their religion openly without fear of interference from the government. In August the government authorized work to begin on the renovation and expansion of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple during a visit by the Prime Minister of India. In December the King Hamad Centre for Global Peaceful Coexistence cohosted two roundtables on religious freedom, bringing together Shia and Sunni Muslims, Coptic and evangelical Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jews. The King Hamad Centre cited the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the United States in July for providing the impetus to hold these events.
Some representatives of the Shia community continued to state that the higher unemployment rate and lower socioeconomic status of Shia were a result of discriminatory hiring practices. Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared on social media, including statements that some prominent former and current Shia political leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants.” According to non-Muslim religious groups, including Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, Buddhist, and Jews, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs, traditions, and houses of worship. Although no law prevented individuals from converting from one religion to another, societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam.
Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State and Ambassador, and other embassy representatives met with government officials to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials also continued to advocate that the government pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to meet regularly with religious leaders of a broad spectrum of religious groups, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it relates to religious practices.
The constitution and other laws provide for freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion, and prohibit discrimination based on religious belief. The government does not require religious groups to register and grants religious groups the right to establish and maintain private schools and provide religious instruction. Rastafarians expressed frustration with the government’s proposed Medicinal Cannabis Industry Bill, stating it did not address prohibition of marijuana use in their religious rituals, and called on the government to engage in meaningful dialogue on the broader decriminalization and legalization of cannabis. In November Attorney General Dale Marshall announced he had received cabinet approval to draft a bill permitting Rastafarians to use cannabis “for the purpose of their religion.” Some Muslims said they continued to object to a government policy requiring women to remove the hijab for identification photographs, including for passports, while noting progress in their talks with the government to revise the policy and find a mutually agreeable solution.
Rastafarians continued to report some social discrimination, specifically for their dreadlocks and particularly in hiring practices; however, they stated societal attitudes regarding Rastafarianism continued to improve.
U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom with government ministries and offices at all levels. Embassy officials engaged with the Ministries of Education, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, and People Empowerment to discuss the cannabis legalization movement and its significance for the Rastafarian community. Embassy officials also engaged civil society and religious groups, including the Muslim and Rastafarian communities, on religious expression and societal or governmental discrimination based on religion or belief.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom to express one’s religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice, and observance. The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. By law, the Council of Churches and the Belize Association of Evangelical Churches (BAEC) together appoint a “church senator” to the Senate, with the concurrence of the governor general. The church senator provides advice on how public policy affects the political positions of religious groups. Nondenominational “spirituality” classes, including morals, values, and world religions, are taught in public schools; opt outs are possible. The government continued to engage religious groups on its stated commitment to fostering tolerance for religious minorities, protecting religious freedom, and ensuring equal protection under the law. The government continued to permit religious leaders from varying denominations to visit the government-owned and -financed central prison to hold services at its nondenominational chapel.
Religious groups continued collaboration with international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to carry out missionary work in the country. The interfaith Belize Chaplain Service (BCS) continued to promote several initiatives, including counseling services for relatives of crime victims and for police officers, with the stated objective to provide professional, multifaith, compassionate pastoral care to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the public. The BCS supported the government’s decision to submit the border dispute with Guatemala to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) based on council members’ religious belief in social justice.
U.S. embassy officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, met with government officials to emphasize the importance of continued government engagement with a wide spectrum of religious groups, including Christians and non-Christian religious minorities. The embassy invited representatives of religious groups, including religious minorities, to participate in embassy programs and outreach to reinforce the role of religious groups in promoting respect for religious diversity and tolerance and in addressing crime.
The constitution stipulates the state is independent of religion and provides for “freedom of thought, spirituality, religion, and worship, expressed individually or collectively, in public and in private.” The constitution and other laws accord educational institutions the right to teach religion, including indigenous spiritual belief classes. President Evo Morales resigned on November 10, followingmassive protests against what were widely considered fraudulent October 20 elections, with transitional President Jeanine Anez assuming power on November 12 until new elections, expected to take place in May 2020. According to some observers, both Morales and Anez used religious and spiritual symbolism that was exclusionary of other beliefs. In April then president Morales signed the Law of Religious Freedom, Religious Organizations and Spiritual Beliefs, which creates a clear distinction between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious organizations. Parts of the law were implemented by year’s end. Evangelical Protestant community representatives again reported several smaller religious communities with “house churches” preferred not to register their organizations because they did not want to provide the government with access to private internal information.
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
U.S. embassy access to government officials under the Morales administration was limited despite embassy requests for meetings. The transitional government showed interest in engaging the U.S. government, although no discussions on religious freedom took place with embassy officials in the few weeks the transition government was in office before the end of the year. Embassy staff regularly met with religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom. The Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith meeting for religious leaders in October, including representatives from Protestant and Jewish groups, and from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), to engage them in interfaith dialogue and discuss the new religious freedom bill. Embassy officials met on other occasions with representatives from Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Roman Catholic groups to discuss new religious freedom legislation and other religious freedom topics.
The constitution states freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, and it provides for the free exercise of religious beliefs. The constitution prohibits federal, state, and local governments from either supporting or hindering any religion. In March the Federal Supreme Court (STF) ruled animal sacrifice in religious rituals was constitutional, noting special protection for traditional Afro-Brazilian religions was necessary due to the country’s history of discrimination against these religions. The Rio Grande do Sul State Court of Justice continued the prosecution of individuals charged in a 2005 anti-Semitic attack against three men wearing kippahs in Porto Alegre, the state capital. In March a military police officer and a courthouse official prevented lawyer Matheus Maciel from entering two courthouses in the state of Bahia because he was wearing a religious head covering. Maciel was later permitted to enter a courthouse after he called the Bahia State Brazilian Bar Association (OAB) and reported the incident. In April the administration of Tarcila Cruz de Alencar Elementary School, located in Ceara State, removed history teacher Maria Firmino from the classroom for teaching the culture and history of Afro-Brazilian religions. On January 3, President Jair Bolsonaro signed into law a bill allowing public and private school students, except those in military training, to postpone taking exams or attending classes on their day of worship when their faith prohibits such activities. On August 21, the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly approved a bill establishing administrative sanctions on individuals and organizations engaging in religious intolerance. The Senate passed a bill creating the annual National Day of Spiritism, to be celebrated on April 18, and a second bill designating Jaguaretama in Ceara State as the National Capital of Spiritism. On January 21, municipalities throughout the country commemorated the National Day to Combat Religious Intolerance. On March 26, Sao Paulo State Secretary of Justice and Citizenship Paulo Mascaretti launched an awareness campaign with the Inter-Religious Forum, an entity with civil society and religious group participation, to combat intolerance.
According to national human rights hotline data and other sources, societal respect for practitioners of minority religions continued to be weak, and violent attacks on Afro-Brazilian places of worship, known as terreiros, continued. Although less than 1 percent of the population follows Afro-Brazilian religions, 30 percent of the cases registered by the human rights hotline involved victims who were practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions. According to the National Secretariat of Human Rights of the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights, the national human rights hotline received 506 reports of religious intolerance in 2018, compared with 537 in 2017. From April to August, media reported members of criminal organizations attacked several terreiros in the Baixada Fluminense region of Rio de Janeiro State, expelling religious followers and preventing Afro-Brazilian religious services. On June 13, Rio de Janeiro police officers from four different police stations, including the Rio de Janeiro Civil Police Office for Racial Crimes and Crimes of Intolerance (DECRADI), launched an operation to detain individuals who participated in the attacks and arrested eight individuals. In January, after television network Record News lost a 15-year lawsuit in which it had been accused of promoting religious intolerance towards Afro-Brazilian religions, the organization paid a 600,000 reais ($149,000) fine and produced and broadcast four 20-minute programs on Afro-Brazilian religions. Religious organizations hosted interfaith community events, including the 22nd Azoany Walk in Defense of Religious Freedom in Salvador, Bahia, on August 16, which convened approximately 2,500 practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions to advocate for the protection of Afro-Brazilian culture and religion.
In April and September, U.S. embassy officials engaged the coordinator for religious diversity at the Ministry of Women, Family, and Human Rights to discuss the government’s efforts to promote religious tolerance and prevent violence towards Afro-Brazilian religions. In July embassy officials met with the Federal District Special Police Station for the Prevention of Crimes of Discrimination based on Race, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Age, or Disability (DECRIN), which specifically covers religious hate crimes. As a result of nomination by the embassy and consulates, Ivanir dos Santos, an Afro-Brazilian activist and religious leader, was a recipient of the Secretary of State’s International Religious Freedom Award for his exceptional commitment to advancing religious freedom. His work included founding the Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance, an independent organization composed of representatives from different religious groups, members of civil society, police, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which documents cases of religious intolerance and assists victims. In April embassy and consulate officials met with representatives from the Israeli Federation of Rio de Janeiro to discuss anti-Semitism in the country. In May embassy and consulate officials met with representatives from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) at their national headquarters in Sao Paulo to discuss the importance of protecting religious freedom. In May and August officials from the Recife Consulate met with representatives of the Israeli Federation of Pernambuco to discuss issues affecting the Jewish community. Sao Paulo Consulate officials met with evangelical Christian leaders in July to discuss the role of religious leaders in promoting religious tolerance. In December the embassy hosted an interfaith dialogue on religious freedom for seven representatives from six religious and interfaith organizations to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.
The constitution establishes the state as secular, prohibits religious harassment, and provides for freedom of religion and worship. According to media, security officers combating Anglophone separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions killed Christians and clergymen and attacked places of worship. In April soldiers shot and killed a Baptist pastor on his way to church in Mfumte Village. In September soldiers shot and killed a woman outside the Roman Catholic church in Bambui. In May security forces set fire to a Protestant church during clashes with separatists in Bamenda, the Northwest Region’s capital. In October security forces arrested a Catholic priest in Bamenda, reportedly because he accused soldiers of human rights abuses during an address to the United Nations, according to one of his colleagues. He was released a day later. Religious media outlets accused the government of arming Muslim herders and encouraging them to attack Christians in the town of Wum, and of exploiting sporadic clashes over land between Mbororo herders and local farmers, attempting to introduce a religious character to the conflict in the Northwest Region between security forces and separatists. In February police briefly detained a pastor of the Cameroon Evangelical Church (CEC) and accused him of inciting rebellion during a sermon. On several occasions, Christians in the Northwest and Southwest Regions said security forces interrupted church services and prevented them from accessing places of worship. During the year, the government appointed a board to manage the CEC’s affairs. The government said it acted to preserve order within the CEC, which was undergoing an internal dispute over the election of Church leaders after the government suspended elected executives. Religious leaders expressed frustration with the government’s failure to register any new religious groups for the ninth consecutive year and said many requests remained pending.
Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued to carry out violent attacks against civilians, government officials, and military forces. Attacks on civilians included suicide bombings, church burnings, killings and kidnappings of Muslims and Christians, and theft and destruction of property, including arson. Insurgents attacked places of worship and private homes. Boko Haram targeted Muslims, Christians, and animists without apparent distinction, while ISIS-WA tended to attack military and other government installations.
Anglophone separatists in the Northwest and Southwest Regions kidnapped clerics, including bishops and priests, and sometimes limited Christians’ ability to attend church services. According to the Catholic Church, Anglophone separatists targeted Catholic clergy for kidnapping due to the Church’s advocacy for school resumption in the Northwest and Southwest Regions and their perception that the Church was able and willing to pay ransoms. Unidentified individuals killed two Bible translators in Wum; the local Christian population said the largely Muslim Mbororo herder community was responsible. In May residents of the largely Muslim neighborhood of Upkwa in Wum stated that Anglophone separatists burned down their mosque, reportedly because of rumors that some Muslims acted as informants to the security forces. Throughout the year, Muslim and Christian leaders initiated interfaith activities aimed at facilitating interreligious dialogue, promoting peaceful coexistence of different faiths, and seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the Northwest and Southwest Regions, where Anglophone separatists were seeking secession. In July the Council of Imams and Muslim Dignitaries organized a seminar in Yaounde to sensitize Muslim preachers to religious extremism.
U.S. embassy officials discussed with government officials the failure to register religious organizations, the impact of the violence in the Anglophone regions on religious freedom, and perceptions by Pentecostal churches of government bias in favor of Catholic and Protestant churches. In discussions with leading figures from the main religious groups, embassy officers stressed the importance of interfaith dialogue, prevention of violent extremism related to religion, and the need for a peaceful solution to the Anglophone separatist crisis. The embassy hosted two roundtables – in Yaounde and Douala, respectively – on religious freedom, during which participants discussed religious freedom as an important component of human rights, the process for registering religious organizations, and key challenges and opportunities facing religious freedom in the country.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The law prohibits religious discrimination and provides civil remedies to victims of discrimination. Religion and state are officially separate. The National Office of Religious Affairs (ONAR), an executive government agency, is charged with facilitating communication between faith communities and the government and ensuring the protection of the rights of religious minorities. ONAR continued to work with local authorities in the communities affected by attacks on churches in several regions of the country, including the Araucania and Santiago Regions, to coordinate and rebuild the damaged churches. During the year, ONAR held roundtable discussions with religious leaders in all regions of the country regarding possible changes to the law regarding religious organizations.
Jewish community leaders again expressed concern about a rise in anti-Semitism in the country, including anti-Semitic vandalism and chants by groups occurring during widespread protests in October. Jewish community representatives said they were particularly concerned about the violent episodes allegedly committed by members of the Patriotic and Social Movement of Chile (MSP), whose leaders produced statements criticizing Jews. By year’s end, there were more than 60 reports of attacks, including vandalism, looting, and arson, on Catholic and evangelical churches, and one on a synagogue, associated directly with the social unrest occurring across the country since October. ONAR representatives stated the intensification of attacks on religious buildings directly restricted freedom of religion, in particular for communities most directly affected by social unrest.
The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. embassy representatives periodically met with government officials to discuss reports of anti-Semitism, religious minorities’ security concerns, and institutional cooperation among government and religious organizations. They also met with civil society and religious leaders to discuss religious diversity and tolerance and to raise incidents of concern, including perceived threats to the Jewish community.
China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)
Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.
The constitution, which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.” Despite Chairman Xi Jinping’s decree that all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must be “unyielding Marxist atheists,” the government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions – Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. There were several reports of individuals committing suicide in detention, or, according to sources, as a result of being threatened and surveilled. In December Pastor Wang Yi was tried in secret and sentenced to nine years in prison by a court in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, in connection to his peaceful advocacy for religious freedom. There was one self-immolation by a former Tibetan Buddhist monk reported during the year. According to The Church of Almighty God, a Christian group established in the country in 1991 and which the government considers an “evil cult,” authorities in Shandong Province arrested more than 6,000 members during the year as part of a nationwide crackdown. Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program. According to <i>Minghui, </i>a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,000 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. <i>Bitter Winter</i><i>,</i><i> </i>an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, beaten, and forced to take medication. The government continued a campaign begun in 2016 to evict thousands of monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Authorities in many provinces targeted religious groups with overseas ties, particularly Christian groups. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued a campaign of religious Sinicization to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, adopting a formal five-year plan on January 7. Officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, and placed surveillance cameras in houses of worship as a condition of allowing these venues to continue operating. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Jewish, and other houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country, including the last remaining crosses in Xiayi County, Henan Province, and all Jewish symbols identifying the site of the former Kaifeng Synagogue, also in Henan Province. Nationwide, the government prohibited individuals under aged 18 from participating in most religious activities. The Holy See maintained its 2018 provisional agreement with the government that reportedly addressed a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama.
The government continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang. The U.S. government estimates that since April 2017, the PRC government arbitrarily detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as Uighur Christians, in specially built or converted internment camps in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. There were reports of individuals dying as a result of injuries sustained during interrogations. In November <i>The New York Times</i> and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported on leaked internal government documents that included descriptions of the government’s mass internment program in Xinjiang and a manual for operating internment camps with instructions on how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camp’s existence, and methods of forced indoctrination. A third document, the “Karakax List,” originally leaked in November and later made public, presented evidence the government initially interned or extended the internment of individuals on religious grounds in four reeducation centers in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture. Authorities in Xinjiang restricted access to mosques and barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan. According to human rights groups and international media, authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. This surveillance included forcing Uighurs and other ethnic and religious minorities to install spyware on their mobile phones and accept government officials and CCP members living in their homes. Satellite imagery and other sources indicated the government destroyed mosques, cemeteries, and other religious sites. Nearly 40 percent of all elementary and middle school students – approximately half a million children – lived in boarding schools where they studied Han culture, Mandarin, and CCP ideology. The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur and other Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.
Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uighur language, culture, and religion and the promotion of the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread
The President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other U.S. embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom throughout the country. At the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in July, the United States and other nations issued a statement calling on the government to cease its crackdown on religious groups. In a September 23 speech at the UN General Assembly, the Vice President said, “The Communist Party in China has arrested Christian pastors, banned the sale of Bibles, demolished churches, and imprisoned more than one million Muslim Uighurs.” On September 24 the United States co-sponsored a panel discussion on the human rights crisis in Xinjiang during the United Nations General Assembly session, hosted by the Deputy Secretary of State. During a press conference on November 26, the Secretary of State said, “We call on the Chinese government to immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.” The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of Chinese officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance and the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.
In October the U.S. government added 28 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List and imposed visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing these measures, the Secretary of State said, “The Chinese government has instituted a highly repressive campaign against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region that includes mass detentions in internment camps; pervasive, high-tech surveillance; draconian controls of expressions of cultural and religious identities; and coercion of individuals to return from abroad to an often perilous fate in China.”
Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers. The MOI continued efforts to develop protective tools for religious groups. Religious leaders expressed continued concern about a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. MOI officials and High Commissioner for Peace Miguel Ceballos met in August to study the role of religious organizations in the peace and reconciliation process. Religious leaders reported arbitrary enforcement of the tax law, and in particular, confusion regarding the taxability of donations to religious organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the United Nations Development Program signed an agreement to pursue a study of the social contribution and sustainable development goals of religious organizations, within the framework of the implementation of the country’s public policy of religious freedom and worship, launched in March 2018. By year’s end, 14 major cities had adopted new public policies on religious freedom, up from four at the close of 2018.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that illegal armed groups threatened and committed violence against leaders and members of religious organizations in many areas of the country. Because many religious leaders were also involved in politics and social activism, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. For example, there were media reports covering the killings of Pastors Tomas Francisco Estrada and Leider Molina, allegedly for their opposition to illegal armed groups. The Episcopal Conference of Colombia (ECC) reported that in March a pastor fled his community in Armenia, Antioquia, after receiving threats of violence.
The Jewish community reported continued comments promoting anti-Semitism on some social media sites, including aggressive actions by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Colombia, an anti-Israel protest movement that continued to use anti-Semitic slogans such as “Jews control the media.” During the year, the Catholic Church, Mennonite Church, and other religious groups continued to conduct programs focused on religious tolerance, land rights, peace, and reconciliation. Faith-based and interfaith NGOs, including DiPaz and the Inter-ecclesiastical Commission on Justice and Peace, continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement.
U.S. embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom, including conscientious objection to military service and the effect of illegal armed actors on religious practice, with government officials. Embassy officials met with the Human Rights Directorate of the MFA, the International Affairs Directorate of the Attorney General’s Office, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI. Embassy officials discussed with the MOI the public policy on religious freedom and worship, including support for victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations at the national and local levels. Embassy officials also met with representatives from a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish and Muslim communities, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, and Mennonites. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed issues related to the government’s new policy on religious freedom, conscientious objection, and the importance of eliminating institutionalized discrimination.
