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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, which is punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. The government again sought to address security issues in Western Kabul’s Shia Hazara Dasht-e Barchi area, a target of major attacks during the year, by announcing plans to increase Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) presence. According to the Shia community, they saw no increase in ANDSF forces despite the plans; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Hindu and Sikh community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus, compared with 500-600 in 2018, fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries because of security threats and a perceived lack of government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils. Representatives of minority religious groups reported the courts again did not grant non-Muslims the same rights as Muslims. A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions. Shia Muslims continued to hold some major government positions; however, Shia leaders said the number of positions still did not reflect their demographics.

ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities, and the Taliban again targeted and killed individuals because of their beliefs or their links to the government. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. During the year, UNAMA recorded 20 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 22 attacks in 2018 – causing 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured), compared with 453 civilian casualties (156 deaths and 297 injured) in 2018. All were attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials and to punish residents in areas under Taliban control according to their interpretation of Islamic law, including shooting or hanging any person suspected of adultery or other “moral crimes.” Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. In August ISIS-K attacked a wedding hall in a predominately Shia neighborhood of Kabul, killing 91 persons and wounding 143 others. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several deadly attacks on religious leaders, particularly those who spoke out against the Taliban. On June 28 in Samangan Province, the Taliban detonated a remote-controlled IED inside a Sunni mosque during Friday prayers, wounding 14 civilians. On October 18, at least 62 civilians were killed and another 58 wounded, including children, following the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Deh Bala District of Nangarhar Province during Friday prayers. No organization claimed responsibility for the attack. According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reticent to reveal their identities to anyone. One Christian citizen described being disowned by his family after they learned he had converted to Christianity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported continued verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were teased and harassed in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship privately, sometimes in nondescript places of worship, to avoid societal discrimination and persecution. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the community continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested police support, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. In August police arrested one protester. A special committee, promised by the Ulema Council in 2018 to oversee social reform to address government corruption and “moral corruption” that religious clerics deemed incompatible with the teachings of Islam, had not been established by year’s end.

U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of what religious freedom is and why it is important, as well on the need for acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met frequently with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC). The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. On August 27, a senior embassy official raised preparations for 10th of Muharram with Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, including minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. The embassy hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify means and ways to counter violent religious extremism, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to highlight the National Religious Freedom and International Religious Freedom Days, and the Ambassador used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 35.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to the Pew Forum, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Sikh and Hindu leaders estimate there are 120 Sikh and Hindu families totaling approximately 550 individuals, down from 700 in 2018 and 1,300 individuals estimated in 2017, mostly in Kabul, with a few communities in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are 35 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including one Jew.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i Faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the beliefs and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to Article 2 of the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

The penal code outlines provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. According to the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts of the Supreme Court, there were no cases filed during the year. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years. Article 817 of the penal code states, “A person who insults Islam using a computer system, program, or data, shall be imprisoned.”

Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$770). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.

While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up the hudood as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood are punished according to Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females regarding marriage. Islamic law defines it as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts and subject to the same punishment.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime, according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels.

Licensing and registration of religious groups are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.

A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs in light of Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools, as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. The Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education (MOE) registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-run madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the MOE.

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes address a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi Sunni jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring sharia jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion, as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the president and two vice presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office. No occasion to determine if this applies to non-Muslims has arisen since the constitution was adopted in 2004.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu and Sikh community. Four seats in the parliament are also reserved for Ismaili Muslims.

MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues. MOHRA has an office dedicated to assisting the faith practices of religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community said promised government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, symbolic measures and the government had not implemented them. Media reported members of the Shia community continued to state the government did not provide them with adequate protection from attacks by nonstate actors. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians, under police authority, to provide extra security for Ashura. On August 27, Acting Minister of Interior Massoud Andarabi confirmed preparations were in place that involved integrating all the security forces. The minister stated he understood that ISIS-K posed a particular threat to the Shia community. According to the Shia community, the government distributed arms directly to the guards of Shia mosques in areas considered more targeted for attacks. Media reported the government arrested a group of three ISIS-K leaders just two days before the Shia community’s observance of Ashura in Kabul. Although National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces told the press these arrests thwarted attacks during Ashura, they provided no evidence these leaders were plotting to target the Shia community, and ISIS-K did not claim it had planned attacks. For the second year in a row, there were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

As in the previous five years, there were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels,” although they were not considered converts; as such, they were not charged with either crime.

The government again allowed both Sunnis and Shia to go on pilgrimages. The government set aside a number of Hajj slots for residents of each province, with the higher-population provinces receiving more slots, and with no sect-based discrimination in the distribution of slots. The government charged fees for Hajj participants to cover transportation, food, accommodation, and other expenses. MOHRA also continued to facilitate pilgrimages for Hindus and Sikhs to India, but it did not collect any revenue for or from non-Muslims. Ahmadi Muslims continued to report they chose not to interact with MOHRA because they feared MOHRA would deem them non-Muslims and forbid them from participating in the Hajj.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry of mullahs and mosques in the country. MOHRA continued to estimate that of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 6,000 registered mullahs were working directly for MOHRA at year’s end. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive an average monthly salary of 12,000 afghanis ($150) from the government. Mullahs of central mosques delivering special Friday sermons, or khatibs, were paid a salary of 14,000 afghanis ($180) by MOHRA. MOHRA again estimated 66,000 of the estimated 160,000 mosques in the country were registered.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate a portion of its budget for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy, but per the law against conversion of Muslims, the government continued not to allow them to proselytize. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing land disputes through the courts due to fear of retaliation, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security in the region continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs reported continued interference in their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead by individuals who lived near the cremation sites. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government promised to construct modern crematories for the Sikh and Hindu populations. Despite these challenges, community leaders acknowledged efforts by MOHRA to provide free water, electricity, and repair services for a few Sikh and Hindu temples, as well as facilitate visas for religious trips to India.

According to MOHRA, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were up to hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs, and because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to the ministry, there were 4,500 registered madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country. The government registered additional madrassahs during the year but did not report how many. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates.

Ministry officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups. In February the NDS arrested Kabul University lecturer Mawlai Mubashir Muslimyar on charges of encouraging approximately 16 students to carry out terrorist attacks targeting Shia Muslims. On June 30, two Kabul University sharia law faculty members were arrested by the NDS for promoting Salafist religious ideology and actively recruiting university students for ISIS-K.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Eighty MOE-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,200 public madrassahs were registered with the MOE, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of unregistered madrassas available.

Ulema Council members continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah also held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment, they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Sikhs and Hindus again reported their community members avoided taking civil cases to court because they believed they were unprotected by dispute resolution mechanisms, such as the Special Land and Property Court. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish; High Peace Council Chairman Karim Khalili; Minister of Transportation Mohammad Hamid Tahmasi; Minister of Telecommunication Mohammad Fahim Hashimi; and Minister of Refugees and Returnees Hussain Alemi Balkhi. Shia leaders, however, continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia remained overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and predominance in the country’s Shia population. Observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity.

A small number of Sikhs and Hindus continued to serve in government positions, including one at the municipal level, one at the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, one as a presidential advisor, and one as a member of the Ministry of Transportation.

Although four Ismaili Muslims remained members of parliament, Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council, and MOHRA also continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

The ONSC continued its work on addressing religiously motivated violent extremism, which included policies to foster religious tolerance. The ONSC continued to sponsor provincial-level conferences on religiously motivated violent extremism to collect data for use in its effort to develop a strategy to counter violent extremism. Government officials said the ONSC approved, and the president signed, an interministerial strategy in mid-September; however, it was not widely publicized due to “sensitivities surrounding the issue.” According to the ONSC, it continued to work on an action plan for implementation of the policy, which was expected to be finalized before the end of the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community continued to report they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress. Both groups attributed fewer cases of harassment of members of their communities to the continued emigration of Sikh and Hindu residents.

According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Reportedly, the number of Christian missionaries in the country was estimated at 60, with 30 to 40 based in the capital.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, they continued to worship privately to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts of urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable without what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.

Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Although Ahmadis had maintained an unmarked place of worship in past years, during the year the Ahmadis said they decided not to use it after neighbors informed police of its location. Ahmadis continued to report the need to increasingly conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there were a peace deal with the Taliban.

Christian representatives again reported public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were 12 gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and four mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, compared with a combined total of 64 in previous years. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said the list of seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Kandahar, and Paktiya Provinces they submitted to MOHRA in 2016 remained unresolved at year’s end.

Community leaders said they perceived the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul as a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders also reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools were underequipped to teach students.

Sikh leaders continued to state the main cause of Hindu and Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities; they said one factor impeding their access to employment was illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples (gurdwaras and mandirs) because they could not afford permanent housing. Both communities stated emigration would continue to increase as economic conditions worsened and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated approximately another 200 Sikhs and Hindus fled the country during the year to either India or Western countries, in addition to 500-600 who fled in 2018. Some Sikhs and Hindus reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam; in response, many noted that their communities’ residence in the country predated Islam.

Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. According to media, the Provincial Shia Ulema Council in Bamyan condemned the Bamyan Music Festival, and Shia religious leaders tried without success to stop it because the provincial governor and civil society supported the event. The Ulema also issued several statements against television programs, such as Afghan Music Star and Indian and Turkish series. In Herat, religious leaders threatened Tolo TV for recording the Afghan Music Star program in Herat, which caused the show to lower its public profile during filming.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Muslim cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform all his religious rituals. He said in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies attended the synagogue but could no longer do so due to security concerns and threats.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.

Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports.

NGOs reported Muslim residents remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with members of the president’s staff, ONSC, MOHRA, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, including informing the government of the conclusions of the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and the U.S. government’s recognition of August 22 as the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief. The Ambassador met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities to understand their relationship with the government and their ability to practice their faith. The U.S. Secretary of State hosted two Afghans at the second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington on July 16-18, including one Shia victim of religious persecution whose brother, fiance, and future brother-in-law were killed in an ISIS-K suicide bombing targeting a Shia shrine.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could encourage intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to assist the ONSC in creating a national strategy to combat violent extremism and enhancing its relevance to promoting respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials as well as the visiting Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs hosted iftars with government, civil society, and religious leaders during Ramadan to promote religious dialogue and tolerance. On January 16, a senior embassy official hosted a religious freedom roundtable discussion at the embassy to commemorate U.S. National Religious Freedom Day with Sunni and Shia Ulema leaders, a female Islamic scholar, a Sikh priest, and a Hindu priest. During the roundtable, the government representatives recognized the right of certain communities, including Sikhs and Hindus, to practice their faith short of proselytizing. The embassy reaffirmed U.S. government commitment to promoting religious freedom.

The embassy hosted roundtables with researchers and religious scholars, including MOHRA representatives, to discuss the sources and means to counter violent extremism related to religion and promote tolerance. On March 14, the embassy conducted a virtual discussion via the Lincoln Learning Centers with sharia law faculty at seven universities across the country on interpretation of Islam promoting tolerance in the negotiation and its importance for implementing a lasting peace agreement. The embassy also facilitated and funded the coordination of research efforts on violent extremism related to religion, which included policies to foster intrafaith tolerance.

The embassy highlighted National Religious Freedom Day on July 16 and International Religious Freedom Day on October 27 through Twitter and Facebook posts. The Ambassador condemned the attacks on a mosque in Nangarhar Province and in front of a children’s madrassa in Laghman Province on October 18 and 16, respectively, through Twitter. On September 12, the embassy released a public statement on Facebook and Twitter recognizing the first International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief.

Azerbaijan

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.1 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2011 data from the SCWRA, 96 percent of the population is Muslim, of which approximately 65 percent is Shia and 35 percent Sunni. Groups that together constitute the remaining 4 percent of the population include the Russian Orthodox Church; Georgian Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Seventh-day Adventists; Molokan Church; Roman Catholic Church; other Christians, including evangelical churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Jews; and Baha’is. Others include the International Society of Krishna Consciousness and those professing no religion.

Christians live mainly in Baku and other urban areas. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Jews live in Baku, with smaller communities throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the separation of state and religion and the equality of all religions and all individuals regardless of belief. It protects freedom of religion, including the right of individuals to profess, individually or together with others, any religion, or to profess no religion, and to express and spread religious beliefs. It also provides for the freedom to carry out religious rituals, provided they do not violate public order or public morality. The constitution states no one may be required to profess his or her religious beliefs or be persecuted for them; the law prohibits forced expressions or demonstrations of religious faith.

The law requires religious organizations – termed “associations” in the country’s legal code and encompassing religious groups, communities, and individual congregations of a denomination – to register with the government through the SCWRA. The SCWRA manages the registration process and may appeal to the courts to suspend a religious group’s activities. A religious community’s registration is tied to the physical site where the community is located, as stated in its application. A subsequent move or expansion to other locations requires reregistration. Registration allows a religious organization to hold meetings, maintain a bank account, rent property, act as a legal entity, and receive funds from the government.

To register, a religious organization must submit to the SCWRA a notarized application signed by at least 50 of its members, a charter and founding documents, the names of the organization’s founders, and the organization’s legal address and bank information.

By law, the government must rule on a registration application within 30 days, but there are no specified consequences if the government fails to act by the deadline. Authorities may deny registration of a religious organization if its actions, goals, or religious doctrine contradicts the constitution or other laws. Authorities may also deny registration if an organization’s charter and other establishment documents contradict the law or if the information provided is false. Religious groups may appeal registration denials to the courts.

The Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) is registered by the SCWRA as a foundation and oversees the activities of registered Islamic organizations, including training and appointing clerics to lead Islamic worship, periodically monitoring sermons, and organizing pilgrimages to Mecca. Muslim communities must receive an approval letter from the CMB before submitting a registration application to the SCWRA.

While the law prohibits the government from interfering in the religious activities of any individual or group, there are exceptions for suspected extremist or other illegal activity. The law states government entities and citizens have rights and responsibilities to combat “religious extremism” and “radicalism,” referring to other criminal, administrative, and civil provisions of the law in prescribing punishments. The law defines religious extremism as behavior motivated by religious hatred, religious radicalism (described as believing in the exceptionalism of one’s religious beliefs), or religious fanaticism (described as excluding any criticism of one’s religious beliefs by those outside of the same religious group). According to the law, this behavior includes forcing a person to belong to any specific religion or to participate in specific religious rituals. It also includes activities seeking to change by force the constitutional structure of the country’s government, including its secular nature, or setting up or participating in illegal armed groups or unions, and engaging in terrorist activities. The law penalizes actions that intend to change the constitutional order or violate the territorial integrity of the country on the grounds of religious hatred, radicalism, or fanaticism, with prison terms from 15 years to life.

The law also specifies circumstances under which religious organizations may be dissolved, including if they act contrary to their founding objectives; cause racial, national, religious, or social animosity; or proselytize in a way that degrades human dignity or contradicts recognized principles of humanity, such as “love for mankind, philanthropy, and kindness.” Other grounds for dissolution include hindering secular education or inducing members or other individuals to cede their property to the organization.

The law allows foreigners invited by registered religious groups to conduct religious services, but it prohibits citizens who received Islamic education abroad from leading religious ceremonies unless they have received special permission from the CMB. Penalties for violating the law include up to one year’s imprisonment or fines from 1,000 manat ($590) to 5,000 manat ($2900). A longstanding agreement between the government and the Holy See allows foreigners to lead Catholic rituals.

An administrative code prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations from holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as the organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies.”

The law restricts the use of religious symbols and slogans to inside places of worship.

According to the law, the SCWRA reviews and approves all religious literature for legal importation, sale, and distribution. Punishment for the illegal production, distribution, or importation of religious literature can include fines ranging from 5,000 ($2900) to 7,000 manat ($4,100) or up to two years’ imprisonment for first offenses, and fines of 7,000 ($4,100) to 9,000 manat ($5,300) or imprisonment of between two and five years for subsequent offenses. There is no separate religious component in the curriculum of public or private elementary or high schools; however, students may obtain after-school religious instruction at registered institutions. Students may take courses in religion at higher educational institutions, and the CMB sponsors some religious training abroad. Individuals wishing to participate in state-supported religious education outside the country, whether supported by the national or foreign governments, must obtain permission from, or register with, the SCWRA or the Ministry of Education. If religious education abroad is not supported by the national or foreign governments, individuals are not required to obtain advance permission from authorities. The law prohibits individuals who pursue foreign government-supported or privately funded religious education abroad without permission from the government from holding official religious positions, preaching, or leading sermons after returning to the country.

Although the constitution allows alternative service “in some cases” when military service conflicts with personal beliefs, there is no legislation permitting alternative service, including on religious grounds, and refusal to perform military service is punishable under the criminal code with imprisonment of up to two years or forced conscription.

The law stipulates the government may revoke the citizenship of individuals who participate in terrorist actions; engage in religious extremist actions; undergo military training abroad under the guise of receiving religious education; propagate religious doctrines in a “hostile” manner, which the law does not further define; or participate in religious conflicts in a foreign country under the guise of performing religious rituals.

According to the constitution, the law may restrict participation of “religious officials” in elections and bars them from election to the legislature. By law, political parties may not engage in religious activity. The law does not define “religious officials.” The law prohibits religious leaders from simultaneously serving in any public office and in positions of religious leadership. It proscribes the use of religious facilities for political purposes.

The constitution prohibits “spreading propaganda of religions humiliating people’s dignity and contradicting the principles of humanism,” as well as “propaganda” inciting religious animosity. The law also prohibits threats or expressions of contempt for persons based on religious belief.

The law prohibits proselytizing by foreigners but does not prohibit citizens from doing so. In cases of proselytization by foreigners and stateless persons, the law sets a punishment of one to two years in prison.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The Ganja and Lankaran Courts of Grave Crimes sentenced 57 individuals from the 77 persons detained after the July 2018 attack on the then mayor of the city of Ganja and subsequent stabbing to death of two police officers during a related demonstration against local government authorities. Security forces took 77 individuals into custody and killed five during operations in the cities of Ganja, Shamkir, Sumgait, and Baku. The government said the individuals were part of a Shia Muslim “extremist conspiracy” to destabilize the country, and that those killed resisted arrest. Civil society activists and family members disputed the government account of the events and stated the five individuals whom security forces killed did not resist arrest. The Ganja Court of Grave Crimes conducted the trials in Baku, in what observers said was an effort to avoid causing further social unrest in Ganja. Those convicted received sentences ranging from 18 months to 18 years imprisonment. Civil society activists and human rights defenders said they considered the vast majority of the verdicts as politically motivated.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were 17 incidents between September 2018 and August 2019 in Baku and eight other cities or towns. One follower said two police officers forcibly took a Jehovah’s Witness in Khachmaz to the police station in February. International religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that in February a State Committee official asked the Jehovah’s Witness why he was talking about the Bible and not the Quran. Officers reportedly seized his religious literature, threatened to have him fined, held him for 12 hours without food or water, mocked his beliefs, forced him to write two statements, and then freed him. The Forum 18 report said one police officer threatened to beat him during his detention.

In January former member of parliament Rahim Akhundov stated publicly he had been forced to resign from his professional position in the International Relations Department of the Azerbaijani Parliament due to his Christian faith. He stated he had been threatened with dismissal unless he chose to resign voluntarily; he said the reason was fabricated. According to Akhundov, security services conducted surveillance on him and his home and informed parliamentary leadership that he had held prayer meetings at his house and proselytized.

In February Muslim Unity Movement leaders Taleh Bagizade and Abbas Huseynov conducted hunger strikes of 16 days and 14 days respectively to protest their poor treatment by Penitentiary Service officials in Gobustan prison. Authorities partially responded to their complaints, but the prisoners reported ongoing issues.

Authorities continued legal action against individuals associated with Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Unity Movement, that they asserted mixed religious and political ideology. Charges against these individuals included drug possession, incitement of religious hatred, terrorism, and attempted coup d’etat. Human rights defenders and other civil society activists characterized the charges as baseless and designed to preclude political activity similar to previous years. According to data collected by the Working Group on a Unified List of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan and other NGOs, the estimated number of religious activists incarcerated at the end of the year ranged from 45 to 55, compared with 68 in 2018.

On January 30, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Muslim Unity Movement activist Ahsan Nuruzade on charges of drug possession. The Baku Grave Crimes Court sentenced Nuruzade to seven years in prison in March 2018, but activists stated the charges were fabricated to punish him for publicly supporting the imprisoned leadership of the Muslim Unity Movement.

On June 12, the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Muslim Unity members Ebulfez Bunyadov and Elkhan Isgandarov, convicted in 2018 on charges that included inciting religious hatred and terrorism, and sentenced to 15 and 14 years respectively. On July 10, the Nizami District Court ordered Bunyadov’s release on medical grounds.

On February 18, the Baku Court of Appeals ordered the release of Telman Shiraliyev with time served. The Khazar District Court had extended Shiraliyev’s prison term for an additional five months and 18 days for alleged possession of a weapon in his prison cell, a charge human rights defenders said was fabricated to prevent his imminent release at the conclusion of his six-year prison term for protesting against a ban on schoolgirls wearing headscarves.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported the government had not implemented alternative military service for conscientious objectors despite being required to do so by the constitution. In April the Supreme Court rejected the appeals of Jehovah’s Witnesses Emil Mehdiyev and Vahid Abilov of their 2018 convictions and one-year probation sentences for criminal evasion of military service. In October Mehdiyev and Abilov filed appeals to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

On October 17, the ECHR ruled Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country who conscientiously objected to military service should not be criminally convicted. The ruling consolidated four applications to the Court lodged between 2008 and 2015. The applications involved five Witnesses: Mushfig Mammadov, Samir Huseynov, Farid Mammadov, Fakhraddin Mirzayev, and Kamran Mirzayev. Each had been convicted and had served a prison term for their refusal to perform military service. The Court found since the Witnesses’ conscientious objection to military service was based on “sincere religious convictions,” the country’s actions against them violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

Unregistered Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups considered “nontraditional” by the government reported authorities at times subjected them to harassment and fines for conducting religious activities. Regional branches of Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reported their inability to obtain legal registration. Some Protestant and home-based church leaders reported that their inability to obtain legal registration forced them to keep their activities discreet. The government said the inability to obtain registration stemmed solely from the groups’ inability to meet the law’s requirement of 50 members, and no administrative action was taken against unregistered religious communities.

According to a report from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in April a police officer went to the home of Jehovah’s Witness Gulnaz Nasirova in Lankaran and forcibly escorted her to the police station for interrogation. Police officers reportedly insulted her, threatened to send her to a mental hospital, questioned her about her beliefs and fellow believers, and demanded she provide her family members’ personal data. One officer made a vague threat that he would harm her children, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. She was detained for five hours before being released.

Religious communities continued to report frustration at the requirements for government registration, particularly the to have a minimum of 50 members to apply for registration. For instance, Baptists communities in the towns of Zagatala and Shirvan did not have sufficient members to apply for legal registration.

The government continued to allocate funds to religious groups. Experts said the Moral Values Promotion Foundation’s funding amounted to further government control over the practice of Islam.

On June 25, the Supreme Court upheld a 2018 government prohibition on the publication of theologian Elshad Miri’s book Things Not Existing in Islam. The SCWRA said it prohibited the book because its enumeration of ideas and practices alleged to have no theological basis in Islam, such as the use of magic and child marriage, could have a negative influence on religious stability in the country.

The SCWRA reported during the year, it prohibited the importation of 216 books out of 3,888, and the publication of 14 books out of 239. By comparison, in 2018 the SCWRA prohibited the importation of 52 books out of 1,704, and the publication of 26 books out of 192.

On May 6, the Constitutional Court informed Baptist Pastor Hamid Shabanov that it would not consider his appeal of a 1,500 manat ($880) fine for a 2016 gathering in the village of Aliabad of his unregistered Baptist community. It was Shabanov’s second time appealing to the Constitutional Court; his first appeal was similarly dismissed in January 2018. Human rights defenders stated there were multiple violations of law and process in the case, such as the court’s failure to provide a Georgian language interpreter and requiring Shabanov to sign documents he could not read.

On April 4, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses Eldar Aliyev, Maryam Aliyeva, Elchin Bakirov, and Bahruz Kerimov in a civil case against the Mingechevir police department. The plaintiffs sought compensation of 500 manat each for the 2016 police raid on a prayer meeting in Mingachevir that they stated violated their religious freedom. On June 23, according to Forum 18, three police officers in Mingachevir tried to search the home of a Jehovah’s Witness where other Jehovah’s Witnesses had gathered. They took the names of those present, but when they tried to search the home without a warrant the homeowner refused to allow it. The officers left, saying they would return with a warrant, but did not.

On June 4, the Shirvan Court of Appeals upheld the April 16 verdict of the Sabirabad District Court that fined husband and wife Safqan Mammadov and Gulnar Mammadova 1,500 ($880) manat for holding an illegal religious gathering for minors in their home. The Baptist couple stated they held a secular New Year’s celebration for community children in their home, and that police interrupted the event and characterized it as a Christian meeting by a non-registered group, which would make it illegal.

Following the December 2018 police dispersal of a prayer meeting of Christians Samir Ismayilov, Ismat Azizov, and Jalil Rahimli, the Sheki District Court fined them 1,500 ($880) manat each in separate hearings December 19, 2018 and January 3 for violating an administrative code that prohibits “clergy and members of religious associations holding special meetings for children and young people, as well as organizing or holding by religious bodies of organized labor, literary, or other clubs and groups unassociated with holding religious ceremonies”.

On March 3, the SCWRA registered the Baku community of the Fire Christian Church. On July 11, the SCWRA registered the Baku Christian communities of Star in the East and Evangelical Christian Baptist Church.

During the year, the SCWRA registered 34 religious communities, of which 31 were Muslim and three Christian, compared to 90 religious communities registered in 2018, of which 86 were Muslim and four Christian. The total number of registered communities at the end of the year was 941, of which 35 were non-Muslim: 24 Christian, eight Jewish, two Baha’i, and one the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The SCWRA also reported 2,250 mosques, 14 churches, and seven synagogues were registered.

A March 16 presidential pardon that released a number of individuals considered political prisoners by human rights defenders included at least 16 religious activists, including 11 individuals arrested after a large police operation that targeted members of the Muslim Unity Movement in November 2015.

The SCWRA reported it continued to provide letters authorizing previously registered communities to operate, based on their pre-2009 registration. While the SCWRA continued to state the religious activities of these communities in locations not covered under their pre-2009 registration status were prohibited, it occasionally granted exceptions upon request, an authority the SCWRA said it could employ when necessary. Jehovah’s Witness and other communities have benefited from these letters.

According to an article in the online media outlet Eurasianet, women wearing hijabs faced discrimination in the public sector. Aynur Veyselova, a senior advisor at the State Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, stated in May that 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.

On May 24, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree allocating two million manat ($1,1800,00 ) to the CMB for the needs of Muslim communities, compared with one million manat ($590,000 in 2018) and 350,000 manat ($206,000) each to the Baku Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church and the religious community of Mountain Jews (250,000 manat – $147,000 in 2018). The decree also allocated 150,000 manat ($88,000) each to the European Jewish community, the Albanian-Udi community, and the Catholic Church of Baku (100,000 manat – $59,000 in 2018) and 100,000 manat ($59,000) to the Moral Values Promotion Foundation.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local experts on religious affairs and civil society representatives stated the country’s historical societal tolerance continued with regard to “traditional” minority religious groups such as Jews, Russian Orthodox, and Catholics, but many persons viewed groups considered “nontraditional,” such as Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, with suspicion and mistrust. For example, one Baptist leader stated common citizens, as well as police and local government officials, did not understand or trust his community.

Sevda Kamilova, a linguist, stated she interviewed with several international companies, but each time was asked if she would be willing to remove her headscarf while working.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to advocate the release of those they believed wrongly convicted of wrongdoing related to the July 2018 unrest in the city of Ganja. The Ambassador and embassy officers also pressed for the implementation of an alternative to military service for conscientious objectors, as stipulated in the constitution, and met with senior Cabinet of Ministers, SCWRA, and CMB officials to urge resolution of longstanding issues with the registration process for religious groups and other obstacles faced by religious minorities. For example, the Ambassador called on the country to continue promoting religious tolerance in a November 20 meeting with the CMB Head Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade.

The Ambassador and embassy officers continued to meet regularly with the leaders of registered and unregistered religious communities and with representatives of civil society to discuss issues related to religious freedom, including challenges in registration, raids and subsequent fines against nontraditional groups for holding “unauthorized” religious meetings, and the prohibition of publication of books deemed sensitive by the government.

On May 30, the Ambassador hosted an iftar for a community of internally displaced persons who benefited from U.S.-sponsored programs. Representatives of SCWRA, the CMB, the State Committee for Affairs of Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons and others also attended the event. The Ambassador’s remarks highlighted the importance of religious tolerance as a key element of religious freedom.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 1.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the government, there are approximately 689,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population. According to 2018 U.S. estimates, Muslims make up 73.7 percent of the total population, Christians 9.3 percent, Jews 0.1 percent, and others 16.9 percent (Hindus, Baha’is, Sikhs, and Buddhists).

The government does not publish statistics regarding the sectarian breakdown between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Most estimates from NGOs state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 60 percent) of the citizen population. Local sources estimate 99 percent of citizens are Muslim, while Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, and Jews together constitute the remaining 1 percent. According to Jewish community members, there are approximately 36 Jewish citizens, from six families, in the country.

Most of the foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Arab countries. Local government estimates report approximately 51 percent of foreign residents are Muslim, 31 percent Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is, and Sikhs, 17 percent Christians (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma from South India), and less than 1 percent Jewish.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage. The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.” The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as these do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed. All citizens have equal rights by law. According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith. The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public and private public sectors on grounds of religion or faith. The law also stipulates recourse through a complaint process to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) to legal bodies in the event of discrimination or dismissal in the work place on the basis of religion.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine,” and do not prejudice the unity of the people, or arouse discord or sectarianism.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”

Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs and Endowments (MOJIA) to operate. Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf, while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf. The MOJIA waqfs are endowment boards, which supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls. Non-Muslim groups must register with the MOLSD to operate. In order to register, a group must submit an official letter requesting registration; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses; and other information such as the group’s bylaws and bank account information. Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or the MOI, depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities. If any religious group organizes functions outside of its designated physical space without approval, it may be subject to government prosecution and a fine. The law prohibits activities falling outside of an organization’s charter. The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups, but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 Bahraini dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices, or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The Office of the Ombudsman, as part of the MOI, addresses the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the king with recommendations from the president of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs. The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites. According to the government, since August, MOJIA no longer funds endowment board members’ salaries. Endowment boards, like the remainder of MOJIA employees, now fall under the Civil Service Bureau, which is overseen by the crown prince-led Civil Service Council. Annually, the government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) to each endowment board. Tithes, income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations. The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

The government-run and -funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA) oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts. The council is comprised of a chairman, a deputy chairman, and 16 religious scholars, eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges. The king appoints all council members to a four-year term. Independent from other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships for advanced Islamic studies for low-income students. The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by the parliament to ensure the draft law’s compliance with sharia. The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers. The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs. The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.

The king has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials, including the prime minister. By law, construction of places of worship requires approvals from appropriate national and municipal authorities. The law permits non-Muslim houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises. Government entities involved in allocating building permits include the MOJIA for non-Islamic religious sites, either the Sunni Waqf or the Shia Waqf under the MOJIA for Islamic sites and the Survey and Land Registration Bureau, a stand-alone government entity. The construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, is based on a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area. The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system. The government funds public schools for grades 1-12; Islamic studies are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims. Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign funded and foreign operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE. Outside of school hours, both Muslim and non-Muslim students may engage in religious studies that the MOJ sponsors, as their parents deem fit.

According to the MOE, no particular school of jurisprudence forms the basis of the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum. In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence. According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded. The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas. There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad. The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.

According to the constitution, sharia forms a principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code. With regard to family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia. The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia. The personal status law states either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia with regard to family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce, shall govern depending on the religious affiliation of the party. Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case. The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract. Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court. Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates. Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination. Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries. It specifies the succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son. The royal family is Sunni.

The law prohibits individuals from being members of political societies or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations. Organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.

The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

The press reported on July 27 that the government executed two men, Ahmad al-Mullali and Ali Hakim al-Arab, both Shia citizens, for crimes related to the 2017 shooting of a police officer. Following the executions, Reuters reported that protests broke out in the country, including “several Shia villages and neighborhoods on the outskirts of the capital.”

The government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics and community members. The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance for the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics.

On January 29, authorities rearrested the chairman of the dissolved Ulama Council, Sheikh Majeed al-Meshaal, several hours after he was released from prison where he spent two-and-a-half years for holding an illegal gathering during the 2017 Diraz sit-in by supporters of senior Shia leader Isa Qassim. Al-Meshaal appeared before the Public Prosecutor on February 2 on charges of “inciting hatred against the regime.” On February 17, the Public Prosecutor extended his detention for an additional 15 days pending investigation. Authorities released him from detention on February 27. Al-Meshaal condemned the revocation of Qassim’s citizenship and called for witnesses in Qassim’s hometown of Diraz to speak out. On June 9, authorities banned al-Meshaal for an indeterminate period from delivering Friday sermons in the Diraz mosque for inciting hatred. According to an Iranian media source, in September the government barred al-Meshaal from overseas travel.

On June 11, authorities summoned Shia cleric Mulla Abbas al-Jaziri for inciting sectarian sedition but released him on the same day. Activists said al-Jaziri “was investigated over a religious event held in the holy month of Ramadan, on the martyrdom of Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb.”

On July 30, authorities placed Shia cleric Isaal al-Qaffas in solitary confinement in Jaw Prison for protesting the execution of Shia prisoners Ahmad al-Mullali and Ali Hakim al-Arab. In 2016 authorities arrested, convicted, and sentenced al-Qaffas to 10 years imprisonment for involvement with what the government referred to as the “Bahrain Hizballah terrorist organization.” In December the public prosecutor charged al-Qaffas with insulting the king and inciting hatred against the government.

Authorities summoned Shia cleric Mohammed Saleh al-Qashmaei for questioning on May 29 and released him the same day. Al-Qashmaei previously spent one year in prison before being released in 2018. The government also arrested his son and daughter “for harboring prisoners.” His son, Abul Fadhl, was serving 15 years in prison. His daughter was sentenced to five years in January 2018; her sentence was subsequently reduced to three years, and she was released on August 8.

According to press and NGOs, in March the criminal court sentenced 167 individuals out of 171 originially charged to prison terms ranging from six months to 10 years for their participation in the 2016 Diraz sit-in. In May the Supreme Court of Appeals reduced the longer, 10-year sentences, to seven years and six months in prison.

International and local NGOs reported police summoned approximately 25 individuals, including clerics, in the days leading up to and following the September 1-10 Ashura commemoration, the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar. Authorities reportedly summoned and interrogated these individuals “for the content of their sermons” and for “inciting sectarian hatred.” Police held some of them overnight; others were detained and released the same day; while others remained in custody for several days or weeks.

According to human rights NGOs, on July 28, authorities summoned Shia cleric Abdul Nabi al-Nashaba to the Qudaibiya police station in Manama. They arrested him upon arrival and brought him before the Public Prosecution on July 29, where he was ordered detained for 15 days pending an investigation of charges of “contempt of a sect.” Authorities remanded him to jail, releasing him in September with four other clerics: Isa al-Moaemen, Mulla Qassim Zain al-Dine, Mahmood al-Ajaimi, and Muneer Maatooq.

On June 1, the Court of Casssation, the country’s highest court of appeal, upheld life sentences for 55 detainees charged with belonging to the Dhul-Faqar Brigades terror cell.

On April 16, the High Criminal Court ruled on a case involving 169 Shia defendants whom the government accused of being members of the “Bahraini Hezbollah.” Of the 169 total defendants, 69 were sentenced to life in prison, 70 received sentences between five to 10 years in prison, and 30 were acquitted; 96 of the defendants were ordered to pay a 100,000 dinar ($265,000) fine. The court revoked the citizenship of 138 of the 169 defendants. On June 30, the Court of Appeals, at the direction of the king, overturned the revocation of citizenship of 92 of these individuals. Reuters reported the government denied deliberately targeting the Shia opposition, saying it was acting only to preserve national security.

On July 9, the High Criminal Court sentenced Shia cleric Mulla Mohammed al-Madhi to one year in prison for “insulting the companions of prophet Muhammed” in a sermon he delivered during Ramadan.

On August 4, the Public Prosecutor filed an urgent motion against Ali Mohammed Saeed Ali Jassim, a Sunni activist and member of the Unitary National Democratic Assemblage, for insulting Islam and blasphemy on social media. His case was referred to the criminal court for an urgent trial. On September 18, he was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison.

Media reported in January the Court of Cassation upheld life sentences against Ali Salman, former leader of Wifaq, and former Wifaq members of parliament (MPs) Hasan Ali Juma Sultan and Ali Mahdi Ali al-Aswad, for conspiring with Qatar to undermine the government. Wifaq is a banned political movement with strong links to the country’s Shia community. In 2018 an appeals court reversed a lower court’s acquittal and sentenced Salman, as well as Sultan al-Aswad, who were both tried in absentia, to life in prison for conspiring with Qatar. The UN Human Rights Office and international NGOs, including Amnesty International, said there were serious doubts whether the court proceedings respected the right to a fair trial. In a separate case, authorities previously sentenced Salman to four years imprisonment for “inciting hatred.”

According to the press, on August 21, a criminal court sentenced four individuals to seven years each in prison for belonging to the Al-Mukhtar Brigade, a Shia group that the government and the United Kingdom and some other countries have designated as a terrorist organization.

On August 30, a criminal court sentenced nine individuals (including two brothers) to five years in prison for belonging to an Iraqi Hizballah group.

The press reported in February that Isa Qassim, identified by media as the leading Shia cleric in the country whom the government allowed to travel to London in mid-2018 for medical treatment, announced his relocation to Iran. The government stripped Qassim of his citizenship in 2016 and held him under house arrest before permitting him to travel for required medical care overseas.

Several Shia clerics arrested in 2011 remained in prison at year’s end. They had been associated with the political opposition and were given sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred. Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.

On April 21, the king issued a decree reinstating the citizenship of 551 individuals previously convicted and stripped of their nationality in a series of mass trials. According to NGOs, there were 990 citizenship revocations in the country since 2012, including 180 during the year. The BBC reported that many of the individuals who lost their citizenship were human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and religious scholars. According to Reuters, activists said most of those covered by the decree were from Shia families. On September 18, Zainab Makki, originally arrested in 2017 for alleged membership in an Iranian-sponsored Shia terrorist group, reported that she has not been able to get her passport back following the king’s decree. Makki spent one year in jail on charges of harboring terrorists and hiding explosives in her house; she completed her sentence on March 29 and was released from prison.

According to the government, it generally permitted prisoners to practice their religion, but there were reports from Shia activists that restrictions imposed by prison authorities effectively denied prisoners access to religious services and prayer time. Bahrain Interfaith, an NGO focusing on religious rights and interfaith dialogue, reported Shia prisoners were “subjected to humiliation, persecution, ill treatment, and denial of [medical] treatment.” In August a large number of prisoners began a hunger strike in Jaw Prison to protest prison conditions, including the lack of health care. According to the state news agency, the Office of the Ombudsman conducted an investigation into the hunger strike following reports about the prisoners’ action in social media. Regarding prisoners’ requests to hold collective worship, the Ombudsman stated prison authorities had cited a requirement to “maintain order and to respect the religious beliefs of others.” The Office of the Ombudsman concluded that its investigation did not justify the filing of an official complaint with the government. The National Institute for Human Rights (NIHR), a quasi-governmental organization established by royal decree in 2016, visited Jaw Prison on August 18 and met with some of the individuals on hunger strike. NIHR released a statement saying that it was carefully following the issue to ensure “the health and safety of the inmates and their enjoyment of all their rights and freedoms” and said it would submit its observations and recommendations to the appropriate authorities.

On August 30, Jaw Prison authorities banned inmates from gathering in large groups to commemorate Ashura in the corridors, according to NGOs. The prison, however, allowed inmates to conduct observances in small groups in their cells from 8:00 to 9:00 each night.

The government continued not to provide regular statistics on detainees. The government reported that special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation. NIHR continued to state it had not received any cases of prisoners being subject to harassment or ill-treatment by prison guards due to their religious affiliation.

In February the head of the Jaafari Waqf sent a letter to King Hamad complaining about the interference of the MOJ in the work of the Jaafari Waqf. In May the MOJ referred to the National Audit Bureau a corruption case against the Jaafari Waqf. In June the king issued a decree appointing a new chairman and new members to the Jaafari Waqf.

The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public employees, members of parliament, or ministers. However, according to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 18 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 20 members were Sunni Muslims. Following parliamentary elections in 2018, sources suggested that of 40 seats on the Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia. None of the current members of parliament ran on an explicitly sectarian platform. Five of the 24 cabinet members, including one of the five deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

The government reported 596 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni community centers; authorities increased the number of licensed Shia places of worship to 754 mosques, while the number of ma’atams (Shia prayer houses, sometimes called husseiniyas in other countries) remained the same at 618. The government reported it granted 30 permits during the year to build Sunni mosques and an additional 30 permits to build Shia mosques and ma’atams. The government stated that determining whether a mosque would be Sunni or Shia in new housing developments depended on the needs and demographics of the new residents.

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons and to bring charges against clerics who repeatedly spoke on unapproved topics. The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse. According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds their actions jeopardized national security. The MOJIA reported reviewing sermons submitted to the government on a weekly basis by preachers. The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes. According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

The government continued to permit Shia groups to hold processions to commemorate Ashura and Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura, commemorating the death of Hussein) throughout the country, with the largest procession organized by a Shia community-led organization, the Manama Public Processions Commission. During the annual two-day public holiday for Ashura, most public schools and government offices were closed. The government permitted public reenactments of the death of Hussein and public marches in commemoration of Ashura. As in previous years, the MOI provided security for the processions, but again removed some Ashura flags, banners, and decorations from streets and private property in Shia villages but not at the large procession in Manama, according to Shia leaders. The NGO Bahrain Center for Human Rights reported “at least 17” instances involving police removal of Shia banners and signs. The government stated MOI personnel had removed the banners because they violated zoning restrictions or because they contained political messages.

According to press reporting, Minister of Interior Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa met with the head of the Jaafari Waqf and other Shia leaders prior to Ashura and told them, “the organizers of the religious rituals should control situations by not allowing the exploitation of … processions for goals far from the main reason for the occasion, such as holding slogans or images of religious or political personalities or foreign groups.” He reportedly said violation of MOI guidance was prohibited and would not be allowed. According to press reports, the minister stated that the role of authorities and Shia leaders was the protection of the privacy of the places of worship and to perform violation-free rituals.

On September 18, in an oral intervention at the UN Human Rights Council, an NGO representative stated, “MOI officials also play an important role in ongoing religious discrimination, arresting and detaining religious leaders and clerics during Ashura, interrupting religious processions, and harassing members of Bahrain’s Shia community during prayer times.”

The government continued to permit both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols. The MOI continued to provide security for large events held by religious communities, including non-Muslim ones. Security forces stated they continued to monitor religious gatherings and funerals to maintain peace and security.

According to the MOLSD’s official website, 19 non-Muslim religious groups were registered with the MOLSD: the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral and Awali Anglican Church, Full Gospel Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Church Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, and the Anglican and Episcopal Church in Bahrain. Additionally, non-Muslim, nonregistered groups include the Baha’i, Buddhist, and Jewish communities.

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications that were perceived to criticize Islam. According to non-Muslim religious groups, the government did not interfere with religious observances and encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions. In August the government announced that it would allow a large-scale renovation and extension of the Shri Krishna Hindu Temple in the Manama souq.

Authorities permitted some churches to build larger premises on a different location, but at year’s end, these churches had not received MOLSD’s final approval for the location of the new facilities. Government contacts reported that land scarcity was the reason for this delay.

There was no progress reported on the construction of a Coptic Orthodox church in Manama following the announcement in 2016 by the king that he would permit the construction of the church. Construction continued on a Catholic cathedral, intended to serve as headquarters for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which was scheduled for completion by mid-2021.

In April the Al-Wifaq opposition society reported 11 Shia mosques out of 30 mosques destroyed or damaged in 2011 had not been repaired or reconstructed. Others were transformed into public parks or completely removed. The MOJIA, however, reported in 2018 it had concluded reconstruction to the extent feasible of 27 of the 30 mosques destroyed or damaged in 2011, in compliance with the recommendations of an independent fact-finding commission. NGOs stated authorities did not allow the construction of new mosques in Rifaa and ma’atams in Hamad Town despite numerous requests from community members.

The government-run television station continued to air Friday sermons from the country’s largest Sunni mosque, Al Fateh Mosque, but not any sermons from Shia mosques.

According to the MOJ, officially registered organizers of Haj and Umrah pilgrimages needed to abide by strict rules to maintain their licenses. There were no reports by NGOs or in media of favoritism or discrimination regarding the allocation of Hajj visas to Sunni and Shia Muslims.

According to the law, Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence are eligible to apply for citizenship. The government stated that foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation. Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to say the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants. They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing while excluding Shia citizens from those forces. According to Shia community activists, this continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance among the country’s citizens.

According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to provide Sunni citizens preference for government positions, including as teachers, and especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service and military. They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses. They continued to report few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces. According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes continued to favor Sunni candidates. Other community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities. The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally. The government repeated public assurances affirming a policy of nondiscrimination in employment, promotions, and the provision of social and educational services. The MOLSD reported it organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods. The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the civil sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year. Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination, so they did not utilize them.

Two public schools provided more thorough religious instruction for students from elementary school through high school; the remainder of their curricula was consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools. The Jaafari Institute provided religious instruction in Shia Islam. The Religious Institute provided education in Sunni Islam.

The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students. There were five registered institutes, publicly funded and overseen by the Sunni Waqf, offering religious education for Sunnis. There were several dozen hawzas, six of them registered and authorized by the SCIA.

Human rights activists reported continued discrimination against Shia in education. Activists said interview panels for university scholarships continued to ask about students’ political views and family background with an intent to determine a history of opposition activity. The government said its scholarships remained competitive. Rights activists said many top scoring Shia applicants continued to receive scholarship offers in less lucrative or less prestigious fields. The government reported students were offered funding in particular fields based on the student’s grade point average. The government reported the flagship Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP) continued to have both Shia and Sunni representation, but it again did not provide a statistical breakdown. A list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools was published on the CPISP website. Some Shia business leaders reported that government officials had overturned decisions to deny scholarships to Shia students over concerns the decisions had been biased and did not reflect student merit. There were continued reports of the MOE’s refusal to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China. Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students.

The government continued to impose fines ranging from 50 to 400 dinars ($130-$1,100) for defacing the country’s passports. When announcing the fines in 2018, it stated that writing, tearing, or stamping a passport was illegal unless done by authorized immigration officials in the country or overseas. The NIHR stated the ban included any alterations by ministries, embassies, hotels, banks, or tourism agencies. Often tourism agencies, hotels, and other individuals at overseas religious sites placed stickers or wrote on the passports. Former Shia MP Ali al-Ateesh said the law targeted citizens for visiting [Shia] religious sites in Iran and Iraq, while those with unofficial markings from other destinations were not held accountable. Other MPs said the rule did not target sects, religious tours, individuals, or countries.

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations. The NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.

In 2018 the foreign minister announced the government planned to create a position of ambassador at large for peaceful coexistence and religious freedom; the position remained vacant at year’s end.

Press editorials and statements from government and religious leaders emphasized the importance of religious tolerance. Representatives of the King Hamad Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, led by a Board of Trustees comprised of representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities, met with governmental and religious groups in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, where they also met with government and civil society leaders. The center cohosted two roundtables on religious freedom in Manama on December 8 and 9. The December 8 roundtable was a partnership between the center and the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. The event held the following day, entitled “The Launch of Middle East and North Africa International Religious Freedom Roundtable,” was cohosted by the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, a U.S. NGO. Both events brought together representatives from a wide variety of religions, including Shia and Sunni Muslims, Coptic and evangelical Christians, Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jews. At the December 9 roundtable, King Hamad Centre Chairman Dr. Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa al-Khalifa sat next to the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar. NGOs later said they were concerned that Manama was the venue for the conference, given “the government’s longstanding refusal to respect religious freedom” and that the conference needed to be accompanied by “practical measures that prevent … sectarian-based discrimination … including policies that deprive the country’s Shiite[s] of their natural right to fully enjoy full Equal Citizenry.”

Local press again featured photographs of senior government officials, including the crown prince, visiting the Diwali festivities of several prominent Hindu families throughout the country.

Christian community leaders stated they continued to search for a suitable location for a new non-Islamic cemetery. While the government continued to work with them to identify a location, they did not identify a site during the year.

According to local media and community representatives, there were cremation facilities for the Hindu community. These facilities, however, were located outdoors and in the populated area of Buhair, and were the subject of complaints over health and environmental concerns from area residents for some time. On September 6, the Southern Municipal Council announced that Hindu cremation would be handled by a specialized company in indoor crematories. The cremations would take place in the Salmabad and Awali areas, far from residential areas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media. Posts stated that former Shia leaders were “traitors” and “Iranian servants,” used the hashtag “Iran Supports Sedition in Bahrain,” and displayed images of prominent Shia figures Ali Salman and Isa Qassim. Anti-Sunni commentary largely focused on characterizing individuals as “apologists” for the government and sometimes went as far as calling individuals “mercenaries.”

Non-Muslim religious community leaders reported there continued to be some Muslims who changed their religious affiliation, despite ongoing societal pressure not to do so, but those who did so remained unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.

NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported regional Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have an economic effect. Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities. Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.

Several Hindu and Sikh temples operated throughout the country. The Shri Krishna Hindu Temple was reportedly more than 200 years old and was occasionally visited by high-level government officials. The country was also home to a historic, although seldom used, Jewish synagogue. There were more than one dozen Christian churches, which included a 100-year-old evangelical Christian church and an 80-year-old Catholic church. There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.

According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam. Local news reports during the year featured activities of minority religious communities, including announcements of changes in leadership, Muslim bands performing at Christmas festivities, and sports events organized by the Sikh community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and other embassy representatives, met with senior government officials, including the foreign minister and minister of justice and Islamic affairs, to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities. U.S. officials both publicly and in private meetings continued to advocate for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Embassy staff attended the two roundtables focusing on religious freedom in Manama on December 8 and 9 that were hosted by the King Hamad Centre for Peaceful Coexistence, which cited the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington as the impetus behind these events.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it related to religious practices. These exchanges included the Ambassador’s meetings with Shi’a leaders during a visit to a ma’atam during the commemoration of Ashura in September. The Ambassador and embassy staff members visited various houses of worship and attended religious events during the year, including the observation of Ashura, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, and Diwali. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

The embassy continued to encourage the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability. The embassy also continued to support religious freedom through its online presence. On International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy tweeted, “In honor of National Religious Freedom Day we recognize the Bahraini government for their continued efforts in supporting an environment which fosters freedom of religion. #sharedvalue.”

Central African Republic

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equal protection under the law regardless of religion. It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism.” The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion. The government continued to exercise limited or no control or influence in most of the country. Police and the gendarmerie (military police) continued to fail to stop or punish abuses committed by armed groups, such as killings, physical abuse, and gender-based violence, including those based on religious affiliation, according to human rights organizations. In February the government and 14 of the country’s armed groups signed a peace agreement that included commitments to safeguard places of worship from violent attacks. In June the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2018 to investigate serious human rights violations and alleged war crimes, announced that three of the 29 investigations launched since its inception could lead to trials. In July the government signed a tripartite agreement with Cameroon and the United Nations to facilitate voluntary repatriation of 250,000 predominantly Muslim citizens living as refugees in Cameroon. In September the International Criminal Court (ICC) began pretrial hearings in the case of an anti-Balaka commander and member of parliament accused of war crimes, as well as a second anti-Balaka leader.

The predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka militia forces continued to occupy territories in the western and northern parts of the country, respectively, and sectarian clashes between them and Christian and Muslim populations continued. Government forces usually did not intervene to curtail the violence. In May members of the armed group 3R attacked villages in the northwest of the country, killing more than 50 civilians allegedly in retaliation for the death of a member of a Muslim ethnic minority group. The government called on the leader of the armed group, appointed to a government advisor position following the signing of the February peace accord, to hand over those responsible. On May 16, the 3R handed over to the government three commanders accused of the killings. At year’s end, they were detained in Bangui and awaiting trial. Also in May, an unknown assailant killed a 77-year-old nun. The motive for the killing remained unclear.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated that religion continued to be a primary feature dividing the population. Many Muslim communities remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely, either due to lack of protection from the government or because of intimidation by anti-Balaka units. During the year, the country’s top religious leaders remained united in their view that the violence in the country caused by the armed groups was based primarily on the desire to control territory for their economic gain. In May at the start of Ramadan, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, President of the Islamic Community in the country, called for the strengthening of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence of religious communities.

In meetings with President Faustin Touadera and other government officials, U.S. embassy representatives raised concerns about the government’s failure to safeguard religious freedom and advocated the safe voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their home communities. They encouraged the government representatives to implement outreach activities aimed at religious communities and publicly condemn attacks on religious structures and against religious groups. Embassy officials regularly engaged with religious leaders to listen to their concerns and issues, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga and other Christian leaders, imams, and members of the Coordinating Committee for Central African Muslim Organizations. In March the Ambassador hosted a roundtable for religious leaders designed to bridge gaps, strengthen relationships, and encourage freedom of religious choice and practice.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the Pew Research Foundation, the population is 61 percent Protestant, 28 percent Catholic, and 9 percent Muslim. Other religious groups, including traditional religious groups and those having no religious beliefs, make up an estimated 2 percent of the population. The NGO Oxfam estimates the percentage of Muslims, most of whom are Sunni, at up to 15 percent. Some Christians and Muslims incorporate aspects of indigenous religions in their religious practices.

In the central and southern regions of the country, Catholicism and Protestant Christianity are the dominant religions, while Islam is predominant in the northeast. In Bangui the majority of inhabitants in the PK5 and PK3 neighborhoods are Muslim, while other neighborhoods in the capital are predominantly Christian. The 2014 International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic reported a significant percentage of Muslims had fled to neighboring countries; their return during the year remained a slow process.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion under conditions set by law and equal protection under the law regardless of religion. It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism” but does not define these terms. The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion.

Religious groups, except for indigenous religious groups, are required to register with the Ministry of the Interior, Public Security, and Territorial Administration. To register, religious groups must prove they have a minimum of 1,000 members and their leaders have adequate religious education, as judged by the ministry. Indigenous religious groups may receive benefits and exemptions offered to registered groups regardless of their size.

The law permits the denial of registration to any religious group deemed offensive to public morals or likely to disturb social peace. It allows the suspension of registered religious groups if their activities are judged subversive by legal entities. There are no fees for registration as a religious organization. Registration confers official recognition and benefits, such as exemptions from customs tariffs for vehicles or equipment imported into the country. There are no penalties prescribed for groups that do not register.

The law does not prohibit religious instruction in public or private schools, but religious instruction is not part of the public-school curriculum.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government continued to exercise limited or no control or influence in most of the country. Police and the gendarmerie failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, including killings, physical abuse, religious- and gender-based violence, according to human rights organizations. The United Nations Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) remained the only force capable of maintaining security in much of the country, but according to most observers it remained hampered in its ability to protect civilians due to limited resources and personnel, as well as poor infrastructure impeding access to rural communities.

Because religion, ethnicity, and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as solely based on religious identity.

On February 6, the government and 14 of the country’s armed groups signed the Political Accord for Peace and Reconciliation (APPR), which was brokered by the African Union (AU) and supported by the United Nations. Among other commitments, armed groups agreed to refrain from acts of violence directed at places of worship.

In June President Touadera launched the first of seven public consultations on the creation of a Truth, Justice, Reparations, and Reconciliation Commission in support of the peace agreement.

In September the ICC began pretrial hearings in the case of Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, an anti-Balaka commander and member of parliament, and Patrice Edouard Ngaissona, also a senior leader of the anti-Balaka. At year’s end, both men were in ICC custody and stood accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including killings targeting Muslim civilians, deportation and torture of Muslims, and destruction of mosques. Victims and selected members of the public in the country viewed the proceedings streamed live from the ICC in The Hague.

The Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Reconciliation continued public service announcements via nationwide radio stations, reaffirming the government’s commitment to treat all citizens equally.

The government continued to observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as official but unpaid holidays, while Christian national holidays were paid holidays. President Touadera participated in an iftar with Muslim leaders at the Mosque of Lakouanga, in the 2nd District of Bangui, where he reiterated his previous year’s request for tolerance and urged the participants to find ways to live together and to seek “national harmony.” Imam Mahamat Said focused his remarks on the need for justice and mutual understanding.

In August the Ministry of Territorial Administration announced the closure of several places of worship in Bangui for failing to meet guidelines for recognition as legitimate religious organizations and for disruption of public order.

In June the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established in 2018 in Bangui to investigate serious human rights violations including genocide and alleged war crimes, some of which were related to religious identity, announced that three of the 29 investigations launched since its inception could lead to trials. The SCC did not release details of these cases, however, since investigations they deemed sensitive were still underway.

MINUSCA continued to support government-led local peace and reconciliation initiatives that aimed to improve relationships between Christians and Muslims. The efforts included public outreach and sensitization workshops. For example, in June local authorities and MINUSCA jointly established three local peace committees in the subprefectures of Gambo, Pombolo, and Ngandou. The committees of 13 leaders in each community were tasked with sensitizing their communities to the Peace and Reconciliation Agreement and promoting social cohesion, peaceful coexistence, and the nonviolent settlement of conflicts. Observers continued to state that these initiatives helped counter inflammatory rhetoric and dispel rumors, and public meetings held under the auspices of the initiative helped to reassure vulnerable communities of their safety.

In March, 13 Muslim families departed the IDP camp in Bangassou and resettled in their original villages.

In July the government signed a tripartite agreement with Cameroon and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of 250,000 citizens living as refugees in Cameroon. According to UNHCR, approximately 2,800 refugees, the majority Muslim, expressed a desire to return to their home country.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs reported religion continued to be a primary feature dividing the population. Many Muslim communities remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely.

Religious leaders generally avoided characterizing the ongoing conflicts as religiously based. Instead, they identified political and economic power struggles and foreign influence as the root causes. In May Bishop Nestor Nongo-Aziagbia, president of the country’s Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said the country was in the grips of a political, not a religious, conflict and pointed to economic exploitation as a significant driver of the conflict. He said that Christians and Muslims were working together for peace in a number of distressed regions of the country. In May at the start of Ramadan, Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Community in the Central African Republic, called for the strengthening of social cohesion and peaceful coexistence of religious communities.

The Platform for Religious Confessions in Central Africa (PCRC) continued its efforts to promote interfaith dialogue throughout the country. In January its Muslim founder and representative, Imam Omar Kobine, reaffirmed the role of the PCRC in working to reduce violence and promote reconciliation in the country.

During the year, Radio Sewa FM, a community radio station dedicated to promoting interfaith dialogue, broadcast programs aimed at both Muslim and Christian communities in PK5 and PK3. Based in PK5, the station was founded by a local NGO in 2017 with the goal of promoting interfaith dialogue.

Muslims continued to report social discrimination and marginalization, including difficulties accessing identification documents, and security concerns, which hampered their inability to move freely throughout the country.

According to religious leaders, Muslims throughout the country faced challenges within their communities because of ethnic differences, such as Muslims of Arab and Peulh (Fulani) ethnicity. For example, observers said some Muslims of Arab descent considered themselves superior to Muslims of other ethnicities and that Muslims who converted from Christianity were frequently ostracized among the Muslim population. The sources also stated these converts were often prevented from living in and interacting with some Muslim communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with President Touadera and other government officials, embassy representatives raised concerns about religious freedom and the safe voluntary return of refugees and IDPs to their home communities. They encouraged the government representatives to implement outreach activities directed at religious communities and publicly condemn attacks on religious structures and against religious groups. They also called on the government to provide security for all citizens, regardless of faith.

Embassy officials regularly engaged with religious leaders, including Cardinal Nzapalainga, other Christian leaders, imams, and representatives of the Coordinating Committee for Central African Muslim Organizations, on issues related to religious freedom and reconciliation and explored opportunities to broaden their access and dialogue with elected officials.

The embassy continued to fund a consortium formed to build up the capacity of the Platform of Religious Confessions to bolster its role in promoting social cohesion, including reconciliation between religious communities.

In March the Ambassador hosted a roundtable for Christian and Muslim leaders at her residence. She encouraged open dialogue and explored solutions to bridge gaps, strengthen relationships, and encourage freedom of religious choice and practice.

In March and August embassy officials visited IDP camps in Bangassou and Bambari, where they discussed ways to improve security and freedom to ensure peaceful practice of religion.

In August embassy officials recognized the end of Ramadan with the presentation of foodstuffs to three Muslim communities. Participants in the ceremonies included imams, Muslim female community leaders, and more than 150 observers. Embassy officials emphasized a message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity, stressing the need for peace and asking guests to continue the spirit of coexistence that marked the day.

The embassy sponsored the participation of a Muslim community activist from the PK5 neighborhood in an exchange program in the United States focusing on women in peace and security.

Chad

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the state as secular and affirms the separation of religion and state. It provides for freedom of religion and equality before the law without distinction as to religion. It prohibits “denominational propaganda” that inhibits national unity. The government maintained its ban on the leading Wahhabi association, but media stated that enforcement of the ban was difficult. Those practicing this interpretation of Islam continued to meet and worship in their own mosques. Religious groups and civil society continued to express concern about the required oath of office, stating it was contrary to the secular nature of the state and excluded Christians.

On National Prayer Day, December 2, religious leaders, including the secretary general of the Chadian Evangelical Umbrella Organization (EEMET), the Catholic Archbishop of N’Djamena, and the head of the High Council for Islamic Affairs (HCIA), publicly stated they supported the necessity of peaceful coexistence.

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar on May 30 for religious leaders, including Muslim, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i representatives, and government officials. Participants discussed religious freedom and tolerance in the country. During the year, the Charge and other U.S. embassy representatives maintained a dialogue with Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Protestant leaders on religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the most recent census, in 2014-15, 52.1 percent of the population is Muslim, 23.9 percent Protestant, 20 percent Roman Catholic, 0.3 percent animist, 0.2 percent other Christian, 2.8 percent no religion, and 0.7 percent unspecified. Most Muslims adhere to the Sufi Tijaniyah tradition. A small minority hold beliefs associated with Wahhabism or Salafism. The majority of Protestants are evangelical Christians. There are small numbers of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Most northerners practice Islam, and most southerners practice Christianity or indigenous religions; religious distribution is mixed in urban areas, and indigenous religions are often practiced to some degree along with Islam and Christianity.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes the state as secular and affirms the separation of religion and state. The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equality before the law without distinction as to religion. These rights may be regulated by law and may be limited by law only to ensure mutual respect for the rights of others and for the “imperative” of safeguarding public order and good morals. It prohibits “denominational propaganda” that infringes on national unity or the secular nature of the state.

The constitution requires an oath of office for ministers “according to the denominational formula stated by the law.” The law states that directors and secretaries general and above must take an oath under “under God” or “under Allah.”

Under the law, all associations, religious or otherwise, must register with the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralized Territorial Collectivities. The associations must provide a list of all the founding members and their positions in the organization, founders’ resumes, copies of the founders’ identification cards, minutes of the establishment meetings, a letter to the minister requesting registration, principal source of the organization’s revenue, address of the organization, a copy of its rules and procedures, and statutory documents of the organization. The ministry conducts background checks on every founding member and establishes a six-month temporary, but renewable, authorization to operate, pending final authorization and approval. Failure to register with the ministry means that organizations are not considered legal entities and may not open bank accounts or enter into contracts; it may also lead to the banning of a group. Group founders or board members may be subject to one month to a year in prison and a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 CFA francs ($86 to $860). Registration does not confer tax preferences or other benefits.

Burqas, defined by ministerial notice as any garment where one sees only the eyes, are forbidden by ministerial decree. The ministerial notice also applies to niqabs, although this reportedly is not enforced.

The constitution states public education shall be secular. The government prohibits religious instruction in public schools but permits religious groups to operate private schools, and there are numerous schools operated by Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants.

The government-created HCIA continues to oversee Islamic religious activities, including some Arabic language schools and institutions of higher learning, and represents the country at international Islamic forums. The government approves those nominated by members of the HCIA to serve on the council. Wahhabis are not officially represented on the council and are banned by the government. The Grand Imam of N’Djamena, who is selected by a committee of Muslim elders and approved by the government, is the de facto president of the HCIA and oversees the grand imams from each of the country’s 23 regions. He has the authority to restrict Muslim groups from proselytizing, regulate the content of mosque sermons, and control activities of Islamic charities. In practice, he does not regulate sermons.

The constitution states military service is obligatory and prohibits invoking religious belief to “avoid an obligation dictated by the national interest.” The government does not enforce conscription, however.

The Office of the Director of Religious and Traditional Affairs under the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralized Territorial Collectivities oversees religious matters. The office is responsible for mediating intercommunal conflict, reporting on religious practices, coordinating religious pilgrimages, and ensuring religious freedom.

According to regulations of the College of Control and Monitoring of Oil Revenues, the government board that oversees the distribution of oil revenues, Muslim and Christian leaders share a rotational position on the board. The position is held for three years and may be renewed only once.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government maintained its ban on the leading Wahhabi group, Ansar-al Sunna; however, enforcement was difficult, according to civil rights organizations, and adherents continued to meet and worship in their own mosques. They also continued to receive revenue through their leaders or from individuals, according to media.

The government continued to require ministers and some government officials, including deans of universities and senior civil servants, to take an oath of office on a religious text. Civil society and religious groups continued to express concern about the oath of office, some on grounds it was contrary to the secular nature of the state and others because they said it excluded Christians. Some Christian groups reportedly began a petition to have the oath requirement removed from the constitution, according to media reports. In April the EEMET hosted a conference to explain its opposition to the oath of office. The organization said the oath directly contradicted the article of the constitution affirming the country as a secular state, and also the article assuring “equality before the law without distinction as to origin, race, gender, religion, public opinion, or social position.”

The government continued to deploy security forces around both Islamic and Christian places of worship, in particular on Fridays around mosques and Sundays around churches, as well as other occasions for religious events.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Religious leaders continued to raise awareness of the risks of terrorist attacks, which continued throughout the year, and to advocate for continued additional security in places of worship. There were no reports of terrorist attacks against places of worship, although police continued to provide security during ceremonies.

The Regional Forum on Interfaith Dialogue, comprising representatives of evangelical Protestant churches, the Catholic Church, and the Islamic community, met regularly. In December on National Prayer Day, they publicly reiterated their commitment to educate their respective groups on the necessity of peaceful coexistence.

Muslims and Christians commonly attended each other’s major ceremonies, celebrations, and inaugurations of community leaders and underlined the importance of interfaith dialogue and cooperation in public statements. In December at the National Day of Prayer, Grand Imam and HCIA President Sheikh Mahamat Khatir Issa stressed the role of religious leaders in maintaining and promoting peace in the country. EEMET, the largest Protestant association in the country, said in statements to media in December that interfaith cooperation was important and that it appreciated efforts by HCIA leaders to promote interfaith dialogue. Archbishop of N’Djamena Edmond Djitangar Goetbe said there was an openness to dialogue among all faith groups but the country’s Regional Forum on Interfaith Dialogue did not live up to its potential due to its weak organizational structure.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires met with Ministry of Territorial Administration officials and discussed shared support to maintain the country’s religiously diverse space for dialogue and coexistence.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy representatives met with the Grand Imam of N’Djamena and with Catholic, Protestant, and Baha’i leaders to monitor and promote religious freedom and tolerance, as well as to discuss efforts to counter extremist messages related to religion. Embassy officials continued to discuss religious tolerance with imams during meetings and in training sessions and workshops

The Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar on May 30, attended by 70 religious leaders, including Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i representatives, and government officials. At the iftar, attendees discussed religious freedom and tolerance in the country.

Embassy officials continued to discuss religious tolerance with imams during meetings and in training sessions and workshops. The leader of a prominent U.S. Muslim organization invited to the country by the embassy addressed local audiences about tolerance and religious freedom. The embassy used social media platforms to highlight activities and amplify messages promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. Relations between the government and religious organizations markedly improved in 2019, following the inauguration of President Felix Tshisekedi in January, according to media reports. In contrast to the previous year, there were no reports of government repression or intimidation of religious organizations engaged in political activities.

Antigovernment militia members targeted churches and church property in the North Kivu and Ituri Provinces, where armed groups remain active. Local media reported that on June 5, armed militia members kidnapped Father Luc Adelar Alecho, a Catholic priest in Ituri Province. The militants allegedly reproached him for his homilies urging his congregation to reject armed groups before letting him go. Local leaders in the northern part of the country expressed concern over the presence of the nomadic Muslim Mbororo cattle herder communities. Some leaders described their migration as an “Islamic invasion.” Clashes between Mbororo and local populations resulted in several deaths in Upper and Lower Uele Provinces throughout the year. In addition to religious differences, observers stated there were also economic and political concerns linked to the conflict, and for that reason it was difficult to categorize these acts as solely based on religious belief.

U.S. embassy officers met with officials in the Ministries of Justice, Human Rights, and Interior to discuss religious freedom issues, including government relations with religious organizations. Embassy officials also met regularly with religious leaders and human rights organizations and discussed relations with the government, their concerns about abuses of civil liberties, and the safety of religious leaders in the country’s conflict-affected areas.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 87.3 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The Pew Research Center estimates 95.8 percent of the population is Christian, 1.5 percent Muslim, and 1.8 percent report no religious affiliation (2010 estimate). Of Christians, 48.1 percent are Protestant, including evangelical Christians and the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth through the Prophet Simon Kimbangu (Kimbanguist), and 47.3 percent Catholic. Other Christian groups include the Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Greek Orthodox Church. There are small communities of Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and followers of indigenous religious beliefs. Muslim leaders estimate their community to comprise approximately 5 percent of the population.

A significant portion of the population combines traditional beliefs and practices with Christianity or other religious beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of religion and the right to worship subject to “compliance with the law, public order, public morality, and the rights of others.” It stipulates the right to religious freedom may not be abrogated even when the government declares a state of emergency or siege.

The law regulates the establishment and operation of religious groups. According to law, the government may legally recognize, suspend recognition of, or dissolve religious groups. The government grants tax-exempt status to recognized religious groups. Nonprofit organizations, including foreign and domestic religious groups, must register with the government to obtain official recognition by submitting a copy of their bylaws and constitution. Religious groups must register only once for the group as a whole, but nonprofit organizations affiliated with a religious group must register separately. Upon receiving a submission, the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) issues a provisional approval and, within six months, a permanent approval or rejection. Unless the MOJ specifically rejects the application, the group is considered approved and registered after six months even if the ministry has not issued a final determination. Applications from international headquarters of religious organizations must be approved by the presidency after submission through the MOJ. The law requires officially recognized religious groups to operate as nonprofits and respect the general public order. It also permits religious groups to establish places of worship and train clergy. The law prescribes penalties of up to two years’ imprisonment, a fine of 200,000 Congolese francs ($120), or both for groups that are not properly registered, but receive gifts and donations on behalf of a church or other religious organization.

The constitution permits public schools to work with religious authorities to provide religious education to students in accordance with students’ religious beliefs if parents request it. Public schools with religious institution guardianship may provide religious instruction. Government-owned schools may not mandate religious instruction, but offer religion as a subject.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Following the inauguration of Felix Tshisekedi as president in January, relations between the government and religious communities improved, according to the media and religious leaders. Unlike the year prior, there were no reports of acts of violence or intimidation against Catholic Church officials by the government. In March the government freed several political prisoners from the Catholic Lay Community (CLC) who had been arrested in 2018 for leading protests, which nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and others had called an arbitrary action. Other CLC activists, including Leonnie Kandolo, who spent a year in hiding after organizing protests in support of elections in early January and February 2018, stated in January that their freedom of speech had returned with the inauguration of Tshisekedi.

The MOJ again did not issue any final registration permits for religious groups, and had not done so since 2014. An MOJ internal audit reportedly focused on fraudulent registration practices remained incomplete at year’s end and was cited by some observers as an obstacle to the resumption of registration issuances. The government, however, continued its practice that groups presumed to have been approved were permitted to operate. Unregistered domestic religious groups reported they continued to operate unhindered. The MOJ previously estimated that more than 2,000 registration applications for both religious and nonreligious NGOs remained pending and that more than 3,500 associations with no legal authorization continued to operate. Foreign-based religious groups reported they operated without restriction after applying for legal status. Under existing law, which was under review, nonprofit organizations could operate as legal entities by default if a government ministry gave a favorable opinion of their application and the government did not object to their application for status. According to 2015 registration statistics, the latest year for which the MOJ had statistics, there were 14,568 legally registered nonprofit organizations, 11,119 legal religious nonprofit organizations, and 1,073 foreign nonprofit organizations. Religious nonprofits that were legally operating and registered included 404 Catholic, 93 Protestant, 54 Muslim, and 1,322 evangelical nonprofits, the latter including those belonging to the Kimbangu Church.

Muslim community leaders again said the government did not afford them some of the same privileges as larger religious groups. The government continued to deny Muslims the opportunity to provide chaplains for Muslims in the military, police force, and hospitals, despite a complaint filed in 2015 with the then-president and his cabinet.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Illegal armed groups operating in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri in the eastern part of the country occasionally targeted church leaders. Local media reported that on June 5, armed militia members kidnapped Father Luc Adelar Alecho, a priest and the administrator of the Catholic parish of Marie Reine de Jiba, in Ituri Province’s Welendu Ptisi Sector. The reports stated that the militants reproached him for his homilies urging his congregation to reject armed groups before letting him go.

Some religious leaders reported continued tensions between Christian and Muslim communities in the north. Local leaders expressed concerns that the nomadic Muslim Mbororo herder population was part of an “Islamic invasion” of the country. Sporadic violence between local communities and the Mbororo in Upper and Lower Uele Provinces throughout the year resulted in several deaths. In addition to religious differences, observers stated there were also economic and political concerns linked to the conflict and for that reason it was difficult to categorize these acts as solely based on religious belief.

In April ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks against a government military base that were carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group long-operating in North Kivu Province that proclaimed allegiance to ISIS in 2017 and was publicly recognized by ISIS as an affiliate in late 2018. In conjunction with the April claim of responsibility, ISIS announced the establishment of a new wilayat (province), ISIS–Central Africa. According to civil society sources in the eastern part of the country, these statements highlighted ADF’s desire to promote a strict brand of Islam in the overwhelmingly Christian region of the Great Lakes. Local Christian and Muslim leaders, with vocal support from the government, condemned ADF’s actions.

Leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported generally positive relations with individuals from other religious groups but noted that 27 cases of assault on or suspected killings of Jehovah’s Witnesses dating from as early as 2015 continued to languish in the court system or were never sent to court for criminal prosecution after the arrests of suspects. They also reported five assaults during the year that they stated were due to their religious beliefs in rural areas of Kwilu, South Kivu, and Sankuru Provinces.

Muslim leaders said that Christian groups sometimes failed to include them in intercommunal dialogues.

During the year, the Anglican Church reported that it was attempting to leave the Church of Christ in Congo, (ECC) a union of more than 70 Protestant denominations, in order to have the ability to act more independently.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with official in the Ministries of Justice, Human Rights, and the Interior to discuss religious freedom issues, including government relations with religious organizations. Embassy officials also regularly urged the government, security force leaders, and community and political leaders to refrain from violence and respect the rights of civil society, including religious groups, to assemble and express themselves freely.

Throughout the year, embassy and Washington-based U.S. officials engaged with members of religious groups and human rights organizations. In meetings and discussions with members of the Muslim Association of Congo, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic nunciature, and Jewish Community of Chabad-Lubavitch of Central Africa, U.S. officials discussed religious groups’ ability to operate within the country, their relationship with the government and other religious organizations, and their freedom to worship and express their religion as they saw fit.

Djibouti

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but mandates equality for persons of all faiths. The government maintained its authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including assets and personnel of all mosques. Non-Muslim groups register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which conducts lengthy background checks as part of the registration process. The government continued to implement a decree for state control of mosques, and the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs’ High Islamic Council closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons. The ministry did not take any disciplinary action against imams deemed extremist. In September the government began to introduce the new mandatory Civic and Moral Education curriculum, based on Islam, in public schools across the country.

Norms and customs continued to discourage conversion from Islam. Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

In April the Ambassador hosted a lunch to connect religious leaders with their counterparts of different faiths. U.S. embassy officials met regularly with religious minority leaders to discuss equitable treatment of religious groups by the government.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 903,000 (midyear 2019 estimate), of which 94 percent is Sunni Muslim. According to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Shia Muslims, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is, and atheists constitute the remaining 6 percent. Non-Muslims are generally foreign-born citizens and expatriates, highly concentrated in Djibouti City.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the registered refugee population at 30,000, of whom 44 percent are from Somalia, 36 percent from Ethiopia, 17 percent from Yemen, and 3 percent from Eritrea. Refugees are both Muslim and non-Muslim, but no data exists on their religious breakdown.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Islam is the religion of the state, according to the constitution. The constitution mandates the government respect all faiths and guarantees equality before the law, regardless of one’s religion. The law does not impose sanctions on those who do not observe Islamic teachings or who practice other religious beliefs. The constitution prohibits religiously based political parties.

It is illegal for any faith to proselytize in public.

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs has authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including mosques, religious events, and private Islamic schools. The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education jointly oversee the school curricula and teacher certification of approximately 40 Islamic schools. The public school system is secular. Private schools run by religious organizations have the option to offer civic education courses based on Islam.

The president swears an Islamic religious oath.

Muslims may bring personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance either to family courts, whose code includes elements of civil and Islamic law, or to civil courts. Civil courts address the same matters for non-Muslims. Citizens are officially considered Muslims if they do not specifically identify with another religious group. The family courts, referred to as sharia courts, have two stages. The complainant first brings their grievance to the neighborhood council (Qadi), which either issues a judgment or transmits the case to the family court. If the complainant is not satisfied with the decision of the Qadi or the family court, he or she may appeal to the court of first instance of the family court or the supreme Sharia Council.

The government requires all foreign and domestic non-Muslim religious groups to register by submitting an application to the Ministry of Interior, which conducts a lengthy background investigation of the group. The investigation reviews group leadership, religious affiliation, sources of finance, and the group’s objectives within the country. Ties to religious groups considered extremist, strong political agendas, and relations with unfriendly foreign nations are factors that could cause a group’s application to be rejected. Domestic and foreign Muslim religious groups must inform the High Islamic Council at the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs of their existence and intent to operate. Muslim and non-Muslim foreign religious groups must also gain approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to operate in the country. Once approved, every foreign religious group signs a one-year agreement detailing the scope of its activities. Foreign religious groups must submit quarterly reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and renew their agreements every year. The quarterly report details activities, origin of funding for activities, and scope of work completed, and it identifies beneficiaries. Non-Muslim religious groups may not operate in the interim while awaiting registration.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The country has declared a reservation regarding proselytizing in open public spaces.

Government Practices

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs continued its efforts to implement a 2014 decree executing a law on state control of mosques, which converted the status of imams, including refugee imams, to civil service employees of the ministry and transferred ownership of mosque properties and other assets to the government. The government completed implementation of the decree for all mosques in Djibouti City but had not done so in outlying regions due to financial constraints. In July the government announced its intention to give all registered religious leaders utilities subsidies for water and electricity. In August government officials reiterated a decree aimed at eliminating political activity from mosques, providing greater government oversight of mosque assets and activities, and countering foreign influence. Although imams remained under the direction of the government, mosques’ properties continued to be controlled by individual congregations, since the government department designated to manage these assets still was not operational. The ministry’s High Islamic Council continued to send instructions on and closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons. The ministry disciplined one imam for criticizing the government over a salary dispute. During the year, however, the ministry reported no cases involving polarizing or political speech from imams, unlike the previous year.

The government continued to permit registered non-Islamic groups, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox churches, to operate freely, according to Christian leaders. Religious signage was permitted at the Catholic Church. Muslim citizens were permitted to enter Christian churches, although societal pressure discouraged conversion. There were no limitations on the importation of religious literature for registered non-Islamic groups. No other Christian groups and no non-Christian groups had legal recognition from the government. The government subsidized the cost of utilities at some church properties of registered non-Islamic groups, since it considered some church properties to be part of the national patrimony. Religious groups not registered with the government, such as Ethiopian Protestant and non-Sunni Muslim congregations, operated under the auspices of registered groups. Smaller groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’is, were not registered with the government but operated privately without incident, according to Christian leaders. Observers stated these groups and other religious minorities hosted worship gatherings in private housing and usually at night, in part because of reduced police presence at that time. The groups coordinated loosely with the country’s security forces, which continued to impose curfews and noise restrictions.

The government continued to allow non-Islamic religious groups to host events and proselytize on the groups’ private property; in practice, groups refrained from proselytizing in public spaces, such as hotels or street corners, due to cultural sensitivities and the threat of government intervention. Government officials noted that any violation of the law forbidding public proselytizing would summon the police. The government continued to permit a limited number of Christian missionaries to sell religious books and pamphlets at a bookstore in Djibouti City.

The government continued to issue visas to foreign Islamic and non-Islamic clergy and missionaries but required they belong to registered religious groups before they could work in the country or operate nongovernmental organizations. The government required foreign religious leaders to regularize their status by purchasing a residency card for 24,000 Djiboutian francs ($140).

Local public schools continued to observe only Islamic holidays, but under the direction of the Ministry of Education, schools in refugee camps continued to permit students of other religious groups to miss class for their respective religious holidays. The ministry continued work on revising the national curriculum, including reforming civic and moral education courses to promote religious inclusivity.

In September the government began to introduce the new mandatory Civic and Moral Education curriculum, based on Islam, in public schools across the country.

In July the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs organized logistics for 1,500 individuals to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca. As part of the official mandate, the ministry applied for visas, gathered information for health cards, including arranging vaccination appointments, and coordinated with travel agencies to organize food and lodging.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Societal norms and customs discouraged conversion from Islam, but conversions reportedly occurred, particularly for marriages with non-Muslim partners. Christian groups reported continued discrimination in employment and education against converts to Christianity who changed their names. Non-Muslims reportedly hid their religious status for increased job options and societal acceptance. Both Muslim and Christian leaders acknowledged conversion from Islam was detrimental to a person’s social status; Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with Ministry of Education and Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs representatives to ensure that religious minorities within refugee camps would continue to be allowed to observe their respective holidays.

The Ambassador hosted three iftars, two in Djibouti City and one in Obock, to highlight religious plurality and religious diversity. The embassy again welcomed a U.S. military Muslim chaplain as a special guest to speak on the importance of religious tolerance.

In October and November in connection with International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy shared a series of stories from survivors of religious persecution on its Facebook page to highlight the importance of religious tolerance.

In April the Ambassador hosted a lunch to connect religious leaders with their counterparts of different faiths. Attendees represented the Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox faith communities. The leaders discussed areas for mutual understanding and greater collaboration.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution states citizens “are equal before the Law,” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.” The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.” The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship. In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in 2017. In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prisons terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in a suburb south of Cairo. On February 9, authorities arrested Muslim students at Al-Azhar for posting video footage mocking Christian religious practices. Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 814 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings, bringing the cumulative total to 1412 of 5,415 applications for licensure. In April the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the Anba Karas Church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. Local authorities continued to periodically rely on customary reconciliation sessions instead of the official judicial system to resolve sectarian disputes. In April security officials closed a church in the Upper Egyptian village of Nagib in response to threats of an attack by Muslim villagers. In November Christians in the Upper Egyptian village of Hgara were directed to rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village following a customary reconciliation session related to a dispute with the local Muslim population. According to an international NGO, there were no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyahs) or houses of worship in the country. The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications for Sunni imams and to register and license all mosques. On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi.

On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat to the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian based on his religious affiliation at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in Northern Sinai on January 17. His fate was unknown at year’s end. In January a religious sheikh at a mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City, Cairo, to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police later discovered an improvised explosive device (IED). One police officer died and two others were injured as they attempted to defuse the bomb. Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019. According to human rights groups and religious communities, discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports. Of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian. Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.

U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, Ambassador, and former Charge d’Affaires, as well as visiting senior-level delegations from Washington and embassy representatives and officials of the former consulate general in Alexandria met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law. In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 101.8 million (midyear 2019 estimate). Most experts and media sources state that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and approximately 10 percent is Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent). Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population and include Anglican/Episcopalian and other Protestant denominations, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches. The Protestant community includes Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (Al-Mithaal Al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (Al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (Al-Kiraaza bil Ingil), Grace (An-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (Ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-day Adventist. Jehovah’s Witnesses account for 1,000-1,500 persons, according to media estimates, and there are also an estimated 150 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates. Christians reside throughout the country, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population. Baha’i representatives estimate the size of the community to be between 1,000 and 2,000. There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and expatriate members of various groups.

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are six to 10 Jews. There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation. The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and, “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime. It describes freedom of belief as absolute. The constitution limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world. The grand imam is elected by Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the president for a life term. The president does not have the authority to dismiss him. While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 16 billion Egyptian pounds ($1 billion).

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the grand mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out. The mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the death sentence.

The constitution also stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their respective personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders. Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.), depending upon their official religious designation. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) issues national identity cards that include official religious designations. Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens. Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash. The minister of interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize. The law states individuals may change their religion; however, the government recognizes conversion to Islam but not from Islam to any other religion. In a 2008 ruling on a lawsuit against the government for not recognizing a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the government, stating its duty to “protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam.” The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI decree pursuant to a court order. Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints. After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation. In those cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims. When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam. Christian and Jewish women need not convert to marry Muslim men. A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert. A woman in this situation can continue to live with her husband until she has a legal need to prove her marriage, at which time the marriage may be considered void. If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved. Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance. In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating the rules of the Christians and Jewish communities govern in personal status matters.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife, demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, and harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims): the Al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the Al-Azhar Islamic Research Center, the Dar Al Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s General Fatwa Directorate. Previously part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar Al Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature. To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to MOI’s Religious Affairs Department. The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace. As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar. The president then reviews and decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities. Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ activities. The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government appoints and monitors imams, who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries. According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or Al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,100). The penalty doubles for repeat offenders. Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law. A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines. Any imam who does not follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including losing his preaching license. The ministry also issues prewritten sermons as an obligatory guide for imams to draw from, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques. Imams are subject to disciplinary action, including dismissal, for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

The prime minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.” Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art. The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace. The Islamic Research Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates rather than the president. The governor is required to respond within four months of receipt of the application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification. The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor does not respond within the required timeframe. The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches. It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented. Under the law, the size of new churches depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area. Construction of new churches must meet stringent land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf approves permits to build mosques. A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1900 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.” The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam,” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades. Determinations of religious identity are based on official designations, not personal or parental decisions. Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other. A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including Christian-owned schools. Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves approximately two million students from elementary through secondary school, using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to…religion or belief.” The law stipulates imprisonment and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) as penalties for discrimination. If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months, and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,100) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,300)

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates modern judicial and legal systems. Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions. Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church formed the Family House (Beit Al-A’ila) in 2011 to address sectarian disputes through communal reconciliation. With Family House branches throughout the country, Al-Azhar, the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other Christian denominations convene opposing parties to a sectarian dispute with the goal of restoring communal peace through dialogue. The Family House, however, is not uniformly active. Sources say in some areas, such as Assiut, the Family House is quite active, while in others, such as Cairo, it has become inactive.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric. Since the state does not recognize Baha’i marriage, married Baha’is are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence. Baha’is, in practice, file individual demands for recognition of marriages in civil court.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws. In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program entitled “Alternative Family,” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain requirements are met.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom. It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights. The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of violations of religious freedom.

According to the constitution, “No political activity may be exercised or political parties formed on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location, nor may any activity be practiced that is hostile to democracy, secretive, or which possesses a military or quasi-military nature.”

The constitution mandates the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament. However, by year’s end, parliament still had not yet established such a commission.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

In December the Prisons Authority carried out the death sentence of Ibrahim Ismail, who was convicted in April of killing eight Christians and a policeman in December 2017.

In May the Supreme Court of Military Appeals upheld 17 of 36 death sentences that an Alexandria military court issued for the bombings of Coptic churches between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 persons. The court commuted the sentences of 19 other defendants to life imprisonment, eight to 15 years, and another to 10 years. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and said the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In May the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced two defendants to death, two to life imprisonment, and six others to prison terms ranging from three to six years for killing 11 persons in December 2017 in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.

On July 1, the Court of Cassation upheld a death sentence issued against a suspect convicted of killing two Copts, terrorizing the Christian community of Shamiya village in Assiut, and imposing taxes on the village in 2013-14.

On March 30, a Cairo court sentenced 30 men to prison terms of 10 years to life for planning a suicide bombing of a church in Alexandria as well as other charges, including the bombing of a liquor store in Damietta. Eighteen defendants received life terms, eight received 15 years in prison, and four received 10 years. Ten of those convicted remained at large, and the court sentenced them in absentia. Authorities said the defendants had embraced ISIS ideology.

On December 11, a group of UN special rapporteurs publicly called on the government to end the detention and ill treatment of Ramy Kamel Saied Salid, who worked to defend the rights of the country’s Coptic Christian minority. According to a December press release issued by the UN Human Rights Council, as well as NGO and media sources, authorities arrested, questioned, and tortured Kamel on November 4 and November 23. They charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news. His arrest coincided with his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a Geneva UN forum on November 28 and 29, where, in the past, he discussed issues relating to the Coptic community. According to the statement, police broke into Kamel’s home on November 23 and confiscated personal documents, a laptop, camera, and mobile phone before taking him to an unknown location.

On February 7, Christian activists circulated a video depicting a group of Al-Azhar students mocking Christian religious practices. Al-Azhar University referred the students to a disciplinary board at the university and in a statement said Al-Azhar strongly condemned such actions. On February 9, authorities arrested the students for “inciting sectarian strife” and subsequently released them on bail on February 27. At year’s end the case was still pending.

In January atheist blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to purchase another nationality so he could leave the country. Authorities banned Gaber from travel abroad in 2018 and accused him of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube. On September 16, Gaber posted on his Facebook page that he was sentenced to three years in prison for contempt of religions and disturbing the public peace.