The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance. The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that do not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior” and provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom. In May a legislator presented a bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state. According to media reports, the bill engendered significant public debate between a growing constituency calling for official secularism in the constitution and members of the Catholic community opposing the change. The bill was pending in the National Assembly at year’s end. Some civil society leaders continued to state that the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, in particular regarding organizational registration processes. The Constitutional Chamber received 10 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at government institutions and discrimination by government entities. The chamber dismissed eight of the claims, stating there was insufficient evidence or no basis for claiming discrimination. In the other two cases, the chamber ruled in favor of the claimants: a student who wanted to reschedule her exams to observe the Jewish Sabbath and a non-Catholic teacher who did not want to participate in a Catholic Mass.
Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued, reportedly spurred by high-level investigations into priests charged with sexual abuse. There were also reports of anti-Semitism on social media, with Juan Diego Castro, a former presidential candidate and former minister of security, making anti-Semitic comments about an owner of a major media outlet. An interreligious forum created in 2017, with participants from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities. The group met periodically throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including a visit from Sagi Shalev, an interfaith dialogue activist from Israel, and the signing of a declaration to promote fraternity among Latin American and Caribbean cultural and religious traditions.
U.S. embassy representatives engaged with public officials to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. They also engaged religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss their views on religious freedom. The embassy conducted outreach with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); and other religious groups. The embassy drew on the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom hosted by the Department of State to share messages of tolerance and understanding with religious leaders and government officials. The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages to religious groups on special religious occasions.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and worship, consistent with law and order, and prohibits religious discrimination. It emphasizes that religious tolerance is fundamental to the nation’s unity, national reconciliation, and social cohesion. It forbids speech that encourages religious hatred. In July the Department of Faith-Based Organizations within the Ministry of Interior organized a panel discussion with religious leaders on the use of information and communication technology.
Unknown individuals vandalized two Catholic churches in separate incidents in July and August. In October Muslim and Catholic leaders, along with government representatives, participated in the eighth Inter-Religious Conference for Peace hosted by the Sant’Egidio community. The three-day conference culminated in an interreligious prayer session and a march for peace.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials to emphasize the importance of human rights, including religious freedom, throughout the year. The Ambassador and other embassy representatives also met with religious leaders throughout the year, as well as with the director of the nationwide Muslim radio station Al-Bayane. Some discussions focused on the role of religious media outlets in promoting peace, social cohesion, and religious freedom.
In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia announced Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. A UN General Assembly resolution declared continued international recognition of Crimea as part of Ukraine. The U.S. government recognizes Crimea is part of Ukraine; it does not and will not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea. Occupation authorities continue to impose the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.
On July 12, Human Right Watch reported religious activists in Crimea were among victims of torture by FSB agents. The Russian government reported there were 891 religious communities registered in Crimea, including Sevastopol, compared with 831 in 2018, a number that dropped by over 1,000 since the occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. Religious activists, human rights groups, and media reports said Russian authorities in occupied Crimea continued to persecute and intimidate minority religious congregations, Jehovah’s Witnesses, OCU members, and Muslim Crimean Tatars. Occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to imprisonment and detention, especially if authorities purportedly suspected the individuals of involvement in the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia but is legal in Ukraine. According to Forum 18, administrative court hearings imposed by Russia on Crimeans for “missionary activity” were comparable with the previous year. There were 24 prosecutions for such activity, compared with 23 in 2018, 17 of which ended in convictions with a monetary fine. Greek Catholic leaders said they continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of occupation authorities. The UGCC said it continued to have to operate under the umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church. The OCU reported continued seizures of its churches. Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all. Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media also portrayed Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremists.”
On November 6, the website Crimea-news reported that unidentified individuals destroyed crosses at a cemetery in Feodosia. According to Crimean Tatar activist Zair Smedlyaev, in November unidentified individuals destroyed a tombstone at a Muslim cemetery in Petrivka Village, in Krasnogvardiysk District.
The U.S. government continued to condemn the intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and to call international attention to the religious abuses committed by Russian forces through public statements by the Secretary and other senior officials, as well as messaging on social media. U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities, and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. All religious communities have the same religious protections under the law. The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide state financial support and favorable tax and other treatment; 54 other registered religious communities that have agreements with the state receive equivalent treatment that registered religious communities without such agreements and unregistered religious groups do not receive. During the year the state registered a newly established religious community called the Catholic Old Church. Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) representatives said lack of restitution of property seized by the Yugoslavia government remained an outstanding issue. Atheist groups continued to complain that Roman Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals. Representatives of the Jewish and Serbian communities expressed concerns about the rise of neo-Ustasha sentiment and historical revisionism about atrocities committed by the pro-Nazi government during the Second World War (WWII) against those communities. They said the government did not take a strong enough stand against historical revisionism and downplayed the public display of symbols of the Ustasha regime. They also said the current exhibition of the WWII-era Jasenovac concentration camp obscures the cruelty toward victims and fails to explain the affiliation of the victims persecuted by the Ustasha regime. In August the High Misdemeanor Court fined a singer who used the Nazi-era Ustasha salute while performing a popular nationalist song. In an article published in June, media characterized Member of the European Parliament (MEP) Ruza Tomasic as sympathetic to the fascist Ustasha movement through her statements defending elements of the movement and leader Ante Pavelic. Jewish and Serb leaders, the latter largely Orthodox, and representatives of the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters again boycotted the government’s annual commemoration at the Jasenovac concentration camp, citing the government’s lack of response to Holocaust revisionism and failure to address Holocaust-era property restitution issues.
SOC representatives reported an increased number of incidents targeting individuals of Serbian ethnicity compared with 2018, including physical and verbal attacks. According to SOC representatives, however, it was unclear if these incidents were religiously or ethnically motivated. In a European Commission study published in September, 40 percent of the respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in the country, while 58 percent said it was rare. On January 25, the Holocaust Remembrance Project published a “Holocaust Revisionist Report,” giving the country a “red card for revisionism” (the worst possible rating). The report pointed to the continued use of the wartime fascist Ustasha salute at public events, the relative lack of Holocaust commemoration sites, outstanding restitution issues, and what it said were President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic’s contradictory statements on the Ustasha.
U.S. embassy officials discussed the status and treatment of religious minorities, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism with the government. U.S. officials encouraged the government to amend existing legislation covering Holocaust-era property restitution to allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives from a broad spectrum of religious groups.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief. A concordat with the Holy See designates Roman Catholicism as the official state religion and extends to the Catholic Church special privileges not granted to other religious groups. Privileges include funding for expenses, including administration and construction, visa exceptions, and exemptions for customs duties. Some members of non-Catholic groups said they did not approve of the government’s preference for the Catholic Church, lack of explicit legal protection for churches beyond what the constitution provided, and treatment of non-Catholic churches as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to representatives of non-Catholic groups, a draft law to register and regulate religious entities, if passed, could reduce what they characterized as unequal treatment of religious groups in the country. While representatives of non-Catholic groups continued to state the special privileges given to the Catholic Church through the concordat were unfair, these administrative privileges did not hinder their ability to practice their faiths in public and in private.
In November the Pontifical University in Santo Domingo, Brigham Young University, the Latin American Consortium of Religious Freedom, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) hosted an international conference, titled “Religious Freedom and Human Dignity.” Participants discussed the contribution of religion to society and how to promote the freedom of religion in the region through cooperation and tolerance.
In November the Ambassador met with an official from the Ministry of the Presidency to discuss the government’s stance on the privileges afforded to the Catholic Church through the concordat. Embassy officials discussed with non-Catholic leaders their efforts to pass a law to register and regulate religious entities that would address unequal access to government resources by religious groups in the country. The embassy donated funds to preserve and digitize museum archives telling the story of Jewish refugees welcomed to the country after fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe and shared these efforts on its social media pages.
The constitution grants individuals the right to choose, practice, and change religions; it prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution also states secular ethics are the basis for public service and the legal system. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government; failure to do so can result in the group’s dissolution and liquidation of its physical property. In August the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and National Secretariat for Policy Management (SPM) merged to become the new Ministry of Government, with its Human Rights Secretariat assuming responsibility for religious issues. Religious and human rights leaders said this administrative transition led to confusion and there was insufficient knowledge about the registration process and relevant points of contact in the new ministry, delaying already lengthy processing times for religious groups to register. Many religious leaders said the National Assembly made no progress on the proposal to reform the 1937 religion law that the interfaith National Council on Religious Freedom and Equality (CONALIR) discussed with the National Assembly in 2018. The proposed reform would strengthen equal treatment for religious groups. Jewish and Muslim leaders said general customs regulations continued to hinder their ability to import products for use in religious festivals.
The Jewish community reported authorities made no arrests in response to a June incident in which unknown individuals painted a swastika in a Jewish school parking lot in Quito. Legislative debates on same-sex marriage and the decriminalization of abortion in the case of rape were topics of social discourse in which some religious groups participated in demonstrations or made public statements. Some religious leaders reported harassment, threats, and desecration of religious symbols by opposing activists. During violent protests in October by indigenous groups, unions, students, and others against economic reforms, the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference of Ecuador, together with the United Nations, jointly mediated the dialogue between the government and indigenous leaders to halt the violent demonstrations.
U.S. embassy officials met with officials in the Ministry of Government to discuss the registration process for religious groups and government promotion and protection of religious freedom and other related human rights. The Ambassador hosted an October 10 roundtable with religious leaders from the Baha’i, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Roman Catholic faiths to discuss challenges facing their communities. On September 26, the Consul General in Guayaquil hosted a roundtable with Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Seventh-day Adventist leaders to discuss religious freedom topics affecting coastal communities, including registration requirements, access to prisons, and laws related to religious freedom. Embassy officials spoke with representatives from CONALIR, which includes representatives from Anglican, Baha’i, Buddhist, Catholic, evangelical Christian, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventist Church faith communities, to encourage continued interfaith and ecumenical dialogue.
The constitution states “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in 2017. In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prisons terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in a suburb south of Cairo. On February 9, authorities arrested Muslim students at Al-Azhar for posting video footage mocking Christian religious practices. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 814 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings, bringing the cumulative total to 1412 of 5,415 applications for licensure. In April the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the Anba Karas Church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. Local authorities continued to periodically rely on customary reconciliation sessions instead of the official judicial system to resolve sectarian disputes. In April security officials closed a church in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib in response to threats of an attack by Muslim villagers. In November Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of Hgara were directed to rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village following a customary reconciliation session related to a dispute with the local Muslim population. According to an international NGO, there were no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) or houses of worship in the country. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi.
On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat to the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian based on his religious affiliation at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in Northern Sinai on January 17. His fate was unknown at year’s end. In January a religious sheikh at a mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City, Cairo, to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police later discovered an improvised explosive device (IED). One police officer died and two others were injured as they attempted to defuse the bomb. Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019. According to human rights groups and religious communities, discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports. Of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian. Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.
U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador, and former Charge d’Affaires, as well as visiting senior-level delegations from Washington and embassy representatives and officials of the former consulate general in Alexandria met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states all persons are equal before the law. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration. On October 28, the Ministry of Governance implemented a system allowing users to continue their registration process electronically. Religious leaders reported police and other government agents continued to intimidate, harass, or threaten anyone working with at-risk juveniles whom police characterized as “terrorists” with possible gang affiliation. According to sources, while many religious communities focused on education and youth development programs, particularly in the area of violence prevention, intimidation of religious individuals did not appear to be intended to limit their freedom of religion. During the 2018-19 presidential campaign and prior to being sworn into office in June, Nayib Bukele, of Palestinian background, was the target of anti-Muslim commentary, mainly on Twitter, by some of his political opposition. According to media reports and other sources, these anti-Islamic comments were an attempt to negatively influence voters and the public against Bukele. Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, a former military captain suspected of killing Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, remained a fugitive. On February 25, the Attorney General’s Office filed a brief asking the trial court to clarify Saravia’s alleged participation in the Romero killing. On March 19, an intermediate appellate court affirmed the trial court’s April 2018 ruling ordering the attorney general to bring new charges against former president Alfredo Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests, their gardener’s wife, and his daughter at the Central American University in San Salvador. In May the Supreme Court refused a request to commute the 30-year prison sentence of Colonel Guillermo Benavides, who was convicted for the murder of the Jesuits in 1991. On November 21, media reported Spain’s national court had extended Inocente Orlando Montano’s pretrial detention in the court case connected to the Jesuit killings.
Leaders of Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and other Christian communities continued to report that members of their churches could not reach their respective congregations due to fear of gang crime and violence. According to widespread media reports, gang activity created security concerns at a national level, which affected the general population, including members of religious groups, but was not based on religious discrimination. Several religious leaders said that although gang-related restrictions prevented religious members from attending services, there was no indication the controls were intentionally designed to impede religious freedom. Reportedly, individuals in transit for nonreligious purposes received similar treatment.
During meetings with the ombudsman for human rights, U.S. embassy officials continued to highlight the importance of government officials carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliation. In meetings with Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i groups, embassy officials continued to discuss the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories and stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.
The constitution codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state. On July 18, violence broke out in Sidama Zone, Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Region, in connection with demands for regional statehood. According to media affiliated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC), attackers killed a priest and two followers of the Church, burned three churches to the ground, and partially destroyed four churches in the violence. On February 3, youth members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Mekane Yesus, Amhara Region, burned mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses. The Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC reported that security forces detained 55 followers of the Church on September 27 during processions for the eve of the Meskel holiday (finding of the true cross). In March the government lifted restrictions on charities and societies, including faith-based organizations, from engaging in rights-based advocacy and accepting foreign funding. In May the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) revised a directive that had limited the formation of fully fledged Islamic (interest-free) banks.
In December attackers burned down four mosques and one church in Mota Town, Amhara Region, prompting condemnation by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and sparking protests by several thousand Muslims across the country. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups. EOTC followers in several towns of Amhara Region staged peaceful protests on September 15 and 22 to condemn attacks against the Church, religious leaders, and followers in Sidama Zone in the SNNP Region.
U.S. embassy and Department of State officials met officials from the Ministry of Peace throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance and radicalization. Embassy representatives met with prominent members of the Protestant Christian community and with NGOs to discuss the government’s role in religious affairs and their assessment about the growing influence of Protestantism in the country.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and worship and equality for all, irrespective of religious belief. It grants religious groups autonomy and the right to provide religious instruction. The government continued to report a trend of local actors using religious cover to defraud individuals. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) rejected some applications to register religious groups for lack of documentation. Ministry officials described the religious groups it rejected as often “one-man operations,” practicing a mixture of Christianity and traditional animist beliefs.
Leaders of Muslim, Protestant, and Catholic faiths met regularly, attended each other’s major festivals, and worked together to promote religious tolerance and defend freedom of religion.
U.S. embassy staff met with senior MOI officials to encourage continued respect for religious freedom and encouraged government officials to continue their outreach to religious communities to discuss religious freedom.
The constitution recognizes equality for all regardless of religion, subject to considerations of public safety or health or the rights of others, and it stipulates the independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) from the state. The constitution recognizes the “outstanding role” of the GOC in the history of the country. It prohibits persecution based on religion. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC unique privileges. On June 27, a court convicted and sentenced two men to 15 years in prison for the 2018 killing of a human rights activist who had Jewish and Yezidi roots, but ruled it was not a hate crime. The government approved the registration application of one religious group while rejecting six others. Parliament held hearings with civil society and religious groups about legislation to comply with a court order to amend the law granting the GOC exclusive tax and property privileges, but failed to take action. Some religious groups advocated legislation that would address a broader range of religious issues, while others expressed concerns about the potential impact of such a law on smaller groups. Some Muslim community leaders said the government continued to influence and favor the state-funded religious group All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG). Religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and others said Muslim communities faced government resistance to issuing construction permits for places of worship. The Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) and some Muslim groups reported difficulties in obtaining government recognition of their ownership claims of religious properties. NGOs cited concerns that bias in public schools favored GOC religious teachings.
According to religious leaders, de facto authorities in the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the administrative control of the central government, continued to restrict or prohibit the activities of some religious groups. De facto South Ossetian authorities permitted GOC religious services but said they were illegal, and NGOs reported Russian guards impeded access of residents to some churches and cemeteries. De facto Abkhaz authorities prohibited GOC clergy from entering the occupied territory. De facto authorities in both occupied territories continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to a U.S NGO, de facto authorities in South Ossetia pressured Orthodox churches to merge with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).
The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MOIA) investigated 44 cases involving crimes reported as religiously motivated, notably including 10 cases of unlawful interference with the performance of religious rites, 10 cases of persecution, and eight cases of damage or destruction of property. The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) received 19 complaints of religiously based crimes or discrimination as of year’s end, 10 of which involved violence. This equaled the 19 total complaints in 2018. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 20 incidents against the group or its members, including 11 involving violence. The PDO and religious minorities continued to state there was a widespread societal perception that religious minorities posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s values. Unknown individuals twice vandalized a chapel used by Armenian Apostolic and Catholic parishes in Akhalkalaki, breaking icons and damaging portraits. The NGO Media Development Foundation (MDF) documented 55 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media, compared with 148 in 2018. Some religious figures in Abkhazia reportedly continued to advocate the establishment of an autocephalous Orthodox Church in the territory or a merger with the ROC. Both the GOC and ROC formally recognized Orthodox churches in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as belonging to the GOC, but the ROC did not always respect this in practice.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including the leadership of the State Agency for Religious Affairs (SARI), the public defender, the prime minister’s adviser on human rights, and officials at various ministries, to encourage dialogue and tolerance between the government and minority religious groups. The Charge d’Affaires met with GOC Patriarch Ilia II and other senior GOC leaders to stress the importance of the GOC in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with minority religious groups throughout the country, and the embassy and its regional information offices sponsored events in Tbilisi and elsewhere in the country to encourage religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination, stipulates that individuals are free to profess and practice their religion, and does not designate a state religion. Registration is required for religious groups to have legal status. There was debate among religious organizations and lawmakers over the utility of legislating to control the activities of “self-styled” pastors and the effect on religious freedom; the Christian Council of Ghana instead called for self-regulation. At year’s end, no consensus had developed and no legislation was drafted. The Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit against President Nana Akufo-Addo’s plans for an interdenominational national Christian cathedral, but opposition to the proposal for the new cathedral – due largely to concerns about the management of public resources – continued. Administration officials called for the public’s robust support.
Muslim and Christian leaders continued to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance, and reported ongoing communication among themselves on religious matters and ways to address issues of concern. For the first time, in April National Chief Imam Sheikh Osman Sharubutu attended a Catholic Easter service, an act the 100-year-old cleric said was intended to encourage interfaith engagement.
U.S. embassy officers on several occasions discussed with religious communities concerns over religious accommodations in publicly funded schools affiliated with religious groups. Embassy officers discussed religious freedom and tolerance with religious leaders and hosted a roundtable with faith-based and other civil society organizations about the role of religious figures and institutions in advancing religious freedom and countering violent extremism. In May the Ambassador hosted an interfaith iftar, noting that such gatherings provided an opportunity to recognize common values. In November the Ambassador spoke about religious freedom and interfaith harmony at a gathering National Chief Imam Sharubutu hosted to encourage interaction between interfaith leaders.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship and the free expression of all beliefs. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Roman Catholic Church. Non-Catholic religious groups must register with the Ministry of Government to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status. Mayan spiritual leaders said the government continued to limit their access to some Mayan religious sites, including some located in national parks and in other protected areas where the government continued to charge entrance fees if religious visitors did not first register with the central government as official Mayan spiritual practitioners through a process they described as prolonged and cumbersome. The Mayan community of Chicoyoguito again raised concerns in July about continued lack of access to a spiritual site on former Guatemalan Military Base 21, which became a UN peacekeeping training base known as CREOMPAZ, in Coban, Alta Verapaz. Non-Catholic groups stated some municipal authorities still discriminated against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection.