Efforts to combat atheism sometimes received official support, including from multiple members of parliament, although in late 2018 President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stated individuals have the “right to worship God” as they see fit or “even worship nothing.” On March 22, Al-Azhar announced the formation of a “Bayan” (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa that would focus on “counter(ing) atheism” and preventing youth from “falling into disbelief.”

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of crimes targeting Christians and instances of sectarian violence. Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner. Authorities charged four individuals with attacking Thabet and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other homes owned by Christians. In June, after the court in Beni Suef referred the case to the Minya Criminal Court, the Minya court postponed hearing the case, which was still pending at year’s end. On February 17, the Ain Shams Misdemeanors Court sentenced a man who had stormed a church and attacked security officers in November 2018 to three years’ imprisonment.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities interrogated several of their members due to their status as a “banned group” during the year. In February security officials twice “violently interrogated” a Jehovah’s Witness in Upper Egypt, threatening, blindfolding, and beating him and confiscating his cell phone and personal identification. In April, October, and November, police officials in Cairo summoned individual Jehovah’s Witnesses to their office for questioning. In April officials summoned a Jehovah’s Witness in Minya for interrogation. In September security officials allowed more than 200 Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a religious meeting in a private home.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests and sometimes failing to extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, particularly in Upper Egypt. On January 7, following a Mass celebrating Coptic Christmas, a crowd of Muslims protested the presence of the unlicensed Mar Girgis Church in the village of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya in Upper Egypt. On January 11, a crowd reportedly gathered again and chanted anti-Christian slogans until police and security forces intervened to disperse the crowd and closed the church. The Coptic Diocese of Minya subsequently released a video and statement that indicated security forces aided Muslim residents seeking to close the church. The Wall Street Journal quoted the Coptic Diocese of Minya, “Every time, the extremists are able to impose their demands.”

In February press reported local Christians had conducted three funerals of church congregants in the streets of Kom el-Raheb due to their continued denial of access to the church, which authorities closed in 2018. In July press reported Copts from Kom el-Raheb stormed into the closed church and staged a sit-in protesting the church’s continued closure. According to press reports, unknown persons burned down three Christian-owned properties following the sit-in. According to press reports, the church and individual church members blamed local government authorities and security forces for siding with anti-Christian “hard-liners.”

On April 12, a mob protesting the unlicensed expansion of the Anba Karas Church in the village of Nagaa el-Ghafir in Sohag Governorate attacked the church with rocks and wounded two Christians. Security forces intervened to stop the attack and ordered the church closed. In April EIPR condemned the involvement of the security services in the closure of the church and called for the reopening of churches closed since the implementation of the 2016 church construction law. EIPR reported there had been 32 sectarian incidents between 2016 and April 2019 and stated security forces were responsible for the closure of 22 unlicensed churches, with up to four closed during the year.

According to official statistics, the government approved 814 applications to license churches and related buildings during the year, and, since September 2017, approved 1,412 of the 5,415 pending applications to license of churches and related buildings. The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) quoted Coptic Orthodox Bishop Makarios of Minya as saying his diocese had approximately 150 villages and neighborhoods in need of a church or other religious buildings.

As it did in previous years, the government in September closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day Shia commemoration of Ashura. Although in previous years the government explained the closure was due to construction, reports in media stated the Ministry of Al-Awqaf circulated internal correspondence affirming the ministry would not allow any “sectarian practices,” and any attempts of sectarian “parades,” especially around the mosques of the Prophet’s family, would be confronted.

According to Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, there continued to be no husseiniyahs in the country and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship. MRGI reported in January, “The state has failed to respect the right of the Shia to practice their religious rituals” and that security services often subjected Shia citizens traveling on religious pilgrimages to interrogations, sometimes including torture. According to MRGI, Shia risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought. Shia Muslims said they were excluded from service in the armed services and security and intelligence services.

In July the Ministry of Awqaf announced a 12-day closure of the Imam Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo for maintenance. Community members said the actual reason for the closure was a call from Sufi groups to gather in the mosque square in response to an Al-Dostour newspaper article critical of Imam Hussein, entitled “Hussein Unjust,” that Sufi adherents deemed insulting to religion.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group. The government in 2013 banned the Brotherhood’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. In an October 7 press conference, Minister of Education Tarek Shawki announced the government was dismissing 1,070 public school teachers because of “extremist ideas.” A former senior official in the Ministry of Education (MOE) told the press the Muslim Brotherhood was targeting primary school students to continue to propagate its ideology.

According to June press reports, a mob attacked the homes of a Christian and his two relatives in the village of Ashnin in Upper Egypt. The mob forced its way into the homes and destroyed furniture and appliances before being dispersed by local police. Following an investigation, police arrested three Christians but none of the attackers. After a customary reconciliation session, the Christians were released and charges were dropped. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, on April 30, a customary reconciliation meeting was held in the Upper Egypt village of Nagib after threats of a potential mob attack by Muslim villagers led security officials to close the village’s church. The NGO also stated that a November customary reconciliation session in Hgara village, located in Upper Egypt, resulted in local Christians being told that they must rebuild their church three kilometers (1.9 miles) outside the village.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church does not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, according to its spokesman, reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence. While at least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt refused to participate in reconciliation sessions due to criticism that they frequently were substitutes for criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches, Orthodox Church leaders took part in two customary reconciliation sessions in other dioceses, according to EIPR. Although other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions, human rights groups and many Christian community representatives said the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship and pressured Christians to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of formal criminal charges.

On January 25, MRGI released a report, Justice Denied, Promises Broken: The Situation of Egypt’s Minorities Since 2014, which stated, “A key factor in the prevalence of sectarian attacks against Christian communities is the continued practice of ‘reconciliation sessions’ between communities, often with the active encouragement of police and officials. This reliance on informal justice approaches that are usually weighted heavily in favor of the Muslim majority is further entrenched by the failure of security forces and the formal judiciary to discharge their responsibilities to prevent and punish targeted attacks on Christians…The dominance of this partial system of informal justice is accompanied by the failure of the formal justice system to protect Christian and other minority victims.”

As it has in previous years prior to Ramadan, the Ministry of Awqaf in April announced restrictions on the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents to spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan. As in previous years, authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

In May the Ministry of Awqaf ordered imams limit the length of Ramadan night prayers (tarawih) to 10 minutes, and banned mention of political topics, the government, or political figures in prayers. At the start of Ramadan in May, Minister of Awqaf Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa announced the ministry had decided to close zawiyas (small prayer rooms used as mosques) during Ramadan and to restrict the use of loudspeakers.

In April the Ministry of Awqaf announced its intention to permanently close unauthorized mosques. There was no coordinated implementation of a policy of closures during the year.

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims from worshiping privately in small numbers, according to community representatives. The government, however, continued to refuse their requests for public religious gatherings.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 23, the High Administrative Court rejected an appeal by the Witnesses to overturn a 1985 law that prevents their members from registering property ownership and marriages. The court ruled the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses contradict the public order and morals in the country.

In August the Ministry of Awqaf gave Yasser Borhami, the deputy head of the Salafist Call, the umbrella organization of the country’s Salafi movements, approval to deliver sermons during Friday prayers at an Alexandria mosque. Borhami had previously stated Muslims should not send holiday greetings to Christians or watch soccer games and had described Christianity as polytheism, said churches should not be allowed in the country, and Muslim taxi and bus drivers should not transport Christian clergy. Critics said Borhami’s past comments reflected hostility towards Christians and non-Salafi Muslims; they condemned the ministry’s decision allowing him to return to preaching.

On August 29, the Anti-Defamation League published a report, Anti-Semitic Show Does Not Belong on Egyptian State Television, detailing how a program, Blue Line, which aired on the government-run Channel Two, propagated a broad range of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The claims included Holocaust denial, Jewish control of U.S. banking, media, and government, and blood libel.

The UN Human Rights Council began its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the country’s commitments under the ICCPR in November. Previous UPRs took place in 2010 and 2014. In submissions for the UPR, NGOs stated discrimination and sectarian violence against Copts persisted at the local level, often with inadequate intervention from security services to prevent it; many religious minorities lived in fear of societal persecution; Christians still faced discrimination in education and workplaces, and the law on the Construction and Reparation of Churches placed many restrictions on Christians attempting to restore or build new churches, while defining them as a “sect,” contrary to their right to equal citizenship. In its submission, the government stated, “certain practical steps have been taken to combat intolerance, negative stereotyping, stigmatization, discrimination, and incitement to violence on the basis of religion or belief.” The government cited several initiatives that it had undertaken in this regard, including the circulation of pamphlets and brochures, changes to the educational system, new classes, and employing the authority and expertise of Al-Azhar and other Islamic institutions to promote tolerance, moderation, and a culture of dialogue.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet. In 2018, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011, when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests. The new governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services. Christians admitted at the entry level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks, according to sources.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities. The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers to enter the country. Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The MOE continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance. In the fall, second grade students began instruction using revised textbooks under the new curriculum after it was introduced in first grade and kindergarten in 2018.

The president established a Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents in 2018, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent such incidents, addressing them as they occur, and applying the rule of law. The committee, headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs, is composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the National Security Sector (NSS), and the Administrative Oversight Agency. TIMEP said the committee did not include representatives of the judiciary, legislature, human rights groups, or of any minority communities. According to press, however, the committee is entitled to invite ministers, officials, and religious leaders to its meetings when considering topics relevant to them. The committee held its inaugural meeting on January 16 to look into a January 11 attack by a crowd of approximately 1,000 Muslim villagers on Coptic villagers of Manshiyet Zaafarana in Minya. Coptic parliamentarian Emad Gad observed the committee did not issue any statement on the incident, even though it was formed to combat sectarian violence. Since the inaugural meeting, EIPR reported the committee had not announced any subsequent meetings.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance. On March 10, the Al-Azhar Center for Interfaith Dialogue and the Episcopal Church co-organized a conference on equal citizenship to promote interreligious tolerance and a shared sense of belonging, according to media reports. In May the Center for Interfaith Dialogue launched a new campaign entitled “God Hears Your Dialogue” to increase awareness among youth of the importance and necessity of dialogue to promote peaceful coexistence. In September Al-Azhar and the Ministry of Awqaf participated in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

In a January 7 statement, the Al-Azhar Curricula Development Committee announced its introduction of new primary, secondary, and university textbooks that promote religious tolerance in the 11,000 schools under its purview. The statement read that the new texts would focus on unity between Muslims and Christians and would stress the concept of citizenship without distinction on the basis of religious belief.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the Al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism. The observatory’s staff grew to approximately 100 employees, who monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites. The center’s website and social media employed several languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi. Al-Azhar, through the Al-Azhar International Academy, also began offering courses on a wide range of subjects related to Islam to imams and preachers in 20 countries. Prominent members of parliament strongly criticized Al-Azhar for failing to rapidly institute the president’s directive to launch a renewal of religious discourse as a means to combat extremism, and for exercising excessive independence from the government. An EIPR analyst reported that President al-Sisi insisted Al-Azhar exert greater efforts to combat extremist ideas. Another EIPR analyst said Al-Azhar’s overseas programs were part of “Al-Azhar’s vision of itself as the guardian of Islam around the world and as a partner – rather than an affiliated institution – to the Egyptian state.”

On February 4, Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb and Pope Francis signed the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together during their visit to Abu Dhabi. The document condemned practices “detrimental to human life and freedom,” and pledged cooperation to combat extremism and promote peace.

In June President al-Sisi delivered a speech during a ceremony in Cairo for Laylat al-Qadr (the 27th day of Ramadan that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran) in which he said, “When we wish our Christian brothers a happy feast and (congratulate them) on building new churches, we represent our religion.” President al-Sisi added that the country’s main goal was to preserve the essence of religion, to raise religious awareness, and combat extremist threats among youth.

Dar al-Iftaa and Al-Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays. At the January 7 inauguration of the Cathedral of the Nativity, the largest church in the region, and the Al-Fattah Al-Aleem Mosque in the New Administrative Capital, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar said Islam obliged Muslims to safeguard houses of worship for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. President al-Sisi also attended the opening of the newly built mosque and the cathedral, where for the fifth consecutive year he celebrated Christmas services with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros.

In February the Jerusalem Post reported President al-Sisi met with a visiting delegation of private U.S. citizens and told them the government would welcome a resurgence of the Jewish community in the country and that it would support such a resurgence with the construction of synagogues and help with related services. According to the report, the president also promised to address concerns about the ancient Jewish Bassatine Cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair. Following the meeting, the government facilitated a brief trash cleanup effort of the cemetery involving work crews from multiple municipalities; however, NGO representatives said the government did not contribute to the rehabilitation of the cemetery.

The Ministry of Antiquities (MOA) engaged in a multimillion dollar effort to restore the Eliyahu HaNevi synagogue, one of two remaining in the greater Alexandria area. Authorities stated progress at the synagogue underscored the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s Jewish heritage and very small remaining community, and that this was a reflection of a broader policy of stressing the government’s commitment to safeguarding religious diversity and freedom.

On February 7, the Ministry of Awqaf announced it would prepare a “unique and distinctive architectural style” for all new mosques in the country. The ministry said it would conduct a design competition to decide on details and that only mosques designed in accordance with the new guidance would be granted construction permits in the future.

In July the state-run University of Alexandria and state-run University of Damanhour announced the establishment of centers of Coptic studies, in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church. The institutes will include courses in the study of Coptic language, literature, history, and art.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On January 3, ISIS released a video statement threatening “bloody attacks during the upcoming (Orthodox) Christmas celebrations,” and to “take revenge on Egypt’s Christians.” The statement included a threat on the life of Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. According to press reports, unidentified men suspected to be members of ISIS abducted a Christian at a checkpoint near Al-Arish in northern Sinai on January 17 based on his religious affiliation. The men had been checking the identification of motorists and abducted the man after learning he was Christian. On January 25, ISIS released a statement that read, “the soldiers of the Islamic State in Sinai set up an ambush to target the apostates.” According to media reports, the man had still not been located at the end of the year and his fate was unknown.

On January 5, a sheikh at a neighboring mosque alerted security at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Nasr City to possible explosives in the vicinity of the church, where police discovered an IED. One police officer died and two others were injured when the IED exploded while it was being defused. While there were no immediate claims of responsibility, in December the NSS arrested three students of Al Azhar University and accused them of planting the explosives. The investigation continued through year’s end.

Esshad, a website that records sectarian attacks, documented a 29 percent reduction in intercommunal violence between 2018 and 2019.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities. According to a Coptic Christian advocacy group, of the 540 players in the top-tier professional soccer clubs, only one was Christian.

In May EIPR called on authorities to provide followers of unrecognized religions the right to obtain identity cards, marriage certificates, and private burials and to sue in accordance with their own personal status laws.

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians. In January Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim posted a video in which he criticized Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed El-Tayyeb for participating in the opening ceremony of the cathedral in the New Administrative Capital. Ghoneim said Islam considers Copts infidels, and that those who accept the Christian religion or assist them in practicing it are nonbelievers.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued. Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned television endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy. In May Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud received heavy criticism in the press and on various social media platforms for his interview with a prominent Israeli online news site. In August commentators and local anti-Zionist organizations strongly criticized a theatre performance on the Holocaust performed by university students and accused members of the cast of glorifying Zionism and insulting Muslims.

On January 28, attorney and activist Samir Sabri brought suit on behalf of a group of Muslim scholars seeking to ban the movie, The Guest, for misrepresenting Islam. The Cairo Court of Urgent Cases scheduled a hearing for February 23, and then postponed it until April 6. The case remained open through year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Secretary of State, the Ambassador, and the then-Charge d’Affaires, raised religious freedom concerns with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Awqaf, as well as with members of parliament, governors, and representatives of Islamic institutions, church communities, religious minority groups, and civil society groups. In their meetings with government officials, 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.

Throughout the year, embassy officers met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant churches. Issues raised included cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations, including on national identity cards. They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues, such as issuance of permits for, and new construction of, churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the restoration of Jewish religious sites. The then-Charge visited Alexandria’s Eliyahu HaNevi Synagogue in October and met with MOA officials to discuss the ministry’s ongoing efforts to restore the synagogue, part of a public effort by the government to preserve the legacy of the Jewish community and to support religious diversity.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in government engagements. Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Baha’i, and Shia communities. The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media during the year, including two posts on the 2018 International Religious Freedom Report that reached 20,000 persons and five posts on the 2019 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that reached 65,000 readers.

Eritrea

Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief as well as the freedom to practice any religion. The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to arrest and mistreatment and released on the condition that they formally renounce their faith, although some unregistered groups are allowed to operate, and the government tolerates their worship activities. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and media continued to report members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions. Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and deaths in custody due to mistreatment and harsh prison conditions and detention without explanation of individuals observing the recognized faiths. Haji Ibrahim Younus, arrested in 2018 for taking part in the funeral for Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, reportedly died in prison in January following an extended period in detention during which, according to religious groups, he did not receive adequate medical care. Said Mohamed Ali, who also participated in the funeral, died in June after physical abuse in prison and delayed medical assistance. In successive waves between May and August, the government arrested approximately 300 members of unrecognized Christian groups. There was no information on the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, the charges against them, if any, or if they remained in detention. The government closed a number of Catholic and other religious-run secondary schools and health clinics, citing a 1995 law prohibiting religious institutions from providing social services. Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006; in July Church officials excommunicated him for “heresy,” although he was allowed to live in a Patriarchate residence. NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 52 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith. An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018, although many reportedly were released. The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994 for refusing to participate in the referendum that created the independent state of Eritrea.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious communities created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom. Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended worship services and religious celebrations. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals organized by both the recognized and unrecognized religious groups were widely attended, including by senior government officials.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington continued to raise religious freedom concerns with government officials, including the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios. Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during bilateral meetings with senior Eritrean officials in Washington, New York, and Asmara. The government welcomed the September visit of a U.S. government delegation to open a new dialogue on these issues. U.S. embassy officials met with clergy and other members of religious groups, both registered and unregistered. Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of individuals, including visiting international delegations, members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara and in other countries in the region, and UN officials. Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, 2019, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act. Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at six million (midyear 2019 estimate). There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation. Some government, religious, and international sources estimate the population to be 49 percent Christian and 49 percent Sunni Muslim. The Pew Foundation in 2016 estimated the population to be 63 percent Christian and 37 percent Muslim. The Christian population is predominantly Eritrean Orthodox. Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals, constitute less than 5 percent of the Christian population. Some estimates suggest 2 percent of the population is traditionally animist. The Baha’i community reports approximately 200 members. Only one Jew remains in the country.

A majority of the population in the southern and central regions is Christian. A majority of the Tigrinya, the largest ethnic group, is Christian. The Tigre and the Rashaida, the largest minority ethnic groups, are predominantly Muslim and reside mainly in the northern regions of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and the freedom to practice any religion.

Proclamation 73/1995 calls for separation of religion and state; outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, including concerning foreign relations and social activities; establishes an Office of Religious Affairs; and requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities. Some members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law reportedly continue to be subject to a provisional penal code that officially was replaced four years ago; the code sets penalties for failure to register and noncompliance. The current provisional penal code does not directly address penalties for religious groups that fail to register or otherwise comply with the law but includes a punishment for “unlawful assembly” of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,001 to 20,000 nakfa ($330-$1,330).

The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official registration. Each application must include a description of the religious group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other religious groups; names and personal information of the group’s leaders; detailed information on assets; a description of the group’s conformity to local culture; and a declaration of all foreign sources of funding.

The Office of Religious Affairs has registered four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation). A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval. The government, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, states that it is willing to register new religious groups but has not received any applications.

Religious groups must obtain government approval to build facilities for worship.

While the law does not specifically address religious education in public schools, Proclamation 73/1995 outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, and education is not included as an approved activity. In practice, religious instruction is commonplace within worship communities.

By law, all citizens between 18 and 50 must perform 18 months of national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy. In times of emergency, the length of national service may be extended indefinitely, and the country officially has been in a state of emergency since the beginning of the 1998 war with Ethiopia. A compulsory citizen militia requires some persons not in the military, including many who had been demobilized, elderly, or otherwise exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend militia training. Failure to participate in the militia or national service could result in detention. Militia duties mostly involve security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling. Militia training primarily involves occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures. The law does not provide for conscientious objector status for religious reasons, nor are there alternative activities for persons willing to perform national service but unwilling to engage in military or militia activities.

The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups.

The government requires all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to departing the country. The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information. An exit visa or other travel documents are not required to cross the newly opened land border with Ethiopia, although the government has not yet established crossing procedures and closes the border at times.

The law limits foreign financing for religious groups, including registered groups. The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign sources.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Haji Ibrahim Younus, a Muslim elder arrested in 2018 for taking part in the funeral for Al Diaa Islamic School President Hajji Musa Mohammed Nur, reportedly died in prison in January following an extended period in detention during which, according to religious groups, he did not receive adequate medical care. Said Mohamed Ali, who also participated in the funeral, died in June after physical abuse in prison and delayed medical assistance.

In June security forces arrested five Orthodox priests from the Debre-Bizen Monastery, three of whom were older than 70, for protesting government interference in church affairs and for their support of Abune Antonios as the legitimate patriarch.

According to a report by Release International, the government imposed tight security throughout May in advance of Independence Day celebrations, and police raided several Protestant groups. The government reportedly arrested 141 Christians in Asmara, including 14 minors, on May 10, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), only 50 of whom were reportedly subsequently released. Another 30 Christians were arrested in early June, according to international media. On June 23, there were 70 more, including 10 children, arrested in Keren, followed by another 80 on August 18 in Godaif. No information was available as to the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, or the charges against them, if any.

CSW reported that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including some who had been imprisoned without charge for 23 years, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 52 Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than half of whom had been in prison for more than 20 years, for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith. There were unconfirmed reports that most of the Muslim detainees, arrested following protests in Asmara in 2017 and 2018, were released.

Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who last appeared in public in July 2017, remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting the government’s interference in church affairs.

Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.

The government did not recognize a right to conscientious objection to military service and continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service. The government continued to hold Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons. Authorities prevented prisoners held for national security reasons, including religious prisoners, from having visitors. Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter.

Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.

The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders. Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching their religious beliefs to others.

In June the government closed at least seven Roman Catholic-run secondary schools and 22 Church-run health clinics, as well as some secondary schools run by other religious groups, citing a 1995 law prohibiting the provision of social services by religious groups. According to the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, as well as international news organizations, the closures followed a call in April by the Catholic Church for the government to effect urgent reforms to reduce emigration and to open a dialogue on peace and reconciliation. Catholic bishops characterized the school closures as motivated by “hatred against the faith and against religion” in a September letter to the minister of education. The Catholic Church was forced to transfer operation and administrative authority of clinics to the Ministry of Health. According to Catholic Relief Services, authorities closed the last Catholic hospital on July 5. Police forcibly removed the nuns who ran the facility and sealed the doors, preventing the nuns from taking hospital equipment with them. In June the Eritrean Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva issued a press release responding to Kravetz’s comments that cited regulations limiting the activities of religious organizations specifically. According to the press release, Regulation 73/1995 does not allow religious institutions to “conduct developmental activities in areas of their choice” nor to solicit funds from external donors.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.

Arrests and releases often went unreported. Information from outside the capital was extremely limited. Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge. International religious organizations reported authorities interrogated detainees about their religious affiliation and asked them to identify members of unregistered religious groups.

The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.

Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences. According to a report by the European Asylum Support Office, the issuance of exit visas was inconsistent and did not adhere to any consistent policy; members of nonrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation.

The government continued to allow only the practice of Sunni Islam and ban all other practice of Islam.

Official attitudes differed toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities. Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting. Local authorities sometimes denied government ration coupons to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.

Diaspora groups reported authorities controlled directly or indirectly virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups. The leaders of the four groups continued to state their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice, but individuals privately reported, among other obstacles, restrictions on import of religious items used for worship. Whether authorities used these restrictions to target religious groups was unclear, since import licenses remained generally restricted. Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.

Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged. Religious structures used by unregistered Jewish and Greek Orthodox groups continued to exist in Asmara. The government protected the historic Jewish synagogue building, which was maintained by the last remaining Jew. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Christ, remained shuttered. The government allowed the Baha’i center to remain open, and the members of the center had access to the building. A Baha’i temple built outside of Asmara was allowed to operate. The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, but the government did not permit religious services on the site. The Anglican Church building held services but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.

Government control of all mass media, as well as fear of imprisonment or other government actions, continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government repression against them, according to observers. Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship, according to group members. The government permitted church news services to videotape and publish interviews with foreign diplomats during the public celebration of the Eritrean Orthodox Meskel holiday.

Observers noted that the government exerted significant direct and indirect influence over the appointment of heads of recognized religious communities, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church and Sunni Islamic community, and some NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments. The government continued to deny this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities. The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the acting head of the Sunni Islamic community and the acting head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower level officials for both communities. Observers said that since the 2017 death of the former mufti, Sheik Alamin Osman Alamin, the government-friendly executive director of the mufti office, Sheik Salim Ibrahim Al-Muktar, in effect was acting as head of the Islamic community.

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church remained without a patriarch since the 2015 death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros. In July the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church excommunicated the third patriarch, Abune Antonios, in home detention since 2006, for “heresy.” In July the BBC reported that some analysts believe he was expelled so the government could have full control of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Lay administrators appointed by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice managed some Church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.

The government continued to permit a limited number of Sunni Muslims, mainly the elderly and those not fit for military service, to take part in the Hajj, travel abroad for religious study, and host clerics from abroad. The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened to import foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.

The government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations. The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers Church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas. Students attending the Roman Catholic seminary, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials. Some Catholic leaders stated, however, national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.

While the overwhelming majority of high-level officials, both military and civilian, were Christian, three ministers, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims. Foreign diplomats, however, reported that individuals in positions of power, both in government and outside, often expressed reluctance to share power with Muslim compatriots and distrusted foreign Muslims.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Government control of all media, expression, and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom. Churches and mosques were located in close proximity to each other, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on various religious holidays and other events. Senior Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran religious leaders sat as honored guests alongside the ranking Eritrean Orthodox officials during the high profile public celebration of Meskel on September 28.

Some Christian leaders continued to report Muslim leaders and communities were willing to collaborate on community projects. Ecumenical and interreligious committees did not exist, although local leaders met informally, and religious holidays featured public displays of interfaith cooperation. Representatives of each of the official religions attended the state dinners for several visiting foreign officials. Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their faith.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives met with government officials to raise religious freedom concerns, including seeking a path forward for unregistered groups. They also advocated for the release of Jehovah’s Witnesses and an alternative service for conscientious objectors refusing to bear arms for religious reasons and expressed concern over the continued detention of Patriarch Abune Antonios. Senior Department of State officials raised these concerns during a series of bilateral meetings with senior country officials in Washington, New York, and Asmara on multiple occasions during the year. Embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom with a wide range of partners, including visiting international delegations, Asmara-based and regionally based diplomats accredited to the government, UN officials, and other international organization representatives. Embassy officials used social media to highlight the importance of religious tolerance and public diplomacy programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Embassy staff met with clergy, leaders, and other members of some religious groups, including unregistered groups. During the year, however, some embassy requests via the government to meet with religious leaders went unanswered.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, section 402(b), for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 18, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act. Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution codifies the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state. On July 18, violence broke out in Sidama Zone, Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) Region, in connection with demands for regional statehood. According to media affiliated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church (EOTC), attackers killed a priest and two followers of the Church, burned three churches to the ground, and partially destroyed four churches in the violence. On February 3, youth members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Mekane Yesus, Amhara Region, burned mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses. The Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC reported that security forces detained 55 followers of the Church on September 27 during processions for the eve of the Meskel holiday (finding of the true cross). In March the government lifted restrictions on charities and societies, including faith-based organizations, from engaging in rights-based advocacy and accepting foreign funding. In May the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) revised a directive that had limited the formation of fully fledged Islamic (interest-free) banks.

In December attackers burned down four mosques and one church in Mota Town, Amhara Region, prompting condemnation by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and sparking protests by several thousand Muslims across the country. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups. EOTC followers in several towns of Amhara Region staged peaceful protests on September 15 and 22 to condemn attacks against the Church, religious leaders, and followers in Sidama Zone in the SNNP Region.

U.S. embassy and Department of State officials met officials from the Ministry of Peace throughout the year for continued discussions on religious tolerance and radicalization. Embassy representatives met with prominent members of the Protestant Christian community and with NGOs to discuss the government’s role in religious affairs and their assessment about the growing influence of Protestantism in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 111.5 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The most recent census, conducted in 2007, estimated 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOTC, 34 percent are Sunni Muslim, and 19 percent belong to Christian evangelical and Pentecostal groups. The overall population, however, has since changed significantly, and observers in and outside the government state those numbers are not necessarily representative of the present composition. Most observers believe the evangelical and Pentecostal proportion of the population has increased. The EOTC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in the Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions. Established Protestant churches have the most adherents in the SNNP and Gambella Regions and parts of Oromia Region. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and practitioners of indigenous religions. The Rastafarian community numbers approximately 1,000, and its members primarily reside in Addis Ababa and the town of Shashemene in Oromia Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs. It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law in order to protect public safety, education, and morals, as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion. The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another. The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches. The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols. Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity, and 15 for registration as a ministry or association; the rights and privileges are the same for each category. During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper; if there are no objections, registration is granted.

Unlike other religious groups, the EOTC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force. Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery. Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits. Religious groups must renew their registration at least every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.

Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports. Activity reports must describe proselytizing activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.

Under the constitution, the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.

Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state. The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays for workers to attend Islamic prayers. Private companies are not required to follow this policy.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values. The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques. The Charities and Societies Agency, a government agency accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction. The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.

The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.

In March the government revised a law that had restricted rights-based advocacy activities and foreign funding sources of charities and societies, including faith-based organizations. The new law allows all civil society organizations to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities and to collect and obtain funding from any legal source.

Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

In May the NBE revised its directive to allow the formation of fully fledged Islamic (interest-free) banks. Seven business groups started the process of establishing Islamic banks. Previously, 10 commercial banks provided interest-free banking service through dedicated windows. In an emergency session on July 31, the House of People’s Representatives approved a revised proclamation on banking and customs providing the legal basis for the NBE to implement its directive and facilitate the establishment of Islamic banking services.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On July 18, groups of individuals from the Sidama ethnic group demanding regional statehood attacked a church in Sidama Zone, SNNP Region. Ministry of Peace officials confirmed that mobs attacked religious institutions but did not give details. Media affiliated with the EOTC reported that the mob killed a priest and two followers of the Church, burned three churches to the ground, and partially destroyed four others. Local researchers who investigated the media claims could not determine the motivation of the attack. Organized groups of youth vandalized the Chironie St. Emmanuel Church, according to local press reporting. The chief priest of Bore Debre Genet St. Mary Church in neighboring Oromia Region told media that his church sheltered 474 internally displaced persons, including deacons and priests whose churches were burned during the conflict. Media reported police arrested hundreds of suspects as well as leaders of a Sidama youth group known as Ejjetto.

In Dire Dawa on January 21, an unidentified group of youth hurled rocks at followers of the EOTC returning from Epiphany celebrations. Orthodox youth retaliated by physically attacking the unidentified youth. Police intervened, using tear gas and arresting some participants in the incident. The clash was followed by unrest that evolved into broader political protests in the week that followed. On January 24, the Police Commission announced it had arrested 84 individuals suspected of participating in the clashes that broke out on January 21.

On February 3, youth members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Mekane Yesus in the Amhara Region burned mosques and vandalized Muslim-owned businesses. According to local government officials and religious leaders, Christians found an icon of St. Mary scattered among pieces of paper used to decorate the floor of a tent constructed for an Islamic wedding. Youth angered by this perceived desecration burned down two mosques, partially damaged a third, and vandalized shops owned by Muslim community members. Regional special police forces deployed to the area to help local police quell the unrest. Local media did not report any casualties associated with the incident. Federal and regional governments dispatched a team of officials to the town to hold public discussions between Muslims and Christians. Both Muslim and Christian groups condemned the incident and pledged to collaborate on rebuilding the destroyed mosques.

In February a group of Muslims attacked and burned seven Protestant churches in Halaba Kulito in the SNNP Region, according to local officials. Regional officials said the attacks were spurred by false news reports claiming mosques had been attacked by non-Muslims in the area. According to one report, the suspects chanted a jihadist slogan while attacking places of worship belonging to different Christian denominations. According to the report, municipal police were present but took no action, and order was not restored until state police arrived in the early afternoon.

In May there were reports of armed groups attacking Orthodox churches in North Shoa Zone of Oromia Region.

The Addis Ababa Diocese of the EOTC reported that security forces detained 55 followers on September 27 during processions on the eve of the Meskel holiday. Police said that 33 of the detainees wore T-shirts with messages demanding an end to attacks against the Church and that 12 of those detained carried sharp objects. Police released 37 of the detainees hours after the celebrations concluded.

In October there were reports of fighting during protests in Oromia Region. While the fighting was primarily along ethnic lines, the regional police commissioner stated that there were attempts to burn churches and mosques and that “there was a hidden agenda to divert the whole protest into an ethnic and religious conflict.” According to the mayor of the city of Adama in Oromia Region, 68 persons were arrested on suspicion of robbing and attempting to burn a mosque and an Orthodox church. In Dodala an Orthodox priest stated Orthodox Christians were targeted. In one week, eight persons were killed and buried in his church while 3,000 sheltered inside its compound.

Reports of government imposition or dissemination of Al-Ahbash teachings (a Sufi religious movement rooted in Lebanon and different from indigenous Islam) declined during the year.

In 2018 the Directorate for Registration of Religious Groups within the Ministry of Peace reported 816 religious institutions and 1,640 fellowships and religious associations were registered as of late in the year.

On May 1, Prime Minister Abiy brought together leaders of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (IASC) and the Muslim Arbitration Committee, a rival group, in an effort to resolve disputes within the Muslim community. Prime Minister Abiy’s effort prompted representatives from the Muslim community to agree at the meeting to replace the IASC (also referred to as Majlis) with a transitional council of Ulamas (Muslim scholars). The prime minister, accompanied by Minister of Peace Muferiat Kamil, addressed the May 1 meeting of Muslim leaders and stated, “A united Muslim community is the foundation for national unity.” The goal of the 23-member transitional council is to prepare the legal and institutional framework for a new leadership structure for the Muslim community. Majlis leaders formally handed over power to the transitional council, which then elected Mufti Haji Oumer Idris, a respected elder, as its chairperson.

A group of local youth and police in the town of Bishoftu, Oromia Region, stopped Sunday School youth of Debremetsehet Kidanemihret Church of the EOTC during processions for the Meskel holiday on September 27, stating the EOTC followers wore clothes depicting an unauthorized version of the Ethiopian flag. The unauthorized version of the flag is closely linked with the country’s ethnic Amhara population and the EOTC. The Sunday School youth refused to change their uniforms and returned to the premises of the church. Reports stated that participants from other EOTC churches heard of the controversy and decided not to light a demera (large bonfire) in the absence of their fellow church members.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On December 20, attackers burned down four mosques in Mota Town, Amhara Region, north of Addis Ababa, during an outbreak of violence in which Muslim-owned businesses were also targeted, according to media reports. State-owned media reported that one church was also attacked. Prime Minister Abiy condemned the attack, calling it an attempt “by extremists to break down our rich history of religious tolerance and coexistence.” In the week following the incident, several thousand Muslims across the country demonstrated in protest. Police subsequently arrested 15 individuals suspected of involvement in the attacks.

NGOs continued to report some Protestants and Orthodox Christians accused one another of heresy and of actively working to convert adherents from one faith to the other, increasing tension between the two groups.

Followers of the EOTC in several towns in Amhara Region staged peaceful protests on September 15 and 22 to condemn attacks against the Church, its religious leaders, and its followers in Sidama Zone in the SNNP Region. Organizers of the protest told media they wanted those behind the attacks brought to justice.

The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community. One example the EIASC cited was foreign Salafist groups forcibly taking control of local mosques. The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers continued to engage with the Ministry of Peace and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on religious tolerance, countering religious violent extremism, and promotion of shared values. Embassy officials specifically engaged the Ministry of Peace on the religious aspects of ethnic violence, seeking to identify ways to mitigate conflict and areas of partnership.

Embassy representatives held meetings with religious leaders, including the Office of the Patriarch of the EOTC, the president of the EIASC, and the cardinal heading the Catholic Church in the country, to discuss the role of faith-based organizations in improving religious tolerance within society.

Embassy officials engaged with members of the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE) to discuss religious tolerance and attacks on places of worship. In November a visiting senior official from the U.S. National Security Council and embassy officials met with IRCE and religious leaders to discuss the root causes of religious violence. The embassy’s dialogue with the IRCE sought to strengthen the IRCE’s capacity to reduce religious violence through increased dialogue among religious communities and to assist the IRCE in achieving its goal of creating a platform to unify disparate religious groups around common interests and promoting interreligious harmony.

India

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 billion (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially classifies more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice animism and indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics, although an estimated one-third of those listed as Scheduled Tribe members have converted to Christianity.

According to government estimates, there are large minority Muslim populations in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, the only state in which Muslims constituted a majority. Most of the Muslim population is concentrated in the Kashmir Valley, while Jammu and Ladakh have a Hindu and Buddhist majority, respectively. On August 5, the government divided the state into two union territories. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims in the country are Sunni; most of the rest are Shia. Christian populations are found across the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast, as well as in the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three small northeastern states have large Christian majorities: Nagaland (90 percent of the population), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of Punjab’s population. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates that there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and media reports, there are approximately 100,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country. Media report that approximately 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees from Burma live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including for employment, as well as any religion-based restrictions on individuals’ access to public or private facilities or establishments that are open to the general public. The constitution states that religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits compelling anyone to pay taxes to promote or maintain any specific religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates that the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.

Nine of the 28 states have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. Such legislation in Rajasthan, passed in 2008, was rejected by the central government in 2017 and remains unimplemented. In August the Himachal Pradesh state legislature added “coercion” to the list of conversion crimes, which also includes conversion by “fraud,” “force,” and “inducement.” The definition of “inducement” was broadened to include “the offer of any temptation.”

Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means,” and require district authorities to be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate at a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government. Violators, including missionaries and other religious figures who encourage conversion, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if the converts are minors, women, or members of government-designated, historically disadvantaged groups (Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes). Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes “forced” conversions with up to three years of imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($700). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment and/or fines of 25,000 rupees ($350). Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may consist of prison sentences rather than fines.

According to the Supreme Court, converting from Hinduism to another religion may deny those converting from lower castes the government benefits available to them if they had remained Hindu, such as placement in educational institutions or job training.

Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near another religion’s place of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($70).

The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.

There are no direct requirements for registration of religious groups unless they receive foreign funds, and federal law requires religiously-affiliated organizations to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities and to provide these to state government officials upon request.

A federal law regulates foreign contributions to NGOs, including faith-based organizations. Organizations with “definite cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” must receive a federal government certificate of registration to receive foreign funds. The federal government may also require that certified organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The central government may reject an application for a certificate of registration or a request for prior permission to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”

The constitution states that any reference to Hindus in law is to be construed to include followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a blanket category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, and Jains, but clarifies that these are separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.

Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region and designate them as minorities under state law. Minority status makes these groups eligible for several government assistance programs. The constitution states that the government will protect the existence of religious minorities and will encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.

Personal status laws determine rights for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues that are not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national- and state-level legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) and the Parsi community to define their customary practices. If the law board or community leaders cannot offer satisfactory solutions, the case is referred to the civil courts.

Interfaith couples and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony are required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions, however, face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.

The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages, but there are no divorce provisions for Sikhs. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools. The law permits some Muslim, Christian, Sindhi (Hindu refugees), Parsi, and Sikh educational institutions that receive government support to set quotas (in most cases, 50 percent) for students belonging to the religious minority in question. For instance, Aligarh Muslim University must admit at least 50 percent Muslims. St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and St. Xavier’s in Mumbai must admit at least 50 percent Christians.

Twenty-four of the 28 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the majority of the states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14-$140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. The law in Gujarat mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts for manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.

As of July, one state (Madhya Pradesh) penalizes cow vigilantism by setting fines of 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($350-$700) and prison sentences of six months to three years for committing violence in the name of protecting cows. This is the first law of its kind in the country.

The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These bodies have no enforcement powers, but launch investigations based on written complaints by plaintiffs charging criminal or civil violations and submit their findings to law enforcement agencies for action. Eighteen of the country’s 28 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.

The constitution allows for a form of affirmative action for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, and the “Other Backward Class,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. Since the constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists shall be deemed members of a Scheduled Caste, the only means through which Christian and Muslim individuals may qualify for affirmative action benefits is if they are considered members of the “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

A video that circulated widely on the internet showed a mob near Kharsawan in Jharkhand violently attacking 24-year-old Muslim Tabrez Ansari after forcing him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman” (allegiance to Hindu deities). Members of the mob accused Ansari of stealing a motorcycle. Ansari died in a hospital several days later. On September 10, the Jharkhand police dropped murder charges against all 11 individuals accused of the attack, citing the initial autopsy report that stated that Ansari had died of cardiac arrest. On September 18, the police reintroduced murder charges against all the accused after a detailed postmortem exam revealed grievous injury to Ansari’s skull. The Jharkhand government set up a special investigation team and suspended two policemen for not reporting the seriousness of the issue to a higher authority and for failure to report a case of lynching.

On December 12, parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which amends the 1955 Citizenship Act to provide an expedited path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh who had entered India on or before December 31, 2014. Similarly-situated Muslims, Jews, atheists, and members of other faiths from these three countries were excluded from the CAA. The legislation – the first-ever to use religion as a criterion for citizenship – was criticized heavily by domestic and international media, NGOs, religious groups, intellectuals, and some political parties. Opponents stated it was unconstitutional because it violated the tenets of a secular state. Passage of the legislation was followed by widespread protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Assam, but they soon spread to university campuses and cities nationwide. The government deployed police, severely limited public gatherings, imposed a curfew, and cut internet service, primarily in Uttar Pradesh, Assam, and Jammu and Kashmir. As of the end of December, domestic and international media had reported 25 deaths, hundreds of injuries and thousands of detentions, with 5,500 detained in Uttar Pradesh alone. There were multiple reports of excessive force by police against protesters, particularly against Muslim university students. For example, in December police moved onto the campus of Jamia Millia University in New Delhi to end a protest, deploying tear gas and beating protesters with batons, according to witnesses who spoke to the media.

Government critics, civil liberty activists, NGOs, and political organizations, including the Congress party, filed more than 100 legal challenges to the CAA in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it added a religious qualification to the country’s historically secular citizenship laws. Some opposition leaders said the CAA was part of an ongoing BJP effort to marginalize Muslim communities throughout the country. The government defended the CAA by saying that it was legislation aimed at facilitating citizenship for illegal refugees from six religious minorities who had fled three neighboring countries due to religious persecution and that Muslims could still apply for citizenship through the normal, non-expedited route. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the CAA was an act to provide citizenship and not to take it away from legal Indian citizens. In November he stated that the constitution should be revered as a “holy book and a guiding light.” Some officials linked the CAA with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a process used to identify illegal immigrants in the state of Assam. On December 22, Modi disavowed any discussion of implementing the NRC nationwide, including earlier comments from Home Minister Amit Shah that a nationwide NRC should be in place so “we will detect and deport every infiltrator from our motherland.” Some opposition leaders and protestors stated they feared that a national NRC could disenfranchise Muslims in the country.

According to a number of NGOs and media outlets, lawmakers sometimes denied or ignored incidents of mob violence, lynching, and communal violence, which often had a religious component. On September 18, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said in an interview that there had been no incidents of mob lynching in Uttar Pradesh during his tenure, which began in 2017. According to the Uttar Pradesh Law Commission in July, however, 50 incidents of mob violence had taken place in the state between 2012 and 2019, resulting in 11 deaths. Adityanath also used the term “love jihad,” a derogatory term suggesting a deliberate effort by Muslim men to lure Hindu women into a relationship and coerce them to convert to Islam, which analysts stated proved to be a crucial election issue for the ruling BJP.

In August the central government revoked the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, splitting it into two union territories, one for Jammu and Kashmir and the other for Ladakh. Opposition political parties and other critics condemned this decision; the central government pledged to hold assembly elections in the new territories. The government sent thousands of additional security forces to the region and shut down internet and phone lines just before announcing the decision. Many of these restrictions were gradually reduced by December. The government also closed most mosques in the area, including the Jamia Masjid, the main mosque in Srinagar, from August 5 until mid-December. Muslim leaders criticized the move. The government’s actions sparked protests. Several politicians belonging to opposition parties, human right activists, journalists, and retired army personnel filed petitions in the Supreme Court challenging the government’s actions. Government and media reported there were incidents of violence and intimidation carried out by militants. In November the government told parliament that 20 persons, including 17 civilians and three security personnel, were killed in terror-related incidents in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5. On November 21, Home Minister Shah told the media, “Not a single person has died by police firing” in Jammu and Kashmir.

On July 20, Maharashtra police arrested one person the day after a group accosted and allegedly tried to lynch Muslim youth Imran Patel, forcing him to say “Jai Shri Ram” (allegiance to a Hindu deity). Patel said a Hindu family residing nearby rushed to his rescue and saved his life.

By year’s end, parliament had not acted on a July 2018 Supreme Court order that it enact a federal law to outlaw mob violence. The court also ordered all state governments to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent mob violence and ensure that the police act promptly in such cases. Only Rajasthan and West Bengal had partially followed the Supreme Court order.

In July Rajasthan passed an anti-lynching law, but its implementation remained pending at the end of the year. The law defines lynching as “any act or series of acts of violence or aiding, abetting, or attempting an act of violence, whether spontaneous or planned, by a mob on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, [or] ethnicity.” Penalties include up to life in prison. The law followed attacks on Muslims and was a state-level response to the Supreme Court order directing state legislatures to pass laws to address lynching and mob violence. In August the West Bengal state legislature passed a bill that made lynching punishable by life in prison or the death penalty. The bill defined lynching as any mob violence on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth, language, dietary practices, sexual orientation, political affiliation, ethnicity, or any other ground. The West Bengal bill had not been implemented by year’s end.

HRW said that since May 2015, 50 people have been killed and over 250 injured in mob violence. HRW reported that Muslims were also beaten and forced to chant Hindu slogans and that the police failed to properly investigate these incidents, instead filing criminal cases against witnesses in order to intimidate them. The NGO Alliance for Defending Freedom India (ADF India) reported that less than 40 of more than 300 cases of “cow vigilantism” that it had documented were prosecuted by the police. At the same time, according to HRW, the government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives designed to prevent and investigate mob attacks on religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, which, according to HRW, were sometimes linked to BJP supporters.

On April 14, according to the website AsiaNews, 200 men attacked a church in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh as police officers looked on without intervening. The report stated that the church’s clergy fled while the men attacked members of the congregation with sticks.

A police investigation continued into a May 2018 communal clash in Aurangabad in Maharashtra in which a Muslim youth was shot and killed by police and a Hindu man died in his burning shop. The clash followed allegations that authorities were cracking down on illegal water connections in a discriminatory manner. Police briefly arrested two city councilors, but they were released on bail.

On August 22, authorities arrested a fourth individual for the 2018 cow vigilante killing of Rakbar Khan in Rajasthan, who was assaulted by villagers who suspected him of cattle smuggling. Khan died when police took at least three hours to transport him to a local hospital that was 2.5 miles away. According to media reports, the police stopped for tea along the way. The case of the fourth individual was pending trial at year’s end.

On July 24, the Uttar Pradesh government dropped charges in 22 cases tied to riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 that claimed at least 65 lives and displaced thousands. By year’s end, the state government had dropped charges in at least 70 cases related to the riots. Since 2017, Muzaffarnagar courts have acquitted the accused in 40 of 41 cases involving attacks against Muslims. A BJP state legislator from the region said there were 93 other (pending) cases involving false allegations of Hindu attack against Muslims, which he said were brought for political reasons. By year’s end, there was one conviction related to the riots that followed the killings of two Hindu youths.

On April 23, the Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to pay a Muslim woman five million rupees ($70,400) in compensation for being gang-raped during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim communal riots in that state. Fourteen members of her family, including her two-year-old daughter and mother, were killed during the riots.

On July 27, Gujarat police arrested four persons on charges that they beat a 17-year-old Muslim youth to death because they objected to his relationship with a tribal girl in Ankleshwar District.

A Special Investigation Team formed in 2018 to assess 186 cases related to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and Punjab in 1984 submitted its report to the government in April; the government presented it to the Supreme Court in November. Supreme Court action, which could include an order to reopen some of the cases, was pending at year’s end.

On September 8, Jharkhand police arrested Catholic priest Binoy John and lay leader Munna Handsda for allegedly trying to convert villagers in Jharkhand’s Godda District. The accused had also reportedly asked villagers to donate their land to the church. They were arrested under a 2017 Jharkhand law that criminalizes religious conversion by inducement or coercion, following a complaint lodged by a villager. Both men were released on bail later in the same month.

Media reported that many of the 271 Christians charged by police in Jaunpur District of Uttar Pradesh in September 2018 with “spreading lies about Hinduism” remained in prison at year’s end. Authorities said the Christians violated national laws against spreading enmity among different religious groups and causing social disharmony.

NGOs International Christian Concern (ICC) and ADF India stated authorities pursued charges against Christians in several states, especially Uttar Pradesh, under religious conversion laws or laws prohibiting “insults” to religion or religious belief, such as Section 259A of the national penal code. In September ICC reported that eight persons were arrested and several house churches closed down in Lakhimpur Khere District. Those arrested were charged under Section 259A, then released a few days later on bail.

According to ICC, Christian pastors, their families, and their congregations were threatened by police and Hindu residents in Jharkhand, with some fleeing their villages out of concern for their safety. ICC reported pastors receiving death threats, mobs attacking Christian worship services, and Christians being detained by police for not giving money for Hindu ceremonies. ICC said that “an atmosphere of impunity” (for attacking Christians) had “been allowed to gather” in the state.

According to the NGO Persecution Relief, on January 13, police disrupted a worship service in Uttar Pradesh and arrested six persons, including the female pastor, Sindhu Bharti. According to the NGO and media accounts, the pastor was beaten by police officers and had boiling tea poured down her throat to ensure she was not feigning unconsciousness.

In September activists from the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), disrupted a Christian prayer meeting held by the New Life Fellowship Association in a public school in the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai, accusing it of being a cover for religious conversion. Mumbai police issued a notice to the association, warning that it had not sought the required advance permission to gather in a public place and would face prosecution if it did so again without permission. The police also warned the Bajrang Dal not to disrupt the fellowship’s meetings. The church pastor stated that he objected to the police action and said it violated the right to worship.

According to the website AsiaNews, in June police detained four Christians in Uttar Pradesh for organizing prayer meetings following reports that they were conducting “forced conversions.” The police released the men the same day without charges.

In May the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that police in Uttar Pradesh arrested Reverend Gyan Singh and another Pentecostal Christian in the village of Bugauliya Block, Basti District, for forced conversions. Police told GCIC that they would release the two without charges. In June authorities arrested Uttar Pradesh pastor Dependra Prakash Maleywar of the Church of North India after he was accused of the forced conversion of 16 persons. Police originally arrested Maleywar after a local Hindu activist accused him of an assault against Bajrang Dal activists. A judge ordered Maleywar held in custody for 14 days pending an investigation; after a week, authorities released him on bail. Police in Jharkhand arrested Dalu Soren, a Christian veterinarian, on October 16, after a 13-year-old girl’s father filed a complaint alleging forced conversion of his daughter by Soren.

On April 11, in Jamadha Village in Uttar Pradesh, according to the NewsClick website, members of a Christian group were detained under a section of the criminal procedure code that gives local magistrates the authority to prohibit the gathering of four or more persons or the holding of public meetings. The action came after a Hindu nationalist group interrupted the Christians’ prayer meeting and called the police.

In August a judge of the Madras High Court in Tamil Nadu said that coeducational study in Christian institutions was “unsafe for girls.” The judge made his remarks in the context of a case involving allegations of sexual assault against a professor in a Christian college that was not linked to conversion. After strong protests from the Tamil Nadu Catholic Bishops’ Council, other Christian organizations, and civil society groups, the judge removed his comments from the court order.

On September 2, Uttar Pradesh police launched a smartphone-based intelligence-gathering system that they said was designed to alert them to flare-ups of communal tensions, so-called “anti-social elements,” and land disputes. According to reports, 10 individuals in every village across the state agreed to provide information on communal tensions. Cross-referencing among the informants was meant to help combat rumors.

On November 9, the Supreme Court awarded the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh – which was destroyed in a riot by members of Hindu nationalist organizations in 1992 – to Hindu organizations to build a temple. Hindus stated the site of the mosque was the birthplace of the god Ram, and that the mosque had been built in the 16th century by destroying a Hindu temple there. Muslims stated they rejected this account and claimed ownership of the mosque. The court decision provided five acres of land elsewhere in Ayodhya for Muslims to build a new mosque. In December Muslim litigants, the prominent Muslim organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, and the AIMPLB petitioned the court to review the decision and permit the mosque to be rebuilt on its original site. The Hindu Mahasabha organization filed a petition against the decision to provide five acres for the mosque. Prominent Muslim community members signed a petition to accept the court ruling, but also stated that the judgment gave precedence to the Hindu faith. Others criticized the court for not addressing Muslim grievances concerning the violent destruction of the mosque. On December 12, the Supreme Court dismissed all review petitions and upheld its original decision.

On August 10 in New Delhi, the Delhi Development Authority demolished the Guru Ravidas Hindu temple and its idols on the grounds that it had been built illegally on government-owned property. The demolition, which had been delayed by court challenges from Dalit groups since 1986, was followed by protests in Punjab and other parts of North India. On August 21, large groups of mostly Hindu Dalit protesters came to New Delhi from Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and other states to demand that the government hand over the concerned plot of land to the community and rebuild the temple. Police armed with batons dispersed the crowd, and some were detained. Representatives of several Muslim organizations supported the demand for reconstructing the temple. In September the management of the temple petitioned the Supreme Court to intervene again in the matter. In October the Supreme Court accepted the government’s plan to rebuild a smaller temple at the same site.

In April, according to AsiaNews, the High Court in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) ordered Uttar Pradesh to reopen a church in Siddharth Nagar District, protect the church members, and allow them to conduct religious observances in peace. Authorities shut down the church in 2018 when a Hindu group filed a complaint against it.

In March the Kerala Law Reforms Commission circulated a draft of a proposed “Kerala Church (Properties and Institutions) Bill” for public review. The draft bill proposed the state set up a tribunal to intervene in any property disputes in which a church was involved (such disputes were not further specified). The proposed bill elicited a strong reaction from Christian churches in Kerala, as it would have eroded the authority of a church’s leadership in managing the affairs of the church. Officials in the Kerala state government later stated the government had no intention to move forward with the bill following strong opposition from leading churches in the state.

On August 31, Assam authorities published the final state-level NRC, which listed the citizens residing there. The NRC list excluded 1,906,657 residents, compared to four million in the earlier draft NRC of July 2018. Excluded residents were able to appeal to foreigners’ tribunals, and subsequently to the high court and the Supreme Court. Although the religious profile of those excluded was not contained in the NRC list, the BJP’s Assam unit stated it was concerned that more Bengali Hindus were excluded than Muslims, and that the results “favor the illegal Bangladeshi migrants.”

A report released in August by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found evidence of anti-Muslim bias among police in the country. In Uttarakhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Jharkhand, two-thirds of police surveyed felt that Muslims were more prone to commit crimes than other religious communities. In Uttarakhand, 80 percent of police personnel expressed this opinion. One-third of those surveyed felt that it was natural for a mob to resort to violence in cases of cow slaughter. Almost one-third of respondents said they felt that religious minorities were not given equal treatment with police forces. Sikh individuals were most likely to hold this opinion.

In September the newly-elected Andhra Pradesh state government began implementing a Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party election pledge to provide a salary supplement of 10,000 to 35,000 rupees ($140-$490) a year to Hindu priests who conducted regular rituals in rural temples and a 25 percent increase in the salaries of priests working in temples with “meager revenues.” The new government also pledged an additional 15,000 rupees ($210) to imams and muezzins, and 5,000 rupees ($70) to Christian clergy each year.

The BJP criticized the Andhra Pradesh government’s initiative to conduct a survey of Christian clergy using state resources, stating that under its chief minister, a Christian, the government was acting in a biased manner. A journal affiliated with a Catholic church near Delhi criticized the state government, stating that it was the responsibility of religious boards and communities, and not secular state governments, to support religious activities.

On August 25, Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary L.V. Subrahmanyam declared that non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions in Andhra Pradesh’s Hindu religious temples board, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), would be removed from their positions. He said their presence in the TTD, which manages several Hindu temples in Tirupati city in southern Andhra Pradesh, “hurts the sentiments” of Hindu pilgrims. The chief secretary stated that non-Hindu employees must not conceal their religious beliefs, and that inspections of employees’ residences would be conducted if needed to discern their religious affiliations. According to media reports, the state government decided to remove the non-Hindu employees because of public criticism that tickets given to Hindu pilgrims visiting the Tirumala temple on state-run buses had details of a Jerusalem tour on the back. The TTD stated it was not involved with producing the tickets. According to media reports, however, the TTD may have acted against the non-Hindus because of alleged Christian proselytization on temple premises in the past. The TTD had tried to remove 42 non-Hindu employees in 2018, but the Hyderabad High Court stayed the order. In the wake of the state’s August announcement, the court asked the state government to provide an explanation for the removal of non-Hindu employees working in nonreligious positions. Ultimately, no non-Hindus were removed from the TTD during the year.

In May, July, and November, the Supreme Court granted bail to all seven Christians convicted by a trial court in 2013 in the 2007 killing of VHP leader Swami Laxmanananda. The Odisha High Court had deferred bail hearings for more than two years. Christian legal aid organizations and an independent journalist lobbied for their release on bail, stating the seven individuals were innocent and that the trial court had convicted them on “flimsy evidence.”

According to NGO sources, authorities reportedly denied three U.S. citizens entry under non-missionary visas due to concerns that they intended to engage in missionary activity, although the U.S. citizens denied that this was their intention.

An 86-year-old Spanish missionary nurse from the Daughters of Charity left the country on August 20 after the Ministry of External Affairs refused to renew her visa and informed her that she would have to depart within 10 days. She had worked among the poor in the Gajapati District of Odisha for 50 years. The ministry did not disclose the reason for the denial, but a member of parliament said the decision may have been motivated by the ministry’s “unstated policy of denying visas to foreign nationals who indulge in religious activities.”

In April Hindu Mahasabha Party (HMP) Vice President Deva Thakur called for the forced sterilization of Muslims and Christians. Media also reported that the HMP continued to operate unsanctioned “courts” based on the principles of Hindutva (Hindu cultural, national, and religious identity) after it unsuccessfully petitioned the prime minister in 2018 to close sharia courts around the country. The Hindu “courts” dealt with a range of issues, including interreligious relationships. A self-styled Hindu judge told the media in October that her court sought to “cleanse a girl’s mind and even get the police involved” in cases where a Hindu woman is involved with a Muslim man.

According to data compiled by news channel NDTV, there were 25 instances of public officials engaging in hate speech in December after the president signed the CAA into law, the highest number recorded in a single month since the Modi government came to power in 2014. NDTV said of the 25 instances, 23 were comments were made by BJP leaders. Formal requests to open investigations had been filed for three of those instances by year’s end. On December 15, referring to anti-CAA protesters, the prime minister said that people could make out who was spreading violence by the clothes they wore. Media outlets and editorial commentary criticized the statement for implying that individuals in Muslim attire were responsible for the violence.

On September 18, Telangana state lawmaker T. Raja Singh of the BJP released two videos announcing the creation of a vigilante army to “deal with traitors inside the country” and to create a Hindu Rashtra (nation). He stated, “Whichever traitor is hidden inside India will be dragged out and worn down, and sent outside India – or even directly to Jahannum (Urdu for hellfire).”

In August a bill criminalizing “triple talaq,” the practice by which a Muslim man may divorce his wife instantly by saying the Arabic word for divorce (talaq) three times, became law. This followed a 2018 government executive order that set a fine and prison sentence for the practice, and a 2017 Supreme Court ruling that the practice was unconstitutional and inconsistent with Islamic law. Some Muslim organizations, including the AIMPLB, and Muslim politicians, including MP Asaduddin Owaisi, criticized the new law. In October the AIMPLB filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the new law.

Using Aligarh Muslim University as an example, the government continued its 2016 challenge to a Supreme Court ruling that recognized the minority status of Islamic educational institutions and their resulting independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. In February the chief justice referred the challenge to a seven-judge panel for action.

Unlike in 2018, no state or local jurisdiction with an Islamic-origin name was renamed during the year.

In July 49 celebrities and activists wrote Prime Minister Modi a letter asking him to intervene to stop rising incidents of attacks on minorities, misuse of religion by Hindu hardliners, and intolerance against dissent in the country. News accounts suggested the letter was timed to imply that Hindu nationalist supporters of Modi’s BJP might feel emboldened by their electoral victory in May to increase actions against religious minorities. According to HRW, Bihar state authorities filed a sedition case against the writers of the letter in October. Following a public outcry, including by 180 celebrities and activists in addition to those who endorsed the July letter, the case was closed. By year’s end, there was no reaction from the government to the letter.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Hate Crime Watch, an initiative of media data project IndiaSpend, recorded a significant increase in overall religious identity-motivated hate crimes between 2014 and 2018. These included acts of communal violence, attacks on interfaith couples, and violence related to cow protection and religious conversions. According to Hate Crime Watch, 123 incidents of cow-related violence took place between 2010 and 2019 in which 50 percent of the victims were Muslim. AI’s “Halt the Hate” report recorded 181 hate crime incidents in the first half of 2019, 121 against Dalits, 40 against Muslims, and the remainder against Christians, indigenous peoples, and other groups. The AI report showed 100 hate crime incidents over the same period in 2018. The report included 37 cases of mob attacks against Muslims in the first half of the year, including five lynchings.

Uttar Pradesh accounted for 869 of 2,008 incidents of harassment against religious minorities and Dalits between 2016 and mid-2019, according to an analysis of National Human Rights Commission data conducted by the publication India Today. Most of them took place in Hindu-majority areas. According to the analysis, Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state with more than 200 million inhabitants, had more incidents than any other state, but such incidents had decreased in the last two years, from 42 cases in 2016-17 to 19 in 2018-19. Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, and Uttarakhand comprised 75 percent of incidents recorded by the commission.

On February 6, the MHA presented data in the lower house of parliament showing a 9 percent increase in incidents of religious violence nationwide from 2015 to 2017 (the most recent government yearend statistics available). In 2017 there were 822 incidents, resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries.

According to news articles, on July 30, a 17-year-old male Muslim in the Chandauli District of Uttar Pradesh died from burn injuries after he was set on fire for not chanting “Jai Shri Ram.” Police denied that he was forced to chant the religious slogan, and the Chandauli superintendent of police said the victim gave inconsistent statements, that CCTV footage was inconsistent with his statements, and that a witness had seen the victim set himself on fire.

On April 10, according to media reports and the survivors, a group of Hindu individuals from a neighboring village attacked and killed tribal Christian Prakash Lakda of Jurmu Village in Jharkhand. Three other tribal Christians sustained severe injuries. The four men were reportedly attacked for butchering an ox.

On September 22, according to media reports, individuals from Suari Village in Khunti District of Jharkhand beat three tribal Christians suspected of selling beef in the village market. One died in the hospital following the attack, while the other two sustained serious injuries. Villagers told the media that the attackers were affiliated with the Bajrang Dal. The police arrested five persons.

According to an Asia News report, on August 27, Parvati Devi was killed by her husband’s relatives in Jharkhand because she was a Dalit and the couple had converted to Christianity.

In February, according to a report from NGO Persecution.org, Anant Ram, a Christian, was taken from his home in Odisha and beheaded. The report stated that his family believed local Hindus attacked him because of his conversion. Police stated they believed he was killed by Maoist rebels.

Persecution.org reported that on July 14, persons affiliated with what it described as Hindu radical groups seriously injured individuals from eight Christian families in an attack in Belchori Village in Jharkhand. The incident took place after the families reportedly refused to recant their faith.

On June 22 in New Delhi, Muslim cleric Maulana Momin reportedly was told to chant “Jai Shri Ram” by three Hindus in a car. When Momin refused and started to walk off, he was hit by the vehicle. Momin suffered injuries on his head, face, and hands. The police registered a criminal complaint and searched for the alleged assailants, but the investigation was pending at year’s end.

On April 7, according to an India Today report, attackers in Biswanath Chariali, Assam, beat 68-year-old Shaukat Ali, accusing him of selling beef. The crowd also reportedly forced Ali to eat pork. The police arrested one person.

On July 9, local media widely reported an incident involving a Muslim man from a Tamil Nadu village who posted a video of himself eating beef soup. After four young Hindu men living in the same village saw the video, they found the man and stabbed him. The assailants and the man who filmed the video were later arrested for “disturbing communal harmony.”

According to an Asia News report, in September a crowd of 500 persons armed with knives and clubs attacked a Jesuit-run school in Jharkhand, beating several students and injuring at least two severely. They also damaged the school to such an extent that the principal said he believed he would be unable to reopen it. The attackers were reportedly motivated by rumors of forced conversions. By year’s end, there were no reports of arrests or convictions in the case.

According to a Hindustan Times report, on June 6, a group of Muslims attacked Hindu worshipers in a temple in Rohanya, Uttar Pradesh. The report stated that the attackers arrived at the temple and asked worshipers to stop using the loudspeaker. They reportedly said that as the next day was Eid al-Fitr, the temple should stop broadcasting devotional songs. The report further said that after the worshipers refused, the Muslim group cut the loudspeaker wire, removed religious idols, and fought with the Hindu worshipers. Five of the attackers were arrested and faced criminal charges. Police returned the idols to the temple.

On July 17, according to police, 60 to 70 individuals attacked a madrassah and pulled down its boundary wall at Behta Village in Uttar Pradesh after beef was allegedly found in the vicinity. Police filed two criminal complaints, one against a person for cow slaughter and another against the persons who attacked the madrassah.

On August 14, a court in Rajasthan acquitted six individuals accused in the 2017 mob killing of Muslim cattle trader and dairy farmer Pehlu Khan in Alwar, citing contradictions in the police investigation. On June 29, the police had charged Khan (posthumously) and his sons under the state’s cow protection laws. In September the government established a special unit to carry out a fresh investigation into the case and identify lapses made by the police. In October the Rajasthan state government challenged the verdict in the state high court, which dropped the charges against Khan and his sons.

During the year, police arrested and began the prosecution of 33 individuals for killing a police officer and setting fire to the Chingrawati police station in Uttar Pradesh during a cow vigilante incident in December 2018. Those arrested were part of a crowd protesting an incident of cow slaughter. The police charge sheet said the slain police officer had tried unsuccessfully to pacify the mob, which pelted the police with stones when the latter tried to use force against them. In the clash, one villager died of a bullet wound. As of August, seven of the 33 had been released on bail, and five suspects were still at large.

According to ADF India, the helpline of the United Christian Forum recorded more than 300 cases of mob violence against Christians of all denominations in the country during the year.

The NGO Persecution Relief reported 527 incidents of persecution against Christians in its 2019 annual report, compared with 477 in 2018. Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number – 109 – followed by 75 in Tamil Nadu and 32 in Karnataka. The NGO reported that the most common forms of persecution were “threats, harassment, and intimidation,” which accounted for 199 of 527 incidents. It also stated that the number of incidents during year was 60 percent higher than the number reported in 2016.

On August 18, members of Hindu Munnani, a Hindu nationalist organization, attacked 40 Christians near Vellore in Tamil Nadu, according to the GCIC. The Christian group was on a pilgrimage from Karnataka to the Marian shrine in Velankanni. The GCIC report stated that the attackers physically assaulted the pilgrims and destroyed their posters of Jesus and Mary. On August 19, the police identified six of the Hindu Munnani members, who were charged with rioting, attempted murder, and “disturbing religious peace,” although according to a law enforcement official, the police never placed the accused in custody to bring formal charges.

On February 2, according to media reports, police arrested three BJP party workers for assaulting a Christian pastor and two other persons in Ariyalur District of Tamil Nadu. The reports stated that the BJP members forced the three Christians to lie prostrate in a Hindu temple and smeared sacred ash and vermillion on their foreheads in accordance with Hindu temple practice before releasing them. The BJP party workers circulated a video of the incident on social media.

According to a report in the Indian Express, in Kanpur District in Uttar Pradesh on July 28, members of the VHP youth wing allegedly beat a pastor, accused him of attempting conversion and handed him over to the police. The pastor said he had neither been beaten nor had tried to convert anyone, and that he had been called to pray for a sick individual.

According to media reports, in the Ramamurthy Nagar neighborhood near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, approximately 30 Christian families were still being ostracized for their conversion from Hinduism decades ago. The reports stated that community members were denying the Christians access to public water sources, refusing to serve them in village shops, and were boycotting Christian-owned shops and stalls. Sixty lower caste Hindu families from the area converted to Christianity in the 1980s, with approximately one-half converting back in 2018, reportedly under pressure from Hindu Munnani.

On May 5, according to media reports, Hindus and Muslims threw stones at each other in Amberpet, Hyderabad after municipal authorities demolished a mosque to widen a road, which prompted a group of Muslims to attempt to erect a temporary structure at the same location. The police used batons on protestors and prevented BJP state lawmaker T. Raja Singh from visiting the location.

The 2019 Jehovah’s Witnesses annual report listed 41 incidents of harassment around the country from January through May, including 11 instances of mobs confronting Jehovah’s Witnesses and accusing them of forced conversion. The report included three cases of physical assault, with minor injuries. The report stated that in 18 of the 29 incidents reported to police, the members involved were initially detained and then released without incident. According to the report, a Jehovah’s Witness house of worship was broken into in February in Rourkela, Odisha. The members filed a report with the local police, but there was no follow-up by year’s end.

On August 18, a court in Pune court denied bail to two suspects arrested for the 2013 killing of Narendra Dabholkar, leader of the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (MANS), an anti-superstition movement.

On August 21, Mumbai police arrested three teenage boys after a Muslim motorist complained that they used religious slurs and had assaulted him in the Vikhroli neighborhood.

On August 24, police in Vadodara, Gujarat arrested three men after they assaulted a uniformed Muslim police official during his off-duty hours and reportedly insulted him regarding his faith following an interpersonal dispute.

In July four men were arrested for uploading a clip onto YouTube following complaints that it was a “hate song” targeting non-Hindus. The songwriter, Santosh Yadav, was among those arrested. Yadav denied that the song targeted anyone and said it was only meant to express his love for Hinduism. He blamed “anti-Ram” elements in the media for his arrest. The organizers of the YouTube channel removed the clip and apologized.

In August seven persons accused of involvement in an incident of communal violence that resulted in the 2018 killing of a police inspector in Bulandshahr District in Uttar Pradesh were welcomed by their supporters with patriotic slogans and flower garlands after being released on bail. All those accused of rioting were released, but none of the individuals arrested for murder were granted bail. The violence took place on December 3, 2018, after a cow carcass was found in a field in Bulandshahr, where thousands of Muslims had gathered for a religious event.

In a May 1 editorial, the official newspaper of the Shiv Sena Hindu nationalist party urged Prime Minister Modi to ban the burqa following Sri Lanka’s decision to do so in the wake of Easter bomb attacks in Colombo. According to media reports, following public protests from Muslim leaders, the Shiv Sena spokesperson later clarified that the editorial was not the party’s official line, and the BJP spokesperson added that under PM Modi’s leadership, “India is safe,” and that a ban on face coverings therefore was not required.

Several acts of vandalism and arson targeting Christian sites and symbols occurred during the year. According to the NGO Persecution Relief, 17 church buildings were attacked around the country, including in Belgaum District, Karnataka, where a group of men set fire to a church under construction on December 17. The NGO said the pastor filed a complaint with police, but a group returned on December 22 to finish burning the building. The police provided protection to the pastor and church members after the incident. According to NGO Open Doors, on January 9, Hindus tore down a church building in Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh, because it was built in a location “which violated Hindu principles of placement and positioning.”

On July 10, in New Delhi’s historic Old Delhi area, Muslims and Hindus joined for a public feast and to install a new idol in a Hindu temple that had been vandalized the prior week during a brief period of communal tensions. According to media, a significant police presence in the area helped calm tensions. A Muslim member of the community told the media, “We don’t support such things (communal violence) and want peace in the area.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, representatives from the embassy and consulates met with government officials to discuss challenges faced by religious minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, incidents of cow vigilantism, the status of religious freedom in the country, and religiously motivated violence. Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, engaged with members of parliament and politicians from the ruling and opposition parties to understand their positions on the CAA. They emphasized the need to address the legitimate concerns of the country’s religious minorities, to condemn communal rhetoric, and to ensure full protection of minorities as guaranteed under the constitution. Representatives from the embassy and consulates also met with Muslim politicians, NGOs, civil society members, academics, and interfaith harmony leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities.

In October the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom raised concerns with senior government officials about violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities. He also shared concerns he received from foreign religious leaders and religious institutions about challenges in acquiring visas. In December the Ambassador at Large used social media to express concern about the implications of the CAA and the hope that the government would “abide by its constitutional commitments, including on religious freedom.”

In August the Deputy Secretary of State conducted a roundtable with religious leaders and religious freedom experts.

In October the Ambassador at Large met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society groups in New Delhi and raised concerns over the treatment of religious minorities, including cow-related lynchings, anti-conversion laws, and communal violence. The Ambassador at Large also met with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, where he delivered remarks at the 60th anniversary celebration of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts.

In July the Department of State senior bureau official for south and central Asian affairs met with religious leaders from multiple faiths and civil society interlocutors engaged in pursuing cases of religious persecution.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador routinely engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, to discuss their concerns. In late May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties, at which he stressed the importance of religious diversity and the need to demonstrate empathy and mutual respect for members of other faiths.

In March the embassy hosted the dean of religious life of a U.S. university for a five-day outreach program on religious freedom. The dean traveled to New Delhi, Varanasi, and Lucknow and highlighted the importance of religious inclusion with representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths, as well as youth leaders, intellectuals, students, and civil society groups. Discussions centered on challenges to religious reconciliation in the country’s northern areas, and also provided opportunities for members of different faiths to discuss their interests and concerns.

Embassy and consulate officers continued to meet with religious organizations, missionary communities, and NGOs of all religious backgrounds to discuss religious freedom; understand concerns related to an increase in attacks against religious minorities and the perceptions of diminishing space for religious freedom; and monitor cases involving reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy representatives specifically reached out to civil rights NGOs, media representatives reporting on minority affairs, interfaith harmony groups, Muslim religious leaders and Muslim politicians to understand their fears concerning the CAA and its likely impact on the Muslim population in the context of potential government plans to draft the National Register of Citizens. The embassy also organized roundtable discussions involving civil society representatives and visiting U.S. government officials on these subjects.

Embassy and consulate representatives continued to meet with the imam of the Jama Masjid, leaders of several other mosques, Hindu priests, and Christian and Catholic leaders, as well as with representatives of the India Islamic Cultural Center, the All India Imams’ Organization, the Parsi community, and Sikh leaders.

The embassy and consulates hosted celebrations marking major religious holidays, including Ramadan, Holi, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter, to bring together leaders from different religious groups and to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. In April the Consul General in Hyderabad hosted a Passover seder and discussed with representatives of principal faiths the need for promoting religious freedom and interfaith understanding.

Indonesia

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 264.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to the 2010 census, approximately 87 percent of the population is Muslim, 7 percent Protestant, 3 percent Roman Catholic, and 1.5 percent Hindu. Those identifying with other religious groups, including Buddhism, traditional indigenous religions, Confucianism, Gafatar, and other Christian denominations, and those who did not respond to the census question comprise approximately 1.3 percent of the population.

The Muslim population is overwhelmingly Sunni. An estimated one to three million Muslims are Shia. Many smaller Muslim groups exist; estimates put the total number of Ahmadi Muslims at 200,000 to 400,000.

Many religious groups incorporate elements of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, making it difficult to disaggregate the exact number of followers. An estimated 20 million people, primarily in Java, Kalimantan, and Papua, practice various traditional belief systems, often referred to collectively as aliran kepercayaan. There are approximately 400 different aliran kepercayaan communities throughout the archipelago.

The Sikh population is estimated between 10,000 and 15,000, with approximately 5,000 in Medan and the rest in Jakarta. There are very small Jewish communities in Jakarta, Manado, Jayapura, and elsewhere, with the total number of Jews estimated at 200. The Baha’i Faith and Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong) communities report thousands of members, but independent estimates are not available. The number of atheists is also unknown, but the group Indonesian Atheists states it has more than 1,700 members.

The province of Bali is predominantly Hindu, and the provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and North Sulawesi are predominantly Christian.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the right to practice the religion of one’s choice and specifies that freedom of religion is a human right that may not be limited. The constitution states, “The nation is based upon belief in one supreme God,” but it guarantees all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or belief, saying the right to have a religion is a human right that shall not be discriminated against.

The constitution also says the state is based on the belief in one God, and the state is obliged to guarantee the freedom of worship. It states citizens must accept restrictions established by law to protect the rights of others and to satisfy, as noted in the constitution, “just demands based upon considerations of morality, religious values, security, and public order in a democratic society. The law restricts citizens from exercising these rights in a way that impinges on the rights of others, oversteps common moral standards and religious values, or jeopardizes security or public order.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) extends official recognition to six religious groups: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism. The government maintains a long-standing practice of recognizing Sunni Islam as the official version of Islam of local Muslims, although the constitution has no such stipulation.

The blasphemy articles in the criminal code prohibit deliberate public statements or activities that insult or defame any of the six officially recognized religions or have the intent of preventing an individual from adhering to an official religion. These articles also stipulate that in any case of defamation of the six officially recognized religions, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA), the MORA, and the Attorney General’s Office must first warn the individual in question before bringing a defamation charge. The articles also forbid the dissemination of information designed to spread hatred or dissension among individuals and/or certain community groups based on ethnicity, religion, or race. Individuals may be subject to prosecution for blasphemous, atheistic, or heretical statements under either of these provisions or under the laws against defamation and may face a maximum prison sentence of five years. A separate law forbids the electronic dissemination of the same types of information, with violations carrying a maximum four-year sentence.

The government defines a religion as having a prophet, holy book, and deity, as well as international recognition. The government deems the six officially recognized religions meet these requirements. Organizations representing one of the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law are not required to obtain a legal charter if they are established under a notary act and obtain approval from the Ministry of Law and Human Rights. Religious organizations other than the six recognized religions listed in the blasphemy law must obtain a legal charter as a civil society organization from the MOHA. Both ministries consult with the MORA before granting legal status to religious organizations. The law requires all civil society organizations to uphold the national ideology of Pancasila, which encompasses the principles of belief in one God, justice, unity, democracy, and social justice, and they are prohibited from committing blasphemous acts or spreading religious hatred. By law, all religious groups must officially register with the government. Registration requirements for religious organizations include: (a) organizations may not contradict Pancasila and the constitution; (b) they must be voluntary, social, independent, nonprofit, and democratic; and (c) they must have a notarized articles of association (bylaws) and a specifically defined purpose. The organization then registers with the MORA. After MORA approval, the organization is announced publicly through the state gazette. Violations of the law may result in a loss of legal status, dissolution of the organization, and arrest of members under the blasphemy articles of the criminal code or other applicable laws. Indigenous religious groups must register with the Ministry of Education and Culture as aliran kepercayaan to obtain official, legal status.

A joint ministerial decree bans both proselytizing by the Ahmadi Muslim community and vigilantism against the group. Violations of the Ahmadi proselytizing ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy. According to the criminal code, vigilantism carries a maximum five and one-half-year prison sentence.

A joint ministerial decree bans proselytizing and other activities by the Fajar Nusantara Movement, known as Gafatar. Violations of the ban carry a maximum five-year prison sentence on charges of blasphemy.

There is no joint ministerial decree that bans proselytizing by other groups. The Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), a quasi-governmental Muslim organization, however, has issued fatwas that ban proselytizing by so called deviant groups such as Inkar al-Sunnah, Ahmadiyya, Islam Jama’ah, the Lia Eden Community, and al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah.

The government requires all officially registered religious groups to comply with directives from the MORA and other ministries on issues such as construction of houses of worship, foreign aid to domestic religious institutions, and propagation of religion.

A joint ministerial decree between the MORA and the MOHA states that religious groups may not hold services in private residences, and those seeking to build a house of worship are required to obtain the signatures of at least 90 members of the group and 60 persons of other religious groups in the community stating they support the construction. Local governments are responsible for implementing the decree, and local regulations, implementation, and enforcement vary widely. The decree also requires approval from the local interfaith council, the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB). Government-established FKUBs exist at the city or district level and comprise religious leaders from the six official groups. They are responsible for mediating interreligious conflicts.

The law requires religious instruction in public schools. Students have the right to request religious instruction in any one of the six official religions, but teachers are not always available to teach the requested religion classes. Under the law, individuals may not opt out of religious education requirements. In practice, however, students of minority religious groups are often allowed to opt out and attend study hall instead.

Under the terms of a 2005 peace agreement that ended a separatist conflict, Aceh Province has unique authority to implement sharia regulations. The law allows for provincial implementation and regulation of sharia and extends the jurisdiction of religious courts to economic transactions and criminal cases. The Aceh government states sharia in Aceh only applies to Muslim residents of the province, although nonresident Muslims and adherents to other faiths may accept sharia in lieu of punishment under the criminal code.

Aceh’s provincial sharia regulations criminalize consensual same-sex activity, adultery, gambling, consumption of alcohol, and proximity to members of the opposite sex outside of marriage for Muslim residents of the province. An Aceh governor’s decree forbids women from working in or visiting restaurants unaccompanied by their spouse or a male relative after 9 p.m. A Banda Aceh mayoral decree forbids women from working in coffee shops, internet cafes, or sports venues after 1 p.m. Sharia regulations prohibit female Muslim residents of Aceh from wearing tight pants in public, and they must wear headscarves. One district in Aceh prohibits women from sitting astride motorcycles when riding as passengers. The maximum penalties for violations of sharia regulations include imprisonment and caning. There are regulations intended to limit the amount of force that authorities may exert during a caning.

Many local governments outside of Aceh have enacted regulations based on religious considerations; most of these are in majority Muslim areas. Many of these regulations relate to matters such as religious education and only apply to a specific religious group. Some religiously inspired local regulations in effect apply to all citizens. For instance, some local regulations require restaurants to close during Ramadan fasting hours, ban alcohol, or mandate the collection of zakat (Islamic alms). Other local regulations forbid or limit the religious activities of religious minorities, especially Shia and Ahmadi Muslims.

The marriage law does not explicitly forbid interfaith marriage, but it contains an article stipulating that parties must perform the marriage ceremony according to the rituals of a religion shared by both the bride and groom.

The law requires the leader of an aliran kepercayaan group to demonstrate group members live in at least three regencies, which are administrative designations one level below a province, before the leader may officiate legally at a wedding. This constraint effectively bars believers of some smaller groups without such geographic presence from receiving official marriage services from a member of their faith, although groups may aid each other and facilitate marriages by a group with a similar faith tradition and rituals.

A joint ministerial decree requires domestic religious organizations to obtain approval from the MORA to receive funding from overseas donors and forbids dissemination of religious literature and pamphlets to members of other religious groups as well as going door-to-door for the purposes of converting others. Most religious groups may, however, proselytize in their own places of worship, except for some groups such as the Ahmadi Muslims.

Foreign religious workers must obtain religious worker visas, and foreign religious organizations must obtain permission from the MORA to provide any type of assistance (in-kind, personnel, or financial) to local religious groups.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In Aceh, authorities continued to carry out public canings for sharia violations, such as selling alcohol, gambling, and extramarital affairs, despite a 2018 ban on public canings announced by Aceh’s governor. Government and sharia officials stated non-Muslim residents of Aceh could choose punishment under sharia or civil court procedures, but Muslim residents of Aceh must receive punishment under sharia. According to media reports and human rights activists, several non-Muslim residents of Aceh chose punishment under sharia, reportedly due to the expediency of punishment and the risk of prolonged and expensive trials and possible lengthy prison sentences.

In August authorities in Aceh caned a Buddhist man and his Muslim girlfriend 27 times after the couple spent time in a Banda Aceh hotel room. According to a local reporter, the man accepted sharia punishment as an alternative to a prison sentence. He was the third Buddhist and eighth non-Muslim to choose punishment under sharia law since its introduction in 2014. Authorities also caned four unmarried Muslim couples between eight and 33 times each for extramarital sex, and they caned two unmarried couples 100 times each in the northern Aceh city of Lhokseumawe after they were found guilty of premarital sex, while a third man received 160 lashes for having sex with a minor.

In March the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by Meliana, an ethnic Chinese Buddhist woman, who in 2018 was sentenced to 18 months in prison for blasphemy. The accusation came after she privately asked a local mosque caretaker’s daughter that the mosque lower its loudspeaker volume. Vice President Jusuf Kalla and some senior members of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim organization, said her remarks should not be considered blasphemy. In May she was released on parole after serving the mandatory two-thirds of her prison term.

In April the Special Criminal Police of Bangka Belitung investigated and detained Daud Rafles, a resident of Sekar Biru Village, Bangka Island, for blasphemy. Village residents identified Rafles in a viral video in which he allegedly read the Quran disrespectfully.

In June, according to Human Rights Watch, authorities arrested a Catholic woman, Suzethe Margaret, and charged her with blasphemy after taking a dog into a mosque. Witnesses stated she was looking for her husband and accused individuals at the mosque of converting him to Islam to marry another woman. She allegedly kicked a mosque guard when asked to leave. Doctors stated the woman needed psychiatric treatment and did not understand what she did. Reports stated the woman faced up to five years in prison if convicted. At year’s end, prosecutors recommended the court sentence the woman to eight months in prison.

In April the Mayor of Malang, East Java, issued a circular urging non-Muslims not to “eat, drink, or smoke” in public places during Ramadan because it could hurt the feelings of fasting Muslims. The circular was posted on Malang’s municipal government twitter account.

In April the press reported that a Catholic family was forced to leave Karet Village in Bantul, Yogyakarta, after staying one night in a house the family rented; local residents protested the family’s presence and filed a report with Bantul regency officials. According to media reports, some villagers from Karet argued that under district law all newcomers must be Muslim. After mediation, the village chief and Bantul Regency government officials told the family they could stay in the village; press reports, however, stated the family chose to leave.

In March church leaders from the Christian church Gereja Bethel Indonesia in South Birobuli, Central Sulawesi, closed their place of worship due to objections from the local community. Media reported that church leaders, the head of the FKUB, local officials, and police met to discuss the fate of the church and that the church failed to receive approval from at least 60 members of the local community, as required by MORA regulation. Police told media that the land where the church was located was in dispute and the church did not have a building permit.

According to The Jakarta Christian Post, in August authorities revoked a recently issued permit for a Pentecostal church in Yogyakarta after protests and threats from Muslims in the area. The district chief stated he revoked the permit because the church did not meet requirements established by a ministerial decree regulating houses of worship, saying “a house of worship cannot be a home at the same time.”

In August according to media reports, the Indragiri Hilir District Civil Service Police Unit (Satpol PP) stopped worship activities at the Indonesian Pentecostal church Efata Church in Sari Agung Hamlet, Indragiri Hilir Regency, Riau. Worship activities had been proceeding there for five years. The head of Satpol PP said officials had to stop worship activities because they occurred at the pastor’s house and not in a house of worship. According to officials, the decision to stop services was made after the district government consulted with district leaders and the district FKUB, which included Christian representatives from Tembilahan, the district capital. A legal aid organization said the Sari Agung Hamlet pastor leading the congregation was not consulted during the process and therefore chose to continue to conduct religious services at a nearby tent. Local authorities identified an alternate worship site nine miles away from the pastor’s residence, but the congregation rejected this location due to its inaccessibility.

In September the regional secretary of Makassar Municipality in South Sulawesi released a government circular that stated, “Be wary of and not be influenced by Shia ideology and teachings.” The letter, issued on the day Ashura was observed, also asked persons to prevent dissemination of Shiism, calling it “deviant teaching.” Media reported the circular was based on an “illegal” circular issued by the South Sulawesi government in 2017. Dozens of human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and activists in Makassar issued a statement a week later criticizing the circular and demanding that the provincial and municipal governments stop issuing what they termed intolerant circulars and prevent intolerant actions in the community.

In September the Regent of Gowa, South Sulawesi, issued a decree disbanding Tarekat Taj Al-Khalwaty Syech Yusuf, a Sufi religious group with 10,000 followers across Gowa and Takalar Regencies. The decision followed a 2016 heresy fatwa issued by the Gowa branch of MUI against the group. MUI Gowa reported the group and its leaders to the police for blasphemy and defamation against MUI Gowa and money laundering. In November Gowa police arrested the group’s leader, Puang Lalang, on charges of financial fraud, embezzlement, and blasphemy for charging followers up to 50,000 Indonesian rupiah ($4) for membership. MUI also issued heresy fatwas against the group in Sinjai Regency and Takalar Regency, South Sulawesi.

In September the speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly disallowed a non-Muslim female member from reading a prayer at the legislature’s final session on September 27, which would have marked the first time a non-Muslim woman read the closing prayers.

The government continued to support a smartphone app called Smart Pakem allowing citizens to file heresy or blasphemy reports against individuals and groups with what the government considers unofficial or unorthodox religious practices. The Jakarta Prosecutor’s Office launched the app in December 2018 with the expressed goal of streamlining the heresy and blasphemy reporting system. Various human rights organizations continued to criticize the app, saying it could undermine religious tolerance and freedom. According to Human Rights Watch, the app identifies several religious groups and their leaders (including Ahmadi, Shia, and Gafatar), describes their “deviant teachings,” and provides their local office addresses.

The MORA maintained its authority at both the national and local level to conduct the “development” of religious groups and believers, including efforts to convert minority religious groups to Sunni Islam. In several West Java regencies, local governments continued efforts to force or encourage conversion of Ahmadi Muslims with a requirement that Ahmadis sign forms renouncing their beliefs in order to register their marriages or participate in the Hajj. According to the local Ahmadiyya community in Tasikmalaya and Banjar, local MORA offices obliged Ahmadis to sign forms stating they denounced Ahmadiyya teachings. This practice began in 2014.