Some Catholic clergy said local community members with financial interests continued to threaten and harass them, including with death threats, because of their engagement in environmental protection and human rights work. Some Mayan religious groups reported landowners continued to limit their access to Mayan religious sites on private property.
The U.S. embassy regularly engaged with government officials, civil society organizations, and religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom, including threats against Catholic clergy and the reported lack of access to Mayan spiritual sites. Embassy officials emphasized the value of tolerance and respect for religious diversity, including for religious minorities, in meetings with various civil society and religious groups.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations and thereby acquire tax-exempt status and other government benefits. In August Muslim leaders reported members of their community regularly encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits. These leaders cited the challenges a Muslim group faced when trying to secure a municipal permit for a public humanitarian event on gender-based violence in the town of La Esperanza, Intibuca Department. Some sectors of society continued expressing their concerns and opposition towards political activism by evangelical Protestant groups and the Roman Catholic Church, citing practices such as prayers at official government events. Seventh-day Adventists stated some public educational institutions did not respect their religious observance on Saturdays because the official work week was Monday to Saturday.
During the year, the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum (FIH) – an interfaith nongovernmental organization (NGO) representing more than 90 religious and civil society groups – and the Evangelical Fellowship of Honduras (CEH) together reported the deaths of four evangelical Protestant pastors. Both groups attributed these deaths to the high prevalence of gang activity and minimal state presence in their areas of operation. The CEH and FIH both reported widespread extortion of church leaders and congregation members by gangs and criminal groups. Muslim leaders reported incidents where evangelical Protestant members appeared at Islamic religious services, displaying intolerance towards their community. The FIH and the Muslim community each reported conducting community events and media outreach to promote religious freedom and tolerance.
U.S. embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights and the autonomous National Commission of Human Rights (CONADEH) to discuss issues of religious freedom, including allegations of discrimination against Muslims. On October 30, embassy officials hosted an interfaith roundtable in San Pedro Sula to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. This discussion touched on a variety of topics, including religious freedom in schools, the challenges of some faith groups in addressing bureaucratic issues with the government, and migration. Embassy officials continued to engage with religious leaders and other members of a wide range of religious communities regarding societal violence and their concerns about the government’s dealings with religious groups in the country.
The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states that residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In February, the SAR government introduced a bill that would have allowed for extradition of SAR residents to other jurisdictions worldwide, including mainland China. Protests against this bill took place regularly throughout the latter half of the year. Some Christian groups used the broader protest movement to highlight what they stated was the high degree of religious freedom in Hong Kong, contrasted with the lack of religious freedom in mainland China and strongly supported the SAR government’s eventual withdrawal of the extradition bill. While Christian sources did not express concern about Hong Kong’s current level of religious freedom, foreign-based religious freedom advocates expressed fears for the potential future of religious freedom in Hong Kong if the mainland government further encroached on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Falun Gong practitioners reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and difficulty renting venues for large events, including from the SAR government. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in July with the stated purpose of raising awareness of 20 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in mainland China.
In September two assailants attacked a Falun Gong practitioner after she met with police to discuss a planned Falun Gong demonstration. In November a printing warehouse for the Epoch Times Hong Kong Edition, a Falun Gong-associated media outlet, was subject to an arson attack by four masked assailants armed with batons. According to media reports, some Hong Kong Christian churches reduced their physical assistance to counterparts in mainland China for fear of endangering those counterparts but continued to travel there to dine and pray with them. Christian media sources reported that Christian protesters received anonymous messages threatening them and their families with physical violence if they did not stop speaking out against the government. Other sources stated that many other people on both sides of Hong Kong’s political divide received similar messages.
The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government. The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Hong Kong in March to meet with religious leaders and promote religious freedom in China.
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. On April 15, an amendment to the law that had deprived hundreds of religious entities of their legal status entered into force, establishing a four-tier system of categorizing religious groups, all of which will be eligible to receive state funding and member donations from income tax beginning in 2020. Under the amendment, parliament retains its discretionary role in the registration of incorporated (i.e., established) churches (“church” applies to any religious group, not just Christian), the highest category, while the Budapest-Capital Regional Court rules on eligibility for registration under one of the other three categories. The Jewish group the government appointed in 2018 to work on the House of Fates Holocaust museum proposed a new outline for it in June and said the museum should open within 18 months. Domestic and international groups continued to raise concerns about the project, which the government had placed on hold since 2014 after the groups said it could obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. Other Jewish groups expressed concern about government officials’ praise for the country’s World War II (WWII)-era leaders and Hitler allies and about public messaging these groups said could incite anti-Semitism. Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban stated the government provided protection and major support to the country’s Jewish community. Senior government officials continued to make statements defending the country and Europe as Christian and describing the threat of a “Muslim immigration invasion.”
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including verbal insults, hate speech, vandalism, and graffiti. Muslim leaders said anti-Muslim incidents decreased compared with 2018, but discrimination continued. Significant percentages of society held anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim views, according to independent polls.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to discuss religious freedom, anti-Semitism, Holocaust commemoration, the amendment to the religion law, and heirless property restitution for victims of the Holocaust. The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism visited the country in May and discussed religious freedom issues with high-level government and religious leaders. The Deputy Administrator for USAID and the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council discussed the importance of religious freedom in formal remarks at a Thanksgiving dinner the embassy cohosted with the government, which religious leaders of many faiths attended. Embassy officials discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom with a range of religious leaders and civil society representatives.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states that citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversions. In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir and split it into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. The revocation sparked protests, criticism from Muslim leaders, and challenges filed in the Supreme Court from opposition politicians, human rights activists, and others. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region, shut down many internet and phone lines, and had not restored full service by year’s end. The government also closed most mosques in the area until mid-December. Seventeen civilians and three security personnel were killed during the protests. In December parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which accelerates citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014, but not for similarly-situated migrants who are Muslims, Jews, atheists, or members of other faiths. The law generated widespread media and religious minority criticism, including legal challenges in the Supreme Court. Protests and violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Uttar Pradesh and Assam following the passage of the law resulted in 25 civilian deaths and hundreds of injuries. Issues of religiously inspired mob violence, lynching, and communal violence were sometimes denied or ignored by lawmakers, according to a number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets. There were reports by NGOs that the government sometimes failed to act to prevent or stop mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some officials of Hindu-majority parties, including from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent Hindu groups against minority communities, including Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of such “cow vigilantism,” which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution and filed charges against victims. In July Madhya Pradesh became the first state to set fines and prison sentences for cow vigilantism. Attacks on religious minorities in some cases included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six people, including the female pastor, who was beaten by the officers. In November the Supreme Court awarded the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya to Hindu organizations to build a temple there, while providing five acres of land elsewhere in the city for Muslims to build a new mosque. Leading national Muslim organizations and some Muslim litigants petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque, which was destroyed by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992, to be rebuilt on its original site. In December the Supreme Court dismissed these petitions and maintained its ruling. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In November the Supreme Court took up challenges to its 2018 reversal of a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data, 7,484 incidents of communal violence took place between 2008 and 2017 in which more than 1,100 people were killed. MHA data for 2018-2019 was not available, but incidents of communal violence continued through the year. On June 18, a mob in Jharkhand killed Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to declare allegiance to Hindu deities. NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that through 2019, Hindu groups characterized as extremist, some of which, according to HRW, had links with BJP supporters, continued to perpetuate mob violence against minorities, especially Muslims, amid rumors they traded or killed cows for beef. According to NGO Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related mob violence, in which Muslims comprised 50 percent of the victims, took place between 2010 and the first half of 2019. Lower-caste Hindus were also victims of cow vigilantism. Hate Crime Watch reported 10 cow vigilante attacks, with one person killed between January and June. On April 10, Prakash Lakda of Jurmu village in Jharkhand was killed by a mob, and three others seriously injured, reportedly for butchering a dead ox. All four victims were Christians who were Scheduled Tribe members. On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in the Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Media reported that local police arrested several individuals following the attack. Amnesty International (AI) in October recorded 72 incidents of mob violence in the first half of the year, of which 37 were directed at Muslims. AI recorded 181 alleged hate crime incidents overall in the first half of the year, compared with 100 during the same period in 2018. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s annual report, 527 incidents of persecution of Christians took place through the year. In August Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives reportedly because she was a Dalit (lower caste) and the couple had converted to Christianity. In February Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded.
U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance and mutual respect throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In their engagement with government officials, media, interfaith harmony organizations and NGOs, U.S. officials emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, condemn communal rhetoric, and ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. In March the embassy organized a speaking tour by a U.S. religious harmony expert to the northern cities of Lucknow, Allahabad, and Varanasi. In late May the Ambassador hosted a Ramadan iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and demonstrating empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths. In July the Department of State senior bureau official for South and Central Asian Affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and representatives from civil society groups advocating for the rights of religious minorities. In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts to hear their perspectives on conditions in the country. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, in meetings with senior government officials raised concerns over violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including communal violence. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In meetings with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups, he raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anticonversion laws, and communal violence. Throughout the year, the U.S. Ambassador to India routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to hear their perspectives and concerns.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and the right to worship according to one’s own beliefs but states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and, as noted in the constitution, to satisfy “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society.” Individuals continued to be detained and received prison sentences of up to five years for violations of blasphemy laws. One man was detained for reading the Quran disrespectfully in an online video. In Aceh Province, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, including one Buddhist man who accepted caning in lieu of imprisonment. Some local governments imposed local laws and regulations restricting religious observance, such as local regulations banning Shia or Ahmadi Islamic practice. In August authorities took action against two Pentecostal churches, revoking a permit for one and stopping worship activities for another. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office continued to use a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against groups with what the government considered unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. Religious groups outside the six government-recognized religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, the latter widely interpreted by the government and society to mean Sunni Islam), again reported problems with identifying their religion on their national identification cards (KTPs), although a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling allows for such a listing. Adherents of indigenous faiths cannot enter their specific names, however, because there are too many. Various jurisdictions agreed to use a common term, i.e., “Faith in One God.” Three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that could list “Faith in One God” as the faith category, but the practice was not widely implemented. There were again instances in which local governments and police acceded to the demands of groups, such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front, Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, called “intolerant groups” in media, to close houses of worship for permit violations or otherwise restrict the rights of minority religious groups. Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. President Joko Widodo included six non-Muslims in his cabinet appointments announced on October 23, the same as during his previous administration.
Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.” Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media. In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the May 2018 suicide bomber attack on three churches. Local Islamic youth groups in coordination with police provided extra security outside Surabaya churches in conjunction with the anniversary. In March unknown individuals vandalized Jewish graves in Jakarta, and in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.
The Ambassador and U.S. embassy and consulate officials advocated for religious freedom with the government, including at the highest levels. Embassy and consulate officials engaged government officials on specific issues, including actions against religious minorities, closures of places of worship, access for foreign religious organizations, convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion, the importance of tolerance and rule of law, and the application of sharia to non-Muslims. Embassy and consulate officials also engaged civil society and religious leaders about tolerance and pluralism and spoke out publicly against discrimination and violence against minority religious communities. The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism – endorsed by both governments and comprising religious and civil society leaders, academics, and experts from both countries – met with the Ambassador to discuss religious freedom issues. The embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach to promote the message of respect for diversity and religious tolerance through events, media interviews, social media initiatives, digital and public speaking engagements, youth exchanges, and educational programs.
The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” It provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, including Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith, although the law is generally not enforced. The law bans “takfiri” sects such as Wahhabism that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) does not enforce the federal ban on Baha’i practitioners and recognizes the Baha’i Faith as a religion. Restrictions on freedom of religion, as well as violence against and harassment of minority groups committed by government security forces, remained widespread outside the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR), according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). More than 600 demonstrators were killed in protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. The protesters were mostly young Shia Muslims, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement, according to news reports. Sunni Muslims in Anbar were detained by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) for expressing their support of the protests on social media, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) reporting. According to human rights organizations, although the Popular Mobilization Committee (PMC) and Ministry of Interior security forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law to detain individuals without due process. Predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk and Ninewa, reported fewer security incidents compared with 2018. In June a Sunni parliamentarian (MP) from Diyala Province stated Sunnis in his province were being forcibly displaced by government-affiliated Shia militia groups, resulting in systematic demographic change along the Iraq-Iran border. Community leaders continued to state the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, including children born of rape, be listed as Muslim resulted in forced designation as Muslim. Yezidis, Christians, and local and international NGOs reported continued verbal harassment and physical abuse by members of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias originally formed to combat ISIS, including at checkpoints and in and around PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians said the PMF controlled the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain, forcing merchants to pay bribes, and controlled real estate in Christian areas. Sources said some government officials sought to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas in the Ninewa Plain, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but local authorities sometimes verbally harassed them.
According to security sources in Khanaqin, in May ISIS attacked a Kurdish village and killed four individuals in two attacks. According to the Directorate General of Yezidi Affairs in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, approximately 3,000 Yezidis remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. The central government’s Martyrs Foundation announced that during the year, 18 more mass graves had been discovered throughout the country; they contained victims of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Baathist regime, some remains dating back decades. In March the Directorate of Mass Graves, with the support of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Daesh/ISIL (UNITAD), began exhumation of a mass grave of ISIS victims, discovered in 2017, in the village of Kocho, the first such exhumation in the majority-Yezidi district of Sinjar.
Although media and human rights organizations said security conditions in many parts of the country improved from 2018, reports of societal violence mainly by pro-Iran Shia militias continued. Throughout the youth-led reformist protests that began in October, many demonstrators were kidnapped, wounded, and killed by masked individuals and armed groups reportedly affiliated with Iran, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Kataib Hezbollah. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF 30th Brigade (30th Brigade), reportedly received threats from Iran-aligned Shabak individuals on social media. According to a police investigation, two Shia Shabak men assaulted two elderly women belonging to a minority religious group in Bartella in May. Police arrested the two men, who said they believed the women would be easy targets because of their religious affiliation. The attackers were reportedly affiliated with the 30th Brigade.
U.S. embassy officials raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in meetings with senior government officials, through interagency coordination groups, and in targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, and parliamentary committees to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. On July 18, speaking at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom held in Washington, DC, the Vice President announced the U.S. government had provided $340 million for assistance in northern Iraq, focusing on helping minority religious communities previously targeted by ISIS. He said an additional $3 million would provide shelter and clean water to communities victimized by ISIS. Embassy officials met with Shia, Sunni, and other religious group representatives to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the freedom to worship and to change one’s religion. It prohibits discrimination based on belief. A colonial-era law criminalizing the practices of Obeah and Myalism remains in effect, but it is not enforced. Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck stated the government would not repeal the 1898 Obeah Act but instead address fraudulent activities associated with Obeah and protect vulnerable persons from exploitation. In September the Supreme Court heard constitutional arguments in the continuing case of a child blocked from attending Kensington Primary School in 2018 because of her dreadlocks. The child returned to school in late 2018 following a Supreme Court ruling authorizing her return while the case continued. The government continued to mandate a nondenominational religious curriculum in schools and sponsored public events to promote interfaith engagement and respect for religious diversity. It also took steps towards compensating individuals from a trust fund it established in 2017 for victims of the 1963 Coral Gardens incident, in which eight persons were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between a Rastafarian farming community and security forces.
Rastafarians continued to report that while prejudice against their religion was still a problem, there was increasing societal acceptance of and respect for their practices. Seventh-day Adventists continued to report a limited ability to gain employment because of their observance of a Saturday Sabbath. Local media outlets continued to provide a forum for religious dialogue open to participants from all religious groups. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jamaica Council for Interfaith Fellowship, which includes representatives from Christian, Rastafarian, Hindu, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Baha’i, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist organizations, continued to hold events to promote religious tolerance and diversity.
U.S. embassy officials regularly engaged with senior officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, along with the Jamaican Defense Force, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Embassy officials also met regularly with leaders of religious groups, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Rastafarians. The embassy published a press release on July 11 from the Charge d’Affaires on U.S. efforts to promote religious freedom around the globe. Other embassy representatives included similar references to the value of religious freedom and tolerance in speeches and other public engagements, press releases, and social media.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits religious organizations from exercising any political authority or receiving privileges from the state. The country remained strict in its refugee screening process, a policy the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized. The government granted refugee status, based on the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees and its protocol, to at least two applicants who had a well-founded fear of being persecuted for religious reasons in 2018 (latest statistics available), the same published number of persons granted such status in 2017. Christian and Buddhist representatives continued to question governmental funding for aspects of the October imperial accession ceremony because the ceremony contained religious elements. The government said such funding did not violate the constitutional separation of religion and state. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) reported that in 2018 (latest statistics available) its human rights division received 164 inquiries related to potential religious freedom violations, compared with 214 in 2017, and confirmed eight cases, compared with 14 in 2017, as highly likely to be religious freedom violations.
Representatives of the Uighur community stated that Chinese embassy officials harassed and intimidated government officials, businesses, private citizens, and Uighur Muslims in an attempt to discourage public commentary on the situation in Xinjiang. Press reported both public and private institutions continued to expand access to halal food and prayer rooms for Muslims.
The U.S. embassy engaged with the government, as well as with faith-based groups, religious minority leaders, and their supporters, to promote religious freedom and acceptance of diversity.
The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. It stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. It does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Seven of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such personal status matters for their members. In April parliament ratified amendments to the Personal Status Law (PSL), stipulating that mothers, regardless of religious background, should retain custody of their children until age 18. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses. On August 1, the government temporarily closed Aaron’s Tomb, a religious site near Petra popular with tourists, after photographs and videos appeared on social media showing a group of Jewish tourists praying at the site. Members of some unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages and the religious affiliation of their children, and also renewing their residency permits. The government continued to monitor mosque sermons and required that preachers refrain from political commentary and adhere to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their “true” religious beliefs and practices. Security forces increased their presence in Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays. Several Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers. A few members of the Christian community, however, said they felt intimidated and targeted by these extra precautionary measures.
Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced. Some converts reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor. The Jordanian Philosophical Society hosted a lecture by physics professor Hisham Ghassib in which he described Judaism as a “primitive” and “despicable” religion. Observers reported occasional friction between Christian denominations officially recognized by the government and evangelical churches that are not.
The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, grand mufti, minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court, to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of religious workers and volunteers. Embassy officers also engaged with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to promote interfaith tolerance and dialogue. The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance, as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion. The Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), part of the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD), is responsible for religious issues. According to local and international observers, authorities continued to impose restrictions and additional scrutiny on what the government considers “nontraditional” religious groups, including Muslims who practice a version of Islam other than the officially recognized Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and Protestant Christians. Authorities continued to arrest, detain, and imprison individuals on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation; restrict religious expression; prevent unregistered groups from practicing their faith; restrict assembly for peaceful religious activities; restrict public manifestation of religious belief; restrict religious expression and customs, including religious clothing; criminalize speech “inciting religious discord”; restrict proselytism; restrict the publication and distribution of religious literature; censor religious content; and restrict acquisition or use of buildings used for religious ceremonies and purposes. The government again raided religious services, prosecuted individuals for “illegal missionary activity,” and refused to register certain religious groups. In August an Almaty court sentenced eight Muslims to between five and one-half and eight years in prison for propaganda of terrorism and incitement of discord. Several followers of Hizb ut-Tahrir stood trial for participation in activities in the organization, which is banned in the country. Forum 18, an international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO), cited 159 administrative prosecutions for violations of the religion law during the year, compared with 165 in 2018. In January, in a decision praised by many religious communities, the government withdrew draft legislation that would place additional restrictions on religious practice.