According to religious groups and NGOs, government officials and police sometimes failed to prevent “intolerant groups” from infringing on others’ religious freedom and committing other acts of intimidation, such as damaging or destroying houses of worship and homes. These groups included the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum, Islamic Jihad Front, and the Indonesian Mujahideen Council. For example, the FPI’s registration as a religious organization expired in June. Sources stated the FPI is known for violence against minority religious groups and forcing the shutdown of bars and entertainment establishments it deems immoral. In May an online petition was created demanding the MOHA not renew the FPI’s permit. As of year’s end, the MOHA did not indicate that it would renew the permit, despite the MORA endorsing the renewal of the permit in December, and the group had no legal status.

In March Setara Institute reported there were 202 cases of religious freedom abuses in 2018 (72 cases committed by government and the rest by society), compared with 151 cases in 2017. Abuses cited included discrimination, intolerance, and prohibitions on wearing hijabs in public school.

In September civil society organization The Wahid Foundation reported 276 cases of religious persecution in 2018, as defined by the foundation, including 130 from government-related institutions. The foundation recorded 265 cases in 2017, including 95 from government-related institutions. The foundation’s reported abuses included the issuance of sharia-based local regulations and prohibitions on building houses of worship.

In June the Pemalang police chief in Central Java conducted tolerance training for his police unit by having police officers and the public clean houses of worship of different faiths. In September NGO Madania conducted tolerance training called “Peace Initiative” for religious teachers.

In November FPI members intimidated the non-Muslim Regent of West Bangka, Bangka Belitung, to prevent his celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in his official residence.

More than 500 Shia Muslims from Madura remained displaced on the outskirts of Surabaya, East Java, after communal violence forced them from their homes in 2012. In Mataram, the capital of West Nusa Tenggara, 131 Ahmadi Muslims remained internally displaced in cramped apartments after a mob expelled them from their Lombok village in 2006.

Human rights organizations criticized a proposed bill, withdrawn after widespread protests, that would have revised the criminal code and expanded the 1965 blasphemy law. The bill proposed increasing the enumeration of “the elements of crime” to include items such as defaming religious artifacts. A coalition of local civil society organizations said the law would discriminate against non-Muslims, non-Sunni Muslims, local religious minorities, as well as women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender persons.

Across the country, minority religious groups, including Muslim groups in non-Muslim majority areas, continued to state the official requirement for a specific number of supporters to build or renovate a house of worship served as a barrier to construction. In May a group of Hindus wanted to build a temple in Bekasi, West Java. Persons in the surrounding area rejected the project by saying the number of Hindus in the neighborhood was too low.

Local governments did not issue permits even when the worshippers obtained the requisite numbers if opponents of the construction pressured neighbors not to approve. In many cases, a few vocal opponents from the local majority religious affiliation were reportedly sufficient to stop construction approvals. State-recognized religious leaders in government-supported interfaith forums reportedly found ways to block aliran kepercayaan believers from constructing places of worship, largely through stringent permit requirements. Aliran kepercayaan adherents said they were fearful of atheism accusations if they were to contest this treatment in court. Christian leaders reported that local officials indefinitely delayed permit approval for requests to build new churches because these officials feared construction would incite protests. Ahmadi and Shia Muslims and Christians said they also faced problems when seeking approval to move to temporary facilities while a primary place of worship underwent renovation.

Local governments, police, and religious organizations reportedly tried to close religious minority groups’ houses of worship for permit violations, often after protests from “intolerant groups,” even if the minority groups had a proper permit. In July the Regent of Bantul, Yogyakarta, removed the building permit from a Pentecostal church in Sedayu, Bantul, following protests and pressure by the local community.

Many congregations could not obtain the requisite number of nonmember signatures supporting construction of a house of worship and often faced protest from “intolerant groups” during the application process, making permits nearly impossible to obtain. Even when authorities issued permits, they closed or forced construction to halt on some houses of worship after facing legal challenges and public protests. Protestant and Catholic churches also reported that “intolerant groups” forced them to pay protection money to continue operating without a permit. Some houses of worship established before the joint ministerial decree on house of worship construction came into effect reportedly were still obligated to meet the requirements or face closure. Many houses of worship operated without permits in office buildings, malls, private homes, and shops.

In August local residents stopped the construction project of an Indonesian Baptist church in Tlogosari Wetan, Semarang, Central Java. They argued that the building permit owned by the group had expired, and they subsequently blocked access to the project site where the church was being built. The Semarang administration subsequently decided to review the building permit. Semarang Mayor Hendrar Prihadi said the church construction would be halted until he verified the permit’s validity.

Church leaders in Jambi said they had been trying to obtain appropriate building permits from the city administration to build places of worship since 2003, but city authorities had not granted these due to opposition from community authorities. The head of the Jambi Municipal Civil Service Police Unit said three churches were shut down in 2018 because they violated regional regulations and did not have proper building permits. At year’s end, the three churches remained closed. In 2018 an activist created a petition online urging the government to reopen these churches. As of December, approximately 3,900 people had signed the petition.

Construction was completed on the Santa Clara Catholic Church in Bekasi, West Java. The congregation had waited more than 15 years for the approval of its construction permit before receiving it in 2015, and “intolerant groups” regularly targeted the construction site for protests. The church was formally opened by the Bekasi mayor on August 17.

Aliran kepercayaan followers continued to say teachers pressured them to send their children to a religious education class of one of the six officially recognized religions. Minority religious groups not among the six recognized religions said schools often allowed their children to spend religious education time in study hall, but school officials required parents to sign documents stating their children received religious education. Ahmadi Muslim students reported religion classes for Islam focused only on Sunni teachings.

In November media reported that a public school expelled two Jehovah’s Witness students after they declined to recite the national anthem, salute the national flag, and attend religious classes, citing their beliefs. The decision to expel the students was made in coordination with the local MORA branch, the Batam Education Authority, police, and the military. Following objections filed by a law firm representing the expelled students, the provincial Board of Education in Batam eventually ordered the cancelation of the expulsion letters. The two students returned to school after almost two months.

Although the government generally allowed citizens to leave the religion column blank on their KTPs, individuals continued to report difficulties accessing government services if they did so. Faced with this problem, many religious minority members, including those following indigenous beliefs, reportedly chose to identify as a member of an officially recognized religion close to their beliefs or reflecting the locally dominant religion. According to researchers, this practice obscured the real number of adherents to any particular religious group in government statistics. Following a 2017 Constitutional Court ruling, citizens were allowed to select indigenous faiths as an option on their KTPs. In 2018 MORA officials said they were planning on implementing this law in order to identify indigenous faiths on KTPs. Early in the year, three jurisdictions began issuing KTPs that allowed the faith category “Faith in One God” in South Sulawesi, Bandung, and Cirebon (West Java).

NGOs and religious advocacy groups continued to urge the government to remove the religion field from KTPs. Religious minorities reported they sometimes faced discrimination after others saw their religious affiliation on their KTPs. Members of the Jewish community said they felt uncomfortable stating their religion in public and often chose to state they were Christians or Muslims depending on the dominant religion where they lived, due to concern that local communities did not understand their religion.

Men and women of different religions who sought to marry reportedly had difficulties finding a religious official willing to perform a wedding ceremony. Some couples of different religions selected the same religion on their KTPs in order to marry legally.

Minority Muslim groups, including Ahmadis, Shia, and Gafatar, also continued to report resistance when they applied for KTPs as Muslims, effectively denying them access to public services if they could not secure KTPs.

Both the central and local governments included elected and appointed officials from minority religious groups. For example, the Mayor of Solo was Catholic. After beginning a second term in October, President Widodo’s new 34-member cabinet included six members of minority faiths, the same as during his previous administration.

Foreign religious workers from many religious groups continued to state they found it relatively easy to obtain visas, and some groups reported little government interference with their religious activities.

Police provided special protection to some Catholic churches in major cities during Sunday services and Christian holidays. Police also provided special protection to Buddhist and Hindu temples during religious celebrations.

According to the law, a marriage is legitimate if it has been performed according to the laws of the respective religions and beliefs of the parties concerned. Nevertheless, interreligious marriage was difficult unless the groom or bride was willing to be married according to the religious rituals of only one of the two religions. Many individuals who performed interreligious marriage preferred to go abroad for the marriage.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to an Ahmadiyya leader in Bandung, West Java, “intolerant groups” continued to use MUI fatwas to justify actions against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, even though the fatwas lacked legal standing. For example, in January a group of individuals disbanded a book discussion organized by Ahmadiyya in Bandung, West Java, saying the book promoted Ahmadiyya messages.

Individuals affiliated at the local level with MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects. In July 12 anti-Ahmadiyya groups protested against an Ahmadiyya annual event in Gowa, South Sulawesi, held by members to discuss their annual strategy. 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.

Throughout the year there were disputes between religious groups in the predominantly Christian province of Papua. Some religious leaders stated that many disputes between ethnic Papuans and migrants to Papua were based on ethnicity, economic competition, and political grievances rather than religion. In July a group called the Moral Guard Alliance Makassar forced the closure of two food stalls that sold pork at a shopping mall in Makassar. The organization’s leader told media the mall management closed the stalls in response to an alliance letter asking the mall to prohibit nonhalal food items. Mall management said it would try to find a more suitable location for the stalls. The two food stalls opened in January, and the mall management stated the stalls put up signs warning visitors that they sold nonhalal food.

In May prominent leaders from all of Surabaya’s principal faith communities participated in commemorations of the anniversary 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. Christian leaders in Surabaya said they were encouraged by sympathy and support shown toward the affected Christians by the local Muslim community.

In August Ustadz Abdul Somad, a Muslim cleric from Riau, was reported to district police for blasphemy when a video recorded three years earlier had gone viral. In the video, Somad said a Christian cross contained a kafir (infidel) genie (demon) in response to a question from a worshipper. Members of Horas Bangso Batak (a North Sumatra ethnic-based organization that is mostly Christian) filed a complaint with the district police in Metrojaya, Jakarta. Members of Brigade Meo, a Christian-based organization in East Nusa Tenggara, also reported him to the local police. At year’s end, the case remained under police investigation.

In March German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that several Jewish graves in a public cemetery in Jakarta were desecrated.

In October the inaugural report on anti-Semitism by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed found that “over 57 percent of teachers and lecturers and 53.74 percent of students in Indonesia agreed with a survey statement claiming that ‘Jews are the enemies of Islam.’” Additionally, the report stated that local Jewish community leaders reported it was common for the public to equate all Jews with Israel.

According to AsiaNews, in April unknown individuals damaged several wooden crosses at a Christian cemetery in Mrican, Yogyakarta.

MUI supported a Christian funeral service taking place in front of a mosque in Jakarta in September.

Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism. In November Vice President Ma’ruf Amin and Grand Imam of Istiqlal Mosque Nasaruddin Umar stated that religious tolerance would be an increasing focus in the country’s education.

The largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups in many instances. For example, in February Haedar Nashir, Muhammadiyah chairman, called on all citizens to demonstrate tolerance and to live in peace with other religious communities. Said Aqil Siradj, Nahdlatul Ulama chairman, stated in August that tolerance was an important element of a proper attitude and a good personality.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy in Jakarta, the consulate general in Surabaya, and the consulate in Medan regularly engaged with all levels of government on specific religious freedom issues, such as actions against religious minorities; closures of places of worship; access for foreign religious organizations; convictions for blasphemy and defamation of religion; the undue influence of “intolerant groups” and the importance of the rule of law; the application of sharia to non-Muslims; the importance of education and interfaith dialogue in promoting tolerance; the equal protection of all citizens regardless of their religion; and promotion of tolerance in international forums. Specifically, the embassy met with legislators and other government officials to advocate against the expansion of blasphemy provisions in a bill to amend the criminal code.

The U.S.-Indonesia Council on Religion and Pluralism, a civil-society-led entity endorsed by both governments, includes a diverse group of experts, academics, and religious and civil society leaders from both countries established to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism, and tolerance. The Ambassador engaged its leadership to discuss ways to augment the council’s activity on issues affecting the country’s religious communities. In particular, the Ambassador urged council members to engage in activities with U.S. members and to use the council as a vehicle for joint collaboration between the two countries to combat violent extremism and promote religious freedom.

During Ramadan, the embassy and consulates conducted extensive outreach throughout the country to highlight religious tolerance. The Ambassador promoted religious freedom and tolerance during his appearance on two of the country’s highest-rated television shows. A social media campaign used embassy-produced Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr videos to promote interfaith tolerance within the country.

The embassy’s annual “Ramadan in the U.S.” campaign promoted democratic values including tolerance, volunteerism, and strength in diversity. As part of the campaign, 4,000 high school and university students heard directly from U.S. government-sponsored exchange program former participants about their firsthand experiences of religious tolerance and diversity during their time in the United States. By highlighting the experiences of Muslim travelers and Muslim communities in the United States, the campaign celebrated interfaith tolerance.

In March embassy officials met with Muslim and Christian leaders, as well as with members of the local FKUB, in Jayapura, Papua, to discuss efforts to resolve disputes between religious groups in the province.

In April the Ambassador met with prominent Muslim leaders in Padang, hosted an iftar in an Islamic boarding school for women in Padang Panjang in West Sumatra, and discussed tolerance and religious freedom.

In October the consulate in Medan invited Muslim scholars from the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Cleric Coordination Body and Muslim academics from the North Sumatra Islamic State University De-Radicalization Research Center for dialogue on Islamic issues with visiting Washington-based officials.

The Ambassador met periodically with leaders of the country’s two largest Muslim organizations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, to discuss religious tolerance and pluralism and to further develop areas of cooperation.

The embassy implemented several professional exchange programs designed to foster and encourage religious tolerance. These included sponsoring a visit to the United States by eight influential imams (including the senior-most religious leader of the country and the imam of the largest mosque in Southeast Asia) to examine religious pluralism and promote tolerance. Other groups of civil society leaders, university officials, and the head of madrassah teacher training at the MORA attended programs focused on promoting pluralism and tolerance across religious divides and advancing interfaith relations.

The embassy created a new exchange program to expose emerging leaders within Islamic organizations to religious pluralism in the United States, in order to increase religious tolerance in Indonesia by showing how religious tolerance in the United States benefits the entire society.

The embassy sponsored four university students to participate in a Department of State-funded religious freedom program at Temple University. The embassy also sponsored the participation of five individuals in a program, which included a forum on “Tolerance and Coexistence” in November. During the forum, experts discussed topics such as “Interfaith Relations and Global Peace in the Digital Age” and “Making Sense of the New Information Space to Combat Divisions and Polarization.”

The embassy promoted participation in a parliamentary exchange program on religious tolerance and combating online hate speech. The program seeks to enhance the ability of members of parliament to utilize best legislative practices to combat hate speech and protect vulnerable groups against discrimination.

Embassy officials met regularly with counterparts from other embassies to discuss support for the freedom of religion and belief and to exchange information on areas of concern, programs being implemented, and possible areas of cooperation.

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim. The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs. The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” The government continued to execute individuals on charges of “enmity against God,” including two Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority prisoners at Fajr Prison on August 4. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, beatings in custody, forced confessions, poor prison conditions, and denials of access to legal counsel. International media and human rights activists reported authorities in Qarchak Prison for Women routinely targeted Gonabadi Sufi inmates for mistreatment and denied them access to legal counsel. In January the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi Order in Iran, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. Human rights organizations, as well as UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Javaid Rehman, widely decried Ahmadi’s mistreatment, along with that of 10 Gonabadi Sufi women serving prison sentences at Qarchak. They also deplored the high number of deaths and arrests in ethnic and religious minority provinces that, according to the organizations, resulted from the government’s excessive use of force against protesters during November demonstrations. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners. In March CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms of up to 26 years each on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to media, these individuals were among the more than 300 Gonabadi Sufis arrested in 2018 for protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader and the arrest of a fellow devotee, Nematollah Riah. The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, non-Armenian Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) reported in September authorities sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term for charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “supporting opposition groups,” and “propaganda against the state.” The website IranWire reported that between March and October judiciary officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is, and during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial in various cities across the country. According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati to serve a one-year prison sentence after he was tried in absentia for defending the “false Baha’i Faith.” On February 10, according to NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) agents arrested a pastor from Rasht and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to his congregants. Yarsanis stated authorities continued to discriminate against and harass them. The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher education opportunities for members of religious minorities and confiscated or restricted their use of religious materials. There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on businesses owned by Baha’is or forcing them to shut down. The government continued to crack down on public displays of protest of the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. In August international media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to a May report by CHRI, state agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of minority religious groups, particularly those of Gonabadi Sufis. The Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported Baha’is remained barred from government employment at the local, provincial, and national levels, not only in the civil service but also in such fields as education and law.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country. The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds. At the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom…We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs, and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.” On August 2, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz, whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.” The United States supported the rights of members of minority religious groups in the country through actions in the United Nations. In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran 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 Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 84 million (midyear 2019). Muslims are estimated to constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of which 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively. Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable. There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000. There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers. Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers above 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and CHRI estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 – significantly reduced from a peak of approximately 300,000 prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to one international NGO, includes 5,000-10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are areligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s (AI) report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam. Conversion from Islam is considered apostasy, a crime punishable by death. Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims. These activities are considered proselytizing and punishable by death. In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross. Some exceptions are made for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for “enmity against God” (which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities”). According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi schools of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices. It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities. “Within the limits of the law” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies. They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon. Any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups, or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, is considered Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution. The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such. The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahle Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services. The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with the authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or unregistered individuals attend services. Individuals who convert to Christianity are not recognized as Christian under the law. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The supreme leader, the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities. The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The IRGC also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level through university. Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The MOE supervises the private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements. The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts. These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well. Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review. Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion. This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulation states Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is. To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than Baha’i (e.g., Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian). To pass the entrance examination, university applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and supreme leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the supreme leader. To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or “Majles”) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation. The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, president, and parliament and supervises elections for those bodies.

The constitution bans the parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities. There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of the codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyeh, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents, and not for other categories of death such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals. Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system. Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property. A religious fatwa from the supreme leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution. In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad. The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation. The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces. Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran Rehman expressed deep concern about the government’s use of “excessive” force during the November protests in provinces with a majority population of ethnic minorities. The report pointed to the highest number of deaths in these provinces, with at least 84 persons killed in Khuzestan (predominantly Sunni Arab) and 52 in Kermanshah (predominantly Kurdish). IranWire, citing an unnamed Khuzestan official, reported on December 17 that the total number of protester fatalities in Mahshahr, a major city and residence for Ahwazi Arabs in the region, was 148 over five days. On December 1, The New York Times reported IRGC forces killed as many as 100 protestors on a single day, many of whom were local Sunni Arab citizens, by machine gun fire in a marshland in Mahshahr. The special rapporteur also reported officials arrested dozens of activists from ethnic minorities, including Kurds and Azerbaijani-Turks, as well as 10 Baha’is who were arrested in Baharestan on November 29 and 30.

According to AI, authorities executed Abdullah Karmollah Chab and Ghassem Abdullah, two Sunni Ahwazi Arab-minority prisoners, at Fajr Prison on August 4, after they were convicted on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with an armed attack on a Shia religious ceremony in Safiabad. The convictions and executions proceeded despite AI’s and other human rights NGOs’ concerns regarding what they stated was the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.

The NGO Iran Human Rights reported on May 23 that authorities hanged Mehdi Cheraghi on charges of “enmity against God” in connection with the robbery of a jewelry shop in April 2015. According to the report, authorities hanged Cheraghi in public, in the city of Hamadan, during Ramadan. Iran Human Rights also reported authorities executed two prisoners, Hossein Roshan and Mohsen Konani, at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj on charges of “enmity against God” on October 2. Authorities originally arrested and convicted the two prisoners for armed robbery.

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 27, international media reported police in Sistan and Baluchistan Province shot and killed a young Sunni Baluchi man, Mousa Shahbakhsh, after he did not follow orders to stop following a police pursuit because he did not have a driver’s license. Following his death, protests broke out at the governor’s office in the provincial capital of Zahedan; authorities arrested approximately 30 protesters. Media reports noted a tense relationship between the Sunni Baluchi population and the Shia authorities.

AI reported on June 26, Benyamin Alboghbiesh, a Sunni Ahwazi Arab arrested on May 26, died under suspicious circumstances at a detention center believed to be under the control of the IRGC in Ahvaz, Khuzestan. Alboghbiesh’s mother and brother were arrested with him and remained detained at year’s end. Intelligence agents notified Alboghbiesh’s family on June 26 of his death. AI raised concerns that he might have been tortured. AI urged authorities to undertake immediately an impartial investigation into Alboghbiesh’s death and to hold accountable anyone found responsible.

According to HRANA and AI, after arresting Kurdish singer Peyman Mirzazadeh in February, authorities sentenced him to a two-year prison term in May and flogged him 100 times on July 28 for sabb al-nabi, or “insulting the prophet” (80 lashes) and drinking alcohol (20 lashes). AI said the flogging left Mirzazadeh “in agonizing pain with a severely swollen back and legs.”

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards routinely targeting Gonabadi Sufi prisoners for mistreatment, such as encouraging other inmates to physically abuse them. In January CHRI reported authorities gave Elham Ahmadi, an imprisoned member of the Sufi Gonabadi order, an additional sentence of 148 lashes for speaking out about the denial of medical treatment and poor living conditions in the prison. She reportedly had said that another imprisoned Gonabadi Sufi, Shahnaz Kianasl, did not receive proper medical attention.

In his July report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran commented on Ahmadi’s case and those of other Gonabadi Sufis at Qarchak Prison. According to the report, “The special rapporteur is deeply concerned about the situation of members of the Gonabadi Dervish community who remain in detention in Qarchak Prison without access to their lawyers since the protests of 2018. This includes at least 10 women serving prison sentences of up to five years.” CHRI and the special rapporteur reported that in April, according to an unnamed source, a fellow inmate beat Sima Entesari, a Gonabadi Sufi detainee at Qarchak Prison, after prison authorities promised the attacker a case review if she assaulted her fellow prisoner, and they promised to consider her request for conditional release if she attacked Sufi dervishes. The special rapporteur also reported the authorities placed Entesari and four other Gonabadi Sufi detainees sentenced on national security charges in the same ward as prisoners convicted of drug-related charges, theft, and social crimes, in contravention of the prison’s regulations.

Human rights NGOs also reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities in Great Tehran Penitentiary. On January 28, CHRI reported two Gonabadi Sufi dervishes – Hassan Shahreza and Vahid Khamoushi – were denied medical treatment for infected wounds received when security forces shot them with pellet guns during protests in 2018. According to CHRI, Shahreza reportedly retained 200 pellets in his body, which had led to the infections. In addition to pellet gun wounds, Khamoushi had a broken ankle. CHRI reported authorities denied both men access to medical care.

CHRI reported Mitra Badrnejad, a Baha’i woman arrested in March 2018 during a raid by security agents on her home, began her one-year prison sentence on September 22. The revolutionary court in Ahvaz convicted Badrnejad of “membership in the Baha’i Organization” and “propaganda against the state,” with a sentence of five years in prison and two years in exile. Upon appeal, the sentenced was reduced to one year. According to her son, authorities held Badrnejad in solitary confinement for 50 days in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center and in Ahwaz’s Sepidar Prison. Her son also said authorities blindfolded her during interrogation and subjected her to threats and other forms of psychological abuse.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Mohabat News reported that on January 23, eight security officers raided the Isfahan home of Christian convert Sina Moloudian and arrested and beat him, leaving bruise marks on his face. The officers also confiscated cellphones, computers, Bibles, and other religious materials. Authorities emphasized they had been monitoring Moloudian for months prior to the arrest. He was released on bail on February 4.

On February 7, HRANA reported special forces agents beat several Sunni prisoners in Rajaee Shahr Prison. According to HRANA, the beatings came in retaliation for Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi’s refusal to attend his court hearing. Ghoreishi, Hamzeh Darvish, Marivan Karkuki, and Namegh Deldel were among the Sunni inmates severely injured in the beatings.

On February 12, a Baloch NGO reported security guards in the city of Iranshahr, in Sistan and Balochistan Province, shot and killed a young Baluchi man, Davood Zahroozah, while he was transporting fuel in his personal vehicle. HRANA reported a Balochi man, Muhammad Kurd, was shot and killed on February 9 by security forces when they opened fire on his vehicle without warning as he was transporting fuel for sale, a common activity in that region that the government viewed as “smuggling.” According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 109 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, at least 103 were imprisoned on charges of “enmity against God”, 49 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 15 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam,” and 15 for “corruption on earth.” At least 10 were arrested for a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (“baghi”), which officials have used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.”

Noor Ali Tabandeh, the 92-year-old spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Surfi order, died on December 24 after almost two years of house arrest and denial of urgent medical care. He was under house arrest resulting from 2018 protests in Tehran. According to the Majzooban Noor website, as of March, approximately 110 dervishes remained imprisoned in inhumane conditions in Great Tehran Penitentiary and Qarchak Prison. On March 15, CHRI reported the mass sentencing of 23 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes to prison terms ranging from six to 26 years each, which included 74 lashes, two years in exile, a two-year ban on social media and interviews, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad for each. Charges included “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disobeying police,” and “disturbing public order.” According to the November CHRI report, Gonabadi Sufi religious centers remained closed following the 2018 protests.

According to the July report to the UN General Assembly from the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, on March 13 Amir Noori, a member of the Gonabadi Dervish community, was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “acting against the internal security of the country, and disrupting public order.” Noori lost a finger during the 2018 protests, when authorities initially arrested him.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. In January IranWire reported security agents detained and threatened at least three Sunni seminary students and clergymen traveling from Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Mashhad and banned them from entering Sunni seminaries and mosques. Similarly, according to the same report, intelligence agents detained another group of Sunni seminary students traveling from Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchistan Province to Khaf, in Khorasan Province. The agents inspected their phones, notebooks, and cars and forced them to return to Zahedan.

HRANA reported that on September 24, a revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Sunni Imam Tohid Ghoreishi to a 16-year prison term. Ghoreishi, the former imam of Friday prayers at Imam Shafi’i Mosque in Talesh, was originally arrested in April 2014 and had just completed a five-year sentence. The 16-year sentence was based on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security (10 years), “supporting opposition groups” (five years), and “[disseminating] propaganda against the state” (one year).

IranWire reported the arrest of several Baha’is in late November, noting the reasons for the arrests were unclear but appeared related to claims Baha’is had led and spurred on the nationwide protests. On November 27 and 29, security officers in Baharestan, a satellite city of Isfahan, arrested at least ten Baha’is – Soroush Azadi, Shahab Ferdowsian, Nasim Jaberi, Mehranollah Daddy, Shahbaz Bashi, Vahid Niazmand, Naser Lotfi, Ghodus Lotfi, Saghar Manouchehrzadeh, and Homa Manouchehrzadeh – and took them to an unknown location. Following Friday prayers, residents of Baharestan held up signs calling for the arrest of Baha’is and protesters. On November 30, a social media application, Telegraph, reported the arrestees in Baharestan were of Baha’is involved in the unrest and called for them to receive the worst possible punishment.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

According to the Geneva-based Baha’i International Community (BIC) and the UN special rapporteur’s June report, more than 49 Baha’is remained in prison. According to BIC, the Baha’i citizens were arbitrarily detained, and some were subsequently given harsh sentences due to their professed faith and religious identity. IranWire reported between March and October, officials engaged in a wave of increased summons, detentions, and trials of Baha’is since the appointment of a new chief justice earlier in the year. It said during this six-month period, at least 65 Baha’is stood trial. According to media and NGO reports, Baha’is continued to face charges that included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” “espionage and collaboration with foreign entities,” and “actions against national security.” Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution offering mainly distance learning, that the government considered illegal. According to BIC, in many cases, authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRANA, IranWire, and Iran Press Watch (IPW) reported that on April 30, MOIS masked agents arrested three Baha’is in Semnan – Ardeshir Fanaeian, Behnam Eskandarian, and Yalda Firoozian – following a search of their homes. According to the reports, the three were initially held at an unknown location without the right to legal counsel and were accused of “propaganda against the regime.” According to an updated October Iran Wire report, the three were detained in the central prison of Semnan and the judge handling the case held them without clear reason, despite the completion of their interrogations three months prior. In August Iran Wire and IPW reported prison officials allowed inmates to beat Eskandarian, resulting in a ruptured ear, blood clots, and severe inflammation of the inner ear. According to the report, guards observed the attack but did nothing to intervene. On December 16, following an initial ruling by the revolutionary court in Semnan in October, the Semnan Court of Appeals sentenced Fanaeian to a prison term of six years, Eskandarian to three years and six months, and Firouzian to two years and six months.

According to CHRI, on June 2, security agents arrested Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati in his home. Hajati’s wife stated the day before, Hajati had received a text message notifying him authorities had sentenced him in absentia to one year in prison and two years of exile. On June 19, IPW reported 29 prominent political and civil rights activists issued a statement strongly condemning Hajati’s imprisonment. International media and human rights NGOs reported the government previously detained him for 10 days in 2018 for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees. Following that detention, the judiciary placed Hajati under surveillance and banned him from holding his seat on the council for approximately three months.

CHRI and international media reported authorities in February sentenced Mehdi Moghaddari, a member of the Isfahan City Council, to six months in prison for his social media support of Hajati and Baha’i rights. An appeals court upheld the sentence, but authorities did not summon him to prison by year’s end. On April 15, the revolutionary court in Isfahan handed down a six-month suspension from the city council.

In January IPW reported authorities arrested four Baha’is in Isfahan stemming from 2017 convictions of “membership in illegal Baha’i organizations with the intention of acting against national security.” Sohrab Naghipoor was sentenced to five years, while Farzad Homayooni, Mohsen Mehregani, and Manouchehr Rahmani each received 20-month sentences. All remained imprisoned at year’s end.

IPW reported in January the Isfahan Court of Appeals sentenced, in separate judgments, nine Baha’is to prison sentences averaging more than five years each. Authorities charged them with “membership in the illegal Baha’i community and disseminating propaganda against the regime by spreading the Baha’i faith in society.”

CHRI and BIC reported that on May 6, a revolutionary court in Bushehr sentenced seven Baha’is – Asadollah Jaberi, Ehteram Sheikhi, Emad Jaberi, Farideh Jaberi, Minoo Riyazati, Farrokh Faramarzi, and Pooneh Nasheri – to three years in prison each for answering questions about their religious beliefs to Muslim guests in their homes and for “membership in an organization against national security.” According to the report, intelligence ministry agents arrested the seven in February 2018.

HRANA reported that on July 6, the revolutionary court in Birjand sentenced nine Baha’i residents to six years each in prison. According to the report, the court authorities did not allow the defendants to have their lawyer present during the hearing. The nine – Sheida Abedi, Firouz Ahmadi, Khalil Maleki, Simin Mohammadi, Bijan Ahmadi, Maryam Mokhtari, Saghar Mohammadi, Sohrab Malaki, and Bahman Salehi – were convicted of “membership in an illegal…Baha’i group” and “propaganda against the state by promoting Baha’ism.” Authorities also confiscated funds the Baha’i community raised to support the needs of Baha’i residents of Birjand.

IPW reported that in June the revolutionary court in Isfahan sentenced Negin Tadrisi, a Baha’i resident, to a five-year prison term on charges of “collusion and assembly against national security.” According to the report, authorities arrested Tadrisi in October 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day. HRANA and IPW reported that on March 6, judicial authorities sentenced Baha’i Ghazaleh Bagheri Tari to five years in prison for “acting against the security of the country through membership in and administration of Baha’i institutions.” Security forces arrested Bagheri Tari in 2017 during a celebration held in her home marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Herald of the Baha’i Faith. According to the report, security forces required each of the participants in the celebration to sign a pledge not to attend Baha’i gatherings.

On June 25, HRANA reported the revolutionary court in Tehran sentenced Baha’i resident Sofia Mobini to 10 years in prison for “establishing and organizing an illegal Baha’i group with intentions to threaten the national security.” Authorities arrested Mobini in October 2017 during the celebration of the 200th birthday of Baha’u’llah and transferred her to Evin Prison, from which she was later released on bail. According to the report, the maximum allowable penalty for such charges under the relevant article of the penal code is no more than five years imprisonment.

In August BIC and international media reported a wave of arrests of Baha’is in various cities. On August 10, MOIS agents arrested Monireh Bavil Saqlaei, Minou Zamanipour, and Gholamhossein Mazloumi in their homes in Tehran and transferred them to Evin Prison. Simultaneously, authorities arrested Sohaila Haqiqat, a Baha’i resident of Shiraz, in her home and took her to an unknown location, as well as Farid Moqaddam in Birjand. On August 3, according to the reports, authorities detained two Baha’is from Karaj: Abolfazl Ansari and Rouhollah Zibaei. Security agents reportedly ransacked the homes of all the detained Baha’is, confiscating their laptops, smartphones, identification cards, bank statements, and other personal effects. Authorities did not cite charges at the time of the arrests. While confirming these reports, the Geneva-based BIC said it was not yet clear which state-run entity was behind the arrests or what the charges were.

According to HRANA and IPW, on January 21, eight MOIS agents arrested and imprisoned a Baha’i woman living in Tehran, Atousa Ahamadayi, following a search of her house and the confiscation of some of her personal belongings, including books, laptops, and religious material. The agents accused Ahamadayi of committing acts against national security. On March 11, IranWire, HRANA, and IPW reported security agents arrested two Baha’i brothers and residents of Tehran, Hamid Nasseri, at his place of business, and Saeed Nasseri, who had gone to the Evin prosecutor’s office to inquire about on his wife’s detention. According to the report, security forces arrested Nasseri’s wife, Afsaneh Emami, on February 2; authorities transferred all three Baha’i family members to Evin Prison.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and arrests of teachers associated with the program. Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation. According to IPW, on October 9, authorities released BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh after she completed a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution. Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a fiveyear sentence. According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while he was visiting his wife, who was imprisoned at Evin Prison. The Tehran revolutionary court sentenced the two on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”

Since the government did not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces, Baha’i activists said this situation often left women facing irreconcilable differences with their partners, including in cases involving domestic violence, without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

On November 2, BIC reported authorities harassed Baha’is around the time of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Baha’u’llah. Authorities raided Baha’i homes and celebrations in Shiraz, arresting at least five Baha’is. In the days leading to the anniversary, perpetrators vandalized a Baha’i cemetery. Authorities sealed five shops belonging to Baha’is because owners had observed the Baha’i holy days.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the most generous rights among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

In May, according to Christian Post, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi stated authorities were “summoning” Christian converts from Islam to explain their conversions. In a speech to Shia clerics, Alavi cited “evangelical propaganda” as one of the government’s concerns about the spread of Christianity and local Muslims’ converting to it. According to the Post report, Alavi said the Ministry of Intelligence and the Qom Seminary had dispatched officials to counter “the advocates of Christianity” and to question converts.

According to al-Arabiya English news service, authorities began increasing their surveillance of evangelical Christians in the days preceding Christmas. Christmas celebrations made it easier for authorities to arrest a group of Christians at one time, according to Dabrina Tamraz, a religious rights activist. According to reports, at least 109 evangelical Christians were arrested during the year. On February 10, according to CSW, IRGC agents arrested Matthias Haghnejad, the pastor of an underground Christian church, in Rasht following a church service and confiscated Bibles and phones belonging to church attendees. Agents also confiscated the pastor’s books and his wife’s phone from their home. On September 23, the Tehran revolutionary court sentenced Haghnejad and eight members of the church to five years in prison after a short trial. Media reported the supreme leader intervened in Pastor Haghnejad’s case to ensure the court upheld the charges against him; he was subsequently transferred to Evin Prison without trial and remained in detention at year’s end.

According to media reports and Article 18, an NGO promoting religious freedom and supporting Iranian Christians, MOIS agents raided the homes of eight converts to Christianity on July 1 in Bushehr, placing them in solitary confinement and denying them access to legal counsel. During the raids, agents reportedly confiscated Bibles, religious literature, wooden crosses, pictures of Christian symbols, laptops, phones, identity cards, bank cards, and other personal belongings.

On August 1, international media and Christian NGOs reported that in late July, the revolutionary court in Karaj sentenced 65-year-old Mahrokh Kanbari, a Christian convert, to one year in prison on charges of “acting against national security” and engaging in “propaganda against the system.” According to the reports, three MOIS agents initially arrested Kanbari at her home on Christmas Eve in 2018, after which she was released on 105 million rials ($2,500) bail. Authorities reportedly directed Kanbari, while released on bail, to be instructed by an Islamic religious leader on how to return to Islam.

According to a September report from Mohabat News, the Bukan Revolutionary Court sentenced Mustafa Rahimi to six months and one day in prison on charges related to selling the Bible at his bookstore. Intelligence agents arrested Rahimi in June and released him on bail, but authorities detained him a few days later and imprisoned him at Bukan Central Prison.

HRANA reported on December 20, Mohammad Moghisseh, Presiding Judge of Branch 28 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, sentenced nine converts to Christianity to five years in prison each for “acting against national security” on October 13. According to HRANA, the trial reportedly took place on September 23; the individuals appealed the sentences. All were reportedly arrested by IRGC intelligence agents.

According to Article 18 and Mohabat News, on October 26, authorities released Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert imprisoned in Rajai Shahr Prison since 2013. On November 12, he reported to Sarbaz to begin the two years of internal exile included in his 2013 sentence for “collusion against national security,” for converting to and practicing Christianity, and related missionary activities.

Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church; his wife, Shamiram Isavi; and their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, continued to appeal prison sentences handed down to them because of their religious activities. According to Article 18 and Christian religious freedom NGO Middle East Concern, the judge postponed a hearing for Victor Bet Tamraz and Isavi on November 13, stating the court was “too crowded” and there was not time to hear their cases.

According to a report by NGOs Article 18, Open Doors International, CSW, and Middle East Concern, at least 17 Christians were in prison on charges related to their religion at year’s end.

NGO reports said the Erfan-e Halgeh group, followers of the spiritual doctrine of Interuniversalism, under the leadership of Mohammad Ali Taheri, continued to be subject to frequent arrests, detentions, harassment, and surveillance. According to HRANA, in February authorities arrested and sentenced an Interuniveralism believer and member of the Erfan-e Halgheh group to five years in prison on charges of “acting against national security.” In April authorities released Taheri from prison after he served nearly eight years following his arrest in 2011, according to media and NGO reports. According to CHRI, a state media outlet reported authorities granted him a furlough for the Iranian new year, but he faced more time in prison because the appeals court in Tehran upheld a 2018 five-year prison sentence based on the charge of “corruption on earth.” According to social media reports, Taheri remained out of prison on furlough but was banned from leaving the country.

CHRI reported that on May 15, an appeals court upheld the 91-day prison sentences of 18 persons whom authorities arrested on charges of “disrupting public order” while they were peacefully protesting on behalf of Taheri outside Evin Prison in 2015. Sixteen of the defendants in the case are followers of Taheri and the Erfan-e Halgheh group.

According to the United States Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.

Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics, as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

On January 12, HRANA reported authorities sentenced Shia cleric Seyed Hassan Aghamiri to two years of suspended imprisonment and stripped him of his clerical office as a result of his interviews and speeches in government media. According to Radio Farda, Aghamiri was charged with “undermining clerics’ prestige and insulting sanctities”. NHK English News Service reported in February Aghamiri was very popular among youth because he called for younger generations to “think on their own” by telling them, “God gives you talent. Nothing will stop you. You don’t have any limits.”

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials. In January BIC, HRANA, and IPW reported authorities denied the renewal of a business license to Farshid Deimi, a Baha’i resident of Birjand, because of his Baha’i faith. According to the report, on January 5, officials sealed Deimi’s business of 20 years without providing any specific reason for doing so. HRANA also reported in May authorities raided the Kashan home of Heshmatollah Ehsani and confiscated his equipment for producing rosewater because he was a Baha’i business owner. BIC similarly reported in May the intelligence ministry office in Kermanshah summoned Baha’i resident Sasan Ghaghchi for eight hours of interrogation and intimidation related to an inventory of goods authorities had confiscated from his shop and warehouse.

In September IPW reported agents from the state agency The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO) forcibly entered the residence of Sharareh Farrokhzadi and Sirous Irannejad, a Baha’i family in the Niavaran region of Tehran, and within seven hours, cleared the residence of all furniture and other belongings and transferred ownership of the house to EIKO. In 2017 a revolutionary court order stated, “Since it has been established that the above-named are…members of the perverse sect of Baha’ism, all their assets may be seized by EIKO.”

HRANA and Iran Wire reported that between June 9 and 15, security forces searched the homes and businesses of nine Baha’i families in Shahin Shahr – Arshad Afshar, Aziz Afshar, Peyman Imani, Mahboubeh Hosseini, Bahram Safaei, Mehran Yazdani, Mesbah Karambakhsh, Sirous Golzar, and Naieem Haghiri – and confiscated their belongings, including cell phones, laptops, tablets, satellite devices, books, photographs, carpets, identification documents, tools, and other business equipment. Judicial authorities summoned the Baha’is, along with three others, to the local intelligence ministry office. According to the report, a group of seven security agents confiscated belongings valued at approximately one billion rials ($23,800). According to HRANA, under pressure from intelligence agents, Haghiri’s employer fired him.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan Provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize Christian private churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

International media and the Assyrian International News Agency reported authorities closed a 100-year-old Presbyterian church belonging to the Assyrian community in Tabriz on May 9. According to Article 18, agents from the Ministry of Intelligence and EIKO, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader, stormed the church. The agents then changed all the locks, tore down a cross from the church tower, ordered the church warden to leave the premises while they installed closed circuit television and other monitoring systems, and barred the congregants from holding services in the building. According to Article 18, a cross was reinstalled on top of the church in July.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages. Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services. In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret. Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes). Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment. The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women. International media and various human rights NGOs reported the 24-year prison sentence on August 27 of women’s rights activist Saba Kord Afshari for her involvement in protests against the compulsory hijab. According to an August 27 report by HRANA, on June 1, security forces arrested Afshari on charges of “collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “promoting corruption and prostitution by appearing without a headscarf in public.”

In April authorities arrested three anti-forced-hijab activists, Mojgan Keshavarz, Monireh Arabshahi, and her daughter Yasaman Ariyani, for their widely shared video via various social media networks on March 8, International Women’s Day, depicting the women handing out flowers in the Tehran metro while suggesting to passengers that the hijab should be a choice. According to HRW, on July 31, branch 31 of Tehran’s revolutionary court sentenced each of them to five years in prison for “assembly and collusion to act against national security,” one year for “propaganda against the state,” and 10 years for “encouraging and enabling [moral] corruption and prostitution.” Keshavarz received an additional seven-and-a-half years for “insulting the sacred.” On August 16, six UN human rights experts issued a statement calling for the release of the women These included the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran; the special rapporteur on violence against women, its causes, and consequences; the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; the chair of the working group on discrimination against women and girls; the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The experts stated, “We call upon the Iranian authorities to quash these convictions and immediately release all human rights defenders who have been arbitrarily detained for their work in advocating women’s rights, and to ensure full respect for the rights of women to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and nondiscrimination.”

International media and human rights organizations widely reported the March 11 sentencing of female human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes. According to AI, Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing came as a result of her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s degrading forced-hijab laws.” In June 2018 authorities arrested Sotoudeh, who represented opposition activists, including women prosecuted for removing their mandatory headscarf, and she remained in Evin Prison at year’s end. UN human rights experts, including the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, expressed alarm at the news of Sotoudeh’s conviction and sentencing. “We are deeply concerned about Ms. Sotoudeh’s conviction and the prison sentence imposed. Her detention and the charges against her appear to relate to her work as a human rights lawyer, especially representing Iranian women human rights defenders arrested for peacefully protesting against laws making the wearing of veils compulsory for women,” the experts said. The Los Angeles Times reported Sahar Khodarayi, also known as “Blue Girl,” was arrested in March for violating the government ban on women entering soccer stadiums by donning a blue wig and an overcoat to watch her favorite soccer team Esteghlal, known for their blue jerseys, play against a team from the United Arab Emirates. She was released on bail and charged with “harming public decency” and “insulting law enforcement agents” for not wearing a hijab. In September, when informed she faced six months in prison, she doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire in front of a courthouse, dying from her burns a few days later. In October women flooded Azadi Stadium in Tehran to attend a FIFA soccer match chanting “Blue Girl” as they defied the longstanding de facto ban on women attending sporting events in stadiums, where they could mix openly with the opposite sex.

The government continued to suppress public displays it deemed counter to Shia Islamic laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public. In May international media reported the arrest of 30 persons in the city of Gorgan for taking part in a private, mixed-gender yoga class. A local justice department official said the participants wore “inappropriate clothing” and “behaved inappropriately.” According to CHRI, these types of arrests were common but rarely acknowledged publicly by government officials. In March international media reported police in Arak arrested a couple on charges of “undermining Islamic chastity” after an individual posted a video on social media of the young man proposing to the young woman. According to the reports, clerics accused the couple of promoting an illicit relationship and living together without being married. The reports, however, indicated that according to local police, the couple was already legally married.