Media outlets continued to release articles or broadcasts defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” In June television news in Karaganda Region covered a government-sponsored law enforcement and expert working group meeting, during which participants referred to some minority Christian groups as “nontraditional” and “destructive” “pseudo-religions” and called for measures to protect young people from them. In an online newspaper, the head of expert analysis on religious groups within the CRA reportedly criticized smaller Christian organizations and other small religious groups, such as the Baha’is. The CRA official stated that the organizations were deliberately preaching in the Kazakh language to convert more persons and lamented that more and more ethnic Kazakhs were converting to these religions in recent years. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they counted more than 50 defamatory articles and broadcasts. NGOs and academics said members of certain religious groups, including Muslims who wear headscarves or other identifying attire, as well as certain Christian groups, including evangelicals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination.
The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, and other U.S. officials engaged the government to urge respect for religious freedom, both in general and with regard to specific cases, including a regular and recurring dialogue with the MISD and CRA. This included raising concerns over the restrictive effects on religious freedom of the government’s implementation of both the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes, especially concerning criminal penalties for peaceful religious speech, praying without registration, and censorship of religious literature. As a result of these discussions, Kazakhstan and the United States formed a Religious Freedom Working Group, which held its first meeting in Nur-Sultan in May. U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities and religious freedom advocates. The embassy also engaged in social media outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.
The constitution and other laws and policies prohibit religious discrimination and protect religious freedom, including the freedom to practice any religion or belief through worship, teaching, or observance and to debate religious questions. The constitution provides for special qadi courts to adjudicate certain types of civil cases based on Islamic law. Human rights and Muslim religious organizations stated that certain Muslim communities, especially ethnic Somalis, continued to be the target of government-directed extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrest, and detention. The government denied directing such actions. The Registrar of Societies again did not register any new religious organizations pending completion of revised Religious Societies Rules, which had not been finalized at year’s end, and approximately 4,400 religious group applications remained pending. In January the Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that required a publicly funded school to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab, citing faults in the petition process but encouraging the parties to file a new suit using correct procedures so the court could rule on the merits of the case. The judgment directed the board of the school to provide exemptions for students to wear clothing in accordance with their religious beliefs, but some Muslims interpreted the ruling as permission for officials to ban the hijab. A court ruled in September that a secondary school broke the law by asking a student to shave her dreadlocks, stating that Rastafarianism is a religion.
The Somalia-based terrorist group Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab) again carried out attacks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, and Lamu Counties in the northeastern part of the country and said the group had targeted non-Muslims because of their faith. On February 16, media reported that al-Shabaab killed three Christian teachers at a primary school in Wajir County, a predominantly Muslim region. There were again reports of religiously motivated threats of societal violence and intolerance, such as members of Muslim communities threatening individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity. In February a group of men believed to be Somali Muslims reportedly beat and raped a Somali mother of four in Dadaab refugee camp because she converted to Christianity. In April a pastor in Garissa, who ministered to former Muslims in an underground church, was reportedly beaten unconscious by a group of Muslims and hospitalized. Muslim minority groups, particularly those of Somali descent, reported continued harassment by non-Muslims. Some religious and political leaders, however, stated tolerance improved during the year, citing extensive interfaith efforts to build peace between communities. Prominent religious leaders representing the main faiths in the country issued a joint statement condemning the January 15 attack at the Dusit D2 hotel in Nairobi by five al-Shabaab terrorists that killed 21 persons, including one U.S. citizen. Unlike the 2013 terrorist attack at Westgate Mall, there were few reports of reprisal attacks against Muslim communities. A survey by the Inter-Religious Council of Kenya (IRCK), a national interfaith umbrella group, examined the extent of freedom of religion and belief in two coastal counties, Mombasa and Kwale. The study targeted youth, community members, teachers, women, religious leaders, government officials, and peace organizations. Findings indicated the perceived level of religious tolerance was 37.3 percent, and the perceived level of government intolerance to religions was 46.4 percent.
U.S. embassy officials emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in meetings with government officials, especially underscoring the role of interfaith dialogue in stemming religious intolerance and countering violent extremism related to religion. In June embassy representatives participated in an interfaith iftar as part of an embassy-sponsored program to support efforts by IRCK to strengthen understanding, respect, and acceptance within multifaith communities in Nairobi and Mombasa Counties. In September the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable to build relationships with religious leaders and discuss efforts to improve tolerance and inclusion. The embassy hosted roundtables and other events that brought individuals of diverse faiths together to discuss religious tolerance and build mutual understanding.
The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state but declares freedom of belief is “absolute.” It declares the state will protect the freedom to practice one’s religion, provided such practice does not conflict with established customs, public policy, or morals. The constitution declares sharia to be a main source of legislation and all individuals to be equal before the law regardless of religion. Defamation of the three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity), publication or broadcast of material the government deems offensive to religious groups, and practices the government finds inconsistent with Islamic law are prohibited by law. In July the National Assembly passed legislation allowing the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. In April the government registered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). The government prosecuted numerous individuals for remarks deemed religiously offensive, mostly for comments made online, and sentenced some to prison terms. The government continued to appoint and pay the salaries of Sunni imams and provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques. It did not exercise the same oversight of Shia imams. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (MAIA) fined, reprimanded, or suspended several Sunni imams for giving sermons perceived as politically motivated, insulting to other religious groups, and violating the national unity law. MAIA organized several courses for Sunni imams promoting tolerance and countering radicalization, and in October it announced the creation of a committee to monitor calls for extremism on social media. Minority religious groups said they could worship in private spaces without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. Members of most non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches were not able to marry in the country. The government continued to provide added security at religious sites to all recognized non-Sunni religious groups. It required all religious communities to conduct religious events indoors. Most minority religious groups reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulty obtaining permission to construct new facilities. The government did not accredit any religious schools or permit Shia religious training within the country, notwithstanding an increased need for qualified judges to staff the newly-approved Shia personal status courts. The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials referring to the Holocaust or Israel. Some Shia leaders continued to report discrimination in clerical and public sector employment.
Individuals continued to face societal pressure against conversion from Islam; some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them because of their conversion. Hotels, stores, and businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. News media continued to publish information about the celebrations of religious holidays, including material on the religious significance of Christmas. Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval on social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported two instances during the year of individuals making public statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews.
In meetings with senior MAIA officials, senior U.S. embassy officials discussed the importance of promoting tolerance, including for members of minority religious groups. They noted positively MAIA’s registration of the Church of Jesus Christ and encouraged the government to take the same step with other unregistered religious groups. Embassy officials underscored the importance of places of worship for all faiths, regardless of their registration status, and relayed concerns from the Hindu community about their inability to cremate their dead. In December the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials hosted an annual event for representatives of officially recognized non-Muslim faiths to discuss how government policies were affecting their groups. A senior embassy official and other embassy staff also hosted a roundtable in May at which leaders of non-Abrahamic faiths discussed their communities’ needs. Senior embassy officials attended religious events throughout the year and discussed issues related to religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a provision amended by the Taif Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated proportional representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament, the cabinet, and other senior government positions. Media reported on June 21 that the Hadath municipality prohibited Christian residents from renting or selling property to Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments in largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities. The Internal Security Forces (ISF) summoned a senior member of the Jewish Community Council for interrogation concerning the identities of visitors to synagogues and cemeteries during the summer months. Authorities banned a Brazilian metal band, Sepultura, from entering the country after its members were accused of being “devil worshippers,” according to concert organizers. Organizers also said the band was denied entry due to cultural perceptions that metal music is “satanic” and “anti-religion.” Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. While then minister of interior Raya al-Hassan and several other political figures vocalized support for optional civil marriage, at least 30 applications for interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration in the face of criticism, particularly by religious leaders.
Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over some territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia Muslim.
Organizers of the Byblos International Festival canceled a planned August 9 concert by internationally known indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila, citing the need “to avoid bloodshed.” Political and religious figures, as well as many private citizens, criticized the band for a four-year-old post on Facebook of a controversial image that transposed the face of pop diva Madonna onto an image of the Virgin Mary. The Maronite Eparchy of Byblos accused the group of “offend[ing] religious and human values and insult[ing] Christian beliefs,” while figures ranging from members of parliament (MPs) to private citizens threatened violence. In a December incident, during months of political protests reportedly driven by the country’s economic and political problems, hundreds of Shia protesters demonstrated in Beirut after a video produced by a Sunni individual appeared on social media insulting Shia political and religious figures. A prominent Sunni imam said the posting did not represent the views of the Sunni community. The author of the video later apologized for posting it. The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism, including dumping of trash and rubble, at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon. Muslim and Christian community leaders said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. On July 30, an interreligious spiritual summit convened in Beirut at the House of Druze Communities; senior religious leaders from the Muslim, Christian, and Druze communities attended the event.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious communities and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador met on March 7 with a group of religious leaders in Tripoli to discuss relations among the different communities. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups, including through interfaith exchange programs.
The constitution stipulates everyone is free to choose his or her faith. It makes the state responsible for “protecting the religious…interests of the People” and establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion. It stipulates other religions may practice their faith within the bounds of morality and public order. There are criminal penalties for public incitement to hatred towards a religious group, religious discrimination, or “debasement” of any religion. The state-subsidized, nonprofit Liechtenstein Institute said Muslims remained unable to obtain local authorities’ permission to establish their own cemetery or build a mosque, and the Islamic Community of Liechtenstein was unable to establish a prayer room. On January 27, government officials held public film screenings and discussions on the Holocaust, and Minister for Home Affairs, Education, and Environment Dominique Hasler spoke on the importance of remembering and raising awareness of the Holocaust.
There was one Muslim prayer room in the country belonging to the Turkish Association. Religious groups in every municipality continued to open their chapels to other denominations and faiths upon request.
The U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, which is responsible for diplomatic relations with the country, continued to encourage the promotion of religious freedom in discussions with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), focusing primarily on access to religious education, particularly by Muslims, and the establishment of religious infrastructure, such as a mosque or Muslim burial sites. Embassy staff discussed religious freedom issues, such as the extent of societal discrimination and the difficulties Muslims encountered in establishing religious infrastructure, with the Liechtenstein Friends of Yad Vashem, Liechtenstein Institute, and the Liechtenstein Human Rights Association.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, freedom of religious practice, and state recognition of religious organizations, provided they do not contradict the constitution or the law. The government extends special benefits to nine traditional religious groups and more limited benefits to four recognized religious groups. Religious groups must register with the government to gain legal status. Parliament did not approve the recognition application by the indigenous religious group Romuva, despite a favorable recommendation by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), and again did not consider the recognition application from the United Methodist Church, pending since 2001. The MOJ did not provide a recommendation to parliament for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ recognition application, pending since 2017. In October a court dismissed an appeal by a Jehovah’s Witness who, as a conscientious objector, refused any form of service under military authority. In March a local court dismissed a case against the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of the Residents of Lithuania brought by a U.S. citizen who sued the center for concluding that Jonas Noreika, an anti-Soviet partisan leader, did not participate in the mass killing of Jews in the country during World War II (WWII). In December the center issued a report stating that Noreika was actually an anti-Nazi resistance fighter who worked to save Jews from the ghetto; academics, Jewish groups, and NGOs criticized this report as factually unsupported (it cited a single source from the 1980s) and misleading. In July the Vilnius mayor removed a plaque honoring Noreika, but it was reinstalled subsequently without permission by the nationalist NGO Pro Patria. The government continued with plans to begin the conversion of a Soviet-era sports arena, which was built on top of a Jewish cemetery, into a conference center. A Lithuanian Jew residing in Israel petitioned to stop construction on the grounds that it would disturb human remains. On December 2, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Ambassador-at-Large for Jewish Issues Dainius Junevicius and Member of Parliament and chairman of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania (International Commission) Emanuelis Zingeris attended a regional conference in Vilnius commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Terezin Declaration. On December 10, the MFA organized a session on the importance of religious freedom and belief during the country’s second annual human rights forum. Experts participating in the session included an MOJ official.
There were six recorded anti-Semitic acts of vandalism between September and November, including one on October 6 in Vilnius involving an unknown person spray-painting a swastika on the side of a building and leaving an apparent makeshift explosive near the entrance of that building. On November 13, three teenagers spray-painted the words “Heil Hitler” on a Kaunas synagogue’s information board. On November 17, three teenagers broke the windows of a mosque in Kaunas. In March some participants at a nationalist march in Vilnius of approximately 1,000 persons wore fascist symbols and carried banners of Lithuanian partisans who critics said were Nazi collaborators. Some participants at another nationalist march of 300 persons in February carried a banner with a picture of a WWII-era anti-Semite, Kazys Skirpa. Anonymous anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim internet postings in response to articles about Jewish or Muslim issues were common, but observers said media portals generally removed them when these postings were brought to their attention.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers met with government officials, including Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, ministers and vice ministers at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, and the speaker and members of parliament (MPs). They also met with the International Commission and the head of the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) to discuss ways to combat intolerance and anti-Semitism and to resolve compensation for Jewish private property seized during the Nazi and Soviet eras. In September the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues released a statement on social media encouraging Lithuanians to review objectively the actions of historical anti-Soviet resistance fighters whose actions directly led to the persecution and mass killing of persons during the Holocaust. On October 27, the Charge d’Affaires attended the opening of a Holocaust education seminar for teachers and delivered remarks emphasizing the responsibility of teachers in educating youth about the country’s role in the Holocaust. On October 29, the Charge attended the unveiling of a memorial stone commemorating the individuals killed during the Holocaust in the forest near Zarasai on August 26, 1941. On December 2, the Charge and other embassy officers attended a regional conference in Vilnius commemorating the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Terezin Declaration.
The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. Falun Gong practitioners continued to hold rallies and protests against Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China. According to Asia News, from September 29 to October 1, the Government Tourism Office projected a slideshow of CCP symbols onto the Ruins of Saint Paul’s facade to mark the 70th anniversary of communist rule in China. In response, the Catholic Diocese of Macau stated concerns over the government’s use of historically religious sites for secular purposes.
In September the Catholic diocese opened the Redemptoris Mater College for Evangelization to train new seminary students from the region.
In meetings with religious leaders and civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.
The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. In April the country’s human rights commission announced state agents, namely the Royal Malaysian Police Special Branch, were responsible for the 2016 and 2017 enforced disappearances of a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings and a Christian pastor. In June the government announced a special panel would investigate the human rights commission’s finding. Religious authorities arrested at least 30 people in two states in September for participating in Ashura celebrations and violating a state fatwa that declares Shia Islam to be “deviant.” In November religious authorities caned four men for attempting “sexual intercourse against the order of nature.” In December a sharia state court sentenced six men each to one month in jail and 2,400 to 2,500 ringgit ($590-$610) in fines for deliberately missing Friday prayers. In August the High Court upheld a 2014 fatwa declaring a nongovernmental organization (NGO) “deviant” because it subscribed to the principles of liberalism and pluralism. In March a special police unit was formed to monitor writing across all media platforms for anything deemed insulting to Islam. The government continued to bar Muslims from converting to another religion without approval from a sharia court and imposed fines, detentions, and canings on those classified under the law as Muslims who contravened sharia codes. Religious converts from Islam to another religion had difficulty changing their religion on their national identification cards. Non-Muslims continued to face legal difficulty when they sought to use the word “Allah” to denote God. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report difficulty in gaining registration as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties expressed concerns about the judicial system because non-Muslims occupied senior government positions, including attorney general. In March a court sentenced a man to 10 years and 10 months in prison and a 50,000 ringgit ($12,200) fine for posting information “offensive to Islam” on Facebook, although his sentence was later reduced to six years. According to the home minister, the government no longer permitted Israeli citizens to enter the country to attend conferences or meetings organized by international organizations.
Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again stated society was becoming increasingly intolerant of religious diversity. In May police arrested four men for allegedly plotting attacks on houses of worship and an entertainment outlet. Some Muslim leaders supported calls on social media to “buy Muslim-made products first,” which some civil society representatives characterized as a boycott of non-Muslim businesses.
U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of three Christians and a Muslim activist. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders, scholars, and the wife of a missing pastor in visitor exchanges and conferences that promoted religious tolerance and freedom.
The constitution provides all persons the right to religious freedom, including the right to engage in religious ceremonies and acts of worship. Article 40 of the constitution declares the country a secular state. Under the constitution, indigenous communities enjoy a protected legal structure, allowing them some measure of self-governance and to practice their own particular “uses and customs.” The General Directorate for Religious Associations (DGAR) within the Secretariat of the Interior (SEGOB) continued to work with state and local officials on criminal investigations involving religious groups. During the year, DGAR investigated seven cases related to religious freedom at the federal level, compared with 11 in 2018. Government officials again stated that the killings and attacks on Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant pastors reflected high levels of generalized violence throughout the country and not targeted attacks based on religious faith. The press reported representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments worked with members of an indigenous community in Altamirano, Chiapas State, to resolve a conflict that began in 2018 and led to the expulsion of evangelical Protestant families from the town for practicing a religion other than Roman Catholicism and refusing to support traditional cultural events. Under terms of a signed agreement, members of the displaced families returned but lived in a separate community. According to DGAR, 182 new religious associations were registered during the year, of which 28 were Catholic and 154 represented other groups, primarily evangelical Pentecostals.
Because religious leaders are often involved in politics and social activism, thus often being exposed to generalized violence, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Killings and abductions of priests and pastors continued. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported the killings of five religious leaders and the kidnapping of three others by unidentified individuals. The Catholic Multimedia Center (CMC) identified Mexico as the most violent country for priests in Latin America for the 11th year in a row, stating it was a reflection of the high levels of generalized violence in the country. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to say criminal groups targeted Catholic priests and other religious leaders for their denunciation of criminal activities and because communities viewed them as moral authority figures. According to CSW, the 28 families whom local authorities expelled from Yashtinin, Chiapas State, in 2015 were still unable to return home because they refused to participate in traditional indigenous cultural events. According to the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED), non-Catholics and atheists were most likely to face discrimination in education, health, and at the workplace. The report found religious minorities tended to have slightly lower than average rates of school attendance, labor contracts, and access to medical benefits. Individuals identifying with these groups said they also had a slightly higher rate of illiteracy compared with the national average.
U.S. embassy and consulate officials met with government counterparts, religious organizations, and NGOs throughout the country to discuss concerns about violence toward religious leaders, as well as reports of discrimination toward religious minorities in some communities. Embassy officials met with members of religious groups and NGOs to gather details about specific cases, including the Cuamontax Huazalingo Protestant community in Hidalgo State.
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. In March the government amended a 2018 resolution that effectively required religious groups to hire 20 local employees for each foreign worker, thus enabling members of religious groups with at least five local employees to sponsor one foreign religious worker. Some religious groups reported continued difficulties or extended delays in some localities obtaining and renewing registration due in part to differing registration guidelines among provinces, uncertain registration practices, frequent staffing changes, and the requirement for each branch (or place of worship) of a religious group to register separately. The registration renewal application of al Jehovah’s Witnesses’ branch in the Ulaanbaatar district of Nalaikh remained pending despite a 2017 court decision rejecting the city council’s argument that the congregation posed a potential threat to national security. Some Christian groups said authorities conducted more frequent audits of their finances than of other religious groups, which they regarded as a form of harassment. Some Christian foreigners seeking to enter the country to proselytize reported difficulty obtaining religious visas. The Immigration Agency rescinded the registration of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) after determining its operation of a website promoting Christianity was at odds with the stated purpose under which it registered.
At a roundtable in October, religious leaders from a variety of faiths – including Buddhism, Shamanism, and a number of Christian groups – reported no difficulty in practicing their religion in the country. Participants said most citizens supported religious tolerance and diversity and people of different faiths live in harmony. A Muslim leader agreed with this assessment in a separate meeting in November.
U.S. officials discussed religious freedom concerns, including renewal of religious visas and the registration and renewal difficulties religious groups faced, with high-level officials in the Office of the President, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs, parliamentarians, provincial governments, and the Ulaanbaatar City Council. Embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador met with religious leaders of Khovd Province in April for an interfaith discussion on the status of religious freedom in rural areas. In October the embassy hosted a roundtable with Buddhist, Christian, Baha’i, and Shamanist leaders on promoting respect for religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, and religious tolerance, and the Ambassador discussed similar issues with a leader of the Muslim community in November. The embassy also regularly promoted religious freedom on social media.
According to the 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 that 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 as well as political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. The law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. In February media reported authorities closed unlicensed mosques in Casablanca, Kenitra, and Inezgane, which were operating in the homes of members of the Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority. In March, prior to a visit by Pope Francis, the Committee of Moroccan Christians of the unregistered Moroccan Association for Religious Rights (AMDLR/CMC) released a widely publicized letter to Pope Francis asking him to pressure the government to open investigations into what it described as systemic harassment of Christian citizens by security forces, allegations disputed by a number of local and foreign Christian leaders. Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged 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 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. 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 March 30, King Mohammed VI welcomed Pope Francis to Rabat. During the pope’s visit, the king announced that he interpreted his title “Commander of the Faithful” as “the Commander of all believers… [including] Moroccan Jews and Christians from other countries, who are living in Morocco.” In April the king launched the construction of a new Jewish cultural museum in a building that was once a school near the historic Jewish neighborhood and cemetery in Fez. On an April 14 television program, Minister of State for Human Rights and Relations of Parliament Mustapha Ramid stated that the government did not criminalize conversion from Islam, distinguishing it from the crime of “shaking” others’ faiths or attempting to convert Muslims to another religion.
Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly. According to the 2018-2019 Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) report, there was continued societal harassment of Shia and Shiism in the press and in Friday sermons. During Ramadan, a teenage girl eating in public was attacked by a bus driver and several young men were arrested and then released but charged a fine for smoking in public.
The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials. In these meetings, U.S. government officials recognized the Moroccan government’s efforts to promote interfaith dialogue while encouraging the government to recognize the existence of all of its religious minority communities as well as establish a legal framework for non-Muslim/non-Jewish citizens to address personal legal status matters, including marriage. U.S. government officials also met with members of religious minority and majority communities, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.
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 bans the use of religious symbols in politics. Religious groups have the right to organize, worship, and operate schools. In the northern province of Cabo Delgado, the government responded to escalating violent attacks by groups possibly linked to Islamist groups by deploying security forces and arresting hundreds of individuals. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and news media outlets continued to characterize these operations as sometimes heavy-handed, potentially exacerbating existing grievances of what they termed to be already marginalized populations. Members of the Islamic Council (CISLAMO) said that those who dressed in traditional Islamic clothing or wore beards risked detention on suspicion of involvement with what the government termed violent extremists. In May the government proposed a draft law that that would create a code of conduct for religious leaders and would require religious groups to have a minimum of 500 followers in order to register with the Ministry of Justice.
Religious leaders at the national and provincial level continued to call for religious tolerance and condemned the use of religion to promote violence. For example, Muslim leaders continued to condemn the violence in Cabo Delgado, characterizing it as inconsistent with the tenets of Islam. Interfaith leaders as well as government officials welcomed Pope Francis’ August visit.
The Ambassador discussed the escalating attacks in the northern region with the Minister of Justice and other high-level officials, noting the challenge this situation posed to religious tolerance. The Ambassador hosted an iftar during which religious tolerance was discussed with members of Islamic civil society organizations and religious leaders. U.S. embassy representatives discussed the importance of peace and reconciliation at an interfaith conference organized by the Council of Religions in Mozambique (COREM).
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of belief and the right to practice, profess, and promote any religion. Some newly converted Muslim inmates lodged a complaint with the government’s Office of the Ombudsman that they were not allowed to update their religious affiliation in prison records nor meet with Muslim clergy. Some religious groups again noted the difficulty of obtaining work visas for foreign religious workers and volunteers; however, they continued to say all organizations were subject to strict visa enforcement and the policy was not targeted at religious groups.
In April a nongovernmental interfaith council consisting of members of various Christian and Muslim groups, as well as representatives of the Jewish and Baha’i faiths, was established.
U.S. embassy representatives engaged with the government-run Office of the Ombudsman about complaints regarding religious freedom. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with religious groups, leaders, and the newly created interfaith council to discuss religious freedom.
The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. Throughout the year, Shia Muslims, under the auspices of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), conducted a series of demonstrations – including several in July against the ongoing detention of IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky – resulting in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces, which left as many as 30 dead, including protesters and police. Security forces fired on Shia religious processions for Ashura in September, killing 12, according to the IMN. Following the July violence, the government banned the IMN and declared the group a terrorist organization. The IMN stated it planned to legally contest the ban. In July the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, criticized the government’s action banning the IMN as a threat to religious freedom for all believers, according to local and Catholic media. The government continued its detention of El-Zakzaky despite a December 2016 court ruling that he be released by January 2017. The government launched new security operations in the North West states and continued ongoing operations in the North Central states that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian. There were several incidents of violence involving these groups in the North Central and North West. In July local communities reacted to news of a government plan to resettle the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen in southern parts of the country by threatening violence against Fulani communities in South West and South East states; the plan was later annulled. Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out person-borne improvised explosive device (IED) bombings – many by young women and girls drugged and forced into doing so – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. In July ISIS-WA abducted six Action Against Hunger (AAH) aid workers from a convoy heading to deliver food in Borno State. In July 65 people returning from a funeral in a predominantly Muslim community in Borno State were killed by Boko Haram. In September ISIS-WA released a video depicting the beheading of two Christian aid workers; in the video one of the killers vowed to kill every Christian the group captured in “revenge” for Muslims killed in past conflicts. In October ISIS-WA filmed and publicly released its killing of one of the six abducted AAH aid workers, who was Muslim. On December 24, Boko Haram killed seven people and abducted a teenage girl in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State. On December 26, ISIS-WA released a video of the execution of 10 Christians and one Muslim to avenge the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Conflicts between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in the North Central states continued throughout the year, although the violence was lower than during the 2017-2018 spike, reportedly due to government intervention and efforts of civil society to resolve conflicts. Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern that this conflict took on increasingly religious undertones. In addition to religious differences, local authorities, scholars, and regional experts pointed to ethnicity, politics, lack of accountability and access to justice, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources among the key drivers of the violence. Attacks and killings by Fulani herdsman continued during the year, although according to the publicly available Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the number of civilian victims fell dramatically, from over 1,500 in 2018 to approximately 350 in 2019. According to international media, in February 131 Fulani and 11 Adara were killed in Kaduna State. On April 14, Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed 17 Christians who had gathered after a baby dedication at a Baptist church in the central part of the country, including the mother of the child, sources said. Some domestic and international Christian groups stated that Fulani were targeting Christians on account of their religion. Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized the government’s perceived inability to prevent or mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities.
U.S. embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials regularly promoted principles of religious freedom and religious coexistence in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. The Ambassador, Consul General, and other senior U.S. officials hosted interfaith dinners, participated in interfaith conferences, and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored training sessions for journalists who report on ethnoreligious conflicts to help reduce bias in their reporting and prevent tensions from becoming further inflamed. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator visited Abuja, Bwari Local Government Area, and Lagos to highlight U.S. government support for interfaith cooperation and conflict mitigation efforts.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.” According to the law, offending Islam or any other Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense. There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief. Proselytizing in public is illegal. According to social media reports, in August police detained and brought in for questioning at least five individuals who had gathered to perform Eid al-Adha prayers a day before the official date announced by the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA). MERA monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams. Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration. Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship. Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations. MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership, although the ministry did not review all imported religious material. In September Catholic and Muslim leaders, including a senior MERA official, attended the inauguration of a new Catholic church in Salalah. In February the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called on the government to remove a number of anti-Semitic titles being sold through the country’s annual state-run Muscat International Book Fair.
Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community. At least one Arabic-language Omani newspaper featured anti-Semitic imagery in cartoons critical of the Israeli government. The Protestant-run interfaith group Al-Amana Center and the MERA continued to host programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam.
At various times throughout the year, U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to encourage the government to continue to support religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with minority religious groups to assess and support the ability of their faith communities to freely practice their respective religions.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 84 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 29 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 77 and 28, respectively, in 2018. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered new blasphemy cases against at least 10 individuals. Christian advocacy organizations and media outlets stated that four Christians were tortured or mistreated by police in August and September, resulting in the death of one of them. On January 29, the Supreme Court upheld its 2018 judgment overturning the conviction of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Bibi left the country on May 7, after death threats made it unsafe for her to remain. On September 25, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who had spent 18 years in prison for blasphemy. On December 21, a Multan court sentenced English literature lecturer Junaid Hafeez to death for insulting the Prophet Muhammad after he had spent nearly seven years awaiting trial and verdict. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to state they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies used to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of the perpetrators, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. In some cases of alleged kidnapping and forced conversions of young religious minority women, however, government authorities intervened to protect the alleged victim and ascertain her will. On November 9, the government opened a newly refurbished Sikh holy site, the Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, along with a visa-free transit corridor for Sikh pilgrims traveling from India. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, which resulted in very few religious minority applicants competing and qualifying for private and civil service employment.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. On April 12, a bomb attack in Quetta, Balochistan, targeting Shia Hazaras killed 21 persons, including eight Hazaras. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Islamic State (ISIS) each claimed responsibility. On May 7, terrorists affiliated with Hizbul Ahrar, a splinter group of TTP, attacked police stationed outside the Data Darbar Shrine in Lahore, the largest Sufi shrine in South Asia, killing nine and wounding 24. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays, and no religious festival was disrupted by violence for the second year in a row.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was an increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There also continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this responsibility being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Senior Department of State officials , including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, Charge d’Affaires, Consuls General, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, the minister for religious affairs, and officials from these ministries to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The Secretary of State praised the safe departure of Asia Bibi from Pakistan in May, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom expressed concern about the Junaid Hafeez blasphemy verdict on December 23. The embassy released videos discussing religious freedom and respect throughout the year.
On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
The constitution, laws, and executive decrees provide for freedom of religion and worship and prohibit discrimination based on religion. The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the religion of the majority of citizens but not as the state religion. Public schools continued to teach Catholicism, but parents could exempt their children from religion classes. Some non-Catholic groups continued to state the government provided preferential distribution of subsidies to small Catholic-run private schools for salaries and operating expenses and cited the high level of government support provided the Catholic Church for the January World Youth Day. Although local Catholic organizers invited and included members of other religious groups to participate in World Youth Day, some social media commentators criticized the use of public funds for the religious event.
On April 30, representatives from the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths participated in an interreligious event to pray for peace during the country’s general election campaign. This was the first time an interreligious event took place around an election. On June 25, religious leaders from multiple faiths joined an event to sign the Cordoba Declaration, which recognizes Latin America and the Caribbean as a “Zone of Religious Coexistence.” On October 29, the Catholic University of Santa Maria La Antigua (USMA) hosted an international symposium on religious freedom, humanitarian assistance, and human dignity, jointly hosted by Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
U.S. embassy officials met on several occasions with government officials and continued to raise questions about fairness in the distribution of education subsidies for religious-affiliated schools and the need for equal treatment of all religious groups before the law. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met frequently with religious leaders to discuss government treatment of members of religious groups, interfaith initiatives promoting tolerance and respect for religious diversity, and societal perceptions and treatment of members of religious groups.
Papua New Guinea
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, thought, and religion and the right to practice religion freely. In September police filed a defamation suit against Catholic Bishop of Alotau-Sideia Rolando Crisostomo Santos after he denounced what he said was police abuse of power. The Constitutional and Law Reform Commission (CLRC) and the Department for Community Development and Religion (DfCDR) continued consultations on a proposed constitutional amendment defining the country as Christian. Parliamentary sessions and most government meetings began and ended with Christian prayers. During the year authorities moved more than 300 refugees, primarily Muslims, from detention facilities on Manus Island to detention facilities in Port Moresby, where according to media reports, they were kept in extremely poor conditions, with many suffering from mental and physical illnesses. Work on the Citizenship and Christian Values Education syllabus that made Christian life studies a compulsory subject in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide was not finalized at year’s end. The government continued to fund churches to deliver health and education services through the Church-State Partnership Program, with additional funding from international partners. In October Prime Minister James Marape announced that by 2020 all state-owned companies would pay 10 percent of profits annually to churches to manage social services. In July Prime Minister Marape said he wanted to make the country “the richest black Christian nation on earth.” Political opponents and civil society groups objected to the statement, saying the country did not have an exclusive ethnic or religious affiliation.
In January assailants killed a pastor and attacked members of his church in East Sepik Province. In March The National, the country’s leading newspaper, reported the Lutheran Church Education Agency criticized the role of new Christian and missionary groups providing education services. The Papua New Guinea Council of Churches (PNGCC) organized dialogues among its members and fostered cooperation on social welfare projects. Some participants proposed limiting cooperation in the Church-State Partnership Program to only “mainline” Christian churches.
U.S. embassy officials engaged government and civil society contacts to ensure any moves to declare the country a Christian nation do not conflict with the freedom of religion stipulated in the constitution. Embassy officials discussed the importance of equitable distribution of government support for religious groups. The Ambassador and other officials discussed religious tolerance and religious groups’ roles as health and educational service providers in regular meetings with the PNGCC and local religious leaders.
The constitution accords individuals the right to choose, change, and freely practice their religion and prohibits religious discrimination. It specifically recognizes the right of indigenous communities to express their religions freely. The constitution states the relationship between the state and the Roman Catholic Church is based on independence, cooperation, and autonomy. The Vice Ministry of Worship (VMW) extended until the end of the year a grace period for all religious and philosophical groups to complete the mandatory registration process and did not impose penalties or monetary sanctions on groups that had not registered. In August authorities granted final approval of the application of the Catholic Christian Apostolic National Church of Paraguay (ICCAN) as a legal entity. According to ICCAN representatives, ICCAN applied for nonprofit organization (NPO) status in September. Following government approval of its NPO status, ICAAN resubmitted its registration request to the VMW, as required after the government approved its legal status. During the year, the Jehovah’s Witnesses Association reported two cases of individual Jehovah’s Witnesses receiving a hospital blood transfusion against their will; in one of the cases, the Supreme Court ruled the right to life prevailed over the patient’s right to autonomy.
In May the VMW hosted the first Paraguayan-Argentine Interreligious Regional Symposium in the city of Encarnacion, in which Roman Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Muslims participated. According to the VMW, the symposium aimed to communicate each country’s commitment to religious diversity and foster respect for multiculturalism through interreligious dialogue. Roman Catholic, Protestant, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Jewish representatives stated they regularly participated in various interreligious dialogues. In July, under the auspices of the Permanent Forum of Interreligious Dialogue, Baha’i, Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Jewish, Church of Jesus Christ, and Muslim communities signed a statement declaring the country an interreligious coexistence zone. The signatories said the statement would serve as an instrument to create and strengthen projects that promote interreligious coexistence based on the respect and acceptance of multiculturalism and diversity of ideas and beliefs.
U.S. embassy officials met with Director General Marco Mendez of the VMW and discussed ICCAN’s registration status, government actions to facilitate the registration process, the promotion of religious freedom, interreligious dialogue, whether any religious discrimination claims had been filed during the year, and the provision of state funding for schools run by religious groups. Embassy officials met with representatives of the Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Mennonite, Church of Jesus Christ, Muslim, ICCAN, and Jewish communities to discuss interfaith respect for religious diversity and hear their views on the status of religious freedom in the country.
The constitution bars discrimination based on religious affiliation or belief and provides for freedom of conscience and religion, either individually or in association with others. It provides for the separation of religion and state but also recognizes the historic importance of the Roman Catholic Church. Small non-Catholic religious groups said they were pleased with the 2018 temporary removal of the prerequisite to register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) to receive certain tax and visa benefits and other government services. Some members of religious minorities, however, continued to state the religious freedom law maintained institutional preferences for the Catholic Church, particularly regarding tax exemptions, and they sought a permanent change in government policy to allow exemptions for all religious groups. The Interreligious Council of Peru continued to engage the MOJ for equal access to government benefits for all religious groups, including taxation exemptions on income, imports, property, and sales; visas for religious workers; and the opportunity to serve as military chaplains. The council continued to discuss the government’s revisions of its religious freedom regulations with religious communities. In June the MOJ hosted a panel of experts on religious liberty and the principles of secularism and the neutrality of the state. Panelists of the Pontifical Catholic University analyzed and explained a December 2018 Constitutional Court ruling that government financing for schools run by religious groups was unconstitutional because it was incompatible with the principle of secularism. Some members of the Catholic Church questioned the ruling, stating secularism was not mentioned in the constitution. In January Junin Department Governor Vladimir Cerron tweeted, “If the Left coordinates its unity well, it will successfully face the Jewish-Peruvian powers in the next general elections,” in reference to Cerron’s alleging Jewish control of the country’s politics and economy. Political figures and media criticized Cerron’s statement as anti-Semitic.
Jewish community leaders said some individuals continued to engage in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews and Israel. Both Jewish and Muslim leaders again said some public and private schools and employers did not give their members annual vacation leave for religious holidays. Religious groups and interfaith organizations coordinated with the government, civil society, and international organizations to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 860,000 displaced Venezuelans in the country.
U.S. embassy officials continued to discuss the religious freedom law, including tax exemptions for religious groups, and its implementing regulations with government representatives; emphasized the importance of equal treatment of all religious groups under the law; and discussed how religious groups were assisting the humanitarian response to displaced Venezuelans in the country. Embassy officials also promoted tolerance and respect for religious diversity with leaders from the Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the evangelical Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. On January 21, citizens of the five provinces and three major cities of western Mindanao ratified the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), creating a new Muslim-led autonomous region and abolishing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The measure provided the area’s majority Muslim population a larger region of authority. Although the referendum was widely backed by national Muslim and Christian groups, some local religious minorities continued to express concerns about the new authority. On March 29, President Rodrigo Duterte led the inauguration ceremony of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The Office of the President’s National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) continued to promote the rights of Muslims at the national and local level. Catholic Church clergy continued to criticize the president’s policies, especially the drug war and his desire to reinstate the death penalty. Although the president agreed to stop denouncing the Church in 2018, he continued to express his displeasure with the conduct of its clergy. A number of priests critical of the government’s drug war received explicit death threats and raised concerns that the president’s negative statements promoted attacks against clergy. In July the government charged some members of the opposition, along with four Catholic bishops and three priests, with sedition, cyber libel, libel, and obstruction of justice because of their alleged involvement in the release of a supposed antigovernment video.