According to a May 20 CHRI report, government agents continued to use malware to conduct cyberattacks on the online accounts of religious minority groups, with the aim of stealing private information in the individuals’ accounts. There were nearly 100 documented accounts that authorities hacked, according to CHRI. CHRI identified accounts of the Gonabadi Sufi community in particular as key targets of the government’s hacking efforts.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsan religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms. In September Iran Wire, IHRDC, and international media reported that Minister of Education Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei described a new ministry initiative, Project Mehr, which allowed schools increased authority to deny education to religious minority students. The minister was quoted as saying, “If students say they follow a faith other than the country’s official religions and this is seen as proselytizing, they cannot continue attending school.” He further stated all of the ministry’s provincial and local offices were taking part in the initiative and the human resources necessary for its implementation had been organized.

In June HRANA and IHRDC reported a new directive issued by The Welfare Organization, the country’s social welfare ministry, banning the employment of religious minorities in preschools. The directive states, “Employment of personnel belonging to religious minorities in any capacity in kindergartens is prohibited, except in kindergartens specific to religious minorities.” Director of the Office of Children and Adolescents in the State Welfare Organization Seyed Montazer Shobbar issued the directive on May 27.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known. In September HRANA reported at least 22 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs, even though they passed the entrance exam. Officials stated the students had “incomplete files” or their names were not in the registration list. Applicants received a short message stating, “…There is a flaw in your dossier. Please contact the Response Unit of the Appraisal Agency.”

On January 19, media and NGOs reported a wave of expulsions of Baha’is from universities because of their religion. HRANA reported authorities at Azad University in Sama expelled Shirin Bani Nejad, a fifthterm Baha’i studying applied computer science, one month before she was to complete her associate degree. According to the reports, Bani Nejad’s expulsion came after she had paid her full tuition and taken one of her exams. Similarly, according to BIC, authorities expelled Shadi Shogi, a Baha’i student at Najafabad University of Applied Science and Technology, after four terms of study. Officials also expelled Elmira Sayyar Mahdavi, an undergraduate student in photo advertising, from Karaj University of Applied Science and Technology during her third term for being Baha’i. HRANA reported the expulsion of Baha’i Sama Nazifi, a student of architecture at Azad University in Shahriar. According to the reports, Nazifi had received awards and recognition the prior year for her academic achievement. According to Radio Zamaneh, authorities expelled Badi Safajou, a Baha’i student in chemical engineering at Azad University of Sciences and Research in Tehran with a high gradepoint average, during his seventh term. According to the report, supporters of Safajou conducted a poll that showed 81 percent of respondents disapproved of his expulsion. After nine days, security agents ordered the removal of the poll from the university’s Instagram page.

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed them “unclean.”

According to Mazjooban Noor, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and to bar them from university studies because of their affiliation with the Sufi order.

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country. Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces. International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented the building of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their faith. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders. Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored anti-Christian propaganda to deter the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship. Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. A July report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of government-sanctioned discrimination and human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests of community leaders. The report noted the continuing practice of firing Yarsanis from employment after it was discovered they were Yarsani, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the report noted the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, including during military service.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim. The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community. The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of books about Christianity already on the market, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations. Books about the Yarsan religion remained banned. Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas. Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representative Siamak Moreh-Sedegh, the sole Jewish Member of Parliament, stating there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but there was little interference with Jewish religious practices. He ran the Sapir Hospital in Tehran, which played a key role in treating revolutionaries throughout 1978-79 and which continued to have a Hebrew phrase from the Torah over its entrance. Speaking as a government official during a human rights meeting in Geneva on November 9, Morseh-Sedegh, according to government media, said, “Like other Iranians, we religious minorities are free to perform our religious ceremonies.” According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country. Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. In an October 2 speech, IRGC Chief General Hossein Salami said Israel would be “wiped off the world’s political geography.” Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “Death to Israel,” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel. Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region. For example, Jam-e Jam daily newspaper in September published an editorial cartoon that suggested Israel’s participation in international sports “was a Jewish plot to crush Palestine.”

The government continued to maintain separate election processes for the five seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament.

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and certain self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and/or charitable associations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity. Even when arrested, perpetrators faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries. According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years. In April BIC reported residents in Shiraz held a town-hall-style meeting against the Baha’i Faith and posted related banners promoting anti-Baha’i sentiment and publications.

Yarsanis outside the country reported widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements. On September 25, local media reported several government sources criticized Sufi beliefs in reaction to announced plans to produce a film about the life of Sufi Persian poet Shams Tabrizi. Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi said, “Considering that this [film] will promote the deviant Sufi sect, it is religiously forbidden and should be avoided.” Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani said, “According to Imam Sadeq, the Sufi sect is our enemy and promoting it in any way is not permitted and is religiously forbidden [haram].”

Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

The U.S. government continued to call for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials and reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions. Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the United States and seven other governments issued a statement on Iran that said, “We strongly oppose the Iranian government’s severe violations and abuses of religious freedom. In Iran, blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and proselytization of Muslims are crimes punishable by death. Many Iranians are languishing in jails, including the Great Tehran Penitentiary and Evin Prison, simply for exercising their fundamental freedom to worship, observe, practice, and teach their faiths. Unrecognized religious minorities, including Baha’is and Christian converts, are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment. …Last year, the Iranian government sentenced more than 200 Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms and other harsh punishments after security forces cracked down on Gonabadi Sufis peacefully protesting the detention of one of their fellow faith members. We call on the Iranian government to release all prisoners of conscience and vacate all charges inconsistent with the universal human right of religious freedom. We urge Iran to ensure fair trial guarantees, in accordance with its human rights obligations, and afford all detainees access to medical care. We stand with Iranians of all beliefs and hope someday soon they will be free to follow their consciences in peace.”

During the Secretary of State’s July 18 keynote remarks, he said, “In the Islamic Republic of Iran, authorities ban religious minorities from possessing religious books and they deny them access to education…In May, the Iranian government prohibited religious minorities from working at childcare centers where there are Muslim children. And as we know too well, beatings and imprisonments are common. Iranians who dare stand up for their religious freedom, for their neighbors, face abuse. Last month, the regime threw a city councilman in prison for calling for something so simple as the release of two Baha’is.”

On August 2, in response to media reports of Christian convert Mahrokh Kanbari’s prison sentence, the Vice President stated on Twitter, “I am appalled to hear reports that Iran’s despotic rulers have punished yet another Christian woman for exercising her freedom to worship. Iran must free Mahrokh Kanbari today. Whether Sunni, Sufi, Baha’i, Jewish, or Christian, America will stand up for people of faith in Iran like Mahrokh and Pastor Bet Tamraz whose persecutions are an affront to religious freedom.”

On October 3, the U.S. Special Representative for Iran delivered a video message in which he stated, “Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other religious minorities are denied the most basic rights enjoyed by the Shia majority today. And believers are routinely fined, flogged, and arrested in Iran. Worse off yet are the members of unrecognized religious minorities like the Baha’is or others in Iran who are met with brutal subjugation including prison, torture, intimidation and even death due to their faith. Today, there are dozens of Baha’is arbitrarily detained in Iran for practicing their faith.”

In November the United States again voted in the UN General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern about Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a 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 Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 38.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population. Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population, of which Arabs constitute 24 percent, Kurds 15 percent, and Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR in the north of the country. According to Christian leaders, the Christian population has declined over the past 17 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders continue to report that most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary. According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south, with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia. Most Sunni Shabak and some Shia Shabak reside in Ninewa. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians. According to Kaka’i (known as Yarsani or Ahl al-Haq in Iran) activists, their distinct ethnic and religious community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members and has long been located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.

There are fewer than six adult members in the Baghdad Jewish community, according to a local Jewish community leader. In the IKR, there are 70 to 80 Jewish families, according to the Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA). There are possibly more, as some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution, according to the KRG MERA, and NGO sources. According to the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, there are approximately 60 Zoroastrian families in the IKR.

According to the International Organization for Migration, as of December, nearly 1.5 million persons remain displaced within the country, predominantly in Erbil, Dohuk, and Ninewa Provinces, compared with 1.8 million persons at the end of 2018. Population movements are multidirectional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home. According to the KRG’s Joint Crisis Coordination Center in the KRG, 40 percent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Sunni Arabs, 30 percent Yezidis, 13 percent Kurd (of several religious affiliations), and 7 percent Christians. Other religious minorities comprise the remaining 10 percent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation. It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for all individuals, such as Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly mention followers of other religions or atheists. Law 105 of 1970 prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and prescribes 10 year’s imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. The KRG, however, does not enforce the federal ban on the Baha’i Faith and recognizes it as a religion, while in other parts of the country the law generally is not enforced.

Law 32 of 2016 bans the Baath Party, and also prohibits “takfiri” organizations, such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, that declare as apostates Muslims who practice a less austere form of Islam. A 2001 resolution prohibits the practice of the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions. The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and they require the administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape. Civil status law allows all non-Muslim women who are identified in their official documents as non-Muslims to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government: Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups in the country, with the exception of the Yezidis, have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country: the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan. The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’is – including Wahhabi Islam, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i Faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

Outside the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA. To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam. Eight faiths are recognized and registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other five registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (25 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia. The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj. The council, attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, organizes a lottery to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas. Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel: 3.7 million dinars ($3,300) for Hajj travel by land and 4.8 million dinars ($4,200) for travel by air. In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution provides minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 48 Syriac and 18 Turkoman language schools. The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and charitable donations. Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith. The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court. In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between members of the same religion while the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

National identity cards issued since 2016 do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information and a data chip on the card still contains data on religion, according to a 2018 study by the Danish Immigration Service. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim. There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian. Without an official identity card, one may not register a marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion. IKR law forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of religious and ethnic minority communities: five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit. Usually one of the Council of Representatives (COR) rapporteur (administrative) positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other for a Turkoman. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities: five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR. Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The antiterrorism law defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.” Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

More than 600 demonstrators were killed in mass protests against the central government in Baghdad and southern provinces in October and November. According to news reports, the protesters were mostly young Shia, but minority religious communities, such as Chaldean Catholics, expressed their support for the movement. Human Rights Watch also documented examples of Sunnis in Anbar being detained by ISF for expressing their support of the protests on social media. The reports stated, however, that there was no evidence that members of minority religions taking part in the protests were specifically targeted by security forces suppressing the protests. According to human rights organizations, including HRW, although the PMC and Ministry of Interior forces were implicated in committing gross human rights abuses, the federal government held no one responsible for killings, illegal detentions, and torture of protestors. In October journalists reported that authorities issued arrest warrants for 130 activists and journalists for covering the demonstrations. The warrants were based on the terrorism law; however, reportedly the real reason for the arrest warrants was their coverage of the demonstrations taking place in Shia-dominant provinces of the country.

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers again said the antiterrorism law did not afford due process or fair trial protections. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, continued to commit physical abuses and were again implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced abuses by PMF and ISF that included violence and forced displacement by PMF and ISF.

In June MP Raad al-Dahlaki, a Sunni from Diyala Province, warned of forced displacement of Sunnis in Diyala. Al-Dahlaki stated government-affiliated Shia militia groups intimidated the Sunni population in the province, resulting in a systematic demographic change along the border with Iran. There were reports that gunmen attacked the village of Abu Al-Khanzir in the province, killing three members of the same family and prompting a wave of displacement from the village.

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, such as Bartalla Subdistrict, Sunni areas in Diyala Province, and Sunni areas in Babil Province, including Jurf al-Sakhar District.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, there were 14 registered evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches in the KRG, compared with 11 in 2018: Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.

Representatives of minority religious communities continued to state that while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, local authorities in some regions continued to verbally harass and impose restrictions on their activities. Christians again reported abuse, harassment, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, including the 30th Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in Bartalla said they felt threatened by the actions of the Shabak 30th Brigade, such as deploying forces in Christian areas, establishing its headquarters in the Christian sub-district of Bartalla, controlling the trade roads in the Ninewa Plain by establishing check points, forcing merchants to pay bribes, controlling real estate in Christian areas, and other forms of harassment of Christians and Sunni Arabs.

Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the 30th Brigade of verbal harassment of Christians in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District of Ninewa. Members of the Christian community in Bartalla said activities of the 30th Brigade threatened their way of life and could change the area’s demographics. Local residents also said militias posted pictures of Iranian Ayatollah Khamenei and former Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani on shops in Bartalla, as well as Iraqi militia leaders such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq Secretary General Qais al-Khazali and former PMF Deputy Commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. They also stated that the 30th Brigade refused to comply with government orders to withdraw from checkpoints in the Ninewa Plain. Sources said Shabak individuals threatened priests over social media after the priests sought the withdrawal of the brigade from the area on social media. Local sources said six Shabak Sunni families left their home in Bashiqa District because the 30th Brigade verbally harassed them and pressured them to sell part of their lands. Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported continued verbal harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.

Yezidi community leaders continued to report that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain identification cards, passports, and other governmental services – in part because the Yezidi community did not consider these children to be Yezidi. The Yezidi religion traditionally required a child to have two Yezidi parents to be considered Yezidi. Sources in the community estimated the number of these children ranged from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. Due to the position of the Yezidi leaders and community on children born of rape, many Yezidi female survivors of ISIS said they were compelled to leave their children in orphanages in Syria or Iraq so they could rejoin their community.

According to Zoroastrian leaders, there were no reported cases of discrimination against them in the IKR during the year. They continued to state, however, that their religion was listed as “Islam” on their federal identification cards, a common problem reported by non-Christian religious minorities.

According to Christian leaders, Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith continued to be forced to either register their child as Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented by federal authorities, denying them the ability to legally convert from Islam. Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depend on family size. Larger families with legally registered children receive higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, some Shabak MPs, including Hunain Qado, with the support of some of some Shia elements in the central government, continued to direct the 30th Brigade to harass Christians, drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population, and allow Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers. Christians in Tal Kayf said the nominally Christian but majority Shia Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively continued to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town, but it no longer blocked Christians from returning to the area.

In Ninewa Province, some Shabak MPs in the COR continued to advocate for the provision of land grants in accordance with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF victims who fought ISIS. Throughout the year, according to media and local news reports, Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya. In 2018 Behnam suspended the grants in a historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change. During the year, government construction of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla continued. Christian community leaders continued to express concern that all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

During the year, the Office of the Prime Minister created a committee of security officials and Christian religious leaders to return all Christian properties in Ninewa to their Christian owners. The committee returned tens of houses to their Christian owners and remained active as of the end of year. Reportedly, no similar committee was formed to help return properties in Baghdad or other provinces. According to Christian MP Yonadum Kanna, he and other Christian leaders worked individually to help Christians return to their homes; he said he managed to return 180 homes during the year.

During the year, the PMF Imam Ali Brigade continued to block the return of the members of the Yezidi Sinjar District Council and the mayor to Sinjar City from their temporary location in Dohuk, notwithstanding an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister provided in 2018 that ordered their return.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report physical abuse and verbal harassment by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated more by territorial disputes rather than religious discrimination.

According to multiple sources, many alleged Sunni ISIS sympathizers or their families whom government forces and militia groups had expelled in 2018 from their homes in several provinces had not returned home by year’s end. Some of these IDPs said PMF groups, including Saraya al-Khorasani and Kata’ib Hezballah, continued to block their return.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. By year’s end, authorities in the KRG’s Yezidi Rescue Coordinating Office reported between 2,900 and 3,000 Yezidis, mainly women and children, remained missing in and outside the country. Approximately 150 Christians also remained missing. According to the KRG MERA, as of October more than 3,500 Yezidis had escaped, been rescued, or were released from ISIS captivity since 2014.

As of August the KRG Yezidi Rescue Office, established by then-KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, had spent approximately $5 million since its inauguration in 2014 to rescue captive Yezidis from ISIS. Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs. According to Yezidis activists and officials, the Yezidis were afraid to return to Sinjar because of the continuing Turkish airstrikes targeting the PKK. In November a Turkish airstrike hit the local headquarters of Yezidi PKK fighters in Sinjar, called the People’s Protection Units (also known as YBS), killing or injuring 20 of them.

According to some Yezidi sources, Yezidis in the IKR continued to experience discrimination when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish. They said only those Yezidis who identified publicly as Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face verbal harassment and restrictions from authorities. Sources reported the ISF returned to the Sunni Endowment the property of a Sunni mosque in Mosul, confiscated by PMF militia in 2018. The Shia Endowment’s seizure of property owned by the Sunni Endowment continued to create tension with Sunnis in Mosul. One unidentified group placed banners throughout Mosul with the hashtag #OurWaqf [religious endowment] is our Red Line.

At year’s end, the central government had not opened an investigation of the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharaf in 2017. According to Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Sharaf, the government had neglected to address the issue.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration. According to estimates, including those cited by several Christian MPs, the monthly number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22. A director of an Assyrian NGO reported four Syriac language schools remained closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.

Some Yezidis and Christians continued to maintain their own militias. According to Yezidi and Christian officials, some received support from the central government in Baghdad through the PMC, which oversees PMF forces, while others received assistance from the KRG. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they needed to have a role in their own security and had requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.

NGOs continued to state that constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate the laws, and no legislation proposed to repeal them.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them without interference or intimidation to observe their religious holidays and festivals. Provincial governments also continued to designate festivals as religious holidays in their localities.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools outside the IKR, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula continued to include three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they were not allowed to leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian religious education continued to be included in the curricula of at least 255 public schools in the country, including 55 in the KRG, according to the Ministry of Education. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but they had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660-$1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. The KRG subsidized tuition by approximately 25 percent. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end, some schools still did not utilize elements of the universally adopted 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Other than making small changes to the curriculum, observers stated that the Ministry of Education did not have a clear strategy to implement the rest of the religious tolerance curriculum.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students. The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies. The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education continued to partner with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes – an effort that continued through year’s end.

The central government again extended by two years the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010. They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were again reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in the northern part of the country.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for new construction and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG MERA built four churches and one Christian center during the year.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the central government Council of Ministers or the KRG Council of Ministers, a situation unchanged from the previous two years. Members of minority religious communities, including Christians, Yezidis, Kaka’is and Sabean-Mandeans, continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members continued to include Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian. Although there were no reliable statistics available, minorities stated they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime. Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible. Some Sunnis said they were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts by the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP had 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law did not restrict who could vote in quota seat races. Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority populations said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government. Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Brigade. Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits. The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol. Community sources reported the continuing practice of Muslim businessmen using Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

During the year, the Kaka’i community reported it controlled all of its places of worship. In 2018 Kaka’i leaders had reported that the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad, converting them into mosques.

In September the KRG announced the closure of a restaurant named the “Hitler Restaurant,” located outside Dohuk. The KRG stated that “Nazism and racism would not be tolerated in the autonomous Kurdish region and such actions are against the law.” The KRG’s Department of Martyrs and Anfal Affairs later released a statement calling for expanded laws to punish genocide denial in the KRG.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but no reports of religiously based violence in the IKR. 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 protests that began in October, many activists were killed, wounded, and kidnapped reportedly for political reasons by masked individuals and armed groups affiliated with Iran, such as 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. Shia religious and government leaders continued to urge PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses. Religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the head of the Shia Marjaiya in Najaf, called for the protection of minorities in a Friday sermon. Political and religious leader Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of the Hikma Party, also called for the protection of religious minorities.

According to media, the Yezidi Supreme Spiritual Council issued a statement in April appearing to accept children born of ISIS rape into the community; days later, however, the council issued a second statement clarifying it was referring to children born of Yezidi parents and kidnapped by ISIS, but not children born of rape.

Christian priests, who sought the withdrawal of the 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.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura. There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment. According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts continued to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

In an August 6 interview with the National Review on the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Erbil said, “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction…Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.”

Based on Iraqi media reports, there was increasing social recognition of the genocide ISIS committed against the Yezidis. Cross-sectarian genocide commemoration events took place two consecutive years in a row. The KRG marked the genocide’s anniversary with a commemoration ceremony in Dohuk with participants including then-IKR president Barzani, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, Yezidi leader Mir Hazim Beg, KRG ministers, diplomats, and genocide survivors. The same day, the Ninewa Provincial Council also commemorated the anniversary of the genocide in Sinjar. The IKR parliament passed a resolution recognizing August 3 as Yezidi Genocide Remembrance Day.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities continued to state that corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.

Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

During the year, with the stated purpose “To support the faithful and encourage them to stay in their homeland,” the Syriac Catholic Church re-established a diocese for the Kurdistan region. To mark the occasion, the Syriac Catholic patriarch celebrated Mass at the Queen of Peace Syriac Catholic Church in Erbil on August 24.

In Baghdad on February 18, the University of London’s SOAS Jewish Music Institute featured Baghdadi folk songs and lullabies with British-born musician Carol Isaacs, of Iraqi Jewish origin. Titled “The Wolf of Baghdad,” the presentation was a personal familial audiovisual journey, an effort to revive Iraq’s vanishing Jewish community that formed one-third of Baghdad’s population in the 1940s. In December members of the Jewish community from the IKR and abroad gathered in the town of Al-Qosh in the Nineveh Plains to celebrate Hanukkah.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The embassy continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including then-prime minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Issues raised included the presence of undisciplined armed groups in minority areas and creating conditions for the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations. These messages were reinforced through public speeches, and embassy interagency coordination groups promoted religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of employment, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns. Efforts included promoting recruitment of minorities into security forces operating on the Ninewa Plain. UNITAD and the embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, medical supplies, psychosocial support and other protection interventions, education, and livelihoods.

On July 18, the Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two militia figures pursuant to Executive Order 13818: Rayan al-Kildani, the leader of the PMF 50th Brigade, and Waad Qado, the leader of the 30th Brigade, along with two former Iraqi governors, Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan and Ahmed al-Jabouri. The OFAC press release stated, “Many of the corruption- and abuse-related actions committed by these sanctioned individuals occurred in areas where persecuted religious communities are struggling to recover from the horrors inflicted on them by ISIS. Therefore, today’s sanctions demonstrate solidarity with all Iraqis who oppose corruption and human rights abuse undertaken by public officials and underscore the Administration’s commitment to support the recovery of persecuted religious communities in Iraq.”

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional ministries of education, justice (which includes the functions of the former national Ministry of Human Rights), labor, and social affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.

Working with the local business sector, the U.S. Agency for International Development organized the Ninewa Investment Forum on December 4-5 in Erbil to connect local businesses with investors from around the world, including the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The event featured panel discussions that raised awareness of the business opportunities and challenges that exist in Ninewa, including among religious minority communities.

U.S. officials in Baghdad and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consul General in Erbil met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Israel, West Bank and Gaza

Read A Section: Israel

West Bank and Gaza 

Executive Summary

This section covers Israel, including Jerusalem. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem. In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.

The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights. In 2018, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” According to the government, that “law determines, among other things, that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” The government continued to allow controlled access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the site containing the foundation of the first and second Jewish temple and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque). Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among the government, Jordan, and the Jerusalem Waqf (which under the status quo in place since 1967 remains a Jordanian government institution; the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem). Violence occurred between Muslims and the police on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and Israeli control over the Old City, after hundreds of Jews were allowed into the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan. It was the first time these two holidays overlapped in years and the first time in three decades that non-Muslims entered the site during the final days of Ramadan. Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including Members of the Knesset (MKs), whose presence authorities said they feared would inflame tensions. The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Local authorities sought to change the status quo regarding prohibitions on public transportation on Shabbat by operating bus lines sponsored by the municipality. Press reporting cited a growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. Some minority religious groups complained about what they said was lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups, but stated that members of unrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion.

On June 8, Jewish youths and seminary students of the Armenian Church each stated that they had been attacked by the other in Jerusalem near the Armenian Church’s seminary in Jerusalem. On May 16, religiously observant Jewish teenagers shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Muslim teen from East Jerusalem, who was subsequently hospitalized after being knocked unconscious. Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing and spitting on them. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, according to press reports. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August a man attacked two of their members, during a door to door activity in Bat Yam and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion.

Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.6 million (midyear 2019 estimate), including residents and citizens. According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other” – mostly persons, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who identify themselves as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures – as well as relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaite Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes approximately 78 percent of the country’s 175,000 Christians, according to the CBS, as of December. Non-Arab Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members, and their descendants.

According to a poll by the local NGO Hiddush published in September, 58 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious stream, 18 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 6 percent “Conservative.”

Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located throughout the country. For example, in the Galilee region, some communities are homogenous, while others feature a mix of these groups. There are also dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev. In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.

The CBS estimates 546,100 Jews, 328,600 Muslims, and 15,900 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 901,300, as of 2018.

According to government and NGO data, there are approximately 350,000 foreign workers in the country, including 100,000 documented Palestinian workers; 40,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; 102,000 migrant workers with permits, 75,000 undocumented workers; and 30,000 asylum seekers. Foreign workers and asylum seekers include Protestants, Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-Day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population include 30,000 Filipinos, 8,000 Indians, 2,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 individuals from South American countries.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Although the country has no constitution, a series of “Basic Laws” enumerate fundamental rights, which are country’s constitutional foundation. The 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law, which applies to citizens and non-Israeli residents.

The 2018 “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People” recognizes only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” in “the Land of Israel. The law recommends – but does not require – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedent.

The Chief Rabbinate retains the sole authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.

The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.

The law recognizes only Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze Faith, and the Baha’i Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: by petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office according to the Order in Council or the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.

Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status law. Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.

Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs annually convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.

The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions to “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism (MOT) is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” with regard to their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.

The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment. Government regulations recognize 16 sites as holy places for Jews, while various other budgetary and governmental authorities recognize an additional 160 places as holy for Jews.

The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups. The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism. The infliction of “injury to religious sentiments” constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable by one year’s imprisonment. Such injury includes publishing or saying something that is liable to offend the religious sentiment or faith of others.

The “Nakba Law,” passed in 2011, prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Activities forbidden by the law include rejection of the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” or commemorating “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the State was established as a day of mourning.”

The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the prime minister for travel to countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel, including Hajj travel to Saudi Arabia; the government issues these permits in the vast majority of cases. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.

It is illegal to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.

The government provides separate public schools for Jewish and Arab children, with instruction conducted in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Minor children have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semi-private) ultra-Orthodox religious schools affiliated with ultra-Orthodox political parties, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Non-Israeli residents in Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Israeli education authorities use the Palestinian Authority (PA) curriculum in some public schools in Jerusalem. Religious education is part of the PA curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students in these schools may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.

The Law of Return provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration. Under this law, those who completed an Orthodox Jewish conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under this law regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised. The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and as adults converted to another religion, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.

The Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.

The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.

Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country, or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.

The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Marriages performed outside of the country may be registered with the MOI. Members of nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, only through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agree.

The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct, or are married in, a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.

Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.

Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under the parallel jurisdiction of religious and civil courts. The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it.

In accordance with halacha (Jewish religious law), a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. The law permits rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for instance, if the couple lives abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).

Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.

Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century).

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women may request an exemption from military service. For most ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Druze religious students, military service is postponed for several years, after which they receive an exemption. A petition on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men was pending at the Supreme Court as of the year’s end. Arab Muslims and Christians, as well as Druze and Circassian women receive a de-facto exemption by not being called for military service. Those exempt from military service may volunteer for it or for civil-national service.

Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion. Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.

All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion). Approximately 400,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish,” as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent.

For those who do not wish to be identified with a religion, there is no mechanism to change one’s registration to “lacking religion.”

There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes (up to one month imprisonment) employers who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. The law instructs the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat. The law prohibits discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant.

The law prohibits discrimination in employment and occupation based on age, race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and disability. The Equal Employment Opportunities Law prohibits an employer from discriminating against employees, contractors, or persons seeking employment.

On January 10, the Knesset approved an amendment to the penal code that includes a motive of racism or hostility based on the victim’s religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation, or on racism toward or hate for foreign workers as an aggravated circumstance in a murder offense. In the explanatory notes of this amendment, the Knesset noted that murder committed out of racism or hostility justifies severe treatment in the form of mandatory life imprisonment.

The law states public transportation operated and funded by the national government may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services.

The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant or factory’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. Alternatively, restaurants are permitted to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance” without using the word “kosher.”

The Muslim Mufti of Jerusalem, who has no legal status vis-a-vis Israeli authorities, has issued “fatwas” (religious edicts) prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of land by Palestinians to Israelis.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned, and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the Covenant.

Government Practices

Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

The government continued to allow controlled access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif allows non-Muslim visitors but prohibits non-Islamic worship on the compound. According to the AP, violence occurred between Muslim worshippers and Israeli police on August 11 near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, on a day marking both the Islamic feast of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av. According to the AP, the incident occurred after large numbers of Muslims had gathered at the site’s gates in response to rumors that police would allow Jewish visitors to enter the site. The protestors threw stones at police, who responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets. After clashes broke out, police allowed access to “several dozen” Jews and provided a police escort. Muslims responded by throwing chairs and other objects at the group, which left shortly thereafter.

According to the International Crisis Group, the first months of the year saw low-level violence erupting over control of the Gate of Mercy building within the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which evolved into a power struggle among Israel, Jordan, and the Waqf. The Jordanian government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintains the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supports maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The Waqf opened the building, which media reported had not been open or used for prayers since 2003, on February 14 when worshippers began using it as a prayer hall. The government issued restraining orders against more than 20 Waqf guards and arrested 19 Muslims, including two minors who confessed to throwing a Molotov cocktail into a police post at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which resulted in a one-day closing of the site on March 12. According to the government, this closure was done in order to allow the police investigate the incidents and check the scene. Police also closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27 following clashes with Muslim protesters. Tensions continued at the site, although Muslim worshipers continued to have access to it at the end of the year.

Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Islamic prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including MKs, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. According to Makor Rishon journalist Arnon Segal, 152 persons were arrested between September 10, 2018 and August 25, 2019. The government stated the police banned individuals from accessing the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif only in cases of violation of public order or a disturbance to the freedom of worship. According to the government, 334 individuals were banned from Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for different time periods. While the government stated it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, human rights and civil society organizations said Israeli authorities banned Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Jerusalem residents, as well as Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. In addition, these organizations said Israeli authorities at times restricted Muslim males under a certain age from entering the site during periods of tension.

Israeli authorities allowed West Bank Muslims to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif during Ramadan and facilitated transportation for tens of thousands of Palestinian worshipers. Israeli authorities allowed men over 40 years old, boys under 16, and women of all ages to enter Jerusalem without permits issued by the Israeli military on the four Fridays of the month. Married men between 30 and 40 were eligible to apply for military permits valid Sunday-Thursday during the month – normally, only men over 50 and women over 45 may transit Israeli checkpoints from the West Bank for worship without military permits.

On April 15, Israeli authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in Jerusalem’s Old City. On April 18, the police detained at least two suspects who allegedly sought to make a Passover sacrifice at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, as well as two journalists who were with them. According to media reports, the suspects were interrogated on offenses of behavior which might disturb public order, and for animal abuse.

On August 6, a police officer detained an ultra-Orthodox protester and pulled him by his earlock. The police suspended the officer, and authorities continued to investigate the case as of November.

On July 24, the state prosecutor’s office announced it would indict, pending a hearing, a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for bribery and breach of trust regarding the expediting of kashrut certificates. A 2017 report from the state comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.

Press reported that prosecutors dropped a case against two Jewish activists, Yinon Reuveni and another man who was a minor at the time of his arrest, for membership in a terror organization and vandalizing the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem in 2016, due to lack of evidence. A court had previously dismissed as inadmissible the second defendant’s confession, ruling that authorities obtained it illegally. The vandalism of the abbey, considered by some Christians the site of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, included graffiti that said “death to Christians” and “Jesus is a monkey.” A spokesman for the church said the decision to acquit the two men was “unacceptable.”

According to the Times of Israel, Muslims and police clashed violently on Jerusalem Day, the June 2 national holiday celebrating the anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem and which coincided with the last 10 days of Ramadan, after police allowed hundreds of Jews onto the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. It was the first time in three decades that non-Muslims were able to enter the site during the final 10 days of Ramadan. The government stated that each year police assess the security situation and decide whether it is necessary to close the site to non-Muslims during this period, “in order to allow for a proper course of prayer for Muslim worshipers during Ramadan.” Prior to the incident, police had announced the compound would be closed to Jews and tourists after the High Court of Justice rejected a petition to overturn the closure. The court subsequently rejected a case that sought to change the route of the “flag march” marking Jerusalem Day, when thousands of Jews participate in the annual parade through Jerusalem’s Old City, where the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is located, including its Muslim quarter. According to the Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Day has been embraced by the “national religious” community. The paper said marchers consisted mostly of young people singing songs of praise and prayer for the unification of the city and the capture of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in the 1967 Six Day War. One Muslim bakery worker said that the march through the Muslim Quarter was a provocation. Another stated that he objected to the staging of the parade during Ramadan, and that the march was disrespectful to Muslims.

According to press and NGO reports, following an appeal of a decision by the Central Elections Committee, the High Court of Justice barred the leader of the Otzma Yehudit party, Michael Ben Ari, from running in Knesset elections because of expressed anti-Arab ideology and incitement. The attorney general had urged the court to ban Ben Ari for his “severe and extreme” racism. The Otzma Yehudit party has described itself as proud disciples of Meir Kahane, the founder of the Kach party, which was banned in 1988 for being racist and antidemocratic. The appeal cited a 2019 statement by Ben Ari, “We have to change the equation regarding anyone who dares to speak against a Jew…. [Such a person] is a dead man. He must not come out alive. No expelling him, no stripping him of his citizenship. He does not live! A firing squad takes him out as the Arabs understand [best].” Ben Ari later said he was talking about Hamas leaders and not all Arabs.

Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.

According to data from the MRS, of 70,326 individuals who registered for a Jewish marriage in 2018, rabbinical courts instructed 3,996 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. Of these, 122 were unsuccessful. On November 6, the Jerusalem Post reported on new rabbinate regulations allowing marriage registrars to approve marriage applications of converts based on the list of rabbinical courts approved by the Chief Rabbinate, clarifying the criteria for recognition of conversions.

According to the Jerusalem Post, data compiled by the religious freedom NGO Hiddush, which was based on multiple surveys conducted in recent years through the Smith Polling Institute, showed that 70 percent of the country’s adult Jewish population supported recognition by the state of freedom of choice in marriage, doing away with the rabbinate’s monopoly, and equally recognizing civil and non-Orthodox religious marriages. According to the same sources, 53 percent of the public stated that had they been allowed a choice, they would not have married in an Orthodox ceremony, compared with 35 percent who expressed the same sentiment in 2009, 39 percent in 2013, and 47 percent in 2016.

The Chief Rabbinate continued to require Jewish women to complete bridal counseling sessions prior to marriage. Existing instructions from the Chief Rabbinate require these sessions to address only the wedding ceremony, but in practice the content varied widely and often included marital relations and “family purity” in accordance with halacha, according to a report in Ma’ariv newspaper. Neither halacha nor civil law mandated such counselling sessions, according to the NGO ITIM.

On April 7, a magistrate court convicted an individual who refused to give a get to his wife of violating a legal order and sentenced him to 15 months’ imprisonment and seven months’ probation. On August 20, President of the Rabbinical Courts Chief Rabbi David Lau instructed authorities to delay the burial of a get refuser’s mother as a means to pressure him. The refuser then agreed to give a get to his wife.

Local authorities circumnavigated the ban on public transportation on Shabbat by funding privately operated bus lines. On July 7, the municipal council in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, approved the operation of two bus lines on Shabbat in central areas of the city as long as they did not enter residential neighborhoods. In November the Tel Aviv city council approved and funded free bus lines on Shabbat for the entire city as well as other major cities in the central area of the country. MK Uri Maklev of the United Torah Party denounced the initiative and called on the transportation minister to stop the service. The orthodox organization Hotam criticized the proposal as “harming Shabbat,” while the secular group Be Free Israel said that the initiative recognized public transportation as a “basic right.” On December 11, the nearby city of Bat Yam decided against offering public transportation on the Sabbath. In a poll released by Hiddush on December 9, 71 percent of Jewish citizens were favor of transportation on weekends, including 94 percent of citizens who described themselves as secular.

Some observant Jews, based on their religious beliefs, may only attend concerts and other entertainment events in venues that allow for the separation of genders. As permitted by attorney general directives until August, cities and municipalities with significant population groups of observant Jews were able to plan and execute events with these guidelines observed. Some women’s rights organizations, including the Israel Women’s Action Network (IWN), expressed concern about gender segregation in any publicly funded or sponsored events, arguing that gender segregation as supported by Orthodox Jews violated antidiscrimination laws and attorney general directives. On August 14, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of an NGO petition objecting to a gender-segregated concert held by the Afula municipality in accordance with the religious practices of a large percentage of its population. The event went forward prior to the Supreme Court ruling as a lower court had initially ruled in favor of the municipality. Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri made an appearance onstage at the concert and criticized the NGO for attempting to impose requirements on all Afula residents irrespective of their beliefs. On August 18, the Office of the Attorney General issued a directive stipulating certain circumstances in which gender-segregated events could be held, pending further examination of the issue. The new guidelines deviated from a previous directive that permitted segregation only in events of a religious nature, under which many observant Jews were not able to participate in municipality events.

In June MK Bezalel Smotrich said the justice system should adhere to religious law, and the country should run itself as “in the days of King David” and “restore the Torah justice system.” Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu responded to Smotrich’s remarks by saying that the country “will not be a halacha state.” On August 5, Smotrich, who had then been appointed as minister of transportation, told a conference of rabbis in Jerusalem “We would all like the state to act according to the Torah and halacha.” Smotrich also said that he would work to prevent construction, infrastructure, and maintenance work on Shabbat. On August 6, after criticism, Smotrich said that while his comments reflected the “religious will of any observant Jew,” they also made clear that “we all understand we cannot, nor do we want to, force our beliefs on others” and that policy solutions must consider the views of the entire public.

The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the authority of the Chief Rabbinate. Likewise, the government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.

On May 3, Walla News reported that in a new book, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef called reform synagogues idolatrous.

The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for early 2020 on its 2018 injunction that required the government to explain why it had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu for allegedly making racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community, following a 2016 petition by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs.

Israeli police continued to be responsible for security of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access, citing “security concerns.” Local media, the Waqf, and Jewish Temple Mount groups reported that Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas without coordinating with Waqf guards inside. Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the ban on non-Islamic prayer. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that changes in relations between police and the Temple Mount advocacy movement created a more permissive environment for non-Muslim religious acts on the site. In response, the government reiterated that non-Islamic prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter the site with police escort.

The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.

Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. The Waqf reportedly objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals who dressed immodestly or caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a limited oversight role. The government stated that most of the time, police and the Waqf worked in full coordination, including regular joint sessions regarding routine activities.

In August 2018, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within 60 days to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The case was ongoing as of the years’ end.

Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for reasons of ritual purity. Some MKs, however, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Islamic prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors. Some Knesset members continued to call on the government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif by setting aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in the West Bank.

The government continued to allow MKs and ministers to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and after reviewing police security assessments. This was in accordance with a 2018 decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site. MKs also must inform the Knesset guard at least 24 hours prior to the visit to allow for coordination with the visit with the police.

At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to enforce a regulation prohibiting the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies not conforming to Orthodox Judaism.

Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women may pray at the Western Wall. Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.

Authorities allowed the group Women of the Wall to hold its monthly service in the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza but in a barricaded area. In March and October, Jerusalem Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on people to arrive at the Western Wall to oppose Women of the Wall during their monthly prayer service, referring to their activities as an effort to “hurt the sanctity of the place.” Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox “egalitarian” (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. In response to an ongoing Supreme Court case from 2013 on the issue of prayer access at the Western Wall, the government stated in January it intended to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space. In June 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. In August 2018 a special government committee approved expansion of the platform. According to the government, the renovation of the platform has not been accomplished due to regulatory procedures. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement with the government. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.

On June 3, the National Infrastructure Committee approved, in an expedited process, a plan for the establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City. On November 4, the Housing Cabinet approved the plan. The cable car route would pass over a Karaite cemetery, something opposed by the Karaite community and which, according to the Karaite belief would desecrate the cemetery, preventing its further use. While the original plan included a physical roof over the cemetery, which contradicted Karaite customs, the approved plan does not include a roof. The government stated the cable car was meant to solve accessibility problems to holy sites such as the Western Wall, although some NGOs said the project was meant to promote Jewish touristic sites in East Jerusalem. The plan was pending final approval from the government at year’s end.

The security barrier dividing most of the West Bank from Israel also divided some communities within Jerusalem, affecting access to places of worship. The Israeli government previously stated the barrier was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.

Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, continued to criticize the 2018 Nation State Law. During the April and September general election campaigns, members of the Druze community, as well as others, demonstrated in front of the residences of party candidates and demanded a promise to amend the law by adding an equality clause, or to rescind it. Several politicians, including Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, voiced support. As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court. In the campaign for the April election, PM Netanyahu wrote on Instagram, “Israel is not a state of all its citizens … it is the nation-state of the Jewish people only.” In November the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights released observations stating that it was “deeply concerned about the possible discriminatory effect” of the Nation State Basic Law on non-Jews.

Press reporting cited growing “religionization” (hadata) of the society, its politics, and institutions. According to the August 23 issue of the New Yorker, “manifestations of hadata appear throughout civic life,” but “nowhere have those changes been more pronounced or more influential than in the public school system.” According to the article, “much of the curriculum these days is being taught through the narrow prism of religious orthodoxy.” A November report in Haaretz noted, “According to the Education Ministry, Jewish-Israeli culture is taught in a pluralistic and sometimes critical fashion. But countless examples prove otherwise.”

On April 16, six orthodox female halacha students and NGOs petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that women be allowed to register for the Halachic exams of the State of Israel. This petition followed a rejection of their registration by the Chief Rabbinate, which the petitioners stated they viewed as wrongful discrimination. In May 2018, the government began recruiting women as legal advisors in rabbinical courts, following a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women.

The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs, whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion.

A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.

A series of Supreme Court cases on conversion rights, including a petition demanding immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country, continued through year’s end.

According to ITIM, some individuals from the former Soviet-Union were asked by the rabbinate to take DNA tests in order to prove their Judaism. While the Supreme rabbinical court overturned two such requests, in a response to a Supreme Court petition, the government stated on September 16 that it supported consensual DNA tests as a last resort. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

According to a June report in Haaretz, a “large majority” of Jews in the country would strip the Chief Rabbinate of its authority to determine who qualified as Jewish in the country, according to a survey published July 2 by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute.

District courts declared two Jewish men as “lacking religion” due to their requests in January and March to change to this status and demanded that the MOI change their status in the civil population registry.

Petitions of four municipalities against Interior Minister Deri’s rejection of their bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat were pending at the Supreme Court. An additional petition was dismissed without prejudice on July 23.

The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and the West Bank for persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only two were available for use to the broader general public regardless of residence. The one MRS-administered cemetery in the West Bank was available only for the burial of Israeli citizens. Additionally, 13 MRS-administered cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial (i.e., not affiliated to a religion) for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial for a relative reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that the distant location of such cemeteries made it difficult to arrange and attend burials. In 2018, the MRS published a call for proposals to develop or expand cemeteries for civil burials, following a 2016 report by the state comptroller that criticized the MRS for not implementing the civil burial law and thereby preventing the right of citizens to civil burial. On July 18, Hiddush petitioned the Supreme Court demanding the state to allow civil burial in agricultural localities. On July 4, following another Hiddush petition, the IDF announced it would change its orders to allow for non-Orthodox military burial ceremonies.

The government again did not propose new draft legislation to respond to the 2017 Supreme Court decision striking down the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service and setting a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews. The government requested additional time to pass a new draft law and received a postponement until January 2020. Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs; however, the Ministry of Defense rejected this argument. Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from “national religious” Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox “Eda Haredit” community did not receive an exemption from military service based on its members’ conscientious objection on religious grounds. Because its yeshivas were not recognized by the state, they did not receive the same postponement and exemption from military service as other yeshiva students. As a result, dozens of them were arrested every month, according to representatives of the community.

In December, the IDF stated that it had made a counting mistake in recent years in the number of ultra-Orthodox in the military. According to media reports, numbers were doubled and even tripled to meet the objectives set by the law. The IDF stated data was not skewed intentionally and the Chief of Staff appointed a committee to inquire regarding the gaps in the figures.

According to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center, the government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.

The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.

On June 13, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Supreme Court that requested official recognition as a religious community. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, despite repeated requests, the government had not taken action on their 2017 application. The panel did not make a decision by year’s end.

According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, on January 16, a judicial panel reviewed an appeal to the Supreme Court in connection with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ efforts to obtain recognition of the Watchtower Association of Israel as a “public institution” under the Land Taxation Law. The Jehovah’s Witnesses made their original application in 2012 and although the tax authority approved the application, the Finance Committee of the Knesset, which has the authority to grant such exemptions, placed the application on hold. In response to a 2017 lawsuit by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the committee stated it was within its rights to deny tax exemptions to “missionary associations.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses then appealed to the Supreme Court. The judicial panel gave the tax authority additional time for further review and investigation and ordered it to present a final position on whether or not the Watchtower Association met the requirements for an exemption. After a hearing on May 22, the tax authority informed the Supreme Court on November 7 that it approved the application for tax exemption. At year’s end, the Knesset Finance Committee had not reviewed that decision.

Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, math, and science curriculum. The government, however, included the basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools. Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

According to the NGO Noar Kahalacha, dozens of Jewish schoolgirls were still unable to attend ultra-Orthodox schools due to discrimination based on their Mizrahi ethnicity (those with ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East), despite a 2009 court ruling prohibiting ethnic segregation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi schoolgirls. A 2017 report from the state comptroller criticized the Ministry of Education (MOE) for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools. The government stated the MOE did not tolerate any form of discrimination, and schools that refused to accept students for discriminatory reasons were summoned to hearings, sometimes leading to delays and denial of their budgets until the schools resolved the discrimination.

The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools have autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials. The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fully fund Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but churches rejected this option, stating that, unlike in Orthodox schools, they would lose autonomy over those decisions. Church leaders criticized the disparity in government funding between their school system and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.

Seventh-day Adventists stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not. The government has stated local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religious groups in accordance with the law. The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship was not granted a property tax exemption, although representatives of religious groups stated that tax collection by local authorities remained a concern.

Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world and that any visa delays or denials were due to security reviews. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from countries that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who had served in the country for more than 30 years.

The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with their religious community, although without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.

The MOI continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country. Muslim leaders criticized the MOI for appointing non-Muslims to head the Muslim Affairs Department at the ministry, mostly Druze former military officials. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. According to the government, the government did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were not state employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives.

No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders rejected this assertion, stating the institutes in Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Baraa, operated by an NGO that teaches some Islamic studies, were not recognized as educational institutions by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. The Muslim leaders also said Al-Qasemi College in Baqa’a al-Gharbia was a teachers’ college that included a program for teaching Islam in schools. The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.

The government continued to promote measures to encourage increased Israeli residence and economic development in the thinly populated Negev Desert in the south of the country, including development plans for military industries, railways, the expansion of Road 6, and a phosphate mine. Civil society organizations criticized the government for these plans, stating they could lead to the displacement of 36,000 Bedouins. The government made more funding available for government-approved Bedouin cities and towns to relocate Bedouins displaced by the economic expansion.

The government also took measures aimed at strengthening the nine Bedouin municipalities in the Negev by improving the municipalities’ management to better utilize the three billion shekels ($870 million) provided through the Ministry of Agriculture’s (MOA) Socioeconomic Development Plan for Negev Bedouin 2017-2021 to improve infrastructure, education, public services, and employment in government-approved Negev Bedouin cities and towns. The government held joint planning forums to address violence, women’s employment, strategic planning, and education in Bedouin municipalities, with the stated intention of improving communication between the Bedouin municipalities and the government. According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality, 115 of 126 communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, which the NGO stated effectively excluded non-Jewish residents. Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion that would have replaced existing Bedouin villages.

As of year’s end, Bedouin residents in the unrecognized village of Umm al-Hiran had not fulfilled the agreement they reached in 2018 with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to self-demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. This agreement followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a community called Hiran. Families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Israeli population of the Negev and Galilee regions) to move to Hiran remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.

Some former mosques and Islamic cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonged to a defunct prestate Waqf (distinct from the Jerusalem Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. In December 2018, following a decades-long legal battle between the Jaffa Muslim community and a real estate developer, the government approved a request from the Tel Aviv Municipality to recognize Tasou Cemetery in Jaffa as an Islamic cemetery. This decision included authority for the Muslim community to manage the cemetery but did not transfer its ownership. The Islamic Council in Jaffa welcomed the decision, publicly calling it “a just decision that’s been waiting for more than 70 years.”

Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities.

On June 6, the Karaite community submitted a second petition to the Supreme Court, which remained pending at year’s end, to block the expropriation of land, previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramla, for the construction of a highway interchange. The Karaites stated that the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. In 2018, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of the land, and the Karaites subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. Later in 2018, the Supreme Court dismissed the Karaites’ appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court. The government subsequently reported it had reached an agreement with the Karaite community that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs. The Karaites, however, denied an agreement had been reached and submitted the second petition to the Supreme Court.

The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian clergy of different faiths as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals for Muslim soldiers according to Islamic customs.

In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from 2015 and 2016 to remove the signs, and the Jerusalem District Court ruled in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted. Following the municipality’s refusal to remove the signs, the Supreme Court ruled in November 2018 that authorities must comply with the order by December 31, 2018 or start paying fines. The Supreme Court later extended the deadline until August 30. According to the government, the municipality did not fully implement the ruling by the end of the year, and some signs that were taken down were replaced by new ones. Vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements.

NGOs Adalah and the Secular Forum organized petitions against a ban on bringing non-kosher-for-Passover foods (known as hametz) into public hospitals during Passover. On March 5, the Supreme Court issued an injunction demanding that the government explain why it could not implement “proportional solutions” to the problem, such as the use of disposable plates and utensils at the hospital. In response, on July 15, the government maintained its support for establishing “hametz zones” on hospital premises but outside of hospital buildings and explained that solutions such as the use of disposable utensils were technically problematic. In October, the Chief Rabbinate told the Supreme Court it opposed the use of disposable utensils as well as the establishing “hametz zones.” It stated that bringing hametz into hospitals during Passover would violate religious freedom and the right to life, as it would lead some individuals to avoid going to the hospital during Passover.

According to the NGO HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian spouses of non-Israeli residents living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some non-Israeli residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry Christians from the West Bank or elsewhere (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). A Christian religious leader expressed concern this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities.

In a May 20 statement, leaders of the Catholic churches in Jerusalem said the failure of international diplomacy and the peace process led many residents to feel “their lives have become more and more unbearable,” causing some to emigrate, with “many more consider leaving … [while] some are resorting to violence.” According to NGOs, community members, and media commentators, other factors contributing to Christian emigration included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restrictions on the Christian community.

While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. This public land includes approximately 12.5 percent owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), whose statutes prohibit sale or lease of land to non-Jews. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of non-Israeli citizens in Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land. Arab citizens are allowed to participate in bids for JNF land, but sources stated that the ILA will grant the JNF another parcel of land whenever an Arab citizen of Israel wins a bid.

On June 11, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court 2017 decision in favor of Ateret Cohanim, a Jewish pro-settlement organization, which signed a 99-year lease through three companies in 2004 for three properties owned by the Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. The Church had argued that its official who signed the lease was not authorized to do so. In a July 11 protest of the court’s ruling, Christian leaders prayed outside the disputed buildings and, according to the Times of Israel, the Greek Orthodox patriarch said that “extremist groups [were] trying to weaken the unity and identity of the Christian neighborhood.” In August the Greek Orthodox Church filed a new lawsuit seeking to overturn the Supreme Court decision, stating it had new evidence of corruption and fraud involving the sale. After filing the case, the patriarchate said that changing Jerusalem’s status quo “threatens the continuous hundreds-of-years old mosaic and balance that shores [up] the good relations between Jerusalemites of different faiths.” In November, after representatives of the three companies used by Ateret Cohanim failed to respond to the Church’s lawsuit, the Jerusalem District Court ordered the case reopened.

Some NGOs reported incidents in which they said authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military. For example, the Secular Forum continued to criticize the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in the first to ninth grades, referring to it as “religious indoctrination to young children.” The Secular Forum also opposed religious programs in those schools by private religious organizations, such as presentations about Passover in March by the Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. The government denied students were subjected to religious indoctrination or coercion, stating the secular public school curriculum included lessons “on the culture of the Jewish people,” including elements of the Jewish faith and traditions, such as the Jewish calendar and holidays. According to Haaretz, in May the minister of education canceled a regulation that required schools to inform parents of activities of religious NGOs in schools and the option to allow children to opt out of participation.

In November the Secular Forum and Hiddush filed a freedom of information petition to a district court in order to obtain information regarding the repeated cancelation of visits of families in some IDF bases on Shabbat, according to the Secular Forum, in order not to discriminate against religiously observant soldiers. The IDF responded to the petition, admitting that some bases were not holding visits on Shabbat, and established a committee to offer recommendations. The recommendations were pending as of the year’s end. In some instances, IDF soldiers were punished for keeping non-kosher foods in their rooms.

Women’s rights organizations cited a growing trend of gender segregation reflecting increased incorporation of Jewish religious observance in government institutions, including in the IDF, as accommodation to increase the enlistment of participants who follow strict interpretations of Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. On April 14, following a wave of protests by national religious rabbis, the IDF stopped allowing women to serve in combat positions in the armored corps despite a successful pilot program, citing economic and logistical reasons. Many observers, however, stated that the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.

Following a petition by Tebeka, a human rights group focusing on issues involving the Ethiopian Jewish community, the Chief Rabbinate Council adopted recommendations on October 31 according to which it would be prohibited to verify a person’s Judaism based on their origin or skin color. Tebeka petitioned the Supreme Court to object to a demand by the Kiryat Gat rabbinate to verify the Judaism of Ethiopian workers of a catering company in order for the business to receive a certificate for the most stringent level of kosher supervision.

Certain NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. Archeologists from the NGO Emek Shave disputed the government’s representation of the “pilgrim’s road,” a tunnel dug by the IAA and inaugurated in Silwan on June 30, as being historically part of the pilgrimage route to the Jewish Second Temple; Emek Shemek said the excavation method did not establish with certainty the date and purpose of the road. NGOs such as the Ir David Foundation and the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies supported the government’s position.

According to the AP, the government was trying to end the custom of polygamy among Bedouins in the Negev and, for the first time, prosecuted suspected polygamists. Many Bedouins stated they saw this new policy as a means to curb their population growth and criminalize community members. Emi Palmor, the former director general of the Ministry of Justice, stated she was determined to enforce the law but was trying to do so with input from the community, and said she spent two years researching the issue and discussing solutions with Bedouin activists. Although the country outlawed polygamy decades ago, approximately 20 to 30 percent of Bedouin men practiced polygamy, according to government figures, with the rate as high as 60 percent in some villages. On September 20, the Beer Sheva District Court convicted Amin Abu Sakik from the Bedouin town of Rahat of polygamy and sentenced him to seven months in prison. The decision superseded a lighter sentence issued by the Beer Sheva Magistrate’s Court of community service, one-year suspended sentence, and a fine. Abu Sakik was the first person to be convicted of polygamy since enforcement of the law was renewed in 2017.

At the beginning of the year, the 120-member Knesset had 16 members from religious minorities (12 Muslims, three Druze, and one Christian). At year’s end, following two elections, the Knesset had 14 members from religious minorities (nine Muslims, three Druze, and two Christians). As of June, the 23-member cabinet included one Druze minister; there were no Muslim or Christian cabinet members. At year’s end, there were no Druze, Muslim, or Christian members of the cabinet.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to an article in the Jewish Press, a U.S. weekly newspaper, on June 8, 60 seminary students from the Armenian Church punched and kicked two Jewish youths in Jerusalem. Both victims required medical treatment, and one was hospitalized. Subsequently, the Armenian Patriarchate said the newspaper’s article about the incident was “a pure lie and malicious slander.” In its statement, the patriarchate stated that a group of 20 seminarians and the seminary’s dean were attacked by three Jews and their dog, which, after its muzzle was removed, was ordered to attack the dean. According to the patriarchate, the three Jews also attacked the group, while the seminarians shielded the priest from the dog. One seminarian’s hand was broken in the attack. Both sides filed complaints at the local police station.

According to Haaretz, on May 16, five or six religiously observant Jews shouting “Death to Arabs” attacked a Palestinian teen from East Jerusalem. The attackers hit the youth, identified as Ibrahim Sawilam, knocking him unconscious and requiring that he be taken to the hospital. Although his family filed a complaint with the police, who said they would open an investigation, Haaretz reported that they had not followed up with either Sawilam or any of his friends who were with him at the time of the attack.

Christian clergy and pilgrims continued to report instances of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem harassing or spitting on them. According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews. For example, approximately 40 individuals, including members of the right-wing organization Lehava, attacked Messianic Jews during a community concert in Jerusalem in June, cursing, screaming, using pepper spray, and tossing live frogs at them, according to Haaretz. Several eyewitnesses said the police did not respond appropriately in defense of the concertgoers and organizers. The police detained two persons for questioning and later released them without charges. In a written response, the Israel National Police said it denounces all violence and closed the case for lack of evidence.

Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in August that a man in Bat Yam attacked two of their members during door-to-door activity and threatened to kill one of them after she called the police. The police closed the investigation four days after it was opened, and Jehovah’s Witnesses appealed the decision on September 23. The case remained pending at year’s end.

Lehava members continued to criticize or assault Arab men who were in relationships with Jewish women and to harass “mixed” couples. In May Lehava Director Ben-Tzion Gopstein sent a letter to MK Gideon Saar of the Likud Party demanding he put a stop to a relationship between Saar’s daughter and her Arab partner. Another organization, Yad L’Achim, continued to stop instances of cohabitation between Jewish women and Arab men by sometimes “launching military-like rescues from ‘hostile’ Arab villages,” according to its website. Following a 2017 petition from the Israel Religious Action Center, which represents the Reform Movement, to the High Court demanding Ben-Tzion Gopstein be indicted on a series of offenses, the Jerusalem district attorney held a pre-indictment hearing in 2018 and indicted him on November 26, 2019 for incitement to terrorism, violence and racism. In August the Central Elections Committee disqualified Gopstein’s Knesset candidacy due to incitement to racism.

There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of their neighborhoods harassing individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by driving on Shabbat or not wearing modest dress. The harassment included verbal abuse, spitting, and throwing stones.

On January 30, unknown individuals removed the cross from a church in the Golan Heights, abandoned since 1967. According to Kan News, the police received a complaint alleging a hate crime.

According to media reports, on November 15, unknown individuals spray painted a swastika on a Magen David Adom (MDA) ambulance whose staff were treating a patient in Tel Aviv. The MDA team filed a police complaint.

Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women experiencing harassment by non-Muslims. According to a September report in Haaretz, a dental clinic in Netanya would not hire a dentist because she wore a hijab. In a conversation with the dentist, which the applicant recorded, the clinic director conceded that the Muslim woman had made a positive impression on the clinic’s staff members but said patients would not want her to treat them because of her hijab. In a subsequent lawsuit, the Tel Aviv Regional Labor Court awarded the dentist 40,000 shekels ($11,000) in compensation, finding that employer’s refusal to hire her constituted illegal discrimination.

On June 4 a group of Muslim students at David Yellin College of Education, a teachers’ college in Jerusalem, wrote “Ramadan Kareem” (“Blessed Ramadan”) on a communal student chalkboard. This same chalkboard was being used for commemorative notes recognizing Israel’s Day of Remembrance. Other members of the community who filmed the incident said the Muslim students had “desecrated the memory” of fallen Israeli soldiers. The college punished the students for “inappropriate conduct,” and banned two students, Reem Jouabra and Maram Abu Sneineh, from entering the college campus until August and revoked academic honors and grades awarded to them. The college also ordered the students to complete community service and to apologize to the community and the college president. Following an appeal by the NGO Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the college rescinded most of the penalties imposed on the two students.

Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce. On January 26, unknown individuals burned Torah scrolls and spray-painted graffiti on a Conservative synagogue in Netanya, following several vandalism cases at the same synagogue in 2018. On January 29, unknown individuals vandalized an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem, cut the ark in which Torah scrolls are kept, destroyed Torah scrolls, and broke into the safe. On June 11, unknown individuals broke into the safe of an Orthodox synagogue in Bnei-Brak and stole Torah scrolls.

The most common “price tag” offenses, according to police, included attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, damage to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands. For example, on July 27, vandals sprayed graffiti on a truck and walls in Kfar Qasim referring to marriages between Jews and Arabs that said: “the daughter of Israel to the people of Israel,” and “enough with the intermarriage.” On December 12, unknown individuals sprayed Stars of David and sayings including “Muhammad is a pig” and damaged a car in the village of Manshiya Zabda in northern Israel.

The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and to sponsor activities promoting tolerance in response to the attacks.

Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site due to concerns relating to Jewish religious beliefs regarding the ongoing halakhic debate about whether it is permissible or forbidden for Jews to enter the Temple Mount, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible. Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site. Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there, as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site. In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them; in other cases reported on social media and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the activity. According to local media, some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration. According to the Jerusalem Waqf and Temple Mount activist groups, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement increased during the year to record levels, including a single-day record of 1,451 visits on “Jerusalem Day” in May. According to Temple Mount activist groups and the Waqf, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 3,009 visits, a 25 percent increase over 2017. According to Yareah, an organization that promotes Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, 30,416 Jews visited the site during the year, the first time the number of Jewish visitors exceeded 30,000 since Israel’s founding.

Individuals affiliated with the Northern Islamic Movement, which the government declared illegal in 2015, continued to speak of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as being “under attack” by Israeli authorities and an increasing number of Jewish visitors. Some small Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple.

In January Christians launched demonstrations protesting the Haifa Museum of Art’s display of an artwork depicting Ronald McDonald as Jesus on the cross, the center of an exhibition about consumerism and religion. On January 11, hundreds protested the exhibit and police arrested one man on suspicion of assault and searched for two other persons who had thrown firebombs at the museum. Police said that three police officers were hurt as dozens of demonstrators tried to forcibly enter the museum. On January 17, Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem said the sculpture would be taken out of the exhibition following consultations with church leaders, noting that it was due to return to the Finnish museum from which it was borrowed at the end of January. The Association for Civil Rights condemned the move, stating that the decision was “a capitulation to violence and a severe violation of artistic freedom of expression.”

NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization from rabbis. NGOs noted reports of mental illness among the LGBTI minor community, leading some to attempt suicide. Other NGOs noted an increasing number of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.

Some religious figures and politicians spoke against LGBTI individuals. On July 18, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem and former Chief Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar called on religious LGBTI individuals to throw away their kippahs and Shabbat observance, saying they were sinning against the Jewish people with their bodies.

Several religious NGOs, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, sought to break the rabbinate’s monopoly over issues that included kashrut certificates for burial, marriage, and divorce. In its first year, the unofficial kashrut certification of Tzohar, a network of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, gained 150 businesses.

According to the NGO Panim, more than 2,610 weddings took place outside of the Rabbinate’s authority in 2018, compared with 2,400 in 2017. These included unofficial orthodox, conservative, reform and secular ceremonies. The Chuppot initiative, an effort by some Orthodox Jews to challenge the Rabbinate’s exclusive supervision of Jewish religious ceremonies and practices, held 216 unofficial Orthodox weddings during 2019. The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Rabbinate Orthodox wedding remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI.

According to the Rackman Center, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get refusals, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice. A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the Jewish community. In February, Mavoi Satum, an organization that deals with issues of divorce in Israel, tried to set a precedent through an appeal to the High Rabbinical Court, which demanded that the court not close cases until a get is issued. The court did not take up the issue.

A rabbinical court in September ruled that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship was entitled to only 20 percent of joint property, accumulated from the date of her infidelity. On June 6, the president of the Supreme Court ordered an additional hearing for April 2020 on a 2018 Supreme Rabbinical Court ruling which found that a woman who engaged in an extramarital relationship had no rights to her and her husband’s home.

In an October decision, a rabbinical court moved the custody of children from their mother to their father because the mother stopped observing Judaism, although the father had been previously convicted in violent offenses, according to Haaretz. Haaretz reported that state social services were against the move but could not intervene because the divorce case was taking place in a rabbinical court. As a part of the custody agreement, the mother had to sign an agreement tying custody to a religious lifestyle, in order to obtain a get.

A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). For example, IEA held 384 interfaith encounters throughout the year. The number of children studying at integrated Yad BeYad Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,800, up from 1,700 in the previous year.

The Tomb of the Kings, a 2,000-year-old archaeological site in Jerusalem owned by the government of France, reopened to the public two days a week in October for the first time since 2010. Ultra-Orthodox Jews were seeking unrestricted worship at the ancient Jewish tomb and challenged French ownership of the site.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with government officials, embassy officials stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups. The Ambassador spoke at the Christian Media Summit‎ hosted by the government to promote religious freedom in the region, and the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith reception for representatives of the country’s diverse religious groups. Additionally, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism represented the U.S. government at President Reuven Rivlin’s emergency conference on combating anti-Semitism.

Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The embassy continued to support workshops at the American Center in Jerusalem that addressed topics including religion in public schools, democracy and religious freedom, and prevention of societal attacks on religious minorities.

Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations. Embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.

Throughout the year, embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i communities and used embassy social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.

In March the Ambassador visited the Beit Jimal Monastery to condemn the vandalism of the monastery’s cemetery. The embassy produced a video that included the Ambassador’s remarks and amplified the video on Twitter and Facebook.

In July the embassy held a roundtable discussion on religious freedom issues hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute and livestreamed by the Jerusalem Post, with the participation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and NGOs.

Embassy-hosted events included an interfaith iftar, an interfaith Rosh Hashanah reception, and an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner. The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience. Embassy programs supported mixed Jewish-Arab educational and community initiatives to reduce societal tensions and violence through sports, the arts, environmental projects, and entrepreneurship. Initiatives included a continuing project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together ultra-Orthodox, Muslim, and Christian citizens to create a shared civic agenda and language to deal with common issues and concerns in their communities. Another project supported joint training sessions for Muslim and Jewish teachers of religion.

The embassy worked to mitigate interreligious and intercommunal tensions between the country’s non-Jewish and Jewish citizens through the greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy – especially the high-tech sector. An ongoing grant supported efforts by Arab, ultra-Orthodox, and Ethiopian Jewish NGOs to break down social and religious barriers and better integrate their communities into the technical workforce.

The embassy awarded a grant to the Mosaica religious peace initiative to establish a mechanism for crisis prevention and management in Jerusalem, with particular focus on Islamic and Jewish holy sites in the Old City.

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West Bank and Gaza 

Jordan

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.7 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population. Some church leaders estimate that Christians make up approximately 1.8 percent of the country’s population. Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are treated as Muslims by the government). According to the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (RIIFS), there is also a small community (consisting of a few families) of Zoroastrians. The Ministry of Labor issued more than 300,000 work permits to foreign workers during the year, but civil society sources note that the number of migrant workers exceeds 800,000. Most of the migrant workers are from Egypt, South and East Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa and South and East Asia are often Christian or Hindu. There are more than 744,000 refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including more than 654,000 Syrians and 66,000 Iraqis. The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim. Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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 in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion and states the king must be a Muslim. The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and ecclesiastical courts for Christian denominations recognized by the government. According to the General Ifta’ Department, in adjudicating personal status cases, sharia courts follow the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims; these courts do not recognize converts from Islam to other religions. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy. Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the case of a will that states otherwise. Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution. The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations, before converting a Christian to Islam, in order to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction. The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying citizens in a manner that violates their dignity. The penal code criminalizes insulting the Prophet Muhammad, punishable by one to three years’ imprisonment. The law also provides a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding 20 Jordanian dinars ($28) for anyone who publishes anything that offends religious feelings or beliefs.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.” Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).

Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register with the government. Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration. If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage. (There is no provision for civil marriage.) They may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts. Religious groups may also be registered as “associations” and if so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but they may own property and open bank accounts. They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding. Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax-exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.

Religious groups not recognized as denominations or associations lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff. Individuals may exercise such activities on behalf of the unrecognized group, however. To register as a recognized religious denomination, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine. In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the Ministry of the Interior (MOI) and the CCL. Although the practice is not explicitly mandated by the law, church leaders have stated that the CCL must endorse recognition for new Christian groups prior to the prime minister’s approval. To achieve official recognition as denominations, Christian groups must be recommended by the MOI and approved by the cabinet. The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups: the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

An annex to the 2014 Law for Councils of Christian Denominations lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic. In 2018 five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the MOI as associations, but none have been permitted to establish an ecclesiastical court: the Free Evangelical Church, Church of the Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptist Church. The government granted legal status as an association to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

The CCL consists of the heads of the country’s 11 historically recognized Christian denominations and serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents (marriage or inheritance). In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries. Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task. Nonrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.

According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments). Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf Islamic Affairs and Holy Places (Ministry of Awqaf) manages mosques, appoints imams, pays mosque staff salaries, manages Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizes certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances. Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, which is headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and is in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Ifta’ Department, which issues fatwas.

The government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons. Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from the Ministry of Awqaf. In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month or be given a fine not to exceed 20 Jordanian dinars ($28).

The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless authorized by an official committee headed by the grand mufti in the General Ifta’ Department. This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf, with the rank of mufti being equal to that of a minister.

The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and it imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 Jordanian dinars ($28,200).

By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out. Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction. The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but which according to the legal code includes religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) with the right to establish their own schools provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.” To operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards. The ministry does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship. In several cities, Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity. Private schools, both nonreligious and religious, are open to adherents of all religions.

Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools but is optional for non-Muslims. Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in their final year of high school that includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran. The Islamic religion is an optional subject for secondary education certificate exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum, or for Muslim students following international curricula.

The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other recognized religious communities. According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts. Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts. A personal or family-status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court. Per the constitution, matters of the personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities. Such courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities. According to the law, members of recognized religious groups lacking their own courts may take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court. There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of nonrecognized religious groups. Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.

The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Islamic religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal. The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Islamic religious (known as ecclesiastical) court. All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.

According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf. Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.

Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status. Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.

According to sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal. If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert to Islam for their marriage to remain legal. If a Christian man converts to Islam while married to a Christian woman, the wife does not need to convert to Islam for the marriage to remain legal. There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of nonrecognized religious groups. Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, may obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination such as the Anglican Church, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father. Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife would lose custody of the children when they reached seven years of age. In April parliament ratified amendments to the PSL, stipulating that mothers, regardless of religious background, should retain custody of their children until age 18. Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion. (Like citizenship, religion is transmitted only via the father). In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise. All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to the PSL, which mostly follows Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion. In practice, Christian ecclesiastical courts use sharia-based rules to adjudicate inheritance.

National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records. Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion. Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their fathers as their own. Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam to Christianity are not allowed to change their religion on electronic records. Converts from Christianity to Islam must change their religion on their civil documents such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family) and on electronic records.

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine of 130 parliamentary seats. Christians may not run for additional seats. No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups. The law stipulates that Muslims must hold all parliamentary seats not specifically reserved for Christians. There are no reserved seats for the Druze population. The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office as Muslims.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

On August 1, the minister of awqaf 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. In an August 2 statement, a local tourism official said the government would not allow non-Islamic religious ceremonies at the site and that the tomb had nothing to do with Judaism historically or archaeologically. Upon reopening the site to non-Israeli visitors after nine days, the minister of awqaf issued a statement calling on visitors to obey all rules and regulations at the shrine. Following bilateral discussions between Jordan and Israel in November, an announcement was made on December 1 that the site would reopen to Israeli tourists in prior coordination and with on-site guides and security.

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits. Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials. Because of the sharia ban on conversion, government officials generally refused to change the religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion. Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The government’s Media Commission regulates the publishing and distribution of all books and media. If the Media Commission deems that passages “violate public norms and values, are religiously offensive, or are insulting” to the king, it can request a court order to prohibit the distribution of the book. During the year, the commission banned distribution of 55 books for insulting religion as well as displaying pornographic images and promoting homosexuality.

Members of religious groups who were unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the Ministry of Justice. The chief of the OSJ continued to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce. The OSJ continued to enforce the interview requirement for converts to Islam, introduced in 2017, to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.

The Ministry of Awqaf continued to monitor sermons at mosques and required that preachers refrain from political commentary. Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons. Imams who violated these rules risked being fined or banned from preaching. Unofficial mosques continued to operate outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, and imams outside of government employment preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision. According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques in 2018. In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam. In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called in 2018 for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight, a practice that was implemented partially in major cities. During the year, the Ministry of Awqaf allowed smaller mosques to continue Friday sermons along with their area’s central mosque after identifying accessibility and commuting difficulties, especially for the elderly.

The Ministry of Awqaf continued to provide official government support for religious travel for Muslims. During the year, in support of the Hajj pilgrimage, the ministry implemented an electronic tracking system for buses carrying pilgrims to follow up on vehicle breakdowns and ensure carriers met safety standards. The government received a quota from the Saudi government of approximately 7,000 visas for the Hajj, excluding guides, controllers, and drivers. The government assigned the visas to citizens based on military or government service, age (the elderly are granted preference), and a national lottery.

During the year, expatriate religious volunteers from the evangelical Christian community continued to report bureaucratic delays in the renewal of residency permits. In 2018 the government began enforcing a new residency policy to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency. Observers suggested that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims. Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the MOI and a letter of sponsorship from the church. Volunteers now obtained additional approvals, including from the Ministry of Labor, lengthening the average renewal process by several months, according to church officials.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to privately practice their religion and included them in interfaith events. Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security. The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim. In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in family books and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school. The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees that sometimes amounted to more than 500 Jordanian dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five Jordanian dinars ($7) through religious courts. Kamel Abu Jaber, the director of the Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies and former foreign minister, stated in an August report on Al-Monitor, a U.S. website focusing on Middle East news, that a law recognizing the Baha’i Faith would be hard to pass in parliament. Abu Jaber said that during his tenure as foreign minister, he relayed a request from the Baha’i community for official recognition. According to Abu Jaber, the government declined to take action, fearing reactions in both the parliament and across society.

There continued to be two recognized cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government. Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is. In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process that created a large financial burden. Baha’i leaders said they were using the civil courts to challenge their group’s property registration restrictions. The Baha’i community’s request for religious exemptions for property registration fees remained pending.

The government continued to deny official recognition to other religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other nonrecognized religious groups reported that they continued to operate schools and hospitals and that they were able to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after a 2018 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais. Several Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government’s effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including for religious worshippers. These church leaders stated they appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and at large events, although a few members of the Christian community said they felt intimidated and targeted by these extra measures.

Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, continued to serve in parliament and as cabinet ministers. Christians served as deputy prime minister, cabinet ministers, senators, and ambassadors. There was one Druze cabinet member.

Druze continued to worship and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community. The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze. Druze continued to report discrimination hindered their coreligionists from reaching high positions in government and official departments.

The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion. Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.

Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for disrupting public order if they proselytized Muslims. Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks, according to multiple nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations, while additional requirements were imposed for residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.

The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rescindment of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017. The changes were intended to promote tolerance, but parents and teachers’ groups stated that the changes were distancing students from Islamic values and promoted normalization of relations with Israel. The curriculum continued the past practice of omitting mention of the Holocaust.

Amendments to the cybercrimes law remain pending with parliament. The new amendments define hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”

On October 7, King Abdullah presented awards to a number of leading international Islamic scholars at the 18th General Conference of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in recognition of their efforts to promote religious understanding and interfaith dialogue. On May 7, the king announced plans to help fund the restoration of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from his personal funds. Church leaders in Jerusalem previously could not decide on funding the renovation because of competing Christian claims regarding administration of the site. In April the king hosted a number of Muslim and Christian religious leaders at the World Interfaith Harmony Week prize ceremony.

On March 29, King Abdullah received the “Lamp of Peace” award from the Catholic Franciscan order in Assisi, Italy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 2018 honoree, presented the king with the award. The Franciscans bestowed the award to the king for promoting human rights and interfaith dialogue, as well as his support of Middle East peace and Syrian refugees. In his acceptance speech, the king stated, “The principles of coexistence and interfaith harmony are deeply embedded in Jordan’s heritage.” He added, “Our country is home to a historic Christian community. All our citizens actively share in building our strong nation. Indeed, Christians have been part of Middle East societies for thousands of years and are vital to the future of our region.”

A London-based NGO, the Minority Rights Group, noted on its website that the acceptance of Christianity in the midst of a Muslim majority has been the “norm” in the country’s modern history and that the government has been “overwhelmingly tolerant” of its Christian minority.

The National Center for Human Rights, a quasi-independent institution established by law, received both government and international funding. The prime minister nominates its board of trustees, and the king ratifies their appointment by royal decree. In August a new board of trustees was appointed, to include Islamists, former ministers, former judges, current members of parliament, religious leaders, and civil society representatives.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation, from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members. Some reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts, while others reported persistent and credible threats of violence from family members protecting traditional honor. According to international NGOs, female converts from Islam were particularly vulnerable to harassment. NGOs also reported cases of forced marriage to Muslims by female converts from Islam in order to “retain family honor.” Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and persons in interfaith romantic relationships; the latter continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward those involved. Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence. Converts from Christianity also reported social stigma from the church and Christian society. Nonbelievers reported societal intolerance and discrimination.

Religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media. A well-known religious scholar and television host reported such negative reactions on social media to his televised programs, in which he advocated religious moderation and interfaith understanding.

On September 7, in an open lecture hosted by the Jordanian Philosophical Society, physics professor Hisham Ghassib described Judaism as a “primitive” and “despicable” religion, adding that that the concept of a Jewish nation was a “myth.” A video of the lecture posted on social media received a muted local response, but numerous Israeli newspapers criticized the remarks. The government did not respond to the criticism or issue an official condemnation.

Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions. Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance. Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.

Observers reported occasional friction between Christian denominations on the CCL and evangelical churches not recognized by the government. Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches said there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.

During the year, the RIIFS hosted two events on religious pluralism and interfaith understanding. RIIFS also produced manuals for imams and female religious leaders focused on human rights and religious freedom. The Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies also continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups. Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.

In an August report, Arab Barometer, an international research consortium focusing on the Middle East and North Africa, found that only 22 percent of individuals between ages 15 and 29 in the country identified as religious. This represented a decline of 7 percentage points since the last survey in 2017. In a December 2019 poll, Arab Barometer also found a decline in trust in Islamist parties since 2013.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other 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 expatriate religious workers and volunteers. In May the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith iftar to highlight religious diversity, increase engagement with civil society about tolerance and religious freedom, and build partnerships to advance minority rights. The gathering brought together a diverse set of religious leaders, including evangelical Christian pastors, the director of the Baha’i Faith community, heads of NGOs specializing in interfaith cooperation, sharia judges, and the grand mufti. In August the Charge hosted a luncheon for participants in the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., to hear feedback from the conference and discuss general religious freedom trends in the country.

Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, and interfaith institutions such as RIIFS, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.

The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and understanding. The embassy awarded a two-year, $265,000 grant to upgrade a revenue-generating cheese production business in Karak operated by women from religious minorities. The embassy continued to administer a $750,000 grant awarded in 2018 for a project to preserve religious and cultural heritage, focusing on protecting the country’s interfaith tradition and highlighting the heritage of religious minorities. The U.S. NGO Search for Common Ground was implementing the project, building interfaith youth coalitions in six communities to promote and preserve religious heritage sites. The project aims to empower local communities, increase mutual respect, preserve religious-cultural heritage, and foster interreligious dialogue and cooperation. The embassy used social media posts to promote religious tolerance and mark religious holidays, including through posting video messages. The Charge d’Affaires appeared in a video for Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan that showed her participating in the tradition of handing out date-filled cookies to friends and colleagues. In mid-December, dozens of embassy staff and their family members participated in the filming of a Christmas greeting video that was disseminated on social media.

Kazakhstan

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 18.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The most recent national census in 2009 reported approximately 70 percent of the population is Muslim, most of whom adhere to the Sunni Hanafi school. Other Muslim groups include Shafi’i Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and Ahmadi Muslims.

Other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Buddhists, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, and Scientologists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of religion and belief, as well as for the freedom to decline religious affiliation. These rights may be limited only by laws and only to the extent necessary for protection of the constitutional system, public order, human rights and freedoms, and the health and morality of the population. Under the constitution, all people have the right to follow their religious or other convictions, take part in religious activities, and disseminate their beliefs. These rights, however, are in practice limited to registered or “traditional” religious groups. “Traditional” is not defined by law, but typically refers to Hanafi Sunni Islam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholicism, Lutheranism, Judaism, and other major or historic religions.

In February then president Nursultan Nazarbayev renamed the Ministry of Social Development the Ministry of Information and Social Development. The Committee on Social Affairs within the ministry became the Committee for Religious Affairs (CRA), which continues to regulate the practice of religion in the country. By law, the MISD is responsible for the formulation and implementation of state policy on religion, as well as facilitating government and civil society engagement. It also considers potential violations of the laws on religious activity and extremism. The MISD drafts legislation and regulations, conducts analysis of religious materials, and makes decisions on censorship. All religious groups are required to submit all religious materials for approval before dissemination. The MISD cooperates with law enforcement to ban religious groups and sanction individuals who violate the religion law, coordinates actions of local government to regulate religious practices, and provides the official interpretation of the religion law.

The counterterrorism law requires religious organizations to secure their buildings of worship against potential terrorist attacks; the government may take action against religious organizations for failure to do so. The law states the government shall not interfere with the choice of religious beliefs or affiliation of citizens or residents, unless those beliefs are directed against the country’s constitutional framework, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

The criminal and administrative codes include penalties for unauthorized religious activity, which includes the arrangement of and participation in activities of unregistered religious groups, participation in religious activities outside permitted areas, unlicensed distribution of religious materials or training of clergy, sale of religious literature without government approval or in places not approved by the government, and discussion of religion for the purpose of proselytization without the required missionary registration.

The criminal code prohibits the “incitement of interreligious discord,” which includes “propaganda of exclusivity, superiority, or inferiority of citizens according to their relation to religion [and other] origin.” It also criminalizes the creation and leadership of social institutions that proclaim religious intolerance or exclusivity, which is punishable with imprisonment from three to seven years.

The extremism law, which applies to religious groups and other organizations, gives the government discretion to identify and designate a group as an “extremist organization,” ban a designated group’s activities, and criminalize membership in a banned organization. The law defines “extremism” as the organization and/or commission of acts in pursuit of violent change of the constitutional system; violation of the sovereignty or territorial integrity of the country; undermining of national security; violent seizure or retention of power; armed rebellion; incitement of ethnic, religious, or other forms of social discord accompanied by calls to violence; or the use of any religious practice that causes a security or health risk. An extremist organization is a “legal entity, association of individuals and (or) legal entities engaged in extremism, and recognized by the court as extremist.” The law provides streamlined court procedures for identifying a group as “terrorist or extremist,” reducing the time necessary for a court to render and act on a decision to 72 hours. After a legal finding of a violation, the law authorizes officials to revoke immediately the organization’s registration, thus ending its legal existence, and to seize its property. Prosecutors have the right to inspect annually all groups registered with state bodies.

Under the law on countering terrorism, the Ministry of Finance may freeze the financial accounts of those convicted of terrorism or extremism crimes.

The administrative code prohibits “spreading the creed of religious groups unregistered” in the country, an offense punishable by a fine of 252,500 tenge ($660). A foreigner or stateless person found guilty may also be deported.

A religious organization may be designated “national,” “regional,” or “local.” To register at the local level, religious groups must submit an application to the Ministry of Justice, listing the names and addresses of at least 50 founding members. Communities may be active only within the geographic limits of the locality in which they register, unless they have sufficient numbers to register at the regional or national level. Regional registration requires at least two local organizations, each located within a different region (province), and each local group must have at least 250 members. National registration requires at least 5,000 total members and at least 300 members in each of the country’s 14 regions and the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent. Only groups registered at the national or regional level have the right to open educational institutions for training clergy.

The law allows the government to deny registration to a religious group based on an insufficient number of adherents or inconsistencies between the religious group’s charter and any national law, as determined by an analysis conducted by the CRA. According to the administrative code, individuals participating in, leading, or financing an unregistered, suspended, or banned religious group may be fined between 126,250 tenge ($330) and 505,000 tenge ($1,300).

The administrative code mandates a 505,000 tenge ($1,300) fine and a three-month suspension from conducting any religious activities for registered groups holding religious gatherings in buildings that are not approved for that purpose; importing, producing, or disseminating religious materials not approved by the CRA; systematically pursuing activities that contradict the charter and bylaws of the group as registered; constructing religious facilities without a permit; holding gatherings or conducting charity events in violation of the law; or otherwise defying the constitution or laws. Private persons engaged in these activities are subject to a fine of 126,250 tenge ($330). Police may impose these fines without first going to court. The fines may be appealed to a court.

If an organization, its leaders, or members engage in activities not specified in its charter, it is subject to a warning and/or a fine of 252,500 tenge ($660). Under the administrative code, if the same violation is repeated within a year, the legal entity is subject to a fine of 378,750 tenge ($990) and a three- to six-month suspension of activities.

According to the administrative code, if a religious group engages in a prohibited activity or does not rectify violations resulting in a suspension, an official or the organization’s leader is subject to a fine of 505,000 tenge ($1,300), the entity is subject to a fine of 1,262,500 tenge ($3,300), and its activities are banned.

The law authorizes local authorities to “coordinate” the location of premises for religious events outside religious buildings. By law, religious activities can be held in residences, provided that organizers take into account the “rights and interests of neighbors.” Authorities sometimes interpret this as a requirement to receive permission from the neighbors.

The government bans individuals who are fined and do not pay their fines from traveling outside the country.

The law prohibits coercion to force a person’s conversion to any religion or to force a person’s participation in a religious group’s activities or in religious rites. The law further bans activities of religious organizations that involve violence against citizens or otherwise harm the health or morality of citizens and residents, force them to end marriages or family relations, violate human rights and freedoms, or force citizens to evade performance of duties specified in the constitution and legislation. The law prohibits methods of proselytizing that take advantage of a potential convert’s dependence on charity. The law also prohibits blackmail, violence or the threat of violence, or the use of material threats to coerce participation in religious activities.

The law states in cases when a prisoner seeks the help of a clergy member to perform a religious rite, he or she may invite a clergy member of a formally registered religious group to a detention facility, as long as this access complies with the prison’s internal regulations. The law bans construction of places of worship within prison territory. Pursuant to the law, religious organizations may participate in monitoring prisons, including creating and implementing programs to improve the correctional system and developing and publicly discussing draft laws and regulations as they relate to the prison system. Religious groups may identify, provide, distribute, and monitor the use of humanitarian, social, legal, and charitable assistance to prisoners. They may provide other forms of assistance to penitentiary system bodies, as long as they do not contradict the law. According to the law, prisoners may possess religious literature, but only if approved after a religious expert analysis conducted by the CRA.

The law defines “religious tourism” as a “type of tourism where people travel for performance of religious rites in a country (place) of temporary residence” and requires the MISD to regulate it and, together with the Sunni Hanafi Spiritual Administration of Muslims (SAMK), oversee the process by which individuals participate in the Hajj or other travel for the performance of religious rites. The government requires that specially selected guides and imams accompany each group and states that the rules are designed to ensure pilgrims are not recruited by extremist religious groups.

The law prohibits religious ceremonies in government buildings, including those belonging to the military or law enforcement.

The law states production, publication, and dissemination of religious literature and information materials of religious content is allowed only after receiving a positive expert opinion from the CRA. The law limits to one copy per publication an exemption from expert review for importing religious materials for personal use.

The law states the government shall not interfere with the rights of parents to raise their children consistent with their religious convictions, unless such an upbringing harms the child’s health or infringes upon the child’s rights.

The law requires organizations to “take steps to prevent involvement or participation of anyone under the age of 18 in the activities of a religious association,” if one of the parents or other legal guardians objects. The law bans religious activities, including proselytizing, in children’s holiday, sport, creative, or other leisure organizations, camps, or sanatoria. The extent to which organizations must prevent underage persons’ involvement in religious activity is not specifically outlined and has not been further defined by authorities.

The law prohibits religious instruction in public schools, colleges, or universities. Homeschooling for religious reasons is also prohibited. The law allows for after school and other supplemental religious instruction as long as it is provided by a registered religious group. A decree mandates that schoolchildren wear school uniforms that comply with the secular nature of education and prohibits inclusion of any elements that could indicate religious affiliation, such as head coverings.

The election law prohibits political parties based on religious affiliation.

The criminal code prohibits creating, leading, or actively participating in a religious or public association whose activities involve committing acts of “violence against citizens or the causing of other harm to their health or the incitement of citizens to refuse to carry out their civil obligations, as well as the creation or leadership of parties on a religious basis.” The code punishes such acts with a fine of up to 15.2 million tenge ($39,900) or up to six years’ imprisonment. To perform missionary or other religious activity in the country, a foreigner must obtain a missionary or religious visa. These visas allow a person to stay for a maximum of six months, with the possibility to apply to extend the stay for another six months. To obtain missionary visas, applicants must be invited by a religious group formally registered in the country. The CRA must approve the letter of invitation. Applicants must obtain consent from the CRA each time they apply. The CRA may reject missionary visa applications based on a negative assessment from CRA religious experts, or if it deems the missionaries represent a danger to the country’s constitutional framework, citizens’ rights and freedoms, or any person’s health or morals. The constitution requires foreign religious groups to conduct their activities, including appointing the heads of local congregations, “in coordination with appropriate state institutions,” notably the CRA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Foreigners may not register religious groups.

Local and foreign missionaries are required to register annually with the local executive body of a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent and provide information on their religious affiliation, intended territory of missionary work, and time period for conducting that work. Missionaries must submit all literature and other materials intended to support their missionary work together with their registration application. Use of materials not vetted during the registration process is illegal. A missionary must produce registration documents and a power of attorney from the sponsoring religious organization to work on its behalf. The local executive body of a region or the cities of Nur-Sultan, Almaty, and Shymkent may refuse registration to missionaries whose work “constitutes a threat to the constitutional order, social order, the rights, and freedoms of individuals, or the health and morals of the population.”

The law does not provide for conscientious objection to mandatory military service on religious grounds, but the government has exempted Jehovah’s Witnesses from mandatory service.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

According to Forum 18, at year’s end, 24 Sunni Muslims were serving sentences connected to their religious activities or beliefs, 10 of whom were convicted during the year. An additional six Muslims, all convicted in 2017 or 2018, were serving restricted freedom sentences; 15 individuals whose prison terms had ended remained under bans on religious activities; and 27 individuals with completed sentences still had their bank accounts blocked.