During the year, killings, bombings, and kidnappings by ISIS-affiliated and other militant groups continued. ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including a January suicide bombing at a cathedral in Jolo that killed 20 persons and wounded several others. In August a cathedral in Baguio received bomb threats, allegedly from ISIS affiliates. Following the attacks, members of the Catholic and Muslim communities gathered in the cathedral to show solidarity against terrorism. On December 22, an explosion occurred outside a Catholic church during its Sunday Mass. By year’s end no public claim of responsibility for the attacks had emerged, though authorities suggested ISIS-linked groups were the most likely perpetrators.
Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported some tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu. The NCMF reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year, but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country. Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination.
In a U.S. embassy-organized forum in June, Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) representatives and legislative branch staffers discussed implementation of the BOL, including its implications for religious minorities and the importance of supporting all communities of faith, particularly in conflict areas. In meetings with religious groups, the government, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), embassy representatives highlighted the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The embassy sponsored the visit to the United States of two scholars, who had advocated religious tolerance and social inclusion, for a three-week law and leadership program, and encouraged a local NGO to incorporate a religious tolerance module into its teaching curriculum.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. It states religion is a personal choice, and all churches and religious organizations have equal rights. A concordat with the Holy See defines relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Statutes and agreements determine relations between the government and 15 religious groups. The law prohibits public speech offensive to religious sentiment. The government decided 151 religious communal-property restitution cases out of 3,089 outstanding cases. The president, prime minister, and interior minister denounced anti-Semitism. Senior government officials participated in Holocaust remembrance events. During the year, the government and various political parties rejected calls for broad, expedited private property restitution. Jewish groups criticized as insensitive some statements by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and other public figures about property restitution. Ruling party leaders also made statements during the year that were criticized as insensitive by Jewish groups and other observers. Some opposition parliamentarians made anti-Semitic comments during the year.
The government investigated 429 incidents in 2018 (the most recent data available) in which the motivation of the perpetrator was the religious affiliation of the victim, compared with 506 in the previous year. The 2018 data did not specify which religious groups were targeted in these incidents. Civil society groups said the figures were not comprehensive. News media, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and Jewish groups reported the level of anti-Semitic speech remained relatively high, especially in online messaging and internet media websites, after an increase in 2018. There were incidents of physical attacks against Roman Catholic clergy and vandalism at Jewish and Roman Catholic sites. Most Poles believed religious discrimination in Poland was rare, although a significant portion of the population believed anti-Semitism was a problem, according to opinion polls.
The U.S. Ambassador, other embassy staff, and visiting U.S. officials discussed with government officials the status of property restitution and countering anti-Semitism. In February the Secretary of State publicly urged the government to move forward with comprehensive private property restitution legislation for those who lost property during the Holocaust. In May and September, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism engaged with government officials and Jewish community leaders on efforts to combat anti-Semitism. The Ambassador and other embassy staff also met a wide variety of groups, including Jewish groups, to discuss restitution and other issues, such as anti-Semitism and Holocaust remembrance and education. The Ambassador co-led the first official U.S. government delegation to the March of the Living event at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The embassy and the consulate general in Krakow engaged with Jewish and Muslim leaders on countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and sponsored exchanges, roundtables, cultural events, and education grants promoting interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance.
The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal but generally may practice their faith privately. The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. In June the government deported an Arabic-speaking evangelical Christian pastor after interrogating him for three days on charges of leading a place of worship without authorization and inviting non-Christians to his church. Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971 On May 18 AJ+ Arabic, an online media platform run by the government-owned Al-Jazeera network, posted a video on Facebook and Twitter that stated that Israel is the biggest “winner” from the Holocaust and that Zionism “suckled from the Nazi spirit” and that “some people believe that Hitler supported Zionism.” The network apologized for the video, removed it from its site, and took disciplinary action against the reporter responsible. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) identified numerous anti-Semitic references in Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MOE) textbooks.
Privately owned media as well as social media included anti-Semitic material in their content. On May 22, Ahmed Al-Raissouni, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), posted an article entitled “Why It Is Necessary to Question the Holocaust” on the IUMS website and his personal website and Facebook page. According to his posting, the Holocaust narrative “fabricated by the Zionist movement” contains “politically slanted and questionable” material. On June 12, on a program on Al-Araby TV, Ahmad Zayed, a professor of sharia at the state-run Qatar University, stated that although sharia allows Christians to run for public office, Muslims should not vote for them since sharia requires rulers to be Muslim.
In January a delegation led by the Secretary of State met with senior counterparts in Doha and signed a statement of intent to “support the shared ideals of tolerance and appreciation for diversity.” In April the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met in Doha with officials to urge the government to allow greater religious freedom for minorities, and with representatives of religious groups to discuss their concerns. Embassy representatives met with government officials to express concern over anti-Semitic cartoons. The Charge d’Affaires also met with leadership at Al-Jazeera regarding anti-Semitic political cartoons. The embassy continued to meet with relevant government bodies, as well as with quasi-governmental religious institutions concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and anti-Semitism. In July the embassy participated in a religious freedom conference between Christian leaders and Muslim leaders to discuss religious tolerance hosted by the Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID).
The constitution prohibits restrictions on freedom of conscience and belief, as well as forcing an individual to espouse a religious belief contrary to the individual’s convictions. It stipulates all religions are independent from the state, and religious groups have the freedom to organize “in accordance with their own statutes.” According to the law on religious freedom and religious denominations, the state recognizes the “important role” of the Romanian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the history of the country, but it also recognizes the role of “other churches and denominations.” The law specifies a three-tiered classification of religious organizations. In addition, civil associations wishing to perform religious functions may organize under a separate provision of the law. The government approved an application for one Christian association – The “Neemia” Christian Association in Brateius. There were continued reports of the slow pace of restitution of confiscated properties, especially to the Greek Catholic Church and the Jewish community. During the year, the government rejected 474 restitution claims for confiscated religious properties and approved 48, compared with 609 claims rejected and 52 approved in 2018; it approved no claims for the Greek Catholic Church. Minority religious groups continued to state that national and local governments gave preference to the ROC, and they reported incidents of government discrimination against them, including exclusive ROC representation at many government-sponsored events. In May a town with an ethnic Romanian majority erected a monument and Orthodox-style crosses in the Valea Uzului war cemetery, sparking protests by a neighboring, majority-Catholic town with an ethnic Hungarian majority. Security forces deployed at a counterprotest in June to keep the two sides apart. In October President Klaus Iohannis promulgated a law establishing a National Jewish History and Holocaust Museum.
Minority religious groups continued to report harassment of their congregations by ROC priests and adherents, including verbal harassment, along with the blocking of their access to cemeteries. In April media reported vandalism at a Jewish cemetery in the town of Husi, where individuals destroyed dozens of headstones. The president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania stated the vandalism was the culmination of a series of anti-Semitic acts in the town; no suspects were detained. Some media outlets continued to depict largely Muslim migrants as a threat because of their religion. In March the news site evz.ro published an article stating that Muslim immigrants posed a lethal threat to European civilization. On February 26, the National Anti-Discrimination Council released the results of a survey showing a majority of Romanians expressed high levels of distrust towards Muslims (68 percent), Jews (46 percent), and other religious minorities (58 percent). A European Commission (EC) Eurobarometer survey published in January reported 6 percent of respondents believed anti-Semitism was a problem in the country, and 67 percent did not. According to the findings of a separate EC study on perceptions of discrimination published in September, 43 percent of respondents believed discrimination on the basis of religion or belief was widespread in Romania, while 51 percent said it was rare.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom met with government officials to discuss anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance issues, and the general position of the Orthodox Church in the country. In meetings with the general secretary of the government, U.S. embassy officials continued to raise concerns about the slow pace of the restitution process and the low number of properties restored to minority religious groups. Embassy officials facilitated meetings between the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and government officials to help speed the processes of property restitution and pensions for Holocaust survivors. In meetings with President Iohannis, Prime Minister Ludovic Orban, and other government officials, embassy officials continued to support efforts by the Elie Wiesel National Institute for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (Wiesel Institute), assisted by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), to establish a National Jewish History and Holocaust Museum. The Ambassador participated in Holocaust commemorations and spoke out against religious intolerance in the country. Using its Facebook page, the embassy emphasized respect for religious freedom and condemned anti-Semitic incidents.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion. The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.” The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Throughout the year, authorities continued to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that banned and criminalized the activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist” by raiding homes, seizing personal property, detaining hundreds of suspected members, and sentencing individuals to prison. There were reports that authorities physically abused Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religious minority groups in detention. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media reports, on February 15, Investigative Committee officials in Surgut detained seven male Jehovah’s Witnesses. The detainees said that during their interrogation, authorities put bags over their heads, sealed the bags with tape, tied the men’s hands behind their backs, beat them, stripped them naked, doused them with water, and shocked them with stun guns. Authorities continued to fine, detain, and imprison members of other religious minority groups and organizations for alleged extremism, including individuals belonging to the banned Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. As of the end of the year, the human rights NGO Memorial identified 245 persons who were imprisoned for their religious beliefs or affiliation, an increase from 177 in 2018. The majority were Muslim, including 157 detained as of October for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses estimated between 5,000 to 10,000 members had fled the country since the start of the government’s crackdown and related societal violence in 2017. Reports persisted that local officials fined members of religious groups for using land, including private homes, for religious services. On November 14, the Constitutional Court ruled providing residential premises to religious organizations for worship “does not constitute a violation of the law and cannot serve as the basis for prosecuting citizens under [the administrative code].” Critics said the court’s ruling, which included limitations based on the rights of neighbors and health and safety requirements, was vague and gave law enforcement too much discretion to stop home worship activities. Authorities continued to fine, arrest, and prosecute individuals under the Yarovaya Package, a set of legislative amendments passed in 2016 that prohibits, among other things, “unauthorized missionary activity.” Authorities fined a Buddhist man for organizing a meditation meeting at a boathouse without a permit, and a Baptist pastor for publicly baptizing a new congregant in a river. Officials continued to delay and/or prevent minority religious organizations from obtaining land, and denied renovation or construction permits for houses of worship. They also continued to deny religious organizations ownership of property expropriated during the Soviet era, such as churches and church-affiliated schools. The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to any other church or religious association, including the right to review draft legislation and greater access to public institutions. The government fined and issued deportation orders for foreign nationals, including a Baptist pastor from Germany, for what authorities said was illegal religious activity.
A December 2017 opinion poll by the independent Levada Center, however, found that approximately 10 percent of the population held negative views about Jews. According to the Levada Center poll, approximately 15 percent held negative views about Muslims. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they were harassed at their workplaces and in some cases dismissed or forced to resign when their coworkers became aware of their religious beliefs. According to the NGO SOVA Center for Information and Analysis (SOVA Center), there were 19 reported cases of religiously motivated vandalism during the year, compared with 34 in 2018. These included individuals setting fire to Russia’s largest yeshiva, located in the Moscow Region, as well as unknown individuals knocking down a cross at the site of a tenth century Christian church near Stavropol, defacing the grave of a 19th century rabbi in Kaliningrad, and damaging 13 headstones in an Islamic cemetery in the Astrakhan Region. According to the SOVA Center, national and local media, including state-run media, continued to publish and/or broadcast defamatory material about minority religious groups, shaping the public perception that certain religious minorities were dangerous.
During the year, the U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with a range of government officials to express concern over the treatment of religious minorities, particularly the use of the law on extremism to restrict their activities. The Ambassador also met with representatives of the ROC and minority faiths to discuss concerns about religious freedom in the country. In June senior officials from the Department of State met with the chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation to discuss the status of the Muslim community in the country. Representatives from the embassy and consulates general in Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok met regularly with religious leaders and representatives from multiple faiths to discuss legislation impacting religious liberty, government practices, and specific religious freedom cases. The embassy organized speakers and programs designed to promote religious tolerance and used its social media platforms to highlight religious freedom concerns. On September 10, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on two members of the Investigative Committee in Surgut for their involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of Jehovah’s Witnesses” held in detention there in February.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Russia on a Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad). The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. Freedom of religion is not provided under the law. The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion. The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.” The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim. In January and May, police raided predominantly Shia villages in al-Qatif Governorate, stating the raids were carried out to arrest terrorist cells or preempt terrorist attacks. On November 13, rights groups announced that Hussein al-Ribh, a 38-year-old Shia activist who was in detention since 2017, died in Dammam Prison. Some Shia activists outside the country stated that authorities tortured al-Ribh while he was detained. In April the government executed 37 citizens for “terrorism crimes,” the largest mass execution since 2016. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 33 of the 37 were from the country’s minority Shia community and had been convicted following what they stated were unfair trials for various alleged crimes, including protest-related offenses. In January rights groups reported Islamic scholar Sheikh Ahmed al-Amari died as a result of poor prison conditions and mistreatment, and in August, Sheikh Saleh Abdulaziz al-Dhamiri died due to a heart condition while held in solitary confinement in Tarafia Prison. Authorities detained Thumar al-Marzouqi, Mohammed al-Sadiq, and Bader al-Ibrahim, three Shia Muslims who have written in the past on the discrimination faced by Shia Muslims, in April with no official charges filed; they remained in detention at year’s end. On February 1, human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that the public prosecutor was no longer seeking the death penalty for female Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained since 2015 after participating in antigovernment protests in the Eastern Province. During the year, government leaders, including the crown prince and the head of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), took new steps to combat religious extremism and to encourage interreligious tolerance and dialogue, conducting prominent public outreach, particularly with Christian and Jewish leaders and groups.
According to press and NGO reports, in February in Medina, an unidentified man beheaded a six-year-old boy on the street in front of his mother reportedly because he was Shia. In September an academic at Qassim University, Dr. Ahmed al-Hassan, called in a tweet for rooting out heretic Shia from the holy city of Medina. Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in legal and security matters and in private sector employment. Some social media platforms for discussion of current events and religious issues included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.” Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in social media discourse. Anti-Semitic comments appeared in the media.
In his address to the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom on July 18, Vice President Pence called on the Saudi government to release blogger Raif Badawi, stating that Badawi, among others he highlighted, “stood in defense of religious liberty, the exercise of their faith, despite unimaginable pressure.” The Vice President added that “the United States calls on Saudi Arabia to “respect the freedom of conscience and let these men go.” In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.
Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Most recently, on December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.
The constitution provides for the free practice of religious beliefs and self-governance by religious groups without government interference. By law, all faith-based organizations must register with the government to acquire legal status as an association. The government continued a campaign to combat forced child begging, which often takes place at some Islamic schools. The government also continued its programs to assist religious groups to maintain places of worship, fund and facilitate participation in the Hajj and Roman Catholic pilgrimages, permit four hours of voluntary religious education at public and private schools, and fund schools operated by religious groups. The government continued to monitor religious groups to ensure they operated according to the terms of their registration. Several draft laws related to child begging at religious schools awaited National Assembly ratification. The government provided $11 million of in-kind assistance toward the construction of the new Massalikul Jinaan Mosque, the largest in West Africa.
Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued efforts to focus attention on the abuse of children, including forced child begging, at some traditional Islamic schools (known locally as daaras). These organizations continued to urge the government to address the problem through more effective regulation and prosecution of offending teachers.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officers met regularly with senior government officials to discuss conditions students faced in daaras as well as the government’s efforts to combat forced child begging. The Ambassador and embassy officers also discussed these issues with religious leaders and civil society representatives throughout the country. In meetings with civil society and religious leaders, embassy officers continued to emphasize the importance of maintaining religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.
The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, forbids the establishment of a state religion, guarantees equality for all religious groups, and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. While religious groups are not required to register with the government in order to conduct religious services, some religious groups reported that it is difficult to conduct business, hold bank accounts, or own property without being registered. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) did not act to resolve contested religious registration claims by different Jewish groups, which Jewish leaders said contributed to an ongoing rift in the community. The Ministry of Culture and Information assumed responsibility for establishing a memorial at the site of the World War II (WWII)-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp in Belgrade; in October the ministry issued a draft law establishing the memorial and held public consultations on the proposed legislation. An off-duty gendarme officer in Belgrade reportedly threatened to kill a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in door-to-door ministry, and there were incidents of local authorities obstructing Jehovah’s Witnesses from engaging in proselytizing.
Jehovah’s Witnesses also reported cases of verbal threats toward members engaged in missionary work, destruction of mobile literature carts, and inconsistent and sometimes inadequate responses to these incidents by police and prosecutors. Smaller groups, mainly Protestant churches, said they encountered public distrust and misunderstanding and said members of the public frequently branded their religious groups as “sects,” which has a very strong negative connotation in the Serbian language. Anti-Semitic literature was available in some bookstores.
U.S. embassy officials urged the government to continue restitution of Holocaust-era heirless and unclaimed Jewish property and urged the Ministry of Justice to act on certification of contested elections within the Jewish community. U.S. government officials monitored progress on the draft law establishing a memorial at the WWII-era Staro Sajmiste concentration camp site, advocating that the government speed up progress on the process. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives from a wide range of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom and tolerance, cooperation with the government, interaction between traditional and nontraditional religious groups, and property restitution. In March the Assistant Secretary of Educational and Cultural Affairs met with the Serbian Orthodox patriarch to highlight U.S. support for church cultural preservation efforts. In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom met with various religious leaders to encourage renewed interfaith communication.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and states the country is not bound to any particular faith. Registration requirements for religious groups include the need to present a petition with signatures of at least 50,000 adherents. Members of some religious groups said stringent registration requirements hindered religious freedom. Some groups registered as civic associations in order to function. Members of parliament (MPs) from both the government coalition and opposition parties continued to make anti-Muslim statements. Authorities criminally prosecuted some members of the People’s Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) for defaming minority religious beliefs and Holocaust denial. In November parliament adopted an amendment, effective in 2020, increasing the annual state subsidy to government-recognized religious communities by approximately 10 percent.
In August a court convicted a man of inflicting bodily harm and sentenced him to four years in prison for a December 2018 knife attack against Turkish and Albanian proprietors of a kebab bistro in Banska Bystrica, where he shouted anti-Muslim slurs and threats. The prosecutor appealed for a longer sentence to the Supreme Court. Unregistered religious groups said the public tended to distrust them because of their lack of official government recognition. The Muslim community continued to report anti-Muslim hate speech on social media, which it attributed mostly to inflammatory public statements by politicians portraying Muslim refugees as an existential threat to the country’s society. According to a survey by a local think tank, nearly 60 percent of citizens would oppose a Muslim family moving into their neighborhood; for a Jewish family, the corresponding figure was 17 percent. Organizations media described as far right continued to organize gatherings and commemorations of the World War II (WWII)-era, Nazi-allied Slovak state and to praise its leaders. In December unknown persons vandalized two Jewish cemeteries in the towns of Namestovo and Rajec, damaging more than 80 gravestones.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers repeatedly raised public awareness of the importance of religious freedom, using private and public events to highlight the need for tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officers also raised with government officials at the Ministries of Culture and Interior and parliamentarians the treatment of religious minorities and the difficulties those groups faced regarding registration, as well as measures to counter what religious groups and others described as the increase in anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment. Embassy officials also met regularly with registered and unregistered religious organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to raise the issue of hate speech and highlight the role of churches and religious groups in countering extremism and promoting tolerance. The embassy provided additional funding for a local NGO that developed a curriculum for secondary schools to foster religious tolerance through interfaith discussions.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and belief and prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion. The government does not require religious groups to register; however, registered groups receive tax-exempt status. Throughout the year, religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concerns that two separate draft laws, one requiring religious groups to register with the government and the other criminalizing, defining, and punishing hate crimes and speech, could potentially infringe on religious freedom and freedom of speech. In March the Pretoria High Court ordered the Dutch Reformed Church to allow individual church councils to recognize and bless same-sex relationships and to employ noncelibate gay clergy. In September the Constitutional Court ruled that parental rights to religious freedom did not include the right to discipline their children using corporal punishment (including spanking), in response to a case brought by the NGO Freedom of Religion SA.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) recorded 36 anti-Semitic incidents during the year – a 15-year low. Numerous individuals made anti-Semitic comments throughout the year. Religious leaders reported a number of anti-Muslim incidents, including vandalism of several mosques and desecration of Muslim graves in a Cape Town cemetery, and attempts to prevent the slaughter of animals for Eid-al-Adha.
U.S. government officials met with religious groups and NGOs, including Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and humanist representatives, to gauge and discuss issues of religious freedom, including cases of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, and a proposed draft bill that would require religious institutions to register with the government in order to operate.
The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change religion. The law recognizes four religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. The constitution and other laws accord Buddhism the “foremost place” among the country’s religious faiths and commit the government to protecting it while respecting the rights of religious minorities. According to representatives of minority religious communities and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), government officials continued to engage in systematic discrimination against religious minorities. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against minorities. Religious minorities reported government officials and police often sided with religious majorities and did not prevent harassment of religious minorities and their places of worship. On Easter Sunday, April 21, the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local Islamic group swearing allegiance to ISIS, carried out suicide attacks on three churches and four luxury hotels, killing more than 250 civilians and injuring more than 500. In the aftermath, the government banned three organizations it labeled Muslim extremists, including NTJ, and temporarily banned face coverings. Although the government deployed security forces and police to control subsequent anti-Muslim violence, Muslim religious and civil society leaders reported some police stood idly by while attacks occurred. On May 12-13, mobs led by Buddhist monks and encouraged online by Sinhalese nationalist politicians from small parties affiliated with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party attacked and vandalized mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes in Kurunegala, Gampaha, and Puttalam Districts, resulting in the death of one Muslim man and extensive property damage. An investigation by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka found, “Mobs appear to have had a free hand to engage in the destruction of mosques” in several Northwestern Province towns, as well as in destruction of Muslim homes, businesses and vehicles. These attacks started to subside in May. NGOs reported in April police arrested writer Shakthika Sathkumara and held him for four months after a group of Buddhist monks said a short story he published had insulted Buddhism. Religious rights groups reported police continued to prohibit, impede, and close Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing government regulations, which legal scholars said did not apply. Media reports stated police and military personnel were complicit in allowing Buddhists to build religious structures on Hindu sites.
During the year, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 94 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services, compared with 88 in 2018. According to NCEASL, on September 21, a group of approximately 10 villagers assaulted six Christians from the Berea Prayer House in Kalkudah, Batticaloa District while on their way to church. Five individuals were hospitalized. According to civil society groups, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to media, on May 15, Gnanasara Thero, a senior Buddhist monk, called for the stoning to death of Muslims, and propagated an unfounded allegation that Muslim-owned restaurants put “sterilization medicine” in their food to suppress the majority Sinhalese Buddhist birthrate. Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force), used social media to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities. Media reports said some Muslim businesses were failing due to anti-Muslim boycotts.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the U.S. Ambassador issued a statement condemning the attacks and urging the country’s citizens to remain unified. Embassy officials repeatedly urged political leaders to defend religious minorities and protect religious freedom for all, emphasizing the importance of religious minorities in the national reconciliation process. Embassy personnel met often with religious and civic leaders to foster interfaith dialogue and hosted a national Youth Forum workshop in November, bringing together religiously diverse youth from across the country. The U.S. government funded multiple foreign assistance programs designed to build on global best practices in interfaith and interreligious cooperation, dialogue, and confidence building.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion; both the constitution and the penal code prohibit discrimination based on religion. Any violation may be brought before a court of justice. Religious groups seeking financial support from the government must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs. Limited government financial support for religious groups remained available through the Ministry of Home Affairs, primarily as a stipend for clergy. The government continued to pay wages for teachers of schools managed by religious organizations; however, according to the Federation of Religious Schools in Suriname (FIBOS), other subsidies designated to FIBOS for operational expenses of these schools were either late or not paid. FIBOS reported the government was also late in its payment of subsidies to children’s and elderly homes run by religious organizations. The Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported interfaith week held annually in February.
The Inter-Religious Council (IRIS) – an organization encompassing two Hindu and two Muslim groups, the Jewish community, and the Catholic Church – continued to discuss interfaith activities and positions on government policies and their impact on society. IRIS collaborated with nonmember religious organizations on efforts to promote religious freedom and tolerance.
In meetings with host government representatives, U.S. embassy officials continued to highlight U.S. government policy on the importance of protecting religious freedom and tolerance. The Ambassador hosted a roundtable event in June that focused on religious tolerance. Embassy officials met with members of the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Christian communities to encourage tolerance and discuss promotion within their communities of respect for religious diversity. In an effort to better promote U.S. policy and messaging on religious freedom, the embassy distributed information on the Department of State Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom to religious organizations and government officials with responsibility for religious affairs.
The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution states religious associations shall be separate from the state and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons under the age of 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. On September 10, a Khujand City court convicted Jehovah’s Witness Shamil Khakimov of “inciting religious hatred,” sentencing him to seven-and-a-half years in a high security prison. On October 9, an appeals court upheld his conviction. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at Hanafi Sunni mosques. There were reports that officials prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from registering their organization. Registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures. On February 22, international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported 17 Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained for holding a joint service. Forum 18 reported police raids on Jehovah’s Witnesses occurred in the northern cities of Khujand and Konibodom, and that police officers confiscated laptops, mobile phones, and passports. The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported authorities detained and questioned adults regarding possessing religious material and participating in religious activities. The government continued to imprison approximately 20 imams in Sughd Region for membership in banned extremist organizations. Government officials continued to take measures they stated would prevent individuals from joining or participating in what they considered extremist organizations and continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned opposition groups. Authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and government officials again issued statements discouraging women from wearing “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including hijabs.
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among members of different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers raised concerns regarding government restrictions on religious practices, including the participation of women and minors in religious services; rejection of attempts of minority religious organizations to register; restrictions on the religious education of youth; harassment of those wearing religious attire; and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature. Throughout May the Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address these issues and to discuss concerns about government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religion freely.
In 2016, the country was designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 26, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”
The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” Central government regulations control all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, including religious venues, groups, personnel, and schools. They stipulate religious activity “must not harm national security.” Regulations prohibit “accepting domination by external forces,” which authorities said included Tibetans in exile, particularly the Dalai Lama. In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas there were reports of forced disappearances, arrests, torture, physical abuse, including sexual abuse, and prolonged detentions without trial of individuals due to their religious practices. Former detainees reported being beaten until they lost consciousness and being shocked with electric batons. There were reports that monks and nuns were forced to wear military clothing and undergo political indoctrination in detention centers. The nongovernment organization (NGO) Free Tibet and local sources reported that on November 26, a 24-year-old former monk from the Kirti Monastery set himself on fire in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP), Sichuan Province, and died of his injuries on the same day. Media sources reported local officials in Tibetan areas explicitly stated supporters of the Dalai Lama and other religious leaders could be arrested under the government’s nationwide anti-organized crime program and that Tibetans were told to inform on anyone who “links up with the Dalai clique.” The government continued to restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions and to implement a campaign begun in 2016 to evict monks and nuns from monasteries and prohibit them from practicing elsewhere. While exact numbers were difficult to ascertain, according to multiple sources, since 2016 authorities evicted between 6,000 and 17,000 Tibetan and Han Chinese monks and nuns from Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. Satellite imagery showed thousands of dwellings at these locations had been destroyed since 2018. Authorities continued to engage in widespread interference in religious practices, especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, including by appointing government and CCP personnel and government-approved monks to manage religious institutions. “Sinicization” policies, which aimed to interpret religious ideas in accordance with CCP ideology and to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state, were pursued more intensely. Media reported that on January 7, the government announced a formal five-year plan to Sinicize all religions in the country, including Tibetan Buddhism. Despite a decree by President Xi Jinping, chairman of the CCP, that all members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must be “unyielding Marxist atheists,” the government continued to control the selection of Tibetan Buddhist lamas and supervised their religious and political education. Authorities forced monasteries to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag, and in some cases went door to door insisting laypersons replace images of the Dalai Lama and other lamas in their home shrines with those of CCP leaders, including Chairman Xi and Chairman Mao Zedong. Travel restrictions hindered monastics and laypersons from engaging in traditional religious practices and pilgrimages. Repression, including arbitrary surveillance, increased around politically sensitive events, religious anniversaries, and the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Sources reported local authorities increased scrutiny of social media postings regarding religious belief. Authorities restricted children from participating in many traditional religious festivals and from receiving religious education. The government continued to force monks and nuns to undergo political training in state ideology. Religious leaders and government employees were often required to denounce the Dalai Lama and express allegiance to the government-recognized Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu. Authorities continued in state media to justify interference with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries by associating the monasteries with “separatism” and pro-independence activities. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In a July interview, Wang Neng Shang, vice minister of the TAR and director general of the People’s Government Information Office, said the selection of the next Dalai Lama was not the current Dalai Lama’s decision to make, and instead must be recognized by the central government in Beijing, adding, “The centrality of the central government must be recognized.”
Some Tibetans continued to encounter societal discrimination when seeking employment, engaging in business, and traveling for pilgrimage, according to multiple sources.
While diplomatic access to the TAR remained tightly controlled, officials from the U.S. embassy and consulate general in Chengdu made five visits there during the year, during which they met with both government and religious leaders and emphasized the importance of respecting religious freedom in Tibet. The Ambassador visited the TAR in May, the first U.S. ambassador to do so since 2015. While there, he visited several religious sites and met with local leaders, religious figures, and students. In July the Vice President told attendees at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., “China’s oppression of Tibetan Buddhists goes back decades… [T]he American people will always stand in solidarity with the people of all faiths in the People’s Republic of China.” At the U.S. government’s invitation, Tibetan exile and survivor of religious persecution Nyima Lhamo met with the President and addressed the ministerial, describing how the harsh treatment by government authorities of her uncle, Lama Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, led to his 2015 death in captivity. The U.S. government repeatedly urged the Chinese government to end policies that threaten Tibet’s distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity, including the continuing demolition campaigns at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institutes. U.S. officials underscored that decisions on the succession of the Dalai Lama should be made solely by faith leaders and also raised concerns about the continued disappearance of the Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The embassy and consulates used social media to deliver direct messaging about religious freedom in Tibet to millions of citizens.
Trinidad and Tobago
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and practice, including worship. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. Laws prohibit actions that incite religious hatred and violence. Prime Minister Keith Rowley issued public messages for Easter, Ramadan, and Diwali that underscored religious freedom, diversity, and unity. He also met with members of the Muslim community to assure them of their right to “protection and equal place” following the attacks on mosques in New Zealand. In December a law was implemented decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana and creating a licensing authority to permit the cultivation and sale of marijuana, including for religious uses. Prior to passage, some Muslim groups called for further evaluation of the impact of the legislation, while a Rastafarian umbrella group, All Mansions of Rastafari, said they supported it. During the year the National Muslim Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago expressed its support for a 2018 High Court ruling in favor of allowing a Muslim special reserve police officer to wear a hijab while on duty.
The Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), an interfaith, nonprofit coordinating committee representing approximately 25 religious groups and receiving both private and public funding, continued to advocate for the importance of religious tolerance. During its annual general meeting, the IRO called for an interfaith effort by citizens to assist Venezuelan migrants.
U.S embassy officials engaged the government, including the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC), to inquire about concerns of religious freedom and tolerance for religious diversity. The Ambassador continued outreach with imams, and embassy officers met with Orishas and attended iftars and ecumenical religious services to promote religious diversity and freedom. In November the embassy hosted a roundtable with IRO members to discuss interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance among nonmember and member representatives of the IRO. The embassy also promoted religious freedom and tolerance through social media posts.
The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam. The constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Laws require that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles and prohibit them from encouraging violence, hatred, intolerance, or discrimination on the basis of religion. The law states the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The government suggests themes for Friday sermons but does not regulate their content. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology and in the period preceding the 2019 national elections, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) declared that it would terminate employment of any imam or mosque employee who engaged in partisan politics. In September the Aleph Institute, an international Jewish organization that assists individuals in prisons, expressed concern about possible anti-Semitism in the treatment of two Jewish detainees held in the country, including Jewish citizen Ilane Racchah, who remained in pretrial detention from July 2018 to October 2019 and whose case remained pending at the end of the year. On July 5, in the immediate aftermath of two terrorist attacks in downtown Tunis, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed issued a prohibition on wearing face coverings in administrative and public institutions, in order to “maintain public security and guarantee optimal implementation of safety requirements.” Government officials denied that the restriction limited religious freedom and stressed that its goal was to promote improved security. According to Human Rights Watch, on May 19, police in Kairouan arrested and detained Imed Zaghouani, a cafe owner, after Zaghouani declined to close his cafe during Ramadan. The Ministry of Interior issued a statement in late May denying that it issued orders to close cafes or restaurants during Ramadan and explained that the ministry works to apply the constitution, including the protection of freedom of belief and conscience. In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status. The Baha’i community reported that it was unable to proceed with an appeal of a 2018 court decision that denied its petition to be registered as an association, because it did not have information on the grounds for the court’s decision. Christian citizens stated the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly as they pertain to the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. Unlike the Baha’is, however, the country’s local Christian community did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status. The MRA established an Office for Religious Minorities to assist in the ministry’s efforts to coordinate with the country’s main religious minorities. The minister of religious affairs met with representatives of the Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i Faith communities. The grand mufti, grand rabbi, and Catholic archbishop attended the October 23 swearing in of President Kais Saied.
Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. The multicultural Attalaki Association for Freedom and Equality reported a positive exchange with a member of parliament from the Nahda political party, imams from the Association of Imams for Moderation and Rejection of Extremism, and representatives of the Christian community during a May colloquium organized to discuss interfaith issues, particularly for the Christian community. The association praised this exchange as a first step towards building strong communication among these communities, with a commitment to work together to advance several proposals raised by the Christian community, including efforts to facilitate their desire to license a cemetery and a church. Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers met with government officials at the MRA, the Office of the Presidency, and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights (MRCB) and encouraged continued tolerance of religious minorities. Embassy officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques, threats to converts from Islam to other faiths, and the status of the Baha’i Faith in the country. Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. In May the Ambassador and other embassy officers participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, where they discussed religious pluralism and the safety of the Jewish community with Jewish leaders and civil society. Following the pilgrimage, the Ambassador and embassy officials attended a multifaith iftar near the El-Ghriba Synagogue.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state. It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Islam. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. Media outlets and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported an accelerated pace of entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. In January the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights because it refused to allow Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation. In October a court ruled the Ministry of Interior and the eastern city of Malatya, Malatya Governorate, were not liable in a 2007 case involving the killings of three persons in an attack on a Christian publishing house. The Armenian Apostolic Orthodox community elected a new patriarch in December; members of the community and rights organizations criticized government interference in the election process. Minority communities continued to object to the prevention of governing board elections for religious foundations. The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed. Religious minorities again reported difficulties opening or operating houses of worship; resolving land and property disputes and legal challenges of churches whose lands the government previously expropriated; operating or opening houses of worship; and obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in schools. The government did not return any church properties seized in previous decades. Religious minorities, particularly members of the Alevi community, raised challenges to religious content and practices in the public education system. In March President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly raised the possibility the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul could be changed from a museum to a mosque. With President Erdogan in attendance, the Syriac Orthodox community broke ground in August on a new church in Istanbul, the first newly constructed church since the country became a republic in 1923. In May President Erdogan inaugurated the country’s largest mosque, which may accommodate up to 63,000. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.
In May a Muslim televangelist associated with a private television station converted a 13-year-old Armenian boy living in Turkey to Islam during a live broadcast without his parents’ permission. Members of the Armenian community and members of parliament (MPs) denounced the action. According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship continued to occur. In October unidentified individuals wrote on the door of the home of the president of Bursa’s Pir Sultan Abdal Association, an Alevi organization, “It is your time for death.” In February an unidentified person or persons sprayed graffiti on the Surp Hreshdagabet Armenian Church in the Balat District of Istanbul with derogatory messages on the door and walls. Anti-Semitic discourse continued in public dialogue, particularly on social media. In July a video posted on social media showed children at an apparent summer camp being led in chants calling for “death to Jews.” In January the premier of the film Cicero generated controversy and condemnation when the scenery for the premier’s red-carpet walk depicted features of a concentration camp, including striped uniforms draped on barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs. Some progovernment news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews and blamed Jews for the country’s economic difficulties and potential sanctions. In October social media users and media outlets shared photographs of anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posters hung at municipal bus stops in the central Anatolian town of Konya by the local branches of the Anatolian Youth Association and National Youth Foundation. In December the local prosecutor’s office in Konya said in a statement it would not pursue prosecution in the case because the act in question did not present “a clear and eminent threat to the public safety.”
The Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials to emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups, make progress on property restitution, and address specific cases of religious discrimination. Senior officials continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to allow for the training of clergy members from all communities in the country. Embassy and consulate officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.
In February 2014, Russian military forces invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled Territorial Integrity of Ukraine, states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers that Crimea remains a part of Ukraine.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and provides for the separation of church and state. By law, the objective of domestic religious policy is to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship. On January 6, the Ecumenical Patriarch granted autocephaly to the newly created Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), thereby formally recognizing a canonical Ukrainian Orthodox institution independent of the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time since 1686. On January 30, the government officially registered the OCU under the titles Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), stating that the names could be used synonymously. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) continued to be also officially registered as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church even though it remained a constituent part of the Moscow Patriarchate, also known as the Russian Orthodox Church, following the creation of the OCU. The government at times struggled to manage tensions between the newly created OCU and UOC-MP, which competed for members and congregations. According to observers, Russia attempted to use its disinformation campaign to fuel further conflict between the two churches. According to human rights groups, the number of documented acts of anti-Semitism was lower when compared with previous years, but investigations and prosecution of anti-Semitic vandalism were generally inconclusive. Some Jewish leaders continued to state their concerns about what they considered impunity for acts of anti-Semitism and the government’s long delays in completing investigations. Religious leaders also continued to urge the government to establish a transparent legal process to address property restitution claims. Minority religious groups continued to report discriminatory treatment by local authorities in land allocation for religious buildings. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) said the local government in Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast, was unwilling to finalize the allocation of a plot of land for building a church.
Media sources, religious freedom activists, the OCU, Muslims, Protestant churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that Russian proxy authorities in the Russian-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (regions) continued to exert pressure on minority religious groups. In the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (“LPR”), proxy authorities banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist” organization, while the “Supreme Court” in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (“DPR”) upheld a similar ban. Russian proxy authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk continued to implement laws requiring all religious organizations except the UOC-MP to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), a majority of religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities. Many religious groups continued to refuse to reregister because they did not recognize the Russian-installed authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk. All but one mosque remained closed in Donetsk. Russia-led forces continued to use religious buildings of minority religious groups as military facilities. The situation in Russian-occupied Crimea is reported in an appendix following the report on the rest of Ukraine.