On August 5, an Almaty court sentenced eight Muslims from different regions to serve between five and one-half to eight years in prison for propaganda of terrorism and incitement of discord. According to the court, one of the defendants created a WhatsApp group “for propaganda of terrorism and Salafi ideas” and “to increase the followers of such ideas.” The messages shared in the WhatsApp group contained quotes of prominent Wahhabi or Salafi scholars. Media reported the defendants maintained their innocence and appealed. On November 20, the Almaty City Court rejected their appeal. Tirek, a domestic alliance of human rights organizations, included the eight men on its list of prisoners of conscience.

Media reported that on October 15, Karlygash Adasbekova and Daria Nyshanova stood trial in the Almalinski District Court in Almaty for involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, banned in the country as an extremist organization. The government charged the two women with inciting religious discord and disseminating Hizb ut-Tahrir ideas in a WhatsApp group. At year’s end, the trial was ongoing.

According to local media, on October 17, a trial began in the Alatau District Court in Almaty against Bekzhon Shalabayev, charged with propagandizing terrorism and participating in Hizb ut-Tahrir. The investigation concluded Shalabayev used Facebook and WhatsApp to spread terrorist propaganda. He denied the charges but admitted he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. The trial continued at year’s end. Shalabayev did not appear for hearings on December 19 or 29, and the court placed him on its list of wanted persons.

Forum 18 reported the court allowed Saken Tulbayev, released on November 29 after serving a four-year prison term for adherence to the banned Tabligh Jamaat movement, to go to mosque but banned him from conducting “missionary activity” and from membership in “extremist organizations.” Like other former prisoners, his bank accounts remained blocked. According to Forum 18, the government typically added those convicted under terrorism or extremism charges to the Ministry of Finance’s list of individuals “connected with the financing of terrorism or extremism,” freezing their bank accounts. Families often discovered accounts were blocked only after going to the bank. Forum 18 reported relatives were allowed to withdraw small amounts if they did not have other sources of income.

According to media and Forum 18, on January 9, the Balkhash City Court sentenced Abilai Bokbasarov to three years in prison for holding “secret meetings” and recruiting other Muslims to the banned Tabligh Jamaat movement. The court also banned him from engaging in religious activities for five years after completing his prison term. Media reported that Bokbasarov admitted his guilt during the investigation and agreed to a plea bargain. According to Forum 18, the court also ordered that Bokbasarov pay compensation to victims amounting to 48,100 tenge ($130) and a fee of 1,255 tenge ($3) for the government’s analysis.

On May 2, the Al-Farabi District Court of Shymkent convicted ethnic Uzbek Dilmurat Makhamatov of “inciting religious hatred” and “propaganda of terrorism” and sentenced him to eight years in prison. The court also banned Makhamatov from preaching for life. Makhamatov denied the charges and said he would appeal the court decision. Prosecutors stated he conducted “illegal preaching among Kazakhstanis via the internet” while in Saudi Arabia. According to media, Makhamatov lived in Saudi Arabia with his family for approximately 10 years until October 2018, when Saudi authorities arrested him and extradited him to Kazakhstan.

Forum 18 reported that on February 21, a German court rejected Kazakhstan’s request to extradite Sunni Muslim Murat Bakrayev. The court released him from detention the same day. Authorities accused Bakrayev, who left the country in 2005, of inciting religious hatred, expressing support for terrorism or extremism, and participating in a banned organization. Previously, in December 2018 the Atyrau City Court convicted two Muslim men, Erzhan Sharmukhambetov and Ermek Kuanshaliyev, and sentenced them to three and one-half years of restricted freedom, a form of probation, for incitement of discord and participating in the activities of a banned religious association. According to Forum 18, Bakrayev’s family and friends said police arrested Sharmukhambetov and Kuanshaliyev to pressure them to testify against Bakrayev.

Between September 2018 and August, 32 Jehovah’s Witness conscientious objectors initially encountered difficulties in obtaining exemption from military service, although all cases were eventually resolved through dialogue with the authorities, the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported. They said that at first, local enlistment officers considered the certificate issued by the recruits’ local religious communities to be insufficient evidence to exempt the young men. The local religious communities then provided clarification on their eligibility for exemption and letters from the conscientious objectors formally asking to be released from military service.

Religious freedom NGO Association of Religious Organizations of Kazakhstan (AROK) reported consistently that authorities continued to use the religion law to harass and restrict minority religious groups with fines and limitations on their activities. For example, according to Forum 18, during the year, of 159 administrative charges, 139 ended with convictions, with 135 individuals, two religious communities, and one company being fined. Muslims, members of minority Christian groups, and commercial and private sellers were the targets of most of these prosecutions, Forum 18 reported. Violations included attending worship meetings not approved by the state; offering, importing, or selling religious literature and pictures, including on the internet; sharing or teaching faith; and violating procedures for praying in mosques. In comparison, according to Forum 18, authorities carried out 171 administrative prosecutions in 2018 and 284 in 2017. AROK stated that authorities targeted minority religious groups for allowing children younger than 18 to attend religious and community events. Although the law requires religious leaders to “take measures” to confirm that all participants are older than 18 or have the permission of both parents, some leaders said this was difficult in practice.

In July the Mugalzhar District Court in Aktobe Region determined that Jehovah’s Witness Bolat Isabayev had violated procedures established in the law for conducting rites by holding an unapproved meeting for worship and fined him 88,375 tenge ($230), the Jehovah’s Witnesses reported. In May Isabayev invited 13 guests to his house, including children, to watch videos and conduct a religious rite. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that police, called to Isabayev’s house at the request of neighbors, arrived to interrupt the gathering. The court determined Isabayev violated the religion law by not obtaining permission from his neighbors and from local authorities. On July 2, the Aktobe Regional Court upheld the lower court’s decision.

On May 2, the Taranovsk District Court found Jehovah’s Witness Sergey Nurmanov guilty of “violations of requirements on holding religious rites, ceremonies, and/or assemblies.” Nurmanov had conducted religious meetings at the registered address of his religious organization. The court, however, penalized him for conducting these meetings without obtaining permission from his neighbors. The court fined him approximately 88,375 tenge ($230). On June 3, the Kostanay Regional Court upheld the decision.

On February 3, approximately a dozen law enforcement officials raided an apartment in Atyrau where the registered Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) had gathered for a religious meeting. Police said they were responding to an anonymous complaint about noise and suspicious persons and interrogated the worshippers. Authorities then initiated a case against the ISKCON members for conducting a religious event without prior permission from the local government. On February 25, some members of the organization received a summons to the regional Department for Religious Affairs, where officials asked them to write explanations and threatened them with administrative penalties. No further action was reported at year’s end.

According to Forum 18, police harassed founders of Oskemen’s New Life Church when it sought reregistration under a new name in May. The church last gained reregistration in October 2012. Officers visited several founders late at night and issued threats when one refused to open her door. Church members told Forum 18 that “the founders do not think their rights are being protected by the law or its representatives”; rather, they “are being subjected to pressure, which cannot help but arouse concern about the right to freedom of conscience.”

In December 2018 the ISKCON community in Aktau in Mangistau Region began facing “intrusive questioning,” according to Forum 18. On January 22, head of the regional Department for Religious Affairs Yerlan Esbergenov stated that unless all 62 founders completed questionnaires, officials would not register the community. The community had applied for registration in November 2018. Authorities required, among other information, “the reason for supporting the Krishna religion” and how long the founders had participated in the community’s activity, Forum 18 reported. In February members complained to then minister of information and social development Darkhan Kaletayev and asked him to check the legality of the department’s actions. According to Forum 18, the minister responded on March 6, stating that instances of religious communities providing inaccurate information in their registration applications were increasing and such inspections were “to avoid such occurrences.” At year’s end, officials were still processing ISKCON’s application.

On May 16, an appeals court reversed the decision of the Glubokovsk District Court in East Kazakhstan Region, which had found that Jehovah’s Witness Sergey Merkulov violated the religion law by conducting religious meetings in his home. The district court fined Merkulov 126,250 tenge ($330). Merkulov appealed to the East Kazakhstan Regional Court. The appeals court found no evidence that Merkulov had violated the law.

Courts continued to fine individuals for illegal missionary activity. Religious organizations said local law enforcement continued to interpret and label any religious discussions that took place outside of a registered religious building as “illegal missionary activity,” including invitations to religious services and discussions.

According to Forum 18, on April 10, Kyzylorda Specialized Administrative Court found two Muslims in Kyzylorda, Mukhtar Gadzhiyev and Darkhan Shilmanbetov, guilty of illegal missionary activity and teaching religion to children. The court imposed a fine of 176,750 tenge ($460).

On March 26, the Baizak District Court of Zhambyl Region convicted member of the Council of Baptist Churches Pavlo Omelich of illegal missionary activity and distributing religious literature and fined him 252,000 tenge ($660), Forum 18 reported. After Omelich appealed the court decision, authorities reclassified his case as violation of the regulation on importing and distributing religious literature and reduced the fine to 126,000 tenge ($330).

On January 4, police in Shymkent charged two female Jehovah’s Witnesses with public nuisance for sharing their faith with others. The court fined the women 12,625 tenge ($33). Later in January, however, the Shymkent City Specialized Administrative Court annulled the fines.

In May a court fined a woman in North Kazakhstan Region 88,375 tenge ($230) for an administrative violation of the law on dissemination of religious literature. According to the court, the woman attempted to sell electronic versions of the Quran on the internet.

Media reported in June that a resident of Petropavlovsk shared audio and video files with religious content over social media, a violation of the law on dissemination of religious literature. He received a fine of 126,250 tenge ($330). According to a police spokesman, “Supporters of destructive religious movements . . . use various methods and methods of recruitment,” such as illegal distribution of religious literature. The report added that there were 12 legal resellers of religious literature in North Kazakhstan.

On January 29, the government withdrew from consideration amendments to the religion law that would have placed additional restrictions on religious attire, symbols, education, and literature, as well as proselytizing and membership and participation in religious communities. Civil society representatives and religious experts stated they feared such amendments would have further infringed religious liberty, and they praised the decision to withdraw the amendments.

The Council of Baptist Churches stated it continued to refuse on principle to register under the law. Community representatives reported authorities continued to closely monitor their meetings and travels, and police followed and surveilled them as in prior years. Baptists reported several police raids on adherents’ residences and churches and 18 administrative court cases during the year. For example, media reported that police in Taraz raided Council of Baptist Churches’ Sunday worship services on February 10 and 17 and March 3. Police officers filmed the services and the worshippers and requested that they all provide written explanations for why they took part in the activities of an unregistered religious organization. Brothers Yakov and Viktor Fot subsequently received fines of 252,500 tenge ($660) and 126,250 tenge ($330) for leadership of and participating in an unregistered religious organization, respectively.

The government maintained its policy of banning religious clothing from schools. The Ministry of Education and Science continued to prohibit headscarves in schools throughout the country.

According to the Aktobe Department of Education, eight girls in Aktobe Region were not permitted to attend classes because they wore headscarves. Authorities fined Nuraly Shakkozov 50,000 tenge ($130) for violating the school uniform requirement in connection with his three daughters. Aktobe School No. 31 stated the three girls came to school every day during the fall, but the school could not allow them to enter because they violated the school uniform requirement. Mergali Tilepin, father of three girls attending Aktobe School No. 13, told media his daughters had to remove their headscarves before entering the school building and put them back on when leaving the school. He said many parents had to agree to these conditions.

Lawyer Agysbek Tolegenov, who represented parents filing headscarf cases against the government, stated to media that parents filed no cases challenging the ban on wearing headscarves in school during the year, compared with 18 unsuccessful court cases filed in 2018.

According to Forum 18, some Muslims faced repeated questioning from law enforcement about their faith. Yerlan (no last name provided), a Muslim from a village in North Kazakhstan Region’s Kyzylzhar District, told Forum 18 he was the subject of “intrusive” police questioning on July 20 because of his faith – the latest in six years of questioning, he said. According to Yerlan, the officer had a report indicating he was a Salafi Muslim. He said surveillance and questioning started after an anonymous complaint that he was a terrorist. “Officers keep coming and asking me what religion I follow, what movement within it, how long I have belonged to it,” Yerlan told Forum 18. He added, “I have the right to reveal or not to reveal my faith. They never say on what basis they are asking these questions.” The Interior Ministry told Yerlan, in a response to his complaint on a public inquiry section of the minister’s blog, that the July 20 questioning had been in accordance with police practices.

The Church of Scientology continued to function as a registered public association rather than as a religious organization. The government allowed the Church, as a public association, to maintain resource centers/libraries where members could read or borrow books and host discussions or meetings but did not allow the Church to engage in religious activity.

The MISD and the SAMK maintained an official agreement on cooperation, and NGOs continued to state this led to the government effectively exercising control over the nominally independent SAMK. The government did not approve the registration of Muslim groups apart from the Sunni Hanafi school, which the SAMK oversaw. All other schools of Islam remained unregistered and officially unable to practice in the country, although religious leaders reported some Muslim communities continued to worship informally without government interference. By joining the SAMK, Muslim communities relinquished the right to appoint their own imams, subjected themselves to SAMK approval over any property actions (such as sales, transfers, or improvements), and were required to pay 30 percent of the mosque’s income to the SAMK. The SAMK also set the curriculum for religious education across the country and provided directives for sermons during Friday prayers.

The SAMK continued to oversee the opening of new and restored mosques. According to the CRA, there are 2,638 mosques in the country. The government and news media offered varying statistics that were occasionally inconsistent. In March then president Nazarbayev launched the construction of a new mosque in Nur-Sultan, which when completed would be the largest mosque in Central Asia and among the 10 largest in the world.

According to CRA statistics for the first nine months of the year, there were 3,770 registered religious associations or branches thereof in the country, compared with 3,715 in 2018. The SAMK continued to control the activities of all 2,640 formally registered Muslim groups affiliated with the Sunni Hanafi school and had authority over construction of new mosques, appointment of imams, and administration of examinations and background checks for aspiring imams. The SAMK was responsible for authorizing travel agencies to provide Hajj travel services to citizens. Based on a slight increase in demand, Saudi Arabia increased its 2019 pilgrimage quota for Kazakhstani Muslims to 3,200, from 3,000 the previous year. The MISD continued to work closely with the SAMK on the training of imams, upgrading madrassahs to the status of degree-granting colleges, and controlling Hajj pilgrimages. The SAMK permitted imams to enroll in baccalaureate, masters, or PhD programs offered at Nur Mubarak University’s Islamic Studies and Religious Studies departments based on their prior education levels. There were 15 schools for religious training of Sunni Hanafi imams, an increase from 11 schools in 2018, one for Roman Catholic clergy, and one for Russian Orthodox clergy.

During the year, the MISD transferred authority for monitoring the internet and collecting information on internet sites with “destructive” content to a new commission within the ministry, the Center for Religious Expert Analysis. This work was previously undertaken by the Scientific-Analytical Center under the Ministry of Social Development, which did not operate during the year. The new center did not make public any information about the substance of its work or statistics on the number of websites it found containing what it considered to be harmful information.

In a September 4 interview posted on the Kostanay News website and also on a government-affiliated research organization’s webpage, the head of expert analysis on religious groups within the CRA spoke critically of smaller Christian organizations and other small religious groups, such as the Baha’is. The expert said the organizations were deliberately preaching in the Kazakh language to convert more people and lamented that more and more ethnic Kazakhs were converting to these religions in recent years, sometimes now constituting 50-60 percent of the membership in such groups.

According to the Penitentiary Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all prisons had a dedicated specialist to create programs to counter religious extremism, in accordance with a 2017 order issued by the Minister of Internal Affairs adding the position of “religious specialist” to prison staff as part of the State Program for Counteraction against Terrorism and Religious Extremism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

AROK and minority Christian religious communities again expressed concerns regarding negative articles and broadcasts about minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.” In June a news broadcast on local channel Aqsham Telearnasy in Satpayev, Karaganda Region, reported on the meeting under the aegis of a police department program on preventing extremism and terrorism. Members of the government-supported group, including historians and religious experts, spoke of the need to protect youth from “nontraditional,” “destructive,” “pseudo” evangelical Christian and other minority Christian groups.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported they counted more than 50 defamatory articles in various media outlets during the year. For example, on April 30, zakon.kz online newspaper published an interview with Baizhol Karipbayev, a professor at Karagandy State University, that negatively portrayed the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the interview, the professor characterized the religion as not holding “the common values of traditional religions,” that is, “the universal humanitarian ideals and the values of our society.” He further stated that followers hold themselves in “mild” opposition to the government because the tenets of the faith “lead to the formation of indifferent young people who do not feel a sense of responsibility to society, to Kazakhstan.” He criticized the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ proselytization and emphasized that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are banned in neighboring Russia. Although registered in the country since 1992, he said, official registration does not mean the government fully accepts the ideological components of the religion.

NGOs continued to report individuals were wary of “nontraditional” religious groups, particularly those that proselytized or whose dress or grooming indicated “nontraditional” beliefs, including Islamic headscarves and beards. Media reported on a sociologist’s study that found citizens around the country were affected by discrimination based on their religion. The region where people are most affected was West Kazakhstan, sociologist Gulnara Ismukhanova said in an interview, and many of those affected were Muslims. Many of those who experienced discrimination said it was because of their appearance, i.e., wearing religious clothing. She said the violations of their rights, negative attitudes, and injustice against them were a “disappointing consequence of the securitization of Islam.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, the Ambassador, the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy officers met with senior government officials in the MFA, MISD, and CRA and advocated for the importance of respecting religious freedom. These bilateral discussions took place both in the country as well as in Washington, D.C. during the U.S.-Kazakhstan annual dialogue and in New York during the UN General Assembly session. U.S. officials raised concerns over the restrictive effects of the government’s implementation of the religion law and criminal and administrative codes on religious freedom. They also raised concerns about the inconsistent application of the religion law and the criminal and administrative codes with regard to “nontraditional” versus “traditional” religious groups. 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 continued to encourage the government to respect individuals’ rights to peaceful expression of religious belief and practice. They expressed concern about vaguely written laws that were broad in scope and lacked specific definition of legal terms, enabling authorities, particularly at the local level, to apply them in an arbitrary manner. They encouraged the government to eliminate the burdensome registration requirements for religious communities and to take other steps to amend the religion law to increase the ability of believers to practice their faith. On social media, the embassy also engaged in outreach to urge respect for religious freedom.

U.S. diplomatic officials visited houses of worship in several regions of the country and maintained contact with a wide range of religious communities, their leaders, and religious freedom advocates. They underscored the importance freedom of religion played in countering violent extremism, expressed concern about further restrictions on religious freedom, and encouraged reform of relevant laws and guidelines so all citizens could conduct peaceful religious activities freely, whether or not they were part of registered religious groups.

Kuwait

Executive Summary

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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (midyear 2019 estimate). The Public Authority for Civil Information (PACI), a local government agency, reports there are 1.4 million citizens and 3.3 million noncitizens. The national census does not distinguish between Shia and Sunni Muslims. PACI estimates approximately 70 percent of citizens are Sunni Muslims, while the remaining 30 percent are Shia Muslims (including Ahmadi and Ismaili Muslims, whom the government counts as Shia). Community leaders have indicated there are 290 Christian citizens and a handful of Baha’i citizens. There are no known Jewish citizens.

According to information from PACI released in 2018, 64 percent of expatriates are Muslim, 26 percent Christian, and 10 percent from non-Abrahamic faiths. Sources in various noncitizen communities state that approximately 5 percent of the expatriate Muslims are Shia, while Buddhists and Hindus account for half of the non-Abrahamic faith population. Informal estimates by members of different faiths indicate there are approximately 250,000 Hindus, 25,000 Bohra Muslims, 10,000-12,000 Sikhs, 7,000 Druze, and 400 Baha’is.

While some geographic areas have higher concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, the two groups are distributed quite uniformly throughout most of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the religion of the state and the freedom of belief to be “absolute.” It provides for state protection of the freedom to practice all religions, provided such practice is “in accordance with established customs, and does not conflict with 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. It declares the emir shall be Muslim (the emir and ruling family are Sunni) and the state shall safeguard the heritage of Islam. The Higher Advisory Committee on Completion of the Application of Islamic Sharia Provisions in the Amiri Diwan announced in November 2017 it had disbanded after achieving its goals.

The law states apostates lose certain legal rights, including to inherit property from Muslim relatives or spouses, but it does not specify any criminal penalty. If a Muslim man married to a Muslim woman converts from Islam, his existing marriage is annulled. If he is married to a non-Muslim woman and converts from Islam, the marriage continues to be valid. If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to another Abrahamic faith (Christianity or Judaism), the marriage is not automatically annulled, but the Muslim husband may request an annulment. If a Muslim woman married to a Muslim man converts to a non-Abrahamic faith, the marriage is automatically annulled.

The law prohibits the defamation of the three Abrahamic religions and denigration of Islamic and Judeo-Christian religious figures within accepted Islamic orthodoxy (e.g., prophets mentioned in the Quran or companions of Muhammad), and prescribes a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for each offense.

A national unity law prohibits “stirring sectarian strife,” promoting the supremacy of one religious group, instigating acts of violence based on the supremacy of one group, or promoting hatred or contempt of any group. Violations of this law by individuals are punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of 10,000 to 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars (KD) ($33,000-$330,000). Repeated crimes carry double penalties. If a group or an organization violates the law, it could have its license to operate revoked temporarily or permanently, and it could be fined up to KD 200,000 ($660,000). Noncitizens convicted under this law are also subject to deportation.

The law allows citizens to file criminal charges against anyone they believe has defamed any of the three recognized Abrahamic religions or harmed public morals.

The law criminalizes publishing and broadcasting content, including on social media, which the government deems offensive to religious “sects” or groups, providing for fines ranging from KD 10,000 to 200,000 ($33,000-$660,000) and up to seven years’ imprisonment.

There is no promulgated process outlining what steps religious groups must take to register with the government. Groups must navigate this process without guidance from government offices. Although all religious groups must apply in writing for a license from their municipality to establish an official place of worship and to gain full benefits from the central government, there are no fixed criteria for an application to be approved. To obtain a license, groups must first receive approval by the local municipality for their place of worship. The municipality then turns to MAIA for its “opinion” on the application for a worship space (MAIA indicates that it does not have the authority to give formal registration of the building). MAIA then issues a certificate that lists board members for the organization, making the religious group a legal entity. Once this certificate is granted, further approvals are required by the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) and the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Once these ministries give these approvals, the municipality must grant the final license, which requires the community leaders to obtain written permission from all the immediate neighbors occupying the properties around the proposed place of worship. The government often provides applicants no information about the status of their pending registration or if they have been rejected at any point. There is no recourse to appeal the decision; it is considered a “sovereign act” and cannot be challenged in court.

The officially registered and licensed Christian churches in the country are: National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (NECK) (Protestant); Roman Catholic; Greek Catholic (Melkite); Coptic Orthodox; Armenian Orthodox; Greek Orthodox; Anglican; and the Church of Jesus Christ. In April the government officially recognized the Church of Jesus Christ. There are no officially recognized synagogues, and according to MAIA, no application has ever been submitted for one. The government does not recognize any non-Abrahamic religions. Non-recognized religious groups include Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Bohra Muslims, and Baha’is.

A religious group with a license to establish a place of worship may hire its own staff, sponsor visitors to the country, open bank accounts, and import texts needed for its congregation. Nonregistered religious groups do not have these rights, may not purchase property or sponsor workers, and must rely on volunteers from within their community for resources (although some registered religious groups have agreed to assist nonregistered groups in these matters).

The law prohibits practices the government deems inconsistent with Islamic law, including anything the government deems to be sorcery or black magic, which under the penal code constitutes “fraud and deception” and carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment, a fine, or both.

The law does not specifically prohibit proselytizing, but individuals proselytizing may be prosecuted under laws criminalizing contempt of religion.

The law prohibits eating, drinking, and smoking in public between sunrise and sunset during Ramadan, including for non-Muslims, with a prescribed maximum penalty of up to KD 100 ($330) and/or one month’s imprisonment.

It is illegal to possess or import pork products and alcohol. Importing alcohol carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment; consuming alcohol may result in a fine of up to KD 1,000 ($3,300).

Islamic religious instruction is mandatory at all levels for all Muslim students in both public and private schools with one or more Muslim students enrolled, regardless of whether the student is a citizen. Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes. The law prohibits organized religious education in public high schools for faiths other than Islam. All Islamic education courses are based on Sunni Islam.

Religious courts administer personal status law dealing with issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. For non-Muslims, courts apply Sunni sharia in matters of personal status and family law. Noncitizens not belonging to the three recognized Abrahamic religions are also subject to sharia if family matters are taken to court. According to the law, sharia governs inheritance for all residents regardless of their religious affiliation if the case is brought to court.

Courts may follow Shia jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law for Shia Muslims at the first instance and appellate levels. If the case proceeds beyond the appellate level to the court of cassation, the case may be adjudicated via Sunni personal status law. In July the National Assembly passed the Shia Personal Status Law, which allows for the creation of separate courts for Shia Muslims for cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. According to local sources, these courts have only three judges, none of whom has a background in Shia jurisprudence. The law also allows personal status cases to be adjudicated through the court of cassation under Shia doctrine. An independent Shia waqf (trust) administers Shia religious endowments. Cases are assigned to either Sunni or Shia judges based on the religious affiliation of the man. If a man is married to a non-Muslim woman, the husband’s religious practice is followed. If a couple is from one of the registered churches, the settlement offered by the church may be taken into consideration; however, if the dispute is not settled, Sunni sharia is applied. Local sources suggest that the passage of the Shia Personal Status Law has increased the need for Shia religious training facilities to help staff the courts with qualified judges.

The law forbids, and the state does not recognize, marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, but Muslim men may marry women of other recognized Abrahamic faiths. The law requires the raising of children of such marriages in their father’s faith, and the father’s religion governs the settlement of marital disputes. Muslim marriage cases are heard in Sunni or Shia religious courts, depending on whether the marriage certificate is Sunni or Shia. A Shia notary must authenticate a Shia marriage certificate. Non-Muslim divorce and child custody cases are heard in Sunni religious courts. Christian couples who are part of a registered church may marry and divorce following their religious customs, with local authorities and courts recognizing their documents. Except for Hindus and Sikhs of Indian nationality, who may marry at the Embassy of India, members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches may not marry legally in the country but may have their foreign wedding certificates recognized. Citizens who are members of the Baha’i Faith may marry abroad and petition the court to recognize their marriage.

If a religious group wishes to purchase land, a citizen must be the primary buyer, and must submit a request for approval to the local municipal council, which allocates land at its discretion. Citizens may also rent or donate land to religious groups.

The law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims but allows male citizens of any religion to transmit citizenship to their descendants. Female citizens, regardless of religion, are unable to transmit nationality to their children.

An individual’s religion is not included on passports or national identity documents, except for birth and marriage certificates, on which it is mandatory. On birth certificates issued to Muslims, there is no distinction between Sunni and Shia. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths are not able to list their religion on their birth certificate and a dash (-) is denoted in place of their religion.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The government pursued several cases against individuals for violating the national unity law and fomenting sectarianism. In March journalist Abdallah Al-Hadlaq was sentenced to three years in prison for two tweets from 2018 that the court concluded offended Shia Muslims. In September the government filed slander charges against a female member of the Kuwaiti ruling family for insulting Shia Muslims in the country.

In May a criminal court sentenced a Lebanese television presenter to a year in jail with labor and fined her KD 5,000 ($16,500) for insulting God in a program broadcast on a local satellite television channel. A court of appeals overturned the verdict in July. In July several individuals were arrested for making offensive remarks about God and the Prophet Muhammad in an online video. That same month, the director of juvenile prosecution announced that an underage noncitizen would be remanded for 10 days to a social welfare home over allegations of blasphemy. In August a court of appeals upheld the conviction of a blogger accused of contempt for Islam and fined him KD 5,000 ($16,500) because of a tweet the court found derogatory and offensive.

In January Kuwait University law professor and anticensorship activist Fatima Al-Matar fled to the United States with her daughter after she was referred to the public prosecutor for a tweet she posted in October 2018 that was deemed blasphemous, derogatory, and offensive to religion. In March the Court of Cassation upheld verdicts by the Court of Appeals which fined Salafist cleric Othman al-Khamees and Shia Cleric Hussain al-Matouq KD 20,000 ($66,000) each for “promoting sectarian strife” through YouTube videos.

Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion unless the conversion was from another religion to Islam. As in previous years, some religious leaders from non-Muslim religious groups said they had not heard of any case of a Muslim desiring to change religion, while others said they would not convert a Muslim in the country. All religious leaders, regardless of faith, continued to state that their sole mission was to take care of their existing community. Most religious leaders declined to speak about conversion.

In December the Constitutional Court rejected a challenge to the ban on public eating during Ramadan.

In August press reports revealed the presence of an unregistered Sikh temple (known as “Sulaibiya Gurdwara”) in a Kuwait City warehouse, which authorities closed the same month. The temple had reportedly been operating for the previous nine years and served thousands of Indians from the Sikh community.

In accordance with MAIA policy, the government continued to vet and appoint all new Sunni imams. Media sources quoted senior MAIA officials as stating the government vetted every Sunni imam to ensure compliance with the government’s view of moderate and tolerant religious preaching. The Shia community continued to select its own clerics without government oversight.

The government continued to provide the full basic text for weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques and to monitor these sermons. Imams could add content to the sermons but needed to ensure the text adhered to the laws on political speech and avoided stoking sectarianism. Media sources reported MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with MAIA guidelines to refrain from discussing political issues and insulting other religions in their sermons or at any other time while under MAIA jurisdiction. MAIA required Sunni imams to send a recorded audio of their sermons to MAIA for review after the fact. MAIA also relied on reports of worshippers and others who might be dissatisfied if the imam discussed politics or insulted other faiths. Shia sources and government authorities said the government did not officially monitor Shia clerics, who were free to write their own sermons if they did not violate existing laws or instigate sectarianism. If a questionable video appeared on social media or a worshipper reported a cleric, the government investigated. Some sources, however, stated they believed the government unofficially monitored Shia clerics. According to officials at MAIA and members of the Shia community, MAIA did not monitor sermons or other activities at the husseiniyas (Shia halls for religious commemorations) or at private gatherings. In June MAIA announced it had referred the case of a Sunni imam at the Munira al-Khalid Mosque to MAIA’s committee in charge of religious professional affairs after he allegedly criticized Egypt in a sermon. In August MAIA suspended a muezzin and an expatriate Sunni imam for meddling with “political and sectarian issues.”

During the year, MAIA organized several courses for Sunni imams to make their messages more effective in promoting tolerance and countering radicalization. In March Director of the Center for the Promotion of Moderation Abdullah Al-Shuraika said the center had not received any reports of cases of youth extremism from parents since 2018. In October Al-Shuraika announced the creation of a committee specializing in monitoring extremist calls on social media and fake accounts, which Al-Shuraika said were aimed at “promoting sedition and provoking sectarianism.” In July Assistant Undersecretary of MAIA for Cultural Affairs Dawood Al-Asousi said 30 citizens who had previously adopted ISIS ideology had been “rehabilitated” after intensive programs to help them renounce extremism and to guide them back to the path of moderation and tolerance. In March MAIA announced it would organize Friday sermons and lectures with government-approved “moderate” messages in mosques of non-Arabic-speaking Muslim communities.

The government funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques, and paid the salaries of all Sunni imams. The Shia community generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques. The government paid the salaries of some Shia imams; some Shia mosques requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.

According to the government, during the year MAIA investigated three imams it considered to have made provocative statements that violated laws against harming national unity or insulting other religious groups. Disciplinary actions included temporary suspension, permanent suspension, and referrals to MAIA’s counseling committee.

Representatives of registered churches continued to state the government was generally tolerant and respectful of their faiths. The Anglican Church was allowed to build a new chapel after its previous chapel was damaged by flooding in 2018. The new chapel includes more space for worship than the previous structure. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to state they remained free to practice their religion in private but faced harassment and potential prosecution if they disturbed their neighbors or violated laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. They also continued to say they avoided conflict with authorities by not proselytizing or disparaging the government or other faiths. The government continued to allow such groups to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of registered churches. Many of these groups said they did not publicly advertise religious events or gatherings to avoid bringing unwanted attention to their organizations, both from the public and from government authorities. In June the Public Authority for Manpower imposed a fine of KD 100 ($330) per worker on the Roman Catholic Church for not committing to recruiting the required percentage of citizens as employees. Another church reported a total of KD 6,000 ($20,000) in fines for failure to abide by this policy.

Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and unregistered churches continued to say they experienced hardships in commemorating major religious or life events. Almost uniformly across these communities, members said they lacked sufficient religious facilities and religious leaders or clerics to lead prayers, bless births and marriages, and conduct appropriate death rituals.

In many cases, members of these religious groups stated they resolved conflict internally within their communities rather than take legal action in the courts where they would be subject to sharia.

The government continued to require religious groups to obtain licenses from their respective municipalities for religious celebrations. Authorities retained the right to withdraw the license of any husseiniya not complying with the municipality’s rules. Minority religious communities continued to state they tried to keep a low profile and did not request permission for public celebrations from authorities, which they presumed would be rejected if they applied for it.

The MOI continued to provide added security and protection at religious sites for all recognized non-Sunni religious groups. Religious leaders of Abrahamic faiths continued to report that the government, citing security concerns, kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances instituted following an ISIS bombing of a Shia mosque in 2015 that killed 27 persons. In April MOSA rejected applications submitted by two Islamic charity organizations to hold religious awareness campaigns in public places, including public gardens, beaches, and malls.

The government continued to require the Shia community to conduct Ashura activities inside closed structures rather than at outdoor locations. The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura. The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to possible attacks. The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.

Authorities continued the government’s longstanding practice of prohibiting churches from displaying exterior signs, such as a cross or church bell.

Only private shops owned by religious organizations could legally import, display, or sell non-Islamic religious literature. Church leaders continued to report the government permitted registered Christian churches to import religious materials for use by their congregations under the condition that none of the content insulted Islam. Registered churches reported they were able to import religious materials in any language. Members of non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches continued to state they could import religious materials for their congregations if they brought in the materials as personal items when entering the country and did not try to sell them in public stores. Minority religious communities said they continued to be selective in the religious materials they imported and even more selective in giving access to the materials. They said they did not allow the circulation of these materials outside their congregations.

The municipality of Kuwait handled building permits and land issues for non-Abrahamic faiths and nonregistered churches. The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year. The Greek Catholic Church indicated that it had requested in April additional land near its location to accommodate more worshipers. The government said it did not receive additional requests for registrations of new groups during the year.

Shia community members reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities, caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones. MAIA reported there were 1,656 mosques in the country, including 32 mosques opened during the year. According to 2018 government statistics, of the 1,601 mosques existing that year, 1550 were Sunni and 51 Shia. Five new Shia mosques received permission to be built that year. A source from the Shia community said the government opened no new Shia mosques in 2019. There were 20-30 husseiniyas registered with the MOI and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings that took place in private homes.

Christian churches continue to report that government authorities did not respond to their petitions for expanding existing places of worship. Some churches said they stopped submitting such requests because the government did not respond.

Again citing security concerns, authorities stated they continued to act against unlicensed mosques. The government tasked MAIA, MOI, the municipality of Kuwait, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of illegal mosques. During the year, the government continued to raid makeshift mosques in remote areas and close them for operating without proper licenses. MAIA continued to operate under a mandate from the Council of Ministers to demolish unregistered mosques, stating that some of those mosques served as platforms of extremism. The demolition of these mosques continued during the year. Authorities said new unlicensed mosques continued to open. MAIA attempted to bring some underground mosques under its supervision by appointing and vetting imams, monitoring sermons, and getting them licenses through municipalities.

The Ministry of Education continued to ban or censor instructional materials, including fiction and nonfiction books and textbooks, referring to the Holocaust or Israel. The ministry permitted public schools to teach and celebrate only Islamic holidays. Members of non-Islamic faiths largely said the government did not interfere with religious instruction inside private homes and on church compounds.

According to church leaders, although most churches provided faith-based instruction for children, none of them had government-accredited church-based schools. Accreditation for church-based schools would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling government requirements and allow school graduates to move on to higher education. The NECK repeatedly requested accreditation for its church-based school for many years, most recently in 2017, but authorities had not responded by year’s end. The Armenian Church and the Bohra Muslim community continued to operate accredited community schools in lieu of seeking accreditation as religious schools. Other groups continued to report they conducted religious studies in their places of worship.

The government continued its practice of not responding to requests to establish Shia religious training institutions. Shia Muslims had to seek religious training and education abroad. The College of Islamic Law at Kuwait University, the only institution in the country that trains imams, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.

Shia leaders continued to report that the lack of Shia imams limited their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases. To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc council the government created many years ago under the regular marital issues court to apply Shia jurisprudence continued to function. In July Member of Parliament Saleh Ashour said there was a shortage of Shia judges who could implement the new Shia Personal Status Law, and called for more to be trained. Ashour said the law was being applied through four circuit courts and at all litigation levels, including the court of cassation level.

Even though Shia make up an estimated 30 percent of the population, they remained underrepresented at all levels of government: six of 50 elected members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately few senior officers in the military and police force. Shia community leaders continued to say there was a “glass ceiling” in promotions and difficulties in obtaining government jobs. Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions and leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus.

In February the government allowed the NGO Wathakker Center, which promotes the teachings of Sunni Islam and provides religion classes for children, to reopen after a one-year mandated closure following the 2018 sentencing of its owner, Fouad Al-Rifai. Al-Rifai was sentenced to eight years in prison with labor for posting a video inciting violence against Shia citizens and for contempt of Shia Islam through Twitter posts that contained abusive phrases against Shia Islam. In December Al-Rifai was sentenced to an additional four months in prison for similar Twitter posts insulting Shia Islam.

In January a member of parliament proposed two bills that would amend the citizenship law by removing religion as a requirement for granting Kuwaiti citizenship.

MOSA issued visas for clergy and other staff to work at licensed places of worship. The government continued to impose quotas on the number of clergy and staff of licensed religious groups entering the country but granted additional slots upon request. The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers.

Media coverage included news on events and celebrations held by various Christian denominations in the country, such as Christmas services and church inauguration anniversaries attended by high-level government officials.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There continued to be societal pressure against conversion from Islam, according to minority religious leaders and citizens. Leaders and members of religious communities said they did not convert Muslims in the country. Some citizens who converted outside the country said their families harassed them due to their conversion from Islam.

Hotels, stores, and other businesses continued to mark non-Islamic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. During the Christmas season, Christmas trees and lights appeared in stores, malls, and homes, and Christmas music played in public places, including songs with Christian lyrics.

News media continued to print information about religious holiday celebrations, including material on the religious significance of Christmas.

Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval via social media of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays. In December the Wathakker Center tweeted an image that said, “No Christmas, do not celebrate the Holy Trinity, do not proselytize in Muslim lands.”

MEMRI reported two instances during the year of individuals making public statements that perpetuated negative stereotypes of Jews. In January singer Monia Al-Hob said on judgment day Muslims would fight Jews and there would be a special gate to hell for them. In February researcher Muhanna Hama al-Muhanna posted a video on his YouTube channel, stating Jews used human blood, especially from Christian children, in making food, and he repeated other anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior embassy officials continued to meet with senior MAIA officials to discuss the importance of promoting tolerance and religious freedom in the country, including for members of recognized and unrecognized minority religious groups. Embassy officials noted positively MAIA’s registration of the Church of Jesus Christ and suggested the ministry build on this action by registering other unregistered faiths. Embassy officials underscored the importance of places of worship for all faiths regardless of their registration status, and relayed concerns of the Hindu community about their inability to cremate their dead. Embassy officials raised the closure of the Sikh temple with officials of both MAIA and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stating that denial of the right to a place to worship contravenes the fundamental right to religious freedom and rights enumerated in the Kuwaiti constitution.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet with leaders and representatives of minority religious groups and with NGOs involved with religious issues to discuss the challenges religious minorities faced in their interaction with the government, such as difficulties obtaining places of worship, paying fines for not hiring citizen workers, lack of a transparent process for achieving recognition, and the inability to practice certain religious rituals, including marriage and burials. In December the Charge d’Affaires hosted an annual event for representatives of officially recognized non-Muslim faiths. The Charge spoke with each leader to learn how the government policies were affecting their groups and how the situation compared with previous years, including requests to expand existing spaces of worship and steep fines for not hiring the requisite number of citizen employees at their facilities. He underscored the embassy’s commitment to continuing to raise issues of religious freedom with the government. Embassy officials also engaged with a professor at a sharia college, and with Sunni and Shia members of parliament (including the head of the Human Rights Committee) in order to discuss the rights of religious minorities and the status of religious freedom in the country.

During the year, embassy officials and religious leaders continued to discuss the needs of the various religious groups, which continued to include more space for worship, more transparency in the registration process for new churches, and permission to obtain religious school accreditation. In May a senior embassy official and other embassy staff hosted members of unrecognized religious groups (Hindus, Sikhs, Druze, Bohra Muslims, and Baha’is) at a roundtable to discuss their communities’ needs. Senior embassy officials also continued to attend religious events throughout the year, including the observations of Ashura, Easter, Baha’u’llah’s Birth, Christmas, Diwali, and the Sikh Vaisakhi Day celebration. At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

Kyrgyzstan

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion and bans religious groups from undertaking actions inciting religious hatred. It establishes the separation of religion and state and prohibits pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The law requires all religious groups to register with the government and prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. The law criminalizing “extremist material” was revised in January; the new law requires that law enforcement demonstrate an intent to distribute extremist materials in order to charge a suspect with a crime. Authorities maintained bans on 21 “religiously oriented” groups they considered extremist. The State Commission on Religious Affairs (SCRA) proposed amendments to the religion law, and government agencies conducted a review of their constitutionality. The amendments include a ban on door-to-door proselytizing. After the review, the SCRA submitted the amendments to parliament for review and debate. In March the UN Human Rights Council issued a judgment finding that the law’s requirement that religious groups register with local councils in order to establish new places of worship was in violation of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the constitution. This judgment echoes an earlier Supreme Court decision finding the practice unconstitutional. The law, however, remained unchanged, since the parliament did not by year’s end pass amendments to the Law on Religion that would introduce new, constitutional guidelines for religious registration. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of Tengrism, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community continued to face difficulties registering as official religious groups, and Forum 18, an international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported that even registered religious groups were prevented from meeting in public by police and other government actors. The government did not provide religious materials to prisoners convicted of affiliation with banned religious groups, according to NGOs.

According to Christian activists, non-Muslim religious minorities continued to face difficulties arranging for burial of their dead in public cemeteries. In March Eldos Sattar uuly, a Christian who was attacked for his religious beliefs by fellow villagers, fled the country after ongoing threats against him and his family. His lawyer was also threatened as a consequence of her work for Sattar uuly, and according to an NGO there were reprisals against other Christians from his village. In January unknown vandals desecrated a Russian Orthodox cemetery.

The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officers met with government officials to discuss restrictions on minority religious groups, proposed revisions to the religion law, and violence against religious minorities. Embassy officers regularly met with religious leaders, including representatives of the grand muftiate, and with representatives of NGOs to discuss tolerance and respect for religious groups. Issues discussed included the law on terrorism and extremism, the ability of independent religious groups to register, and the rights of religious minorities

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (midyear 2019 estimate). According to government estimates, approximately 90 percent of the population is Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni. The government estimates Shia make up less than 1 percent of the Muslim population. There is also a small Ahmadiyya Muslim community not reflected in government figures and estimated by an international organization at 1,000 individuals. According to government estimates, approximately 7 percent of the population is Christian, of which an estimated 40 percent is Russian Orthodox. Jews, Buddhists, Baha’is, and unaffiliated groups together constitute approximately 3 percent of the population. Adherents of Tengrism, an indigenous religion, estimate there are 50,000 followers in the country.

According to the National Statistics Committee, ethnic Kyrgyz make up approximately 73 percent of the population, while ethnic Uzbeks make up an estimated 15 percent. Both ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbeks are primarily Muslim. Ethnic Russians are primarily adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church or one of several Protestant denominations. Members of the Russian Orthodox Church and other non-Muslim religious groups live mainly in major cities.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion; the right to practice or not practice a religion, individually or jointly with other persons; and the right to refuse to express one’s religious views. It bans actions inciting religious hatred.

The constitution establishes the separation of religion and state. It prohibits the establishment of religiously based political parties and the pursuit of political goals by religious groups. The constitution prohibits the establishment of any religion as a state or mandatory religion.

The law states all religions and religious groups are equal. It prohibits “insistent attempts to convert followers of one religion to another” and “illegal missionary activity,” defined as missionary activity of groups not registered with the SCRA. The law also prohibits the involvement of minors in organized, proselytizing religious groups, unless a parent grants written consent.

The law requires all religious groups and religiously affiliated schools to register with the SCRA, which is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the law’s provisions on religion. The law prohibits activity by unregistered religious groups. Groups applying for registration must submit an application form, organizational charter, minutes of the organizing meeting, and a list of founding members. Each congregation of a religious group must register separately and must have at least 200 resident founding citizens. Foreign religious organizations are required to renew their registrations with the SCRA annually. The law also requires that religious groups register with local councils to establish new places of worship.

The SCRA is legally authorized to deny the registration