After the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the newly created OCU in January, thereby recognizing a Ukrainian Orthodox institution independent of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the UOC-MP labelled the OCU a “schismatic” group. UOC-MP representatives stated but did not provide evidence that the OCU had carried out “raider attacks” by deceiving and stealing parishioners by using a similar name. There were continued reports of what some media and political observers characterized as radical groups physically assaulting and pressuring UOC-MP supporters and vandalizing UOC-MP property as well as UOC-MP priests locking out parishioners who wished to change to the OCU. In March representatives of the group Right Sector, commonly characterized as a violent radical group, reportedly pushed and possibly hit UOC-MP parishioners during a scuffle between OCU and UOC-MP members near a UOC-MP church in Hnizdychne, Ternopil Oblast. UOC-MP leaders accused the newly formed OCU of seizing churches belonging to the UOC-MP; the OCU responded that parishioners rather than the OCU had initiated the transfers of affiliation. Members of the Jewish community reiterated concern about new construction on a site at Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market located on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery. There were again reports of vandalism of Christian monuments; Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries; and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported five violent incidents against members and five cases of vandalism and arson attacks on Kingdom Halls. The All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) and the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA) continued to promote interfaith dialogue and respect for religious diversity.
The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials met frequently with officials of the Office of the President, ministry officials, and members of parliament to discuss the protection of religious heritage sites, manifestations of anti-Semitism, and issues within the Orthodox churches. In light of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s granting the OCU autocephaly the Ambassador urged government and religious leaders to practice tolerance, restraint, and mutual understanding to ensure respect for all individuals’ religious freedom and preferences. The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to urge religious groups to resolve property disputes peacefully and through dialogue with government officials, in particular the dispute regarding the location of parts of the Krakivskyy Market on the site of the Lviv Old Jewish Cemetery. Embassy officials continued to meet with internally displaced Muslims from Crimea to discuss their continuing inability to practice their religion freely in Crimea. In May the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism met with government, religious, and community leaders to discuss the need for a strong government response to combating anti-Semitism, promote religious freedom, encourage interfaith dialogue, and assure leaders of U.S. support for all individuals to practice freely their faiths.
United Arab Emirates
The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief. The law prohibits blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. Local press reported in September that a Dubai court convicted a Moroccan national of blasphemy and sentenced him to three months imprisonment followed by deportation and a fine of 500,000 dirhams ($136,000). In February Sharjah Emirate authorities charged two residents with engaging in extramarital sex, in violation of local interpretation of sharia. In March a woman initially convicted of charges related to practicing witchcraft was acquitted after appeal in the emirate of Fujairah. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques. Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families. In September the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) granted licenses, and thereby formal legal status, to 18 Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship, including Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and the country’s first traditional Hindu temple. Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths otherwise reported they could worship in private without government interference but faced some restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism. During the year, construction was underway on multiple houses of worship. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited certain charitable activities. In February the government announced construction of the first official synagogue in Abu Dhabi, with construction slated to begin in 2020. In February Pope Francis held a public Mass in Abu Dhabi for 180,000 Catholics as part of the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula. The government hosted conferences and meetings with religious minority leaders throughout the year to promote interfaith tolerance both domestically and internationally.
According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with officially recognized houses of worship, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. In June the Zayed House for Islamic Culture posted a video online featuring new converts to Islam and the religion’s role in promoting tolerance and forgiveness. Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively. In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services. Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces, including for registered religious organizations.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom spoke at a conference in Abu Dhabi on the subject of interfaith tolerance and education. He also met with local officials, including Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. In meetings with senior government counterparts, the Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. officials reviewed ways to promote respect among faith groups and freedom for minority groups to practice their religions, as well as government initiatives to foster religious tolerance and counter what it considered extremist interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups. The embassy and consulate general in Dubai hosted interfaith events to encourage and support religious freedom and tolerance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and affirms the state does not support any particular religion. Legal statutes prohibit discrimination based on religion. In August media quoted Human Rights Secretary for the Presidential Office Nelson Villarreal stating his concerns about the increasing participation of evangelical Protestants in politics. Evangelical Protestant pastors and other members of several evangelical Protestant churches said they disapproved of the secretary’s remarks, which they stated incited discrimination and hatred. The pastors said they requested the secretary retract his statements and asked then president Tabare Vazquez to take corrective measures against the secretary. In May a number of evangelical Protestant organizations, including Mision Vida para las Naciones Church (Life Mission for the Nations), filed a petition before the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for discrimination by the state based on religious grounds; the commission continued to review the petition through year’s end. The government’s official commitment to secularism continued to generate controversy between religious groups and political leaders. Religious organizations continued to underline the need for more channels of communication and opportunities for dialogue with the government to discuss issues related to religious freedom. In September a court upheld the desire expressed in the living will of a comatose Jehovah’s Witness not to receive a blood transfusion because it contravened her religious beliefs. In July the Canelones Department government transferred land to the Islamic community to build its first cemetery in the country. Members of the Jewish community said the government should issue regulations to allow alternate university-level exam dates for students observing religious holidays, instead of leaving the decision to individual professors. The government supported several events commemorating the Holocaust, including one held in parliament, and broadcast a national message reaffirming the country’s commitment to the defense of human rights and its condemnation of any act of terrorism and intolerance.
According to media, on March 8, protesters vandalized a Roman Catholic Church, stating their disagreement regarding the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and birth control. Religious representatives continued to report press and social media commentary disparaging their religious beliefs and practices. Interfaith groups continued to promote interfaith dialogue, understanding, and coexistence in the country. In May the Catholic Church organized an event commemorating 100 years of the separation of church and state. The Zionist Organization of Uruguay presented the 2019 Jerusalem Prize to Cardinal Daniel Sturla, Archbishop of Montevideo. The annual prize recognizes a prominent national figure, typically a representative from government or academia, for promoting and defending the human rights of Jews and encouraging peaceful coexistence among persons of different beliefs.
U.S. Embassy officials discussed issues regarding religious freedom and discrimination with representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Honorary Commission against Racism, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination (CHRXD), and the National Human Rights Institute (INDDHH). Embassy officials met with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim representatives, other minority religious groups, and the Board for Interfaith Dialogue to discuss interfaith collaboration and hear their concerns about challenges to religious freedom and tolerance. In November embassy staff coorganized a workshop on religious freedom convened by the Catholic University, with representatives of different religions, including minority religious groups. The embassy continued to use social media to highlight the importance of respect for religious diversity and tolerance.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. A religious freedom “roadmap” approved by parliament in 2018 to implement all 12 of the recommendations of UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed simplified rules for registering religious organizations and their reporting requirements, but the underlying law on religion continued to make it difficult for groups to register, according to religious groups. The government announced it released or reduced the sentences of 575 prisoners charged with religious extremism or related crimes during the year; however, some nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives said the government continued torture of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of religious extremism or of participating in underground Islamic activity. The government did not provide the number of individuals arrested during the year and how many were in custody at year’s end. The government registered eight churches; according to religious groups, there were 20 known churches that still wished to register. According to religious groups, there were no police raids of unregistered religious group meetings during the year, compared with 114 in 2018 and 240 in 2017. Members of religious groups whose registration applications the government denied remained unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. According to media reports, public controversy over government policies on beards and the wearing of hijabs continued, including reports of police forcibly shaving the beards of men in Tashkent. The Ministry of Education maintained a dress code prohibiting the wearing of religious garments and symbols, such as skullcaps, crosses, and hijabs in schools. In reaction to social media outcry following the expulsion of two female university students wearing hijabs, in April the government agreed to allow female students to wear headscarves in the traditional Uzbek ikat style with a knot tied behind their heads. Police detained two bloggers who called for the government to allow girls to wear hijabs, men to grow beards, and children to attend mosques, although reportedly other bloggers who criticized the government faced no backlash. According to press reports, the Tashkent District Department of Public Education continued to instruct educators to schedule school activities on Fridays to prevent the release of pupils for prayers. According to Roman Catholic leaders, the government allowed the Church to hold a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley, and Church leaders noted that surveillance of Catholic masses had stopped. Media reported the government continued to block access to some websites containing religious content, including Christian and Islamic-related news. The government published a list of illegal websites it stated were linked to Islamic extremist activity. According to the international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, it remained difficult for some individuals to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts or bribery, and religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons older than age 45. Other sources, including religious activists, reported no difficulties in going on the Hajj and said there were no age limits. The government maintained a consultative body – the Council of Faiths – as a platform for discussing issues with 16 recognized religious groups. In an October report for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Jehovah’s Witnesses stated, “After many years of religious freedom violations and outright persecution, the Government of Uzbekistan has recently made significant progress in improving its treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The report cited the cessation of police raids, permission granted to a Jehovah’s Witnesses delegation to travel from the United States to Uzbekistan, and permission to conduct a “memorial service of the death of Jesus Christ” in rented premises in Fergana, Karshi, and Urgench.
NGOs and private persons continued to report social pressure – but not government harassment – on individuals, particularly among the members of the majority Muslim population, against religious conversion. Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including family pressure to repudiate their new faith. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, said they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination. Some religious minorities said social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials, forcing them to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to conduct funerals with Islamic religious rites.
Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with senior government officials to raise concerns about imprisonment and mistreatment of individuals for their religious beliefs, bureaucratic impediments to the registration of religious minority groups, and allowing children to participate in religious activities. Embassy officials continued to urge the government to ensure that changes to the draft law on religion should follow the recommendations of international experts as well as take into account public views. The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom held a series of engagements with senior government officials, raising the status of the country’s draft religion law and the registration of religious organizations and places of worship, as well as the need for the government to allow children to participate in religious activities and release individuals charged and detained for exercising their faith peacefully. In July he met with Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and again on the margins of the UN General Assembly High-Levels Week in September. Embassy officials and visiting U.S. government officials met frequently with representatives of both registered and unregistered religious groups, including with religious minorities. Embassy officials also routinely met with religious groups, human rights activists, and other civil society representatives to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics included problems associated with the registration of minority religious groups, the issue of religious education for children, and concerns about the wearing of hijabs and beards for Muslims.
On December 18, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State renewed Uzbekistan’s place on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated the de facto Maduro government and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property. Representatives of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV) and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said the government harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against their clergy and other members for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. On October 12, the Military Counterintelligence Agency (DCGIM) arrested evangelical Protestant pastor Jose Albeiro Vivas in Barinas State as he delivered a prayer calling for the “spiritual liberation” of the country during an annual religious event. Vivas, also an active duty air force officer, was reportedly arrested for disobedience and remained in detention through year’s end. Media reported armed groups (colectivos) aligned with de facto President Nicolas Maduro attacked churches and their congregants during the year. According to Archbishop Jose Luis Azuaje, on January 27, a group of colectivos forced their way into Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Church in Maracaibo, Zulia State during Mass. The colectivos attacked and injured approximately 15 worshippers inside, fired their weapons, defaced and destroyed church property, and confiscated items of value. Azuaje said police officers stationed nearby did not intervene during the attack. Some members of the Jewish community stated the de facto government and those sympathetic to it used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism. During the year, editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets accused Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly and recognized by the United States as the legitimate interim president, and Guaido-nominated representatives, as agents or lobbyists of Zionism. Representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) said criticism of Israel in Maduro-controlled or -affiliated media continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages. They said de facto government-owned or -associated media and government supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust, citing media reports of Maduro’s comparing sanctions against Venezuela to Nazi persecution of Jews.
The CAIV representatives said many private citizens in addition to government officials continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and placed U.S. interests above those of the country, which made them concerned their community could become targets of anti-Semitic acts.
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Maduro’s de facto government and recognizes Interim President Juan Guaido as the legitimate president. The U.S. embassy suspended operations in Caracas on March 8 and continued to operate from Bogota and Washington, D.C. through the end of the year. Prior to March 8, Maduro administration officials again did not respond to U.S. embassy requests for meetings on religious freedom and related issues. The embassy maintained close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities. Embassy representatives and these groups discussed the de facto government’s imposed registration procedures and delays; harassment by its aligned and armed civilian gangs; anti-Semitic posts in social media and in government-controlled media; and other anti-Semitic acts.
The constitution states that all individuals have the right to freedom of belief and religion. The law provides for significant government control over religious practices and includes vague provisions that permit restrictions on religious freedom in the stated interest of national security and social unity. The Law on Belief and Religion, which came into effect in January 2018, maintains a multistage registration and recognition process for religious groups. Religious leaders, particularly those representing groups without official recognition or certificates of registration, reported various forms of government harassment – including physical assaults, arrests, prosecutions, monitoring, travel restrictions, and property seizure or destruction – and denials or no response to requests for registration and/or other permissions. In August Rah Lan Hip was sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of “undermining the unity policy” when he encouraged ethnic minority Degar Protestants to resist government pressure to renounce their faith. Reports of harassment of religious adherents by authorities continued in the Central Highlands, specifically members of the Evangelical Church of Christ, and in the Northwest Highlands of H’mong Christians and Roman Catholics, as well as for Catholic and Protestant groups in Nghe An and Tuyen Quang Provinces. Religious group adherents reported local or provincial authorities committed most harassment incidents. Members of recognized groups or those with certificates of registration were generally able to practice their beliefs with less government interference, although some recognized groups, including the Evangelical Church of Vietnam (North) (ECVN), reported more difficulty gathering in certain provinces, including Quang Binh, Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Ha Giang, and Hoa Binh Provinces. Others seeking to officially register their groups, including the United Presbyterian Church and the Vietnam Baptist Convention, also reported difficulty gathering in some provinces. Members of religious groups said some local and provincial authorities used the local and national regulatory systems to slow, delegitimize, and suppress religious activities of groups that resisted close government management of their leadership, training programs, assemblies, and other activities. During the year, the government registered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ). Although the Church of Jesus Christ coordinating committee was registered in 2016, the new registration of religious activities brought the Church into compliance with the new law and was the second step in the process towards official recognition.
The Vietnam Buddhist Sangha organized the 16th United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations, which attracted more than 1,650 international delegates and approximately 20,000 local Buddhist dignitaries, monks, nuns, and followers. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc attended the festival.
The Ambassador and other senior U.S. embassy and consulate general officials urged authorities to allow all religious groups to operate freely. They sought greater freedom for recognized religious groups and urged an end to restrictions on and harassment of groups without recognition or registration. The Ambassador, Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City, and other senior embassy officers advocated religious freedom in visits across the country, including to the Northern Highlands and the North Central and Central Coasts. The Ambassador and other officials met regularly and maintained recurring contact with religious leaders across the country.
This separate section on the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is included given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to the region this year.
The U.S. government estimated the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government detained more than one million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, as well as some Uighur Christians, in specially built internment camps or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, psychological and physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) estimated the number being interred was higher. The whereabouts of hundreds of prominent Uighur intellectuals, doctors, journalists, artists, academics, and other professionals, in addition to many other citizens, who were arrested or detained remained unknown. There were reports of individuals dying as a result of injuries sustained during interrogations. In November the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The New York Times reported on leaked internal PRC documents that describing the government’s mass internment and surveillance programs, including a manual for operating internment camps with instructions on how to prevent escapes, how to maintain total secrecy about the camps’ existence, and methods of forced indoctrination. A third document, the “Karakax List,” originally leaked in November and later made public, presented evidence the government initially interned or extended the internment of individuals on religious grounds in four reeducation centers in Karakax County, Hotan Prefecture. Media reported that in 2018 courts sentenced 143,000 individuals to prison or other punishments, compared with 87,000 in 2017. During the year, the government continued to restrict access to and destroyed or desecrated mosques and other religious sites. Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices. This surveillance included behavioral profiling, and forcing Uighurs to accept government officials and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members living in their homes and to install mandatory mobile spyware applications on their phones. The government continued to cite what it called the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as its justification to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims and non-Muslim religious minorities. The government intensified use of detentions in furtherance of implementing a Xinjiang counterextremism regulation that identifies “extremist” behaviors (including growing beards, wearing headscarves, and abstaining from alcohol) and the National Counterterrorism Law, which addresses “religious extremism.” Authorities in Xinjiang punished individuals, including imams, for praying or studying the Quran, and donating to mosques; authorities demanded individuals remove religious symbols from their homes, and barred youths from participating in religious activities. Authorities barred many categories of persons from fasting, during Ramadan, including students, and considered observing the Ramadan fast and participating in the Hajj to be suspicious behavior. Satellite imagery and other sources indicated the government destroyed numerous mosques and other religious sites, and surveilled others. The New York Times reported that according to a 2017 policy document posted on the Ministry of Education’s website, nearly 40 percent of all elementary and middle school students – approximately half a million children – were separated from their families and placed in boarding schools where they studied ethnic Han culture, the Mandarin language, and CCP ideology. The government sought the forcible repatriation from foreign countries of Uighur and other Muslim citizens and detained some of those who returned. The government harassed, interrogated, and detained the family members of Uighur and other Muslim activists who criticized its treatment of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.
Uighur Muslims reported severe societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities. In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued in parallel with the authorities’ suppression of Uighur language, culture, and religious practices while promoting the Han majority in political, economic, and cultural life.
At the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. in July, the United States and other governments issued a statement on China that included the following: “We call for an end to China’s mass detentions and its repressive controls on the cultural and religious practices and identities of members of religious and ethnic minority groups.” In November the Secretary of State said, “We call on the Chinese government to immediately release all those who are arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that have terrorized its own citizens in Xinjiang.” Embassy officials met with national government officials regarding the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. The embassy and consulates general delivered direct messaging about religious freedom in Xinjiang through social media posts, and promoted online engagement on the issue of religious freedom for Muslims, and, in particular, for Xinjiang’s ethnic minority Muslim populations. The embassy continued in its engagement with the PRC government to draw attention to specific cases of repression in Xinjiang.
The constitution declares the country a Christian nation but also has provisions that guarantee religious freedom and uphold the country’s multireligious composition. It also prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of conscience and belief. In June the government introduced legislation to amend the constitution that included provisions emphasizing the role of Christianity in the country. Prominent religious groups and civil society organizations continued to state the government should not be involved in religious affairs. On October 18, the Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs (MNGRA), which is mandated to provide oversight on religious affairs and promote Christian values, coordinated the fifth annual National Day of Prayer and Fasting. Various religious groups continued to raise concerns over the government-managed event, stating it blurred the line between church and state. The government continued to take administrative measures to regulate religious affairs, such as approving a new regulatory framework for religious groups and churches that it said will be implemented beginning in 2020. The new framework requires religious groups to register, mandates formal theological training for clergy, and stipulates that only religious organizations affiliated with recognized umbrella bodies may be registered to operate in the country. Religious groups expressed concern that the regulatory framework will interfere with their internal governance. Religious leaders at times took stances critical of the government for alleged human rights violations and civil liberties restrictions. The government imposed a moratorium on the registration of new churches and religious groups pending implementation of the new regulatory requirements for religious organizations.
There were again incidents of mob attacks and killings of individuals suspected of practicing witchcraft throughout the country. Victims were often elderly persons reportedly associated with witchcraft. Numerous examples were reported by media during the year, and incidents occurred at rates similar to those reported in previous years, according to local media sources. Attacks based on suspicions of witchcraft activities included the following: in March unknown assailants reportedly killed a 58-year-old man; in August police intervened to prevent protesters from burning a 70-year-old woman alive; and in September police reported that a man killed his 75-year-old uncle he suspected of practicing witchcraft. Religious leaders continued to hold regular meetings to promote mutual understanding of and joint advocacy on religious and other social issues. Among these were joint approaches in support of limiting government involvement in oversight of worship and religious practice.
U.S. embassy representatives met with government officials to discuss topics related to religious freedom, such as enforcement of registration laws and the regulation of new and existing religious groups. Embassy representatives also met with religious leaders to discuss issues of religious freedom, interfaith relations, and proposed constitutional amendments emphasizing the country’s declaration as a Christian nation and downplaying its multireligious character